Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I am fascinated by primal motherhood; fascinated by the instinctual drive in animal species. As humans, we are brought to the task of mothering with reason, common sense, compassion and with any luck, grace. No matter the species, mother animals mother with instinct and for all of the advantage we have in our superior knowledge, instinct is what often lacks in humans. That is not to say that we cannot defend our young on a level that is primal or that we do not have that built in sense of knowing; the thing that makes a mother stir when she knows something is wrong somewhere or that makes her reach for the phone just as a child is calling home with a problem. A sixth sense is woven into and wrapped around reason somehow, but instinct is quite different.

I have a pair of rather prolific love birds. Separated from one another at the pet store and reunited after 6 weeks, they paint a story of star-crossed lovers in their colorful display of affection for one another. Once a suitable nesting box is offered, Owen knows that he can begin courtship and he knows that to win Jasmine’s heart, he must begin to furnish the home and show his intentions by feeding her. He did not read this or learn it from his dad; he simply knows. Upon accepting his offerings, the two spend a day consummating the relationship, after which they work feverishly to gather appropriate nesting materials into the box. Jasmine knows that she needs moisture in the nest and takes strips of paper and dips them into her water dish, layering them between dry pieces. She knows nothing of the science involved and had no teacher to teach her the technique. She just knows.

Once she begins laying, one egg every other day, she spends all day and night incubating the clutch, coming out only occasionally for nesting supplies or water. Owen keeps watch outside and brings her meals in bed. There is no bickering about who should be doing what; they have their designated jobs and they accept them. Once the babies hatch, both parents work all day feeding and warming, bringing fresh bedding and moist strips to keep the humidity just right. The instinctual teamwork is without ego or competition; there is beauty in their partnership.

We take classes, we read endless books by renowned experts, gather in groups to share and learn and teach and for all of our knowledge gathering, we do not have the same harmonious rhythm that is wired into the simplest of species. Perhaps the greatest contrast that I have observed is that animals know when the job is finished. A mother animal will risk her life to protect and raise her young, but the moment the mission her accomplished and her young possesses the ability to thrive on their own, she boots them out without hesitation. As humans, we let out the tether, but find ourselves uncertain as to when our offspring are really ready to fly, our insecurities likely keeping them closer to the nest than necessary.

Jasmine began biting her young once they were eating on their own and my admiration for her instincts turned to scorn. She wanted them out, and yet they had barely the skills for survival. In the wild, they would have left the nest and likely not come back. Separating the babies to a new cage, I discovered her urgency. She had laid a new clutch of eggs; her instincts told her all of her time and energy was to be dedicated to hatching and raising these babies.

I am fascinated by primal motherhood; by the instinctual drive of mother animals. I am also keenly aware of my human instinctual shortcomings and the gift of human love and bonding that separates us from the animals. Fledging our young is much more complicated, but I am grateful that when they leave the nest, they are likely to return again and again.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Reaching life’s milestones has a way of propelling me toward inward reflection to ponder the meaning of life and my place in it. My most recent birthday and the arrival of an AARP card bearing my name seemed to juxtapose where I have been and where I am going, leaving me sitting to marinate in where I am. We are all a work in progress being molded and shaped by events along our journey, but most of life’s lessons for me simply echo the wisdom of my first teacher; my mom.

The lessons that I have learned from my mother were specific and make up the foundation that I stand on. From the time I was very young, my mother instilled the basic lessons: say your prayers, always tell the truth, never cheat and keep your room clean to name a few. But as time goes on, I realize that what she really taught was about faith, hope and charity.

Pray about it.” When I was younger, the words were “Ask God for help” but the message has been consistent and is in the forefront of every big problem or decision I encounter. My mom has always been a woman of faith and has taught me that we are better served when we ask for guidance.

Praise God for answered prayer.” It has become more evident to me that prayers are answered and that sometimes we need to sit back and listen for the answers in order to hear them. It is easy to look around with envy in difficult times and to wonder why life is so hard, but an attitude of gratitude turns it all on its head and even it times of strife, blessings are there to be counted.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I can honestly say that I am still working on this one. This is the wisdom that has allowed me to accept the things I cannot change and by doing so, avoiding senseless conflict. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

Lessons of faith and hope were taught with words, but one of the greatest lessons my mother taught she did so by example; Charity. Both of my parents modeled this for me growing up by reaching out to strangers and friends in need, but as my mom entered her retirement years, her outreach has become a major component of her life. She has been working with refugees families to teach them English and help them acclimate to life in the US. Mom and Bruce worked with habitat for humanity helping these people to build and establish homes. Most recently, she has taken a position as a volunteer at the hospital greeting visitors to help them navigate the visit with their love ones and also works with a satelite group making blankets and toys for children in the hospital, raising money for the hospital through bake sales and various other activities. Through her church she has worked with Soles for Souls collecting shoes to send to countries where such a basic need is a luxury. She and Bruce have dedicated themselves twice a year to our troops. In the summer (Marine Appreciation Day) and in the fall (Thanksgiving with the Marines) they have spearheaded a program in their community to bring busses of Marines who cannot go home for the holiday to join host families for the day; filling their bellies with food and their hearts with love and gratitude.

It is easy for most people to see the Golden Years as a time for rewarding oneself for a lifetime of hard work. My mother has shown me that rewards do not always come in the form of self-indulgence; but can be in the satisfaction of touching someone else’s life.

My mother’s wisdom was taught to her in much the same way; her mother (Mema) was the same kind of teacher. Mema (Mary Ellen) married an Irishman, and as devout Catholics, did not practice birth control. Her life mirrors some of the heart wrenching memoir books on my shelf; a life of great poverty and trials. She gave birth to 12 children, two of which died in childhood and raised 5 sons and 5 daughters, my mother being the baby of the clan. The stories shared by my mom and her siblings are about times of hunger and less than meager possessions. I know that things like toothpaste and shoes without holes were not elements of their existence.

In spite of this, my grandmother’s faith was profound, always finding things to bless and thank God for. Her wisdom taught her children not to squander what they had and to always have self-respect. “Squeeze your money tight and do your business tidy” and “Don’t let the neighbors know your business.” These were some of the phrases she would use to help her kids hold their heads high in times of trouble; teaching faith and hope in the same way as my mother, through her words. What astounds me most, however, is her teaching of charity. In spite of having nothing, my grandmother would never fail to find someone who had less and would share what little she had with them.

By the time I met Mema, she was in her later years and I remember her as a nutty, silly, loopy woman and I am sad that I did not have a chance to know her as I grew older. The thread of humor has passed through the women of this Irish linage as an essential ingredient for life. My daughter often calls me on my “random” behaviors and I simply blame the women before me, just as I can also credit them for the basic guidelines for living.

On this Mother’s day, I want to thank my mom and Mema before her for the lessons they passed to me and I hope that I can honor them in carrying forward the wisdom of my mothers.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I have been blessed to be the mother of musicians.

This has not come as a surprise to me as my family and Brad’s are filled with them. Brad has been immersed in music his whole life; playing the guitar and drums in bands, writing songs, working as stage crew for big bands in his younger days. It was only natural to see Tyler pick up the guitar at a young age and soon surpass his father’s abilities. He also played the drums, Trevor played the saxophone and guitar and their instrumental prowess surly comes from that side of our team. I cannot read a note of music. I nearly failed a class in college that required us as Early Childhood Education majors to take a basic music class and learn to play the recorder. The music staff may as well have been in Japanese and the recorder became an object of loathing to me on the same level as a snake! I cannot tell a C from an F by definition. I have tucked written music and instrumentals in with a group of things that I simply lack the skill, or more importantly the desire, to learn which include: threading a bobbin, knitting, changing the gears on my 10 speed bike, untangling large knots and finding my way anywhere without GPS.

I am OK with this.

I can sing, however, strictly by ear and reasonably well. Voice is what I have contributed to my musical offspring. Cadence is involved with musical theatre and works with a vocal coach; her forte being Broadway belt songs, soulful contemporary music and songwriting. This has been a breath of fresh air from the male passions in my house. I have had to learn to respect “music” in forms that are foreign to me. While Tyler can write and sing touching acoustic ballads, his passion and the music he sings with is band is appropriately called “Screamo” named for the guttural, growling, screaming language that they intersperse throughout the song that to me sounds satanic; I hear my son alternate between angel and devil and while the sound is offensive to my very fibers, I have stood in the middle of many a mosh pit, praying for my safety and cheering on my oldest. Apparently, he screams very well.

Trevor has always had an affinity for rap music. I actually find this a tiny bit more palatable if I try to override the vulgarity in most of it and simply appreciate the rhythmic flow. They don’t sing….they “spit” the lyrics. Trevor is known to “freestyle” along with any music, usually beginning with the phrase. “I’m going in…” Sometimes it is silly or funny and most times it has me yelling about the language. Trevor has shown me, however, that rapping does take some skill. I used to say it was not music at all as it was not “singing” and that anyone could “talk” their way through a song, but he protests that rapping requires good rhythm, a quick mind and a good vocabulary. I have come to see it as poetry and that tickles the writer in me. Trevor has been composing rap songs at a rapid fire pace as of late, most of it I cannot support due to content and language. Most defiantly not rated ‘E’ for Everyone and certainly not for the young or old. He recently finished a song about losing his dog Keeper. PLEASE do not listen if you are offended by the “F---“ word. I begged him not to use it but it appears in several places. If you can bleep out the offensive language, it’s actually quite good.

I probably did not ever imagine that I would be I the mother of a Screamer, a Rapper and a Broadway Belter; music has many faces and I am proud of each of them.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I really don’t need this today...not today! I think to myself as I trudge out into the snow. “Bacon!” I yell, shaking a box of Keeper’s favorite treats. I am sure by now the neighbors think his name is Bacon. He has made it a mission as of late to escape in a number of clever ways to follow his male Terrier desires to mark what he considers his territory. I knew he would make a beeline for George’s yard; an elderly poodle who had moved in recently next door. “Keep! Bacon” I yell, knowing there must be people who wonder why anyone would wander about yelling ‘keep bacon’. I listen for any sound of him crunching along in the snow. He hates the snow. He hates being cold. He hates for his feet to touch anything but soft, dry grass.

Six years ago, we were on a quest to adopt a dog for Trevor who, in classic middle child style, felt that every other family member had a designated pet except for him. We had at that time lost a cat who was confused about his species, acting more like a dog; he was the playmate for our older dog Abby. Adoption was the only way our family had acquired pets and seemed to be the solution for both Abby and Trevor. I had researched local and not so local shelters and even brought home a couple of dogs on trial that turned out to be a poor fit. Trevor was ten years old at the time and came to me with a photo he had printed from his computer research on dog breeds. It was a Rat Terrier. I had to explain that one could not really select a specific breed when adopting from a shelter and the dogs that ended up there were seldom a specific breed and more likely a mix of many. “But if you see him, this is the one I want.” Trevor told me, somehow confident that I would.

While the kids were in school, I made my way to a shelter about 45 minutes away to see an English Spaniel with a soft coat and sweet face. “I’m sorry,” the gentleman explained, “She’s already been adopted” and I kicked myself for not calling first. He walked me through the kennel to where she sat and proceeded to show me the remaining homeless, bringing me straight to Keeper’s cage. “I’ve got this little guy.” To my dismay, it was the face on the printout that Trevor gave me.
We were allowed to take him home as a foster dog since his adoption could not be processed for two weeks to allow sufficient advertising for possible owners. After the waiting period was up, we needed to decide if he was a keeper and he obviously was.

Keeper was about two years old and proved to be rather quirky and funny and sometimes aggressive about his food. He had poor manners and was a monster when greeting people at the door. He loved to steal dirty laundry and hide it and would eat anything. He evolved, as my boys became teenagers into a teenager himself; sneaking up late at night to join them in the kitchen for late snacks, taking road trips to Vermont to visit college (where dogs were NOT permitted) and hanging with the guys when he should have been in bed. He licked everything: people, rugs, furniture and we had to learn exactly how far to keep our faces from his swift and lengthy tongue.

He was extremely verbal and played a game of charades when he wanted something…barking incessantly until his demands were acknowledged and he needed to be near me at all times, following me within a step all day long. He must have belonged in a tropical climate as he would follow the sun throughout the house, sprawling in the sunny spots, even in the summer. His funniest habit was at bedtime. He would not retire until I did, often begging me to go to bed if I stayed up too late. As soon as I announced I was going to bed, he’d scramble up the stairs and position himself on his bed on the floor beside mine, waiting. If I forgot what he was waiting for, he would whimper and moan until I did what was necessary, which was to cover him with a blanket from head to toe; two blankets in the winter as he hated to be cold.

“Did you take Keeper with you?” I ask my son who had just left, calling him from the driveway. He had not. I call my neighbor across the street that also had new male dogs within the past year; a huge Lab and a bigger Rottweiler. Keeper had headed up their long driveway on previous escapes leading me into their back yard fearing for my own safety. I call them to be sure their dogs are not out and toss the bacon onto the front seat of my car, thinking it would make it easier to bring him home instead of having to carry his squirming, snowy body. “I’ve got Bacon!!” I yell into the woods behind their house, pausing to listen for any response. Silence. Unsuccessful, I turn my car to head back to my driveway, pausing to look left and right in order to cross the street.

At first my eyes do not register the image. I stare at what my mind processes as a deer or something lying still on the snow bank. I cannot make the connection to Keeper who is never still and so full of life and as I step out of the car and walk along the snow bank, my heart slides low into my belly and an ache squeezes my throat. His eyes are open and he lies still as I approach slowly, expecting him to look at me. “Keep?” I call softly, bending down to touch him. He is warm and I hold my hand over his chest and stay very still so that I can feel him breathe, but I do not. I continue to hold my hands on him looking for his heart to beat and I realize that the sound behind me is a school bus. I stay hovered over him so that the kids on the bus might not see, until I hear the release of the brakes and the rumble as the bus pulls away. An image fills my peripheral as I continue to stand there stunned and I look left to see Trevor, his sixteen-year-old face tight with fear. “You are F----ing kidding me, right?” I stand motionless as he lunges across the street toward our house and then back again, this time, his face red with anger and stained with tears. “Are you f----ing kidding me?” He yells, sinking to a squat and heaving great sobs. He storms back across the street, kicking and punching the garage.

I drift behind him like a ghost, floating without sound or words but he flees into the house. I find a box and go back to collect Keeper, tucking him gently into a curl, the way he would lay if sleeping, adjusting his head to be comfortable and notice the blood inside his ears; the only sign of what had just taken place. I cover him with a towel and carry him to the patio. No squirming, snowy feet; just a box. It is only 28 degrees. He hates the cold. Robotically, I report the news to Tyler who is picking up his girlfriend and his response is, “You’re kidding, right?” Brad pulls in the driveway, fresh on the edges of losing his dad a week prior and the memorial service only 4 days ago. “Keeper’s dead.” Is all I can manage to say.

Tyler’s car pulls into the driveway fast. “Where is he?” he asks and goes to sit beside the box, sobbing. His shoulders ride up and down for what seems like forever and when he is finished, he trudges through the snowy yard to the shed, returning with two shovels. He hands one to Trevor and they walk in silence to the back of the yard; brothers, at odds much of the time, united in grief. Cadence’s bus arrives and I brace myself to tell her. “Wait…what?” She asks and then walks silently to her room, moments later breaking the silence with wailing.

I stand in the slider door watching my sons digging the frozen earth with pick axe and shovels, taking turns with blistered hands. Darkness is approaching. Tyler takes a regular axe and hacks away at a 2 x 4 to build a cross. Cadence will not let me in her room. Brad puts boots on to help the boys and just before dark, the hole is ready. Trevor’s hands are bleeding from his knuckles where he punched the wall and from the shovel tearing at his skin. He leaves, unable to watch his little buddy go into the ground. Darkness takes over as Tyler sits in the kitchen, filling a box with mementoes and bacon and a letter to keeper. Cadence adds some items to the box; a Mexican Worry Doll that sleeps beneath her pillow, said to take away ones worries during sleep and an arrow head from camp that she got in the woods since she knew Keeper loved to be outdoors. I add his newest toy that was a Christmas gift, a creature with its face chewed off and squeaker removed, just the way he liked it. Brad is ready to put his cardboard casket into the ground.

“Wait,” I say before we lower the box, “Cadence, run back and get his blankie?” I ask. “He hates to be cold” I say, sounding ridiculously childish. When she returns, I tuck him in for the last time under his blanket, head to toe, just the way he likes it. Tearful prayers are followed by the empty sound of shovels of dirt covering his box. It is completely dark now and while they finish, I return to the house. Sometime later, Tyler comes in to find a candle and takes a deep, jar candle out to the site. A large cross at the top and a huge stone marks the spot and upon it, Tyler places the candle. It is quite some distance from the house, but the little light shines in the black of night honoring our little friend.

Early the next morning, I look out the window to see the light of the candle still glowing just the way memories do in our hearts.