Good things often happen when you're looking the other way.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

May the New Year bring you wonder upon wonder

Like everyone else, I’ve had my share of sad days. The day I was told I would never give birth to a child. The day I learned my father had died. The day I had to separate from my first husband. The day my mother died. Right up there, among all the rest, was the day I came home from work and listened to a message left by my daughter. The words she spoke into the phone tore my heart right out of my chest.

I had not seen her in four months, not since the day she graduated from college. The day I listened to that message – telling me she needed a break from family and that I should not contact her and that she would contact me when she was ready – caused me so much anguish and grief I had nowhere to go but my knees.

The date was Thursday, September 24, 1998. The date is significant to what I am about to write here. September 24, 1998. The twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Read on and you’ll see why.

I was raised an Episcopalian. My parents took my sister and me to church every Sunday when we were children, but in my youth I never thought much about having a personal relationship with God. Instead, I thought of Him as a great being, one far more intelligent than I could ever imagine, one that was so far removed from my earthly pin-dot life. I was sure He didn’t even know I existed, let alone care.

Today, I have a very different view of God and who He is than the view I had before September 24, 1998. I’ve written about my faith on these pages, but I’ve never said why I believe as I do. It’s time I explained.
That night – the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month in the year 1998 – was what I now think of as Ground Zero. First, it is the day the estrangement I have with my daughter got underway and second, it was the day I finally understood that God is a real and true presence and He is not some ephemeral, disconnected being floating around in the sky.

I could not believe my daughter’s words when I listened to her message. I knew she was involved in a relationship with a man and that they had moved in together after only a few months of dating. I knew also that she was devoted to making the relationship work and that she was committed to making sure he knew he was number one. But I was being squeezed out, and I wasn’t sure why.

My heart beat wildly inside my chest as it began to dawn on me that she wanted nothing to do with me – at least for a while. Tears stung my eyes and seconds later I sat on my bed and sobbed. I looked around my bedroom. How many times had we lain there, side by side, while talking about everything from what she should study in college to what she would like for a birthday gift. No subject was off limits. At one time, we enjoyed a close mother-daughter relationship. Yes, we fought, too. But most mothers of teen girls say the same thing. I had to tell her to lower her skirt or not go to the dance. I had to tell her “no” when she tried to push for a 1 a.m. curfew. I did what I thought was best for my daughter. She probably perceived me as being too strict, and maybe I was, but it was my job as her mother to keep her safe. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to her.

As I continued to look around the room, my eyes rested on a framed photograph of her. I saw a bottle of body lotion on my bureau – a gift from her. I saw, also, my mother’s old Bible. Steeped in emotional agony, I took the book from the top of  my bureau and opened it to a random page. “God, please speak to me. I need you,” I said.

I opened the book to a random page. At the top was written “Haggai.” I had turned to a page in the Old Testament, and Haggai was a minor character but one who had his own book. I had never heard of him. Drying my eyes, I read:

 “Now give careful though to this from this day on – consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were only twenty. I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. “From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: Is there any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit. From this day on, I will bless you.”
I would not have given much thought to what I read except for one thing: The date. The Bible I was holding in my hands contained about 1,200 pages. What were the odds that I would turn to the one page that would specifically mention the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month?

I read the words again. What did they mean? What stood out was the sentence that began, “I struck all the work of your hands … yet you did not return to me.”

It was true. The work of my hands – my marriage, my role as mother – had been struck. And it wasn’t until then that I returned to God. Then I read the final sentence. “From this day on, I will bless you.”

Never mind that I had always been a church-goer. Never mind that I had gone on a church retreat years before to renew my faith. Never mind that I raised my daughter in the church. It wasn’t until I read that passage that I knew God wanted a personal relationship with me. And I began to watch for those blessings.
It didn’t take long. Soon, I heard from an old friend and we renewed our friendship. Following this, other amazing things began to happen. Some benefited me but many benefited other people. As an example, my daughter had told me only months before that I should buy a new living room couch. I liked the old one but thought maybe it needed new upholstery. So I went to a fabric store to see if I could find a pattern I liked. Nothing appealed to me, so the store manager suggested I try a hole-in-the-wall upholstery shop on the other side of town. I had nothing to lose, so off I went. While flipping through the fabric sample books, I thought I saw a wad of cash stuck inside one of the pages. I flipped back and sure enough, there was a stack of folded bills. I pulled out the cash and called the manager over. “Look what I found,” I said, watching as an ear-to-ear grin spread across his face. He told me he had misplaced the money – all $580 of it – after visiting a customer’s home. He said he thought he had put the deposit in his pocket, but later discovered he had not and thought he had lost it. I had saved the day. That’s not all. He told me that he had planned to send that particular book back to the manufacturer the next day because no one ever ordered anything from it.

This is the kind of “miracle” that happened again and again. Chance encounters that led to my good. Finding one-of-a-kind gifts. And the most amazing one of all – meeting and marrying my husband Tony, moving to a new town, finding the job of my dreams and writing Former Things.
What else is there for me to think? The hand of God was on my life during the good times and the bad. And He made Himself known to me on one of the most agonizing days of my life. I can tell you this – I have not been the same since. The hand of God is still on my life.

Some people think life is a game. Other people think it’s a journey. I think of it as a magnificent puzzle, and the first piece is laid the day we’re born. Each puzzle piece continues to connect to the next one until the day we die. If we are fortunate enough to live a long life, we can see the picture in the puzzle begin to take shape. We can see the landscape of our lives the Master Puzzle-maker created for each of us.

Take a look at your puzzle. Are all the pieces fitting snugly? Is the picture emerging? Do you think it might be even more beautiful if you turn your life over to the care of God?

I do. And though I still don’t have the company of my beloved daughter – my beautiful, smart and wonderful girl – I have the company of family and friends and most important of all – God.
May the New Year bring you wonder upon wonder. May you, too, believe.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Recipe for happiness: Give much, expect little

It was Norman Vincent Peale who gave us 10 simple words about how to have a happy life:

• Expect little
• Give much
• Live simply
• Love much
• Forget self

Like many others in my generation, my parents struggled to survive the Great Depression, took calculated risks to improve their lot, made saving money a priority and probably made a boatload of mistakes along the way.

My father was one of six kids. Born in a rural area of Nova Scotia, he and his brothers and sisters were all happy with little. On Christmas morning, they looked forward to seeing what Saint Nicholas left in each of their stockings. One year, they all got an orange, a fruit that had to be shipped in from Florida or California, places that seemed as far away as Timbuktu. Oranges in those days were probably equivalent to a dinner today at the Ritz.

Family legend has it that my father hid his orange in a secret place so his brothers and sisters wouldn't help themselves to it, and every day when no one was looking he'd take that orange out of its hiding place and have a sniff. Today, psychologists would say that he was showing his emotional maturity by delaying gratification. Rather than gobble it down in one gulp, he was content to have a daily sniff of that fruity citrus.

He told my sister and me that he loved to rub his fingers over the orange's nubbly skin and looked forward to his first bite. He even measured the orange and figured it was more than six inches in circumference, the biggest one he had ever seen. How he loved that orange, and how he looked forward to the day he would finally peel away it skin and take extreme pleasure in savoring every drop of juice, every bit of pulp. But then came the day when he went to sniff his orange, only to find that it had shriveled to about four inches.

There had been a severe cold snap that week, and the orange suffered the consequences. When he sliced open his treasured orange, he found it all dried up and shriveled. Not one drop of juice and the pulp was no more edible than wood shavings. A valuable lesson my father learned that day, and he reminded us often: Don't put off your enjoyments today because they may evaporate tomorrow. To balance his lesson, he also instructed that a greedy, "must have right now" attitude was not the way to go, either. 

"Grab something too greedily, and it will slip right through your fingers" was his message. My mother's message had more to do with sharing. "Sharing brings you joy," she said. 

Greed, or avarice, and its cousin envy, have been with us since the beginning of human history. But in the past decade, greed has taken over headlines, beginning with Bernie Madoff and ending with the Koch brothers. There's even a TV show called American Greed.

I found an online essay on greed recently, and the crux of the piece was that possessions — from McMansions to BMWs and everything in between — will never bring happiness. And the more people clamor for things and the more they have, the less happy they'll be in the long run.

How many of us have given our children the toys of their dreams for Christmas or Hanukkah, only to discover them a few months later, forgotten at the back of their closet. How many women have bought an expensive designer pocketbook, only to tire of it later on. Possessions do not bring lasting happiness, and they do nothing to fill the void in us all. It's as simple as that. 

The love of money and what it can buy is a dangerous trap that has ruined family relations. It has forced couples into separation and divorce. It has brought down corporations and even Wall Street.

When my daughter was about 13, she tried her hand at running her own business. One day we sat at the kitchen table and brainstormed about what she could offer as a babysitter that other kids her age might not think of. She then used crayons and Magic Markers to design a grocery store bag with colorful letters that said "My Babysitting Magic." She filled the bag with coloring books and crayons, Play-Doh and water color paints and construction paper and went door to door in our neighborhood offering her "specialized" babysitting services to mothers of young children. 

"Your kids will never be bored while I'm watching them" was her mission statement. She got quite a few jobs and gained some experience about what it takes to promote a business. I insisted that the money she earned was not to be spent only on her own desires but split three ways: Charity, savings and then herself. I also tried to tell her not to ever trust money because it can be gone in a flash. 

"As much as you might grow to love money, remember this: It will never make you happy and it will never love you back," I said. 

While raising her, I tried to instill other values like helping the lonely and needy and giving beyond what was expected. It's what my own parents taught, so it seemed natural to pass down their teachings to the next generation.

The spirit of the Christmas season is everywhere — in stores, on corners where Salvation Army bell ringers are hoping for donations, in churches and in private homes where Christmas cards are being written and the Elf on the Shelf is showing up in strange and amusing places. 

But the spirit of Christmas is sorely needed in other areas — homeless shelters, soup kitchens and halfway houses. When you review your shopping list, remember what Norman Vincent Peale taught and "give much." 

Enjoy the season — it only comes once a year, after all. But avoid letting the worldly attitude of greed enter in. It will only spoil things for you and your family and diminish the importance of what Christmas is all about: The world's greatest gift — hope.

Enjoy a wonderful Christmas — or Hanukkah — and a peaceful, healthy New Year!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Happy birthday to my daughter

To my daughter on her birthday:

Today, you are 41 years old. Happy birthday!

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of you. How can I not think of you, my only child who was once at the center of my life.

There is a memory of you stuck in my head when we celebrated your first birthday. Seated in a high chair, you cried when family and friends sang the Happy Birthday song. I still have the picture, one of my treasures.

There is another photo I also treasure, and it's sitting in the corner of my desk at work. You were 15 years old when the picture was taken. You asked me to take you to a professional photographer, and that's what we did. Your hair at the time was long and wavy, way past your shoulders, and puffed up on top. You wore pink that day, a pretty color to offset your lovely complexion.

I have other photos of you, all packed away except for one taken at Christmas when you were 22. We were close then. That clearly shows in the picture. You were leaning in to me while I had my arm around your shoulder. You were wearing a bulky sweater I bought for you — one that you had asked for.

When the photos were taken, I had no idea what would follow a few years later. Maybe it's just as well that I didn't know because I would have had to carry my grief that much longer. Bad enough that 16 years have passed without you. 

So much has happened since you left. Your grandmother died in August 2011 at age 95. Grammie never held it against you that you left without so much as a backward glance, and neither do I. She loved you to the very end. Just as I will. 

In 2007, Tony and I married. You may remember him as a big blustery Italian guy. I may have lost you, but I inherited his three grown children and their spouses plus six grandchildren. They are all doing fine, and so are we. 

Grammie left a little something for you and she left the house and land in Nova Scotia to your aunt and me, and we still go there every summer. For a small house, we sure did pack a lot of people in there while you were growing up with your cousins, didn't we? One of my favorite pictures of you is when you were 14 and were standing with your grandmother holding a big pan of vegetables picked fresh from her garden. 

Tony and I love to have company, and it's for certain that if you were part of our lives, you'd be at the top of the list when it came time to put out an invitation for supper. 

Joan is still my dear friend and continues to live in our old neighborhood. She's a grandmother now, and one of her granddaughters, now age seven, was adopted from China. So now she and I have even more in common. 

Remember Callie-Cat? We lost her in 2009 at age 20, but two years ago on December 8, we welcomed a new kitty to our home. Her name is Stella, and she's a lynx point Siamese, stripes and all. I found her at a Siamese rescue center in Virginia, and she made the trek all the way up the line, passing through Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and finally, Massachusetts. She entertains us every night when she plays with her toys and races through the house. An interesting fact — she's more Tony's cat than she is mine.

Marrying Tony brought another blessing — my current job as staff writer for the Wakefield and Melrose newspapers. Being on staff means I get to write the police and fire news, school board news, feature stories about people in both towns, business stories and everything in between. Our photographer passed away a year ago, so his job has fallen to me, and I love doing that, too. I have no plans to retire, but one day when I do, I will devote my time to writing and other creative pastimes.

In 2010, my first novel was published — Former Things. My mission in writing the book was to show how fragile relationships are and that when there is a breakdown, both sides of the story must be told. It is said that "it takes two," but sometimes it takes three or more people to derail a relationship. 

About 15 years ago when I was in the deepest part of my grief, I reached out to a therapist who got me through. She said, "Gail, here's something to remember. Life is short, but it's also long." I know what she meant. That there is still plenty of time for reconciliation. 

I think of what she said, and though the days are dwindling one by one, there is still time. I think of the mistakes I made, but I also think of what I did right.

There was a time — many, many years ago — when my Christmas wish list consisted of material things like a pair of pearl earrings or new slippers. Today, my list contains nothing material at all because I have learned that material things have no real value in the long run. But relationships do. What I really would love for Christmas is a message from you. A message that says: "Let's not dwell on the past. Let's start over."

You are now entering middle age, a time when you can expect change, a time when you may become more introspective, a time for renewal and growth. 

I think of you all the time and hope with my whole heart that you are at peace, enjoying good health, are working at a job you enjoy, whether at home or in the outer world, and are very much loved. Though we are apart, I will always be your mother and that means I will always love you. It also means that I want what is best for you. And if that means we must be apart, then so be it. 

With love, Mom

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Six degrees

There is a man I’ve known for a while now who has served Thanksgiving Dinner to the needy for the past 28 years. They are the destitute, the lonely and the aged. They are often people who have no family to share dinner with. This will mark year 29 of Scott’s outpouring of generosity and caring. I got to know Scott when I wrote about what he does to “serve God’s people,” as he put it, for the newspaper where I work.

Scott pays for everything – turkeys, stuffing, vegetables, cranberry sauce, rolls and butter, desserts, beverages and anything else he needs – and he will not accept donations. He also cooks the food and enlists a few people to do the serving. Then he cleans up. This all takes place in a church hall. This year, he had to move his regular venue to another church because there was a problem with the oven.

Scott owns a vacuum cleaner and supplies store near where I live, and last week I paid him a visit to see if he would be hosting Thanksgiving again this year. The answer was yes, and this year he had asked a man I knew in the past to help him out. When I heard the news, I thought about those six degrees of separation and how they apply to each of our lives. I haven’t seen the man who will help Scott for a long time, but I’ve thought about him now and then and wondered how he was doing. Next time I visit Scott he’ll tell me. Who knows? We may even reconnect.

That’s how it is with those six degrees of separation. Someone we haven’t seen for a long time will suddenly pop up in the most unlikely of places or under bizarre circumstances. I personally hold on to those six degrees of separation because there may be a likelihood that someone, somewhere will bring me news about my daughter – or, in the best case scenario, I will see her myself.

I’m happy to hear that my old friend will be helping Scott this year because I can’t think of a more meaningful way to observe Thanksgiving. It’s a day to be thankful AND a day set aside for giving. If I didn’t already have plans for the holiday, I might volunteer myself.

But I do have plans, and I will be spending the day with my husband and family, and that suits me fine, too.

From our home to yours, here’s a wish for all of you – That you will enjoy this special day and have peace and love in every corner.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pinched Nerves

For a few weeks now I’ve suffered from a pinched nerve in my neck area. It’s due to disc degeneration and perhaps even a bulging disc that’s putting pressure on a major nerve. Regardless of anything, it has caused me a tremendous amount of pain in my left arm all the way down to my hand and fingers. It wakes me up at night and bothers me during the day at work. I’m getting treatment for it, but my doctor told me it would be slow going.

There’s another kind of pinched nerve that adult children suffer when they grow up in dysfunctional environments. I know in my heart that my own daughter grew up in such an environment, and because I failed to do something about it until she was 15, it is my fault that we are estranged. I've never talked about it on this blog, but it's time I did.

Looking back over the years is something I do all too often. I’m getting older, and I’ve read that this is what people do when they enter their 60s and beyond. They review their lives. In some cases, people long for a do-over. In some instances, they are satisfied with how they handled their lives. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. They have regrets but think they did the best they could.

I personally would like a do-over, starting with my choice of a mate. My mother warned me. You’re too young to marry, she told me when I was 20. You’re not a good match, she said. And when I rebelled and married anyway, she said, ‘Okay, you’ve made your bed. Now lie in it.”

And I did for the next 20 years.  Our family life was anything but peaceful. It was more like the proverbial roller-coaster ride, a ride I was only too familiar with while I was growing up. It was a ride where we would coast along nicely for a few days and then BOOM! that bend in the track and steep plummet to the ground. It was not a healthy environment in which to raise a child, to say the least. The only thing predictable was the unpredictability. That’s what defined our household. And I handled the problem so poorly until I learned how to handle it many years later.

When asked about our marital relationship by the caseworker at the adoption center, I didn’t let on that alcohol was a problem. I was afraid we would be turned down if I revealed the truth. But it was a problem, and I brought a baby girl from South Korea into our “den of affliction.” I had no business doing that until I was certain that positive, permanent changes would be made.

But I was desperate for a child. I wasn’t thinking about how a baby would fit into our lives, only that I wanted to be a mother. I wanted a baby and that was that, emphasis on I wanted. I was not thinking about her at the time, and for that I am truly sorry.

I wish I could turn back the clock to May 1969. That was the month that led to a decision that would plague my daughter and me for 20 years. What would I have done differently? I would have taken a step back and asked myself why I was so intent on marrying a man I barely knew. Why was I unwilling to listen to my mother, a woman who knew that I was making a mistake? Why was I not listening to the woman who had my best interests at heart? Why did I allow the marriage to continue for 20 years when it should have ended after the first few months? Why did I not see certain truths that were masked for all of those 20 years? Why was I so stupid and naïve?

I’m to blame for my estrangement and no one else. And I’m sincerely sorry that my daughter had to suffer and witness things that no child should have to witness or be called upon to do.

She suffered then, just as I did. And now I suffer alone because she is gone from my life. I only hope and pray that one day she will recall glimpses of good in her childhood because in spite of all the chaos, there were good days.

I hope, too, that she did not carry over any dysfunction into her own family. I hope she broke the cycle of dysfunction and is living a life of love and peace. I hope there are no pinched nerves in her life. I hope this because I love her.





Sunday, October 12, 2014

The welcome mat is at the door

Yesterday, Tony and I went to a family wedding where his great-niece, GinaMaree, and her new husband, Ryan, exchanged their “I do’s.” It was a traditional service with beautiful music and scripture readings. Privately, Tony and I reaffirmed our own “I do’s” along with GinaMaree and Ryan.
Later, about 200 of us gathered at the Burlington Marriott Hotel about 10 minutes away from where we live. The party was in full swing a few minutes after we entered the grand ballroom because the DJ knew how to get things going. Almost immediately people were on the dance floor and having a great time.

While all these festivities were going on, I couldn’t help but think of my daughter and what she’s missing out on by not being in touch. First, there’s Tony, a big-hearted, generous and fun hunk of man and quasi-patriarch of our big Italian family. Tony is a blustery, passionate type who loves the New England Patriots (when they win) and cooking and entertaining. (And we do, a lot.) He's also a computer geek and clamors for the latest in technology. He's interested in world events and loves to talk about what's going on.
Then there’s my step-daughter Lisa, a gorgeous woman with a sparkling personality, who loves to sell real estate, read and cook and bring us up to date about her children, Michael and Lauren (Michael is launched and is climbing the corporate ladder; Lauren is a college student). Next is Paula, equally beautiful, engaging and smart. She also enjoys talking about the books she’s read and about her children (Luke and Nora, two bright and sweet kids). Next is Michael, a handsome, funny sales guy and master storyteller. He loves his wife and kids (Clara and Graeme) and large gatherings of family and friends, sports and his new fishing boat. I tell him if I had been fortunate enough to have a son, he would be it. Tony’s children all have spouses – Michael (an executive at John Hancock), Meghan (an elementary school teacher and about the same age as my daughter) and Mark (principal of a middle school). They add to the sparkle and joy of the family and would surely welcome the inclusion of my daughter and her family, no questions asked.

The people I just mentioned are only the beginning. There’s Tony’s sister (age 84 but you’d never know it), six grandchildren aged 7 to 24, nephews, nieces, grand nephews and grand nieces. All lovely, welcoming people and all doing well in life. One niece lives in Silicon Valley and has a guest house that family members can use if they wish to tour northern California. (We did, in May this year. Thank you, Dianne and Charlie.)
I want for my daughter a welcoming, loving family just like the one I have. I want for her joy and peace and love. I want her to know the wonders of having an extended family whose members enjoy a good time. I want for her children to feel loved and included by extended family.

I don’t know what my daughter’s life is like. I only hope that her life mirrors mine. I want for her experiences that enhance her life. I want her to be wrapped in love, to be happy and joyous and at peace.

What I really want for her if she doesn't already have it is this: I want her to come home so she, too,  can have warmth, love, acceptance and peace.  Yes, I want her to come home. No questions asked.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Boomer Bookings and Stage Whispers

Travel buffs might be interested in reading my review of the Nova Star cruise ferry out of Portland, Maine and a review of DOUBT A PARABLE now playing at The Stoneham Theatre in Stoneham, Mass.

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