YOU’RE THE CAT’S MEOW

Coco wearing her birthday hat

Call me old fashioned, sentimental even. Go on, feel free to throw in corny if you like, but I can’t resist an old time Valentine card pun complimented with a little taste of chocolate and a “sweetheart” candy message.

In the olden days…circa 1973…I can remember such absolute happiness in receiving from my mom, my annual cardboard “book” of cards to be punched out, addressed and delivered to my elementary school classmates. Mom must’ve bought them from what she called the ‘five and dime’…Woolworth’s or Stollers near where we lived. They were paperback bound books, kinda like colouring books, but with the interior pages made of thinner cardboard than the outside covers and cut with pre-perforated edges around the Valentines which were laid out on a page like Christmas cookies being cut on rolled out dough —fit upside down and sideways to get as many ‘cards’ on a page as possible. The Valentines were of anthropomorphized animals or household objects as cute (in my seven year old mind) as the cast of Disney’s Bambi film posed hugging hearts and making declarations of love like a skunk saying “Please con-scent to be my Valentine!” or a dog with a shoe saying “I chews you”, a rabbit smelling a flower saying “Some bunny loves you” or a lollypop saying “I’m a sucker for you”. Not to mention the slew of kitten ones with “You’re the cat’s meow” or “My purr-fect Valentine!”.

I loved that I got the joke and knew the words were playing with me as I carefully punched out my cards, stacked them up and selected just the right one for each of my friends in Mrs Medvecky’s class. It was so satisfying to work my way through my classlist (furnished as well by Mom) to select just the right card for each friend. Conveniently, no deep message was required on the back of the Valentine, even that part was pre-printed with a” To” and a “From”. I just had to fill in the right name for the addressee and sign my own name by the “From:”. Laura Maloney got the best one (probably the bunny one because it looked like Thumper) as she was my best friend that year, then David Lang or Forester Fuller got hooked up with the dog or the lollypop because I harboured deep, (I imagined) secret crushes on them. The biggest Valentine in the book always went to my teacher because, like many other first graders I loved her almost as much as my mom.

Once I’d finished my stack of Valentine’s, sealing them into their matching envelopes, I put them  in a brown paper lunch bag ready for the class party. At the designated time, our teacher would announce we could put our lace doily decorated shoe boxes on our desks and then we were allowed to ‘post’ our cards into to each kid’s box to be whisked home at the end of the day. There, at the privacy of our own kitchen table, we could take our time opening each Valentine. As I recall, all the moms must have shopped at the same place, because within the envelopes addressed to me where the very same dogs, bunnies, cats and lollypops I given my classmates wishing me a happy, pun-filled day. 

To make sure there were no Charlie Brown moments and that we always felt special no matter who we got cards from or which design had been chosen for us, my mom always made sure to give each of us a heart shaped box of chocolates from Russell Stover. We didn’t have to share one box between the five of us. Nope. We got our very own box which felt like such a luxurious treat. To be honest, I never managed to make it through all the candy, I think I liked the heart shaped boxes in all their red and gold foil glamour better than the actual chocolates inside. It was decadent but, I hated to get caught out by the fruit flavoured or fake Peppermint Patty ones. 

Either way, those hokey cards and fancy treats spoke to me along with the ‘conversation love hearts’ that came from Mom, too. In the flavours of chalky Necco wafers, the hearts dispensed from little cardboard  boxes from which you could tip out one or the whole lot at a go. They were pastel coloured and stamped with messages like BE TRUE, ALL MINE, LOVE YOU, HUG ME and the risqué, LETS KISS. I loved pouring them into the palm of my hand, reading them and then popping them into my mouth.  The warm heartedness they filled me with seemed disproportionately big for the size of the candy I was chewing on. 

So, you can imagine my delight this week when I watched the news story sharing First Lady Jill Biden’s surprise display of giant love hearts on the lawn of the White House. 

Big one word messages fit on the cut out shape of red, white and pink hearts. Words like LOVE, COMPASSION, STRENGTH and UNITY. To the bank of reporters covering the President and her stroll with their dogs past the hearts, Mrs Biden explained “ I just wanted some joy. With the pandemic—everybody’s feeling a little down, so it’s just a little joy, a little hope, that’s all.” 

It was such a small gesture, but even if it was as corny as my old punny Valentine’s, it made me feel good to see those words being framed and presented in a heart. It made me feel like someone cares.

It reminded me of the power of words even ones printed on a heart poster or candy. Even ones seemingly miraculously conjured and perfectly presented in truth as Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem. Even ones shared by crowds of radicalised QAnon and Trump followers shouting hate, lies and violence with “Stop the Steal” and “Hang Mike Pence”.

Our words count, have meaning and power to lead, inspire and impact our memories, emotions and actions. They are our bond. We hold people to them. Spoken or written, they can be mightier than the sword. They can become Flesh and set an example of how we can behave, treat one another, live. 

Words brazenly screamed to stoke up a frenzied crowd or quietly whispered in prayer at a bedside by a ventilator, our words are something we need to appreciate in their strength to impact our world—across lockdowns, across oceans, and across countries. The messages we send to eachother with our words, whether diatribes of fanatics or one word messages of hope—our words—they count, they move, they invoke, and they encourage.

Make no mistake, even in these dark times, they can even hearten us when shared with responsibility and compassion. One word or two, even in the form of a name, can console, warm and make us laugh more sweetly than chocolate packed in a heart shaped box.

To that end, I submit the names of the trucks spreading salt to keep snowed-in Scotland roads up and running this February 2021. I hope they make you smile if nothing else and let you snow you are loved.

Thank you, Danielle McWilliams for sharing this on Facebook!

A WALL

I hit a wall this week. Yup. Full on Wile E. Coyote riled up by the Road Runner full on face plant. Snout concertina-ed, stars encircling the head, and entire body schlumped down into a heap on the floor. I’m sure for Megan, Skyler and Nick, who are stuck in lockdown with me, it hasn’t been a pretty sight to behold. I felt like physically striking out and verbally doing so. At the same time, I felt vented up with frustration at being unable to find the right words to express myself. I fantasised about going into a deep, dark wood and screaming my lungs out or head off—whichever would put me out of my misery first. Lucky those idiots who stormed the Capitol didn’t cross my path. I came up with a place or two, in my minds eye, where I would have liked to lodge the horns of the QAnon groupie. And all I’m saying is it would not have been a far cry from what Piggy and the boys on the Lord of the Flies island were witness to. 

I can’t put my finger on it. The specific incident or moment that set me on the downward spiral. It could’ve been the pining for an actual in-person visit with my Dad or my brother and sisters or my friends on my birthday. Maybe it was the feeling of uselessness at having to hunker down in my Volvo while the vet took my kitten from our car for her appointment. Humans aren’t allowed to accompany their pets into the surgery and I already felt bad enough about shoving Coco in the cat carrier, driving her in the unfamiliar car and worrying she’d have to have an abscess lanced on her little sweet face. Then again the trip to Sainsbury’s and listening to them repeat on a loop over the tannoy a cheery thank you for wearing my mask and maintaining a two metre distance from others shoppers started to grate (and, indeed, feel very 1984ish to boot). The tapping on Skyler’s bedroom door to make sure he could log on to school also bugged me. Especially when he responded that it was “all good” because he could register without a video connection and stay in bed a little longer because he had two frees that morning. Even more so, it was that our conversation seemed actually normal. Gone, for the moment, was the nudging him into the shower to be up for breakfast, on to the bus and into school with his friends and teachers. No wearing of his suit and tie, not that they probably should be worn at this point as they haven’t, nor have we, been to the dry cleaners in months. Nor to the hair dressers or any shops besides the grocery store. 

Or maybe it was my inability to thank my lucky stars that we also haven’t been to A&E (knock on my thick wooden head) with any life-threatening illness. I haven’t had to endure twelve hour shifts with PPE strapped on my body to hopefully protect me as it chafes my skin into sores. I haven’t had to deliver package after package of internet shopping to keep the world holed up in their homes safe from the virus while I risk exposure with each padded envelope and cardboard box. I haven’t even had to stack and stock shelves to keep the nations’ larders and fridges full. 

I’ve had it incredibly easy. 

I’ve got great WIFI and have even squeezed in COVID-silver-lining-participation in classes with my favourite writing mentor in North Carolina and book club discussions with my friends in Kent and Surrey. I’ve been warm and dry in the cold of winter. I have never experienced hunger. I’ve got clothes on my back. A generous hardworking husband in a steady job. Children whose company I adore. I get to read and write and do crosswords and jigsaws to my hearts delight. I have a beautiful garden to walk out in and a National Trust property, just a mile up from my house, where I can stroll with my dog off the leash to reunite with my beloved woods. 

Who am I to cop an attitude? Who am I to be the Eeyore? Who am I to be deflated and stuck in the unfairness and stress of the pandemic running rampant around the world? Of Brexit? Of political uncertainty? Even with the likes of the delectable guilty pleasure that is Netflix’s Bridgerton to indulge in -who am I to be so hard done by? And yet, it finally caught up with me this week, and I’m ashamed of myself for struggling to shake my bad mood. 

As I said, I was speechless and wordless. All I could think about was how lonesome—not lonely—I am for the world as we knew it. Lonesome for my far away family and social distanced friends. Lonesome for lighter worries to bear. Feeling hiraeth* – a homesickness for a home you can’t return to, or that never was. 

So yesterday, I got up grumpy again. Ill rested and ill tempered. Trying to carve out a space in my head to find my positive nature again. Praying for guidance as I flicked on the kitchen radio and started preparing pets’ food while the kettle boiled. Utterly begrudging the rain. When Radio Four’s Thought for the Day came on and, I kid you not, the speaker, Martin Rowe, began his piece by launching into commentary about a therapist he heard of who was encouraging tree hugging for the alleviation of “lockdown loneliness”. How could I not stop and listen? Start at 46.58 to listen for yourself.

He noted “while nothing can compensate for the absence of human contact” tree hugging seemed to be helping the therapist’s clients. He even described giving it a whirl himself in which although it felt “surreal to hold one of the great silent living beings, and yet, in these days when nothing seems strange anymore, also surprisingly reassuring”.

I laughed listening to Martin Rowe. It was like listening to myself wax on about trees and their merits. It could have been my own words coming back to me via the BBC commentator. It felt like the universe had to decided it’d send me a little reminder through the radio programme, to remember I’m not alone, to reset and to keep my faith a little longer. I can honestly say I breathed a bit deeper hearing that show. Less muddled in mind and spirit.

I even felt energised to iron nine shirts (Kelly’s laundry at your service), pulled out my birthday jigsaw puzzle and started laying out edge pieces, tried on a new jumper I’d bought online in a January sale, chatted with my big sister, luxuriated through two episodes of Gilmore Girls with Megan, and, finally, felt like myself again. 

I felt grateful that when I needed that extra hand to help me stand back up, shrug off the cruelty of the world and return whole heartedly to embrace my incredibly, good life, the words came. When I took the time to listen, the words came and I was able to once again remember this isn’t forever and there is much to be amazed by. 

This morning I woke up under a blue sky – what a bonus—as I came down to begin the daily routines.  I let Winston out for a stretch, filled the cats’ bowls, loaded the dishwasher from last night’s dinner and decided to write it all down. Particularly when even the Pringles can from last night’s snacking “spoke” to me when I nestled it back into the pantry. It nudged me in the right direction and furnished me with just the word I needed to bring back to the forefront of my vocabulary. Around the belt of the illustrated Santa holiday packaging, in all caps I saw spelled out the word I needed to be reminded of most : HOPE. 

Now that’s my kinda word, I thought. 

Especially with the American inauguration to look forward to on Wednesday and vaccinations being administered worldwide. Especially with the daffodils emerging at the base of my favourite tree growing tall outside my kitchen window. In these days when “nothing seems strange anymore,” I’ll even gladly take some advice from my potato chip packaging and rise like the best of the Looney Tune cartoon characters. HOPE this post helps you to do so as well. 

Ttttthaaattt’s All Folks! 

*Thank you, Christy, for teaching me this word.

LIT FROM WITHIN AND WITHOUT

Lights glowing at our house

Poor Skyler. Over the journeys back and forth from school these past couple of weeks he’s had to indulge me. He’s had a few early morning deliveries and late afternoon pick ups from Caterham when over the course of the drive, when it it just dark enough, I find I can’t help myself. I can’t help interrupting his air podded social networking sessions on his phone or even his much deserved snoozes to say, “Hey! Hey! Look at those. Now those are some good ones.” As I nearly swerve onto the curb to point out the latest displays of holiday lit up houses and shops.  

The UK may be in multiple levels of lockdown, but it sure is shining. Shining in the darkness to celebrate the season of light. I am here to assure you that, no matter what your faith, gawking at holiday lights is definitely a COVID safe activity, kids. I’m happy to report the brightness comes not just from Griswold family-worthy displays, oh no, there are Hanukkah hanukkiahs(nine-branched candelabra) gracing windows with their lit candles and memories of Diwali diyas lit by Hindus, Jainists, Sikhs and Buddhists less than a month ago. 

At our house it’s Christmas lights which my kids are convinced we should take stock in as they comment on my near obsession with festooning light strings around windows, dangled from gutters, wrapped around kitschy table ornaments and laid across the mantlepiece. While I like the warm white shade of the bulbs for their soft, ambient glow, the multi-coloured strings act as a nod to the trees of my childhood. Back when I was convinced that our tree, so laden with lights, was the perfect beacon for enticing Santa to our home. I was certain he’d be impressed enough to fill our stockings and generously lay out enough presents underneath its boughs for all five of us. Much to our Christmas morning delight, we found the trust well placed and further complimented with the candy canes left hanging amongst our tree’s lights and branches.  

I love the trees of my Christmases past and present, just as I love the memories they evoke. Particularly recalling the drives home from Christmas Eve mass when my parents would take us on extended detours around local neighbourhoods to look at the spectacular lit up homes awaiting the arrival of not just Santa, but Jesus’ birthday. Talk about a rush. Good Catholic attendance to services followed by the light displays then stocking hanging and my dad’s annual reading of Twas The Night Before Christmas. I tried to emulate these precious moments for my own three children —striving to find the perfect balance between fuelling their sense of magic without leading them down a state of self combusting excitement. It’s a delicate process, I’ll tell you.

I’m thinking now how even though my family is no longer racing to end of term Nativity plays or writing letters to the North Pole, I still feel as giddy as a young child when I see the lights. I feel hopeful, too. Longing, not just to share my delight, but to consider how I can be the light. Be the light with a sparkle in my eyes above my mask. Be the light sharing a laugh with silly moments found in videos on social media or over zoom or even WhatsApp chats. Be the light with a card posted to connect directly with another. Be the light sharing festive food recipes. Be the light acknowledging someone’s post when they’ve shared something hard or happy.

Be the light to reach out across the darkness encompassing some of the bleaker aspects of what has unfolded over the course of 2020 or just life, in general. I’m not fool enough to ignore the gravity of worries enfolding people facing health issues, losses of family, friends and jobs, pressures of political change and climate challenges or the knock on mental strains making all these concerns even heavier to bear. There’s a lot of dark to deal with right now. But I’m hoping that the light displays I marvel at will be a reminder to all. Especially as I link the human made light very much with the stars I cast my eyes on in the night sky. I pray, just as I appreciate with awe what those tiny, distant lights can bring to vast darkness, so can I be a light to others.

Finally, in case you hadn’t already heard, I wanted to share that for the first time in 397 years, Saturn and Jupiter will align to provide the world with a brilliant display for us all to enjoy.* Perhaps it is a lucky coincidence or maybe, as my writing teacher and friend, Maureen, always reminds me, a wonderful synchronicity to be recognised and appreciated. A synchronicity to be celebrated and, maybe even discerned with special meaning. It’s been a hard year to say the least but, maybe I think that bright light we will find in the sky on the 21st of December is meant as a gift to us all. To remind us of the power of light, its ability to reflect brightness in the dark and to inspire us that when our lights come together, the result can be spectacular.

May you shine on now and always.

*Thank you, Janet, for sharing the link on FB!

BALANCE

Me and Mom, Arlington Heights, IL, circa 1967

I miss my mom. I miss her easy going, unassuming nature that had such strength it propped up our family of seven. I miss that goodness emanating out of her through us to those we encountered in the world.  My mom was quiet. She blared no brash voice to coach us or judge us or form us in a way she saw fit. She was gentle in her instruction and aimed only for us to “be happy.” She was the warm, soft, smooth skin of a hand that knows how to hold another’s. Knows how to give a squeeze of excitement, a pull along in encouragement, a nestle between the fingers, joints and pads that enfold perfectly to comfortably and confidently assure love.  My mom was someone who was a beautiful person to witness.  She was comfortable in her own skin and genuinely happy in her lot and happy to share and support others in anyway they needed it with: a smile, a laugh, a listening ear, a ride at any time anywhere, a note always accompanied with a 😊.

I miss my mom as I turn to Thanksgiving and think about the empty chairs around people’s tables —empty from loss or empty from COVID restrictions. I consider what my mom would have thought of it all and I can’t help but laugh knowing she’d make Thanksgiving memorable despite the emptiness. One year when we were all new parents, we gathered at my mom and dad’s house.  All fourteen of us (7 Parichys, 3 husbands and 4 grandchildren) at the time. Mom had graciously offered to do the cooking so we could manage diapers and bottles etc. She put her famous turkey soup on the stove which we could eat for lunch before the big roast at dinnertime. Some time around three when the giant bird should have been well on its way to cooking to perfection, Mom woke up from her nap (my parents always religiously napped each day) and realised the power had gone off on the oven. There must have been a surge in the neighbourhood or something, but although we still had power everywhere else, the oven had turned itself off. Many hostesses would have panicked or begrudged the rest of us (there were 10 other adults in the house after all!) or soured the moment with the stress of the meal falling on her shoulders and guilted us for the emotional, mental, and physical load she’d taken on on our behalf.  But not my mom.  She looked at the oven, turned it back up to the correct temperature and without missing a beat said, “Well, I guess we’ll be eating little later than I thought.” 

Classic Mom. She always took life so gracefully in her stride. I asked my dad after she died almost eighteen years ago if she was always that way or if mothering five children born within ten years of each other had taken its toll on her; simply beaten her down to be easy and balanced. Dad said, “Nope, she was always like that. Even natured and happy.”

I think now how my mom also couldn’t resist fixing things for us.  She was the consummate listener. She’d hear a need, even if you didn’t realise you were voicing it, and suddenly the very thing you required would appear at the end of your bed when you came home from school (a poem, a special set of markers or a new top).  Something simple that let you know you were beloved and it would all be alright.  

The first year I moved to England, my mom was aghast that I couldn’t find pumpkin pies anywhere or even the proper ingredients to make one myself. So after we ‘suffered’ through an apple pie on our first English Thanksgiving, my mom took note and on Christmas Eve a FEDEX package arrived to our flat in Fulham. Inside, was a bubble wrapped Sara Lee pumpkin pie that my mom had bought frozen from the Acme Supermarket in Wayne, PA and whisked to the courier company to ensure it would land on my Christmas table—perfectly defrosted for our first Christmas in England. Who does that, right? How lucky am I?

So I think about the lessons and the character of my mom and I consider what she would think of the world today. All the noise and dissension.  All the meanness and inconsiderate behaviour.  All the pressure cooking of being judged if you say the “wrong” thing. And even though she’s been gone all these years, I find in her way and her words an instruction that worked for her and could work for us now.  She was NEVER a preacher or one to force her way upon you, but to keep our family dynamic, which was(is) full of personalities that can sometimes clash, Mom would say one thing:

“If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”

It was simple. She wasn’t leading us to think her way or judging us for having our own point of view, instead, in order to help us to conduct ourselves with some civility and to keep the interaction amongst us positive she would ask us to follow her rule. And it worked.  That’s not to say we weren’t allowed to argue, but in approaching a disagreement by expressing our point as “nicely” as we could it encouraged us to think before we possibly struck and hurt each other. It helped us to not just thrash out at each other to score a point with a barb that could be difficult to retract and, worse yet, heal from.  It helped us to take the time to calmly interact with each other, listen, and if we really were in the mood, consider the world from another’s point of view. It allowed us to differentiate our opinions and put the caring for each other first and foremost. I would suggest it even lead to a deeper understanding of the other person and, even when we didn’t agree, we could always use one of Mom’s other favourite sayings, “Agree to disagree.” 

My mom never wanted us to divide with our differences, she encouraged us to look for the common ground in keeping this practice.

I miss my mom. I wish I could talk to her and hear her voice and feel her steady strength, ever loving and always ready for a laugh. I know for sure, today, she would appreciate two things I now share with you. First this reflection my daughter, Megan, sent me which I’m happy to say popped up on her Instagram.  I think it speaks well of the algorithm calculating the feed on her account.  Mine, on the other hand, for example sends me whacky cat toy suggestions and acid reflux remedies!  

I particularly love the thought small kindnesses can be “the true dwelling of the holy”.

And then, of course, YouTube delivered this week, as the Americans in the crowd head towards turkey day.  My close friends know I’ve shared this widely, but I can’t resist ending on a funny video involving a mom, her child and a turkey.  

However you choose to conduct yourself these days, maybe consider the value of a small kindness or good natured laugh. Either way, please take care and know, “I like your hat.” 😊

Postings prompted from pumpkin epiphanies