It feels like a tragedy, oddly enriched by the flavors of summer:  The man who picks out my cantaloupes is leaving me.

Oh, no, it’s nothing like that.  Were I in a life partnership with that most appealing of all men—he who cooks—such abandonment would spark a different kind of grief.  Ours is a relationship of a different sort. He’s been more like a culinary life consultant, an openly friendly expert available to anyone who chooses to ramble through the doors.  He has been a steadier presence than men who have come and gone from my personal sphere, playing roles of a different sort, in the decades I have known him.  His name is Eric, and I can’t honestly recall if he ever knew mine; the standard, familiar, “Hey, Girl,” was always fine with me.

For as long as I have lived in the area, Eric has cheerfully helped select the fresh need of the day, as years’, then decades, worth of meals, large and small, were offered at my table. On any given Saturday, he might select a melon that will be perfect tomorrow (or whatever day it is needed), or dispense news on anticipated arrival of the local strawberry crop.  He might even advise against grapefruit from certain locations that might not meet the personal high bar.

In his role as a manager of our beloved neighborhood produce market, The Produce Place, Eric advised on the good, the unusual, and the possibly acceptable with candor that became a bedrock of my culinary life.  How devotedly do we love the purveyor who doesn’t just advise what to select, but what to avoid? With a slight cock of the head, a slight, twinkle-eyed grimace, the kindly warning wave of the hand, he might guide me away.  So many years of listening to my questions patiently, knowing what I was after, yielded honesty of the most treasured sort.  “Ummmm, nah, those might be better with shipments in the next couple of weeks,” he might observe. “I’m not sure these we have today are as sweet yet as you might like.”

Suddenly, today, his 25 years as a valued partner of the edible, an entire quarter century of Saturdays when he smiled that, “Hey, girl,” came to an end. Perusing the red-gold hues of the miniature heirloom tomatoes, my hand extended to snare a carton, I heard him tell another customer that today was his last day at the market.  He carried his small grandson through the aisles, dispensing goodbye hugs to regulars like me.  But, but…where are you going, I stammered, unable to conceive that some cardboard-peach-purveying-grocery-behemoth had stolen him out from under us.  I should have known better.

“My wife and I are going to be house parents at a home for disadvantaged boys in Alabama,” he explained, probably for the hundredth time of the morning, before 10 a.m.  “We are so excited. But leaving is hard.  We both loved our jobs, but we’ve been married 25 years, and everyday we’d get up in the morning and go separate directions for nine or 10 hours.  As much as anything, we are excited about working together.”  Even in my instantly sharp sting of loss, this answer does not surprise me. Lucky boys, lucky woman, I think.  And lucky us customers, to have received the gift of this man’s generous kindness, served up alongside bins of local sweet corn, homegrown snap beans, crowder peas, and rosy clingstone peaches.

Thank you for all your help all these years, I mumbled inadequately, as he encircled my shoulders with his strong left arm.  “No, thank you for supporting us all this time,” he answered, hugging firmly.

Unlike another woman in the fruit aisle, I held back tears until I got to the car. There they leaked insistently and ran unabated down my cheeks and neck as I rolled to the next stop on the routine weekend errands. I kept my sunglasses on as I went inside, mopping my cheeks with the heel of a hand.

The store will go on without me, he had consoled, before I left. You know the other guys here, they’ll be around.  He is right, almost certainly.  The owner has expertly evolved in his niche as the years have passed, capitalizing on rising demand for locally grown and organic fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and dairy, and superior prepared foods.  Eric will be gone, but I will be back, relying not just on the one person, but the neighborhood institution and what it represents.

Maybe I’ve reached the age where so many long-time relationships fall away for one reason or the other, and the tally adds up. But tomorrow when I slice into the ruby-red watermelon for my visiting nephew and his family, I know I will think of Eric, surprised still by the pain of loss.  The dripping fruit, loved like the relentless sun and steamy breezes of summer, will remind me again of the surprisingly rich importance of the relationships of everyday life. Even those that may seem narrow in scope may demonstrate a trust and connection more valued than we realize, leaving us to wish we appreciated them more before they were gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Need a little something to help you sleep?

Of course you do. If you are over 50, as many of G-ma’s readers can proudly claim, it’s a virtual certainty. Sleep problems are a guaranteed conversation topic wherever people of a certain age gather, right up there with the pluses and minuses of joint replacement and the best natural digestive aids–scintillating stuff, of course.

Come, fellow sufferers, and listen to a story about the most powerful sleep aid I’ve ever known. It takes effect within minutes, can be used as often as you feel the need, requires no prescription or pharmacy card, and is essentially free. From now on, you can shun your chamomile tea, toss your Melatonin. A simple command on the TV remote puts it at your fingertips.

Just click your way to your local PBS station and find yourself an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

If you are like G-ma, you will be dozing peacefully before you can say “DVR.” In fact, I rarely launch an episode if not already under the sheets, as I prefer not to spend the night on the couch.

What’s this? Not familiar with the program? It emerged as reality television long before we ever suffered the oxymoron. Billed as PBS’ longest-running series, Roadshow tours the country to cities and historic sites with a band of experts from art auction houses, museums, and antiques dealers, who appraise a wild variety of objects brought by the local attendees. The most interesting appraisals—when something truly rare is identified at extraordinary value, or a fake is spotted and explained—are taped for the hour-long, weekly episodes. For more than two decades now, Roadshow has been surprising ordinary people with remarkable facts and history associated with seemingly every-day objects. If you are not careful, Roadshow will turn you into a dumpster-diving, estate-sale-prowling maniac, for the whole premise is that exceptional value lies hidden in the most unlikely places. That is, if you can stay awake long enough to develop such inclinations.

On any given episode, you might see a stunned elderly man, shocked at the value of a signed baseball he’s kept covered in a sock in his drawer since the Hall of Famers signed it for him while he stood at the dugout fence as an eight-year-old. The next week, here’s a woman who dug an oil painting out of a dumpster she passed as an old office building was being emptied for demolition; the dusty painting with the damaged frame is a rare early find for an international master, actually worth in the mid-six-figures. Or there’s a guy who bought a heavy volume of nature art at an estate sale for $15, only to find it contained early prints from major Impressionists and is valued at something north of the ozone layer.

Sleep habits aside, I’m a total Roadshow fangirl, having watched it long enough to recognize featured items on re-runs. I’ve been known to prowl the house the next day to excavate a small green vase from storage that I’m certain matches a find just traced to a storied Southern regional pottery hub and appraised at an auction value of $7,000. The show has turned me into one of those annoying characters who turns over china to examine clues on the bottom, even in other people’s houses. I come from a family of keepers, my house replete with “treasures” that go back generations. I just know in my bones that one of these days, I’ll learn that the dear departed great-aunt’s watercolor views of central Paris are the work of a renowned master. And my retirement will be therefore secured. If I can foist off sleep long enough to notice.IMG_7911

Because no matter how fascinated I am, no matter how beautiful the location, the lids gain weight on about the second appraisal, and with about 10 minutes absorbed, I’m dozing the sleep of the innocent.

Why should this be, when I truly am intrigued? Hard to say. Maybe it’s the production style—in such contrast to other television these days, the show lights are stable at normal levels, the conversation between appraiser and owner sounds like a nice chat in your living room. There are no loud ads to break up the flow of history, no distracting background soundtrack while the camera stands still or moves very slowly in to disclose key details. The only drama occurs on the faces of the owners who are stunned by what they learn; some shriek, some cry, and some stammer in shock. I can so see myself in their shoes.

Meanwhile, If I play my cards right, I get a about a week’s worth of sleep inducements per episode. The math works like so: I cue up the DVR to the week’s show and fast-forward to something I don’t recognize. I just start there, soak up a smattering of obscure history quietly, thoughtfully, reverently, and….zzzzzzzz. The next night, repeat.

Thanks, Antiques Roadshow. I love your mysteries revealed and still believe you’re going to make me rich someday. Until then, I’ll have to settle for the wealth of great rest.

“…by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”

William Shakespeare

Our neighborhood recycling center is a favorite destination in the regular loop of stops that constitutes the ordinary weekly errands routine. Odd, I’ll admit, but there’s something so satisfying about hurling trash into a giant bin, standing aside the various weekend-attired neighbors with the same mission, knowing it is one small thing that is easily done in the effort to live more responsibly. Even in the current tumult in the global recycling economy, we can remain optimistic it is still the right thing to do. Besides, hurling a wine bottle into the huge metal bin for glass collection and anticipating the explosive sound of shattering glass begets a perversely wicked thrill. Like smashing things does for toddlers.

Chances for good works stack on themselves at our center, which sits adjacent to our local high school. The center is regularly commandeered by various activity groups from the school, who recruit participating teenagers to offer to help unload your detritus in exchange for a donation to their activity—the marching band, the chess club, the debate team—one easily understands that ticket revenue is unlikely to sustain the earnest efforts of these who labor outside the spotlight of high-profile sports. At first, I was annoyed by this freeloading, preferring to hurl my trash in peace and for free, but over time I came to see it differently. If the kids are motivated enough to get up on Saturday morning and haul boxes of old catalogues, endless water bottles, and smelly pizza boxes, why not help them out? So, I began to arrive with a few bucks of cash in the car, determined to go with the flow.

Last Saturday I emerged from the car and was instantly set upon by a group of four high-school males, sporting green and gold team shirts and spewing energy like Vesuvius in full tilt. What’s happening, guys? I asked as they danced forward on tiptoes, sniffing opportunity. “Can we help you unload?” they bubbled. What are you raising money for? I asked. “Soccer team!” one of them declared energetically, punching the air for emphasis, while another demonstrated a small kick. Well, my stuff is not sorted yet, and it’s really easier for me to sort it, but I’m happy to support your team, I added, handing a few bucks to the nearest toe-bouncer.

“Cool, thanks!” shouted the toe-bouncer who collected my small gift, soon echoed by his green-shirted conspirators, and away they bounced toward another target who had just pulled in.

Shifting my attention back to the overflowing bags in my open car hatch, I reached to begin my sorting and was surprised to hear a quiet voice from behind. “I can help you sort it,” the voice said shyly, as I turned and realized that one of the toe-bouncers had stayed behind. He was the smallest in stature of the four, dark-haired and dark-eyed with a thick moustache, keeping his eyes on the trash in my car, avoiding my surprised gaze. His friends were content to accept my offer on face value and bound off elsewhere, cash tallied and nothing required, but for some intriguing reason, this young man was not. He planted his feet and waited for instructions, ready to earn what he gained.

Well, sure, I said, beginning to move things this way and that. These boxes and bags can all go over there to the cardboard bin. Is your soccer team good?

“Yes,” he affirmed, without embellishment, arms full and away to unload.

This bag is all plastic and tin, I instructed, pointing toward that bin, still unable to abandon efforts at conversation. Have you guys made some money today?

“Yes,” he nodded seriously, as he whisked away that bag and a second one while I finished sorting. He returned again, and a third time, staring into the hatch each time, as if any escaped bottle or can would weigh on his young shoulders.

That’s the last of it, I confirmed, slamming the hatch shut, turning back in his direction a final time. Good luck to you guys, I added. He lingered briefly, never meeting my eyes but nodding his thanks again. “Okay, then,” he concluded, turning at last to sprint off and join his friends.

I drove on to my next stop, thinking of him then and several times since. What makes one young person claim personal responsibility when his friends do not? What gives him the motivation to stay behind, to stick with the job, when others take the easy way? Strict parents, younger siblings to look after, a conscience that weighs heavily over some task left undone?

I thought I should have praised him more, wished I had honored his mature sense of responsibility more than his obvious shyness. I hoped others will encourage him more directly, will tell him straight-up that his instincts will serve him well in this life. I hoped there is someone close to him to keep encouraging him, keep noticing when he goes against the tide to do the right thing.

I kept thinking I missed a chance to do a little more, a little better, for someone else, as he had done. I hope I do better next time at responding in kind.

The broad-shouldered, stocky shopper with the expression of a man on a mission stepped up to the counter and carefully deposited his haul:  two stacks, six boxes high each, of soft-soled bedroom slippers in various cheerful prints.  An even dozen. Noticing his black jacket, embroidered with his restaurant logo and buttoned up the side in the style worn by chefs, I smiled at him from my post behind the counter and couldn’t resist a comment on the scope of his purchase.  “Look at you!   That’s quite a stack.”

He smiled back, a bit shyly, and explained, “These are for my ladies.  They’re on their feet all day long.”

I felt a tiny catch in my throat as I reached for the top box to open his transaction, getting down to business with, “Wow, I bet they’re going to love you for this.” He shrugged away the praise. “They work really, really hard.”

********

In the classic holiday flick Love Actually, a favorite in annual year-end rotation for nearly every romantic soul I know, Hugh Grant plays a bachelor British Prime Minister who claims total failure in his romantic life.  Yet the movie opens with scenes of dozens of reunions of hugging, crying people, with his voice offering this observation:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there…”

I thought about this observation more than once recently, having ignored the critics and watched the film enough times to remember bits like that, however schlocky.  It came to mind thanks to my slipper-buying chef and others, as I spent several days running a cash register and assisting customers at a local big-box retailer in the final, frenetic days and hours of the annual holiday buying extravaganza. When I mentioned these plans to friends and family as the days approached, a few bubbled a cheerful, ‘Oh, fun!” But more than one offered a face crossed with the shadow of anxiety.  “Oh, lord,” one admitted later, “I thought you were going to be fighting it out with the frustrated dregs of humanity, and I hated it for you.”  While I refused admit it out loud in advance, I feared the same.

Oh, what fun it is, as the song says, to learn that the experience proved very much the opposite.  While we prattle on endlessly about holiday stress, over-spending, about commercialism and misdirected intentions, as a foot soldier at the battlefront of the gift-giving rituals, I didn’t see that.  Where I feared snappy, stressed shoppers, barking unreasonable demands, I saw patience with long lines, polite acceptance of the late-season realities of inventory and options, and smiles returned when offered.  Where I dreaded watching the nauseous excess of people spending irrationally with plastic, with no thought of cost or the implications thereof, I saw thoughtful attention to pricing and promotions, with many a buyer—far more frequently than expected– deliberately dealing out bills from carefully counted stashes of cash.  When I flushed with embarrassment over a transaction error and stammered an apology, the kind victim received it with a knowing nod and added, “There’s a lot more to what you are doing here than most people realize, but I get it.  Hang in there.”

What was I doing there, anyway?  It just seemed like a good way to wave a very grateful good-riddance to an unusually tough year.  My traditional career role lost to restructuring months before, unemployment running out with no new job in sight, I was determined to get out of the house and turn my restless hands to something productive, anything, really—and earn a few bucks in the process, for the Christmas gifts on my own shopping list.  While struggling with being jobless, I had watched in previous months as members of my beloved family struggled with health and disruption of all kinds, and there seemed little I could do.  Nothing underscores pain or uncertainty like yawning, unoccupied hours, and I would do almost anything to stay busy during the season when the requisite cheer was proving hard to conjure up.  So off I went, shortly after Thanksgiving, to enlist in the ranks of retail’s “seasonal associates.”  And I suppose it’s fair to admit one more enticement:  Some forty years after I first worked in retail as an industrious teen, there was a challenge in seeing if I could still do it.IMG_7696.JPG

While the answer to that proved to be yes—though not without a few embarrassing hiccups that made great comedy–I earned something much different than anticipated in my holiday experiment.  In return for sore feet, broken fingernails, bleeding cuticles, security-sensor needles stuck to my shoe sole, finger knuckles slammed in register drawers, and more of that sort of amusement, I had the privilege of watching, over and over again, one of the most powerful human emotions:  generosity, and the genuine desire to give to others, not as a perfunctory requirement, but as an expression of love.

Chef Slippers was a favorite, no question, but there were so many others.  In the handbag department one morning I assisted an earnest young husband and father with an important clarifying question.  “We have a young toddler at home,” he began.  “And we’re just starting to get out at night again.  My wife is tired of carrying that big baby bag, and when she was dressing to go out last night she said, ‘I really just need a clutch.’ “ Holding up one option he had industriously identified among dozens that would easily confuse anyone not schooled in, shall we call it, the Art and Science of Purses, he pleaded, “Is this a clutch?”  Helping him nail his quarry was the highlight of my day. If I have ever studied anything long enough to qualify for Ph.D.-level achievement, it might just be for a doctorate in handbags and accessories.  (Such a pity, that there isn’t one.)

And then there was the grieving grandfather. This story came from my young co-worker, and I was not privileged to see it myself, but we cried together when she shared it.  A woman approached the service desk with a stack of items for a young woman accompanying her, apparently a granddaughter or niece.  The man in line behind them overheard them talking to each other and stepped forward to slide his own credit card for their purchase.  His own granddaughter had recently died, he explained, seeking the older woman’s permission to complete the transaction, and he missed buying her something at Christmas.

So next year, if I am gloomy (like Hugh Grant) about the state of the world, I may have to re-enlist, if my feet are tough enough to take it.  To get to watch, close up, when the heart rises to the surface, with the objects of its affection in mind, and the spirit of giving expresses itself so freely.  Thanks for reminding me, Chef Slippers and all the rest of you, about how deeply generosity and its closest cousin, kindness, are rooted in the human soul, often in the most impossible situations.  What could be a better gift than that?

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering “it will be happier.” 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

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In my family, we tend to keep our history right where we can see it.

That’s not because we are important, or unusually fixated on the past.  We do tend to hold on to things and use them, objects that serve a function—here’s a cast-iron skillet that sizzled a half-century ago under the mastery of a cook long gone, or there’s a cherry bed frame that supported slumber for three previous generations.  These items stand as living reminders of our predecessors, keeping those souls often in the lexicon of our daily lives.  If my grandson asks me what my grandfather was like, I can point to his portrait on my bedroom wall.  If a guest drops into the seat of a simple, carved cherry rocker next to my fireplace and comments on its creaking comfort, I can smile and say it belonged to my grandmother, and so forth.

Like all families, we’ve had our share of characters, and the occasional ne’er-do-well.  But we know their stories, generally, whether or not they occupy in a place of honor on someone’s portrait wall.  They are part of who we are, and who we’ve been.

That’s why a photo that surfaced recently of an attractive, wavy-haired young man with kind eyes and the beginnings of a gentle smile represents such an intriguing puzzle.  A small, sepia-toned print of his portrait was preserved, for several decades, most likely, in a special place used often by a couple of prominent women in our family.

Yet we have no idea who he is.

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Mystery Man, liberated from an old button box

The little print, in the style popular decades before the advent of color film, measures just three by four inches, with a couple of small water stains and ragged corners. The back side of it, where names and dates are so often inscribed on family shots, is completely blank.

My mother is Chief Curator on behalf of several generations, and she delights in pairing old family items with anyone who might actually admire or use them.  Some time back she presented my daughter, a skilled seamstress, with a box of antique buttons that belonged to her own grandmother–Granny, we called this formidable matriarch.  Few things slip by my mother’s sharp eyes, but she hadn’t noticed the little portrait tucked inside the ancient button box.

“Look what I found in that button box, Mom,” said my daughter, handing over the old photograph some time later.  “Who is this?” Without thinking, I answered, “Looks like Uncle “K”—he had a wild head of wavy hair like that.”  My father’s Uncle Kenneth was a distinguished-looking physician born in the 1890s.  But, wait–wrong branch of the family. Why would a photo from my father’s side be stashed inside a button box belonging to my maternal great-grandmother?  Just to be sure, I e-mailed a digital image of the photo my father’s cousin, who replied promptly.  “Dad sure had hair like that,” he agreed, “but it’s not him.” His sister speculated that the photo subject could be a cousin on her grandmother’s side of the family, another interesting possibility, though the route into the button box still makes that seem unlikely.

I sent the digital copy to my mother for examination, wondering if it might be her maternal grandfather, a gentle, well-educated Baptist preacher who served a string of churches in central and Southern Kentucky and died in the 1940s.  “Oh, no,” my mother said flatly, shaking her head.  “That’s not Granddaddy.”

The hiding place of the little image may provide the most important clue.  The button box must tie Mystery Man to my mother’s paternal grandmother, Granny the button collector, or perhaps her daughter, with whom she lived until she died in her early 90s.  Both women sewed and crafted prodigiously, were busy and committed volunteers and activists in the ways open to women of their eras.  They were strong females who, decades before more options opened to women, forged their owns paths, professionally and personally, in part by circumstance, in part by choice.  But neither, as far as we had known, had a man in their lives for their last half-century on this earth.

Or did they?

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Formidable Granny with her daughter and youngest child

If there is a woman in our family history who had a tougher go of it than Granny, I can’t name her.  Born in Central Kentucky in 1870, Granny was forced in mid-life into an almost unimaginable situations for a wife and mother in the early years of the 20thcentury.  Married in her late 20s, she bore six children, five boys and a girl, the last one, her only daughter, arriving when she was 41 years old.  Sadly, her husband did not linger to meet his little girl, leaving the family behind, his wife pregnant, his five sons ranging from teens to toddlers, under circumstances never shared or discussed with subsequent generations.  The story was simply told like this:  He left, and never returned.

Could he be Mystery Man, in the photograph?  Could this little illustration be our only visual record of him, more than a hundred years after he abandoned his family?  My grandfather said that the children were never allowed to visit him, wherever he was, in the years that followed.  The oldest son, 15 when his father vanished and surely inspired by the wrenching dilemma of his mother and siblings with no regular means of support, struck out from his troubled Kentucky home before he was 20.  Early military experience landed him in Texas, where he settled and ascended quickly in the booming days of the early Texas oil business. This uncle amassed the only notable fortune that grew anywhere on my family tree, then became a philanthropist later in his life, with university chapels, veterans’ programs, and scholarship programs bearing his name.  He supported his mother until she died and showered generosity on others in his family.

Even though she raised a successful and generous son and remained close to all her children, it’s impossible to fathom the heartbreak, the shame, the fear Granny must have felt in those early years, alone as a mother of six.  Along with that wide spectrum emotions, did she pine for the man who left her behind after almost 20 years of marriage, maybe hide his photo from her children, underneath all those buttons?

Maybe, but I doubt it. In the language of a later era, Granny became one tough broad, and who wouldn’t, in that situation?  Determined to feed her young family, she took up needle and thread and built a business as a seamstress, designing, mending, altering clothes for men and women of her community.  That would account for a great button collection. She also apparently saved and stored some lifelong resentment, exhibiting bitter disapproval of the wives of all but one of her boys.

None of that sounds like someone who would hide a small portrait of the departed, a tiny love token of happier times.  More likely that she burned any photos or evidence of their life together.  Besides, Mystery Man’s countenance bears no resemblance to the five sons Granny’s husband left behind, of whom plenty of photos are extant.  Their sharp noses, angular chins, and high brows speak of other genetic ties.

With today’s online research tools, of course, one no longer relies on the memories of our elders or copies of old photos to document who we.  All kinds of information, much of it gleaned from archived public records, is available with a very few keystrokes, should the curious care to search. The curious should take care, however, to be prepared for what may be found.

Less than an hour on one ancestry website added a few more elements to the barely faint family image of my errant great-grandfather.  Census records when he was younger show that over the years he toiled as a farm laborer, a tobacco warehouse supervisor, and possibly an auto mechanic. There’s a record of a second marriage, just a few months after his daughter was born to his first wife, but no readily accessible evidence of divorce.  A draft registration recorded late in World War I, when he was in his forties, listed his occupation as bartender. There’s no way to know for certain, but it is possible he lived out his life as a bigamist.   All those details add shadows, brights and darks, to our image of him.  What they can’t show us is his face.

Even so, I am resolved that Mystery Man is not him.  This is a portrait of a young man, his face unlined by years of hard physical labor, or bad decisions or tragedy.  Likely a blonde or redhead with light eyes, he has strong brows, kind eyes, and heavy lips.  Perhaps he was embarking on his profession when this picture was taken—a teacher or professor?  A young lawyer?  You might even speculate he was a bachelor when the camera caught him, with no discerning wife to fulfill her role in those days of supervising his appearance. His tie is askew, his collar slightly untucked, and he needs a barber to trim the wavy mane combed severely back from his forehead.

Long before the mesmerizing ease of ancestry websites made genealogy a virtual sport, as easy as ordering shoes or sheets online, my mother undertook her own family history project.   For painstaking hours over a period of years she carefully accumulated photos, news clippings and letters into carefully organized binders, each focused on one major branch of our family.  Along with those, she added what no website ever could, in the form of page after page of personal stories about family members, gathered in writing from those who remained to tell them and copied for us, the next generation.

The first volume of this project was a Christmas gift back when I was a frantically busy single mother, too vested in my career and daughter to pay a lot of attention as the volumes began to arrive, over the years.  How nice, I thought, predicting the day would come when I’d be really glad to have them.  That part, at least, I got right.  Interestingly, I think she began assembling them when she was about the age I am now, the season when friends begin to pass on, young grandchildren grow quickly, and one’s appreciation for one’s roots may deepen with reflections on the relentless pilgrimage of time.

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Photos from Mom’s family history volumes.

And, of course, there is no sign of Mystery Man in her pages.

A reasonable guess for the identity of Mystery Man may be a fellow whose existence we knew but whose name we did not.  My mother’s Auntie, the daughter born to Granny after her husband left her, stayed with her mother the remainder of Granny’s life and never married.  Many lonely years later, Auntie reminisced about a missed chance at love with a young man who wanted to join his life to hers. Convinced that her first obligation remained to her mother, Auntie turned down his marriage proposal, later calling it the biggest mistake of her life.  Could this little portrait show us the face that she cherished?  And maybe tucked carefully away to remember, after he moved on?  How long did she think of him, after letting a different life slip through her fingers? Did she hide the photo from herself—was she too attached to destroy it, but too saddened to keep it in ready view? All those answers died with her, more than 30 years ago.

So now Mystery Man resides with us, liberated from his button-box captivity to remind us that probably no one really knows everything about their family, even a close-knit bunch like ours.  Part of me hopes we someday discover that he actually was our blood kin.  I like his thoughtful eyes and the humility in his expression.  If he belongs in the fabric of our family, via whatever unknown thread, we should keep him in remembrance.  Whatever the reason he was hidden there, he’s a portrait of bygone days when privacy and discretion were attributes valued and cultivated, when some people really kept only their own counsel and were content to take certain knowledge—call it secrets, if you like– to their graves.

 

 

need an idea, I say to me

It’s a lie

The truth is they are everywhere

Summer gnats boring through screen holes

Surreptitiously biting the most tender skin, right at the temple, where I yank my irreverent hair out of my eyes and scratch at my noggin 

I swat at them weakly, scrawling notes in journals I can never find

Sometimes I smash them into a slightly bloody, unreadable carcass on a calendar page nearby, left behind when the page turns to tomorrow, and tomorrow becomes today, and again

In the shower, there’s a brief flash, causing a jab in the eye with the washrag, perhaps a memory cue that will stick

The back of an envelope I didn’t want to open from the bank 

Has a scrawled note about the genesis of a bestseller which will no doubt heal what the bank has to say.

Aha, the joke of the day came easier.

But time now to sit, the best part, the hardest part, the only part.

I still think I have nothing, grasping that lie, one lazy, annoying bug.  

Hey, look, over there, under that book, there’s that envelope, I remember that now

Can’t read it all, but there’s a single, bereft word, barely legible, a tiny matchstick, sentry for a small flame

And we are off, the matchstick, the gnats and me

I said I had nothing

Yet again, I was wrong.

My best pal, a shiny, stunning “ginger,” as the British call redheads, is getting white on top.

Surely it has happened gradually, but I suddenly noticed it recently, in full force, for the first time. Staring at her across the room for the zillionth time as she dozed in the blissful sleep of the guiltless, I took a deep breath and thought: She looks Old.  She is Old.  It is time to admit that fact, and to get accustomed to it.  The chestnut red fur that covers her head and long, velvet ears has faded, at the dome of her chunky skull and around her relentless nose, to a heather mix of red dominated by white.

This short-legged, perennially sad-faced, red-and-white hound dog is approaching her birthday, when she will be 12.  She joined my little household by sheer happenstance (see that story here) when she was just seven weeks old, so she’s lived those dozen years rarely more than a few yards away from my feet—whether lumbering along the neighborhood sidewalks; gallumping in the Basset’s trademark, absurd gait, through happy lawns at the park; or dropping hopefully to the floor under the dinner table, where falling rewards so often come to those who wait.  Especially, as she never fails to discern, since the grandchildren have arrived.

We are regular features on the neighborhood sidewalks at prime dog-walking hours, for she considers a good walk spoiled if there are no neighbors to administer attention or other dogs with butts to sniff.  Lately, in these encounters, the neighbors often ask, “How old is she now?”  A fellow dog-lover in our family told me recently she refuses to answer that about her own dog, stoutly declining to tally up the years and acknowledge the passage of time.  Part of me understands and wants to adopt that approach, but the truth tends to earn my pal even more indulgent attention, so I usually opt for transparency.  It helps anoint her, you might say, as the Dowager Queen of the local four-footed populace.

She earns her title not just because of age, but because of who she is.  While bred to chase low-ground game over long miles of open fields in ancient France, and thus evolving for practical reasons, the Basset Hound is surely one of the canine world’s most comedic architectural achievements. Everyone laughs at the sad, droopy face, the massive front feet (and I do mean huge, as one paw entirely fills the palm of my hand), and the strangely thick limbs supporting a stout, muscular torso. Teaching a Basset to drop “down” on command is the easiest win of all dog-training, as the floor is but a few inches below, and such a happy destination for one who relaxes with such utter abandon.

The dozen years this Basset and I have shared began the year I turned 50.  While I often snicker sarcastically at the similar challenges inflicted on old dogs and women of a certain age, lately I’ve begun to think a lot about what a profound gift it is, the chance to grow old together, whether with your dog, your life partner, your friends, your family.  Maybe this dog was given to me, in part, to help me make peace with the passage of time in the way only a dog can do.

What might be learned from watching her change and adapt to being older, as the months crank inexorably forward?  How do dogs know, so instinctively, to accommodate what comes?  I’m sure I’m not the only dog lover to wish we could have an actual conversation.  A hound dog is the soul of exploration and discovery, focused only on whatever is beyond the next bend.  So, if she could verbalize, she’d probably disdain to reflect on aging.  I’ll have to settle for learning from her instincts, and from watching her actions.

As I do, I think:

Why hurry?  If we show intent and direction, maybe the world should learn to tolerate our slower pace.  If we get there when we get there, is anyone really worse off for it?

Patience may be the virtue that eases all other problems, at the roots.  Maybe it really, really is true, that learning to wait for what we want makes the arrival all the sweeter.  This one is a hard sell on me, the perennial, anxious pacer, but she inspires me to take a breath.  And then another.  And when you blend patience with the persistence in the marrow of the hound-dog bones, triumph is virtually inevitable.

Take your medicine. Trust those who say you should.  A little peanut butter may help.

A nap, no matter what length, makes all the world a better place.  It probably contributes materially to No. 2, above.  When in need, drop to the nearest surface, and let gravity have its way with the eyelids.  Life will resume its fervor, soon enough.

Even when age changes the world’s view of us, at certain times, our voice must still be heard.  Refer again to No. 2 above, but when the time comes, don’t hesitate.  One time, with clarity, from deep down in the heart and chest, may be enough to rivet the world on your point.  Save your effort until that’s really necessary.

Finally, in all circumstances, for all things, no matter where the trail may lead, keep your eyes on your beloved and never stray far from the cherished presence.  Keep eye contact whenever possible, for nothing else conveys what the eyes can say.  If you are lucky enough to lay your head on the cherished foot, or in the lap, or at the end of the outstretched arm, life offers nothing more sublime.  What can possibly matter more?

 

 

 

My mother turned 87 a few weeks back, so I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about her legacy—never more, of course, than around Mother’s Day.  And I remembered a time a few months ago when a kind friend told her, in my presence, that she had raised wonderful children.  My mother smiled in gratitude, but responded, “Well, I had a lot of help.”  At the time I assumed she was referring to my late father, her partner in parenting and life for nearly 63 years, a memorable character and strong (to understate it considerably) father figure.  I didn’t ask her to elaborate, but now I would wager that she was acknowledging much more than just the good fortune of marrying a man who became a good father.  There were so many, many more people who helped shape the adults that her children would become.

The same has certainly been the case throughout my own journey as a mother.  My best as a mom was only however good it was because I, too, had a lot of help.  They were the scores of people who stepped onto the path with my daughter and me and walked some portion of it with us. 

I became a single parent before my daughter turned four, and I am grateful that to this day that her father and his family play a vital and major role in her life.  But as custodial parent and, well, her Mom, much was left to me to decide, to evaluate, to do.  I remember so clearly how, over and over again, I turned for help to others who stepped up when we needed them.  Or, in other cases, help was offered when I might not have been smart enough to know I needed it.  Perhaps the smartest thing I did as a mom was learn how to find help, and how to accept it when it was presented to me. 

So many faces and names come to mind.  I hope I thanked them then, but it seems like the right season to do it again, for those I haven’t seen in decades and those who remain part of our lives.  The list I started quickly grew too long to include them all here.  Nevertheless, here are some snapshots of those heroes who performed what often felt like minor miracles, in ways too broad and deep to accurately describe.  They deserve a cut, you might say, of any kind thoughts that come my way on Mother’s Day, and I send them all kudos for teaching me that parenting is perhaps the most fundamental of all team sports.

Starting in those intense early years, thank you to Miss Sheila, one of our first and most fearless daycare angels.  When I choked back tears of stress to admit, pre-enrollment, that potty training was not yet behind us, Miss Sheila patted my shoulder.  “Don’t you worry about that,” she said.  “We’ll take care of it.”  And she was right.

Warm gratitude to Miss Alice, who managed the after-school program and loved my daughter so kindly that she cried on our last day there, as we prepared to move out of state.  How could I possibly have carried on a serious career without knowing those precious after-school hours were so well accounted for?

I can hardly summon sufficient words to thank my parents, for their hands-on help and the lifelong example they set.  And my sisters, Jane and Kate, who (along with their families) took turns hosting her for summer trips, where they took her places she had never been, and enabled her to know her long-distance family so well.

Her stepmother, Lisa, once called to tell me something very difficult had happened, to make sure I could jump on it quickly.  It was not an easy thing to do, I’m sure, and I’m forever grateful to her for it.

I had a time-intensive job when my daughter was in early grade school, in those pre-internet days when you couldn’t easily work at home.  More than once I had to pick her up from after-care and bring her back to the office, with dinner in a sack.  A kind co-worker offered to walk her around, and the next thing I knew, I found her drawing happily in the executive-suite office of the elderly founder of the company.  I was mortified, but he was delighted.  Speaking of that company, thanks to Rick and David for the award that became our first trip to Europe, where my daughter and I toured London and Paris in style.  I could never have managed such a thing in those times without the company’s generosity.

Heavens, there are so many others.  Thank you, Nancy, for running a summer camp where generations of girls learned brilliant outdoor technical skills and the risk-taking and bravery that comes with them.  Nancy had to teach parents, too, and on one panicked phone call (note, it was me that was panicking), she patiently explained how the camp’s excellent safety training prepared my daughter perfectly when she was bucked out of a raft in the rapids of a North Carolina river.

Special thanks to Charla, mom of her high-school best friend, for choosing the tougher option, the hard but right thing, for calling me when you learned that my young teenager was experimenting with things that so many kids do.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to intervene at such a potentially crucial time. It could have changed so many things; who knows?

To the long series of stellar art teachers who encouraged her, thank you for inspiring skills and creativity that she continues to grow to this day.  Stained glass, ceramics, mixed media, pen and ink, fabric collage, jewelry—she excelled in all those things, thanks to your guidance, and the evidence adorns my house to this day. That’s a particular kind of gratitude from a mom who does well to get the top off of the crayon box.  

A special bouquet of Mother’s Day love to Cassie, a college student I hired years ago to ferry my daughter to sports practice and get her started on homework in those tender junior-high years.  Cassie was (and is) a godsend model of common sense, practicality, and kindness, very happy virtues for a mom who now has four boys of her own.

I’m so grateful to Carol, an early boss in the first years after college, who ran a good, values-based family business that wrapped employees in team spirit and loyalty.  My daughter has long since moved on, but when the business closed recently, the outpouring of good memories from my daughter and her friends spoke volumes about the kind of people who founded and ran it. 

When they say it takes a village to raise a child, it is a profound truth that may be undervalued in our times, where independence and self-direction may often be prioritized above family-style collaboration and support.  Maybe it’s time to re-think that status, as we renew these annual celebrations of parenthood.  For me, this week, I’m celebrating my Mom, of course,  But along with her, I’m raising a glass to all those villagers who helped make my motherhood journey what it was and continues to be.  

I could never, ever have done it without you.   Between us, we raised a fine woman, now a wonderful mother in her own right, but it took every one of us to do it.  Happy Mother’s Day, everybody.

 

Let’s get to the meat first, and get the suspense out of the way:  I blew it.

Or, you could view it through a different lens, and say I triumphed.  You can decide for yourself, with some scoop on the details.

About what, you ask?  For those who missed the earlier installment (read it here, if you like), my sister and I agreed at New Year’s to stop shopping for the first quarter of 2018.  This experiment was inspired by author Ann Patchett’s December 2017 New York Times essay, “My Year of No Shopping.”  While we both admire Patchett, this wasn’t a pilgrimage to the Ann Tribe. We just thought it would be fascinating to see what happened.  

And we were right.

To get started, Sis and I each set our own rules.  She and I have been doing that in shared activities since I followed her onto the family roster 21 months after she emerged as firstborn. Thank goodness one of the great gifts of our age is the ability to view those differences with a light heart.  Besides, we are interested in so many of the same things, and this was definitely one of those.

My rules were these:  No clothes, shoes, jewelry, or home decorating items. That meant no buying, and no looking.  Unlike Patchett, I allowed shopping for gifts.   Anything in the grocery store was also permissible.  At the last minute, I exempted a pair of new glasses, an important image item for a professional person, admitting to Sis that my current ones are sorely outdated. 

All this yielded to one of the most intriguing efforts I’ve ever undertaken to change my behavior and genuinely study the outcome.  While I didn’t succeed completely, my lapses focused a bright light on what motivates, and why.

The first lapse began with sheer forgetfulness; old habits, etc.  I stopped by a favorite shop in early January (DUH—deadly time for sales)  to pick up some jeans I had ordered before Christmas. Two minutes in, I stuck my arms into the sleeves of a sale jacket before I even thought about it.  Confession No. 1:  I quickly realized it but failed to back track, and I walked out with a fabulous rose-pink darling that I’ve probably already worn a dozen times.  Cost:  $50 plus tax.  Painfully ambivalent about the fabulous score vs. the early lapse of discipline, I emailed Sis a photo and confessed.  Why a photo?  Was the perceived value of a prize bargain going to excuse me, to myself or her?  Ha!

“Welcome back on the wagon,” she responded.

My other two lapses had a common thread.  They occurred on outings with old friends, the kind who know what you treasure and where you can acquire it.  Shopping with Pals for Fun or Sport was thus identified as a major weak point. Confession No. 2:  I told myself I would only buy gifts.  What garbage.  Nevertheless, good fun was had, and the damage for both trips was four small items for me at a total of $39.  When I confessed to one pal why I  shouldn’t be there, she promised not to tell and conveyed absolution with a sign of the cross.  (I love you, girlfriend; you know who you are.)

Final score: Three lapses in three months, total damage of $89, not that the actual outlay was the point.  Not bad; or, is it?

However we score those final results, the learning was invaluable.  Two things, in particular, really stick with me.

First, I used to consider myself a pretty savvy shopper, reasonably aware of trends and where to get good value.  Looking back, it’s hard to know when those skills vaporized. But when I chose to stop, it was painfully clear how extensively the commercial machine had been managing my buying habits, rather than the other way around.  Heaven help us, the evidence was everywhere:  emails, snail mail coupons, catalogues, and most heinous of all, those ads that trail you, anywhere you go in the far reaches of the world wide web.  I had ordered shoes from Tom’s for several family members for Christmas, and throughout my three-month test, I could have described their extensive spring offerings for men, women, or children, though I never once went to their site to look on my own.

Coupons trumpeting radically slashed prices, but JUST THIS WEEK?  Pre-test, I would have definitely caught that sale and likely bought something, because a bargain is a bargain, right?  During our Buy-Less Quarter, I exulted in hurling tempters away, tossing unread catalogues into the recycling bin, ripping coupons in shreds before pitching them into the smelly kitchen garbage, where retrieval is too disgusting to contemplate.  I deleted those promotional emails, which were sickeningly frequent.  Some arrived daily.  (Really, retailers? That begins to feel harassment.) There was triumph when I took time to unsubscribe from most of them.  

With the benefit of clarity provided by abstinence,  I see how these commercial entities know way more about me than should ever be comfortable.  It’s not as bad, though close, as if my data was stolen from Facebook for election tampering.  It may not be completely possible nowadays, but I want them out of my email, out of my land mailbox, and out of my hair—and I will learn what options I may employ to make that happen.  If I want value for my money, I’ll figure out how to find it, and when.  It’s enough to inspire a shopper to carry cash again and leave no trail.

The second lesson was equally eye-opening.  One of the expeditions with my old friend was to a retail store for Bybee Pottery, a handmade craft operation that has operated in my home state of Kentucky for nearly 200 years.  We have collected their work in my family for decades, so I bought several gifts for family and friends.  The next day, there were the two boxes, filled with carefully wrapped works of beautiful craft, sitting on my table, awaiting a destination. Even knowing how lovely the contents, I felt sick.  Now, I thought, I have to deal with all this stuff:  Unwrap, or don’t? Find precious shelf space to store it until those future birthdays,  where? Load up the boxes for the recycling center, and on it goes.  Here, in high photographic relief, was a picture of the rippling burdens of our buying habits, reaching far beyond the cost and purchase of the objects.

And what about my partner in this endeavor? My sister, an exceptionally game soul, agreed to share her own learning for this Chronicle.

“I learned that the habit of acquiring what you want, when you want to, is hard to break,” she reflected.  “But once I did, not shopping became the habit that replaced it.”  That led her to wonder if she would now avoid buying what she might actually need, in the force of the new pattern.

A few days after the experiment ended, she popped in to a favorite craft gallery and gift store we both love, in search of a present.   The experience, after the Buy-Less Quarter, just wasn’t the same.  “It reminded me of when I cut a lot of sweets out of my diet,” she said.  “Once you get used to not eating them, they don’t taste as good.”

For anyone who might chose to undertake this, I highly recommend a partner, preferably one as intrepid as my sister  There’s nothing like sharing your pain, or your failures, with those who understand.  Our Buy-Less Quarter yielded some pretty spirited email dialogue.  As the weeks wore on and the regime tested our patience, communication included sisterly debate over things like the spirit vs. the letter of the law.  A few excerpted highlights follow: 

Me:  Meant to say I also loved (Ann Patchett’s) comments about digging out old products and using them.  I have used this technique before with great success.  Especially on those samples you get at the cosmetic counter.  They are like gold.  

Sis:  Yes. I am currently working thru my little toothpaste samples and various bottles of lotion.  Bonus:  less clutter!  Do you need any soap?  I have enough to last until at least the year 2030.

Me:  Ha!  I propose peripheral rule:  no reducing clutter by shoving it off on each other.

Sis:  So you don’t need soap?  How about knee-high nylons?

Me:  Proposed rule No. 2:  no purging of items subsequently deemed injurious to health in the decades since purchase.  Such items must be discarded, or the judges will inflict a substantial penalty.

Sis:  Knee-highs would go nicely with your outdated glasses.

And later, there was this:

Sis:  So far so good…Just tossed LL Bean catalog with three pages dog-eared for possible purchases.  One thing I feel like crying about but I’m holding firm.  For now.

Me:   Be strong.  This a.m. I tossed Garnet Hill, furious that the cover featured a beautiful new print in those cotton pajamas I love so much. Think I actually hurled it with some force, rather than tossing. Seemed to help.

And finally, this exchange, when we were speculating what we would do immediately upon conclusion:

Sis:  I’m going to be up at midnight and ready (with laptop) on March 31.

Me:  When was the last time you were up at midnight?

Finally, Sis and I agreed on one key tenet that represents an opportunity for some enterprising genius.  With the clarity of abstinence, we saw that our shopping habits had been driven, in part, by sheer frustration with the evolution of retailing, particularly for women of our generation.  With old, trusted brands disappearing, true customer service in retail largely gone, and the stores we once loved long consigned to history, it becomes a dad gum problem to know where to go for something you may actually need. Such problems can nudge one to impulse buying and promotion-oriented purchases, fueled by the sheer hope of finding SOMETHING, anything, that works.

So here’s a clarion call to Sara Blakely, Oprah Winfrey, or even Elon Musk:  One of you genius innovators could fix this problem.  There are customers waiting for you, if you do.

Meanwhile, Sis and I got just enough from our Buy-Less Quarter to see the landscape much differently.  Can’t speak for her, but I’m restriction-free for a few months, though with new eyes on all of it.  Later, I may try it again.

Several avid readers in my circle of friends and family are among the legions of fans of Nashville’s own Ann Patchett—-acclaimed novelist, non-fiction writer, and renowned advocate for independent booksellers. As such, the recent holiday season included a lot of chatter here and there—over cocktails, around dinner tables, and on Facebook— about her mid-December essay in the New York Times, “My Year of No Shopping.”

In the essay, which you can read here, Patchett shares observations on her decision to abstain from shopping for 12 months, inspired by a friend who did the same. Earlier experiments for shorter periods of time, like Lent, energized her to extend the consumer-abstinence program. Her original intention was to cease buying clothes, shoes or jewelry, but soon she extended the restrictions to other items. For her, the exercise was much more than an effort to stop over-stuffing her closet; she wanted to gain the broader, deeper benefits of reclaiming time and appreciating (as well as using) what she already had. “If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, I have to tell you, this one’s great,” she wrote.

To her credit, Patchett freely acknowledged that abstaining from shopping when leading a very privileged life does not equate to immediate solidarity with the truly poor, though it did start her thinking more about how to serve them. There is no presumption here of genuine sacrifice, but more of self-discipline and enhanced mindfulness about the current bounties of everyday life.

Discussion of this exercise in my circle bounced around among some interesting consumers who evinced interest in the idea. One works in a beguiling furniture and home design consignment store, a cesspool of relentless temptation if ever there was one. Another was a retired volunteer who always invests first in social justice causes and second in herself. She expressed admiration for the concept, but wished it included more focus on transferring resources to the needy. Another pondering consumer was me.

At first, my motivation wasn’t really the spiritual, the psychological, the life-lesson elements so eloquently described by Patchett. Lacking the personal assets and related options of a best-selling novelist, I first saw a simple, disciplined way to harness the budget and cover one of its most troublesome potholes: my weakness for impulse buying. Over the years, I admitted to myself as I contemplated the experiment, I had come to fill my closets and the rest of my home with items that I acquired not through thoughtful planning tied to appropriate spending. I did not, I forced myself to face, habitually go out in search of a modest pair of black pumps for work, or even think much about practical items I truly needed when passing by the Retail Dens of Iniquity on routine errands.

The harder truth was this: shopping occurred at the intersection of happenstance and self-medication, when I wandered past some interesting place on the way somewhere else, dashed inside to amuse/distract, or, far worse, “reward” myself, or just to assuage curiosity. Therein would emerge the inevitable, brief flame of passion for something beautiful, unusual, or, in the terrifying parlance of the self-absorbed, just “me.” See it, covet it, snatch it, scramble later to pay for it—this had all too often become my pattern. It’s also true this pattern yielded some pretty great stuff, because folks say I am blessed (or, possibly, cursed) with pretty good taste. But the wages of such sins loom large and threatening when one migrates from the high-potential earning years of mid-career toward the not-too-distant prospect of standard “retirement.”

Something had to break that cycle, and perhaps this method would spark a promising new direction. But I wanted to treat this seriously, realistically, not like some lark diet or 30-day financial “cleanse.” My long, regrettable experience with weight-loss efforts taught me much about my own failings with rules and structure. (I like to say about weight loss what Mark Twain said about smoking; It’s easy to lose weight! I’ve done it a hundred times!)

And so I devised my own shopping-abstinence experiment, modeled on the Patchett Plan: Start with one quarter, something I think I can stick to, and see how it works and feels. Like the noted author, I seek to save both time and money, so it is not just actual purchasing transactions that are eliminated, but the looking at and the dreaming of and the hankering for these items: clothes, shoes, jewelry, and home decorating. I did not exempt gifts, as she did, but no “shopping” includes not just browsing in stores, but surfing online, reading email promotions, and (my personal favorite /weakness) perusing catalogues.

My sister decided to join me in this program, and I welcomed the opportunity for empathetic dialogue and a commitment to joint accountability. She lives three hours away on a farm, while I lead an urban, office-focused life. It should be intriguing to see what choices were eliminated, with what results, in two such divergent lifestyles.

Three months: January 1-March 31. The chapter, which I hope will be the first of several, is almost ready to close. A report on how I did and what I learned is coming in Part 2.