Archive | Relationships

How I Remember My Mother

funky bracelet
Happy funky jewelry by SilverLines Jewelry via Flickr

When my mother died earlier this summer, my siblings and I decided to postpone her memorial service. At the time, the maximum amount of people allowed at an outdoor funeral in New Jersey, where she lived, was 30 (due to Covid). Just our family alone – with all of my nieces and nephews – would nearly hit that target, without even beginning to move into other family and friends. And once we factored in that her four closest surviving friends are all in their 80’s, and thus at high risk, we decided to wait.

I’m not sure that was the right decision. I’ve watched at least three other friends bury their parents this summer, and all of them opted for the small – but immediate – funeral. I have this gnawing fear that by the time a vaccine is developed and travel is safe again, it will be too late. We will have forgotten her.

That is, of course, an irrational fear. I was blessed with two parents with very strong personalities. It is literally impossible to forget them. I’ve also realized that without even intending to, I am now actively engaging with my mother on a daily basis in ways that bring her strongly to mind.

Books

I’ve mentioned before that my mother was an avid reader. That’s putting it mildly. One of the last things I did before vacating her apartment was to carefully parse out her books amongst my siblings. I chose non-fiction for my oldest brother, fiction for my sister and a blend of fiction and poetry for my own family.

All summer, I’ve been reading those books. I started with a John Le Carre thriller, Our Kind of Traitor. It isn’t even one of his most celebrated spy novels, but I enjoyed it thoroughly nonetheless. Then I moved on to a beautiful novel about music by Vikram Seth (of A Suitable Boy fame), called An Unequal Music. Right now, I’m reading a collection of short stories by Alice Munro.

As I make my way through these books – but particularly the Alice Munro, because she was one of my mother’s favorite authors – I feel very connected to my mom. I imagine what she might think about the characters, or how a particular reference to the Great Depression or World War II might resonate for her. I have this odd sensation that I am actually reading the book with her. And that is a beautiful thing.

Jewelry

A second way I am connecting to my mother is through her jewelry – (which, in his inimitable Jersey accent, my dad pronounced as “JEW-luh-ree.”) Because I gave all of my mother’s paintings to my siblings, I took her jewelry, which felt like a fair trade.

The funny thing about my mother’s jewelry is how out of keeping it was with the rest of her look. My mother’s style was exceedingly down-to-earth. She didn’t spend a lot of money on clothing and almost never wore make-up, save the odd dot of eye shadow or lipstick.

How odd, then, that her jewelry collection would be so eclectic and playful. She wore large, ceramic bangles…long, colorful beads…and silly, irreverent pins that poked out from her shirts. Underneath the practical, organized self she presented to the world, my mother’s inner actress beamed through in her accessories.

I wear that jewelry every day now. Some of it suits me and some of it doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter. It makes me feel close to her.

Sayings

The final way I invoke my mother on a daily basis is through her speech. Like many of us, my mother evolved an odd collection of sayings over the years, some of which she surely inherited from her own mother and some of which she invented.

She liked to describe rainy days as “soggy,” as in “It’s soggy out today.” She loved the Yiddish word “farmisht” (also pronounced “fermished”). This word literally means “crazy or messed up,” but my mother extended it to mean “broken” or “not working,” as in “These batteries are fermished.” She also dutifully “wogged” her back every morning – her term for exercising and stretching. (At least two of my friends have written to me since her death telling me that they have appropriated this term from her. Love.)

If you lost something, and it was visible to the naked eye, she’d say “If it were a snake, it would bite you!” But if you looked for the item, and no one could find it, she’d joke: “I saw seven guys running down Heights Road with it!” (Heights Road was the street I grew up on).

I find myself using these expressions regularly now. Each time I do so, my face brightens with her memory.

If you’ve lost someone close to you, how do you invoke their presence in your daily life? Please share in the comments section.

The Personality Traits We Inherit From Our Parents

tennis racket

tennis racketOne of the beautiful aspects of losing someone you love is that people send you their memories of that person. When a friend from high school learned that my mother had died, she shared that news with her own mother, who played tennis with my mom for years. My friend shared this story via email:

One time our mothers were playing on a way back court. They see your father approaching. He strode past all the courts straight through to the one where our mothers were playing, lifted the latch and came onto the court. He had several ties hanging around his neck and called out, “Daryl! Which one should I wear?” Apparently, he had a big court appearance and wanted to look just right.

The vignette captured my parents’ respective personalities – and the dynamic underlying their 50-year marriage – beautifully. My mother was the brains behind the operation and the one who made sure the trains ran on time. My Dad brought the charm and unpredictability.

Behavioral Styles

This story got me thinking – again – about personality types. One of most popular workshops I deliver to corporate clients focuses on communication styles. The model draws on the  work of two psychologists – Robert and Dorothy Grover Bolton – and their model of “behavioral  styles.”
Bolton & Bolton argue that two main dimensions can explain and predict how people behave: assertiveness and responsiveness.
Assertiveness is the degree to which people’s behavior is seen as forceful and directive.  Responsiveness is the degree to which people are seen as showing emotions or demonstrating sensitivity.
The two dimensions yield four resultant “people styles”: quick to action but less demonstrative is the Driver type – these are the “Get it done, damn it!” types. Bold and impulsive, but also charismatic are the Expressive types. These folks are the life of the party. Less assertive but deeply empathetic are the Amiable types – your classic “people people.” And finally, thorough and detailed, but emotionally reserved, are the Analytical types.
In a professional context, the model is meant to help you identify your own type, appreciate how others may see you and – crucially – learn how flex your style so that you can get along effectively with different types you encounter at work. From a personal standpoint, what I find interesting about this model is how perfectly I can place my parents into two of those boxes. My mother was your classic Driver:  highly organised, efficient and action-oriented, but at times practical to a fault. My father was a vintage Expressive: an enthusiastic storyteller who connected with people easily, but couldn’t keep track of details.
I’m right on the line between the two types: organized and logical on the one hand, but lively and voluble on the other.  I’ve written before about how my current portfolio career as a communications consultant suits me well for psychological reasons: it combines the pragmatic trouble-shooter of the editor, with the animated cheerleader of the coach. But until my friend sent me the story about the tennis court, I’d never linked this dichotomy back to my parents.

When I shared this insight with another friend of mine, he concurred. He’s worked for nearly two decades in assorted senior roles in a global financial services company. A couple of years ago, he started coaching younger colleagues in the company on the side, and he now leads the company’s talent development division. As he explained it:

“My mother was a school teacher who once told me that she loves nothing more than seeing a child develop. After business school, my father took a job with Yellow Freight in Kansas City where he worked for about 25 years.  He was a company man… very loyal and got a lot of his value through his contribution at work.
While the links to my father were apparent early in my professional career, the links to my mother were a little more subtle.  Over time though, I realize that working with individuals on my team and helping them develop is what provided me the most reward.  In some ways, my most recent role has consummated that professional marriage between my mother and father.”
What our parents leave us 

I wrote recently about the things our parents give us when they die. (In my case, this amounted to a life-long love of writing and a bottle of instant decaffeinated coffee, among other treasures.) But we take other things forward as well: who they were as people and how those traits embed themselves within us.

As I settle into a prolonged stage of reflection – and grief – over the deaths of both of my parents, I take comfort not only in their memories, but in how they live on within me.

Image: Tennis Racket and Balls via Wikimedia Commons

What My Mother Left Me When She Died

flowers in a vase

flowers in a vaseI lost my mother recently. It wasn’t to Covid19, thank goodness. But it was very sudden. Because of the virus, I was not able to make a planned trip to spend Easter with her this year. Indeed, and like so many other families who have lost a parent in the last few months, none of her four children were able to see her during the last few months of her life.

What I Notice

When you lose someone you love, memories of them resurface when you least expect it. Some friends here in London sent me some beautiful flowers when they heard of my mother’s death. As I went to change the water one day, I found myself reaching for the sugar bowl. My mother always told me that if you changed the water on flowers every day – and added a teaspoon of sugar – the flowers would live longer. She was full of practical, everyday wisdom like that.

Then my husband opened our pantry and noticed a jar of instant decaffeinated coffee lurking in one of the back corners. The bottle was a holdover from my mother’s last visit some two and a half years ago, the last time she was able to travel alone. I don’t think either one of us ever actually clocked that jar before. It had blended into the obscure architecture of the back cupboard, along with other, long-neglected items like a bottle of yeast extract and a can of Brunswick Canadian Style sardines.

Suddenly, that jar was all we could see. Neither one of us could bring ourselves to throw it out, even though there is no way on God’s earth that either one of us will ever drink instant coffee in this lifetime.

Rituals and Values

Another thing that happens when a parent dies is that you begin to appreciate all the myriad ways you’ve begun adopting their idiosyncratic habits. Ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about five ways I was turning into my mother. These included things like carrying a large library book with me everywhere I go, lest things get dull…doing extensive back exercises every morning, much to the chagrin of my teenaged children…and re-purposing everything I possibly can to save money, including – yes – tea bags.

That list of shared behaviors has grown. When my mother moved from the last house she owned into a small apartment in an independent living facility, she could only bring one bookshelf. A voracious reader (see library books, above), she had amassed an impressive collection of novels, history and plays over the course of a lifetime. But she chose to bring only poetry with her to her new home. I’ve never read poetry in my life. A few months ago, I started reading it too.

I’ve also begun replicating her values. My mother became active in the League of Women Voters when, as a young mother with four children, she moved to a new town where she didn’t know anyone. That political commitment carried on for the next 50 years. Right up into her mid-80’s, she was still making phone calls for her local congressional candidate of choice.

I’ve never been particularly politically active, save attending the odd protest here and there and supporting causes I believe in on social media. This year, I joined a team of virtual volunteers leading the charge to get out the vote among Americans living overseas.

The Gift of Writing

The greatest gift my mother gave me – and certainly the one with the longest staying power – was teaching me how to write. My mother wrote plays, children’s stories and a terrific family history I’ve had occasion to re-read in the wake of her death. When I was in high school, she would sit with me for hours and go over my essays, advising me on structure, wording and tone. Everything I know about writing I learned from her.

When I took some time off years ago to work on a novel, she sent me a poem about writing, which I posted on my blog. It was partly a poem about resilience: about falling down and getting back up, which is, of course, what writing is all about. It was also about how much we feel is riding on those words. But it was also about mothers and daughters, and how we connect through the shared struggle of writing…and life.

I end this post with the closing verse of that poem, called The Writer by Richard Wilbur:

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Image: Dahlias in a vase via Pxfuel

This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

 

Mourning the Death of a Parent: A Poem

woods

woodsNothing drives home the reality of adulthood quite so clearly as the death of a parent.

My mother passed away last Wednesday. It was her 89th birthday.

Shortly after my father died 11 years ago, a friend sent me the following poem to comfort me during this loss.

Today, in my mother’s honor, I again share that poem with you:

In Blackwater Woods

–          Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blur shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what it its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Image: Woods-Trees-Forest-the edge of by Guangyanggluo via Pixabay

Dating in Later Life…for Friends

friendship

friendshipI went on a date recently. No, I wasn’t cheating on my husband. I was meeting a friend of a friend for coffee.

Much like real “set-ups,” I put this one off for a long time. Our mutual friend had introduced us months ago. And while I periodically emailed this woman – and she me – to try and find a convenient place and date, neither one of us really put much effort into it. The meeting languished on my “long” To Do list, falling somewhere between “polish silver jewelry” and “figure out religion.”

And then, one day, when I was scrolling through my email, I came across her name and thought: “What the heck?”

Finding Your Type

I’ve written before about how hard it can be to find your “type” when you’re dating for friends in adulthood.

On the surface, this lady I eventually met up with had everything going for her: she was a psycho-therapist (and we all know how I love a good therapist), she specialises in mid-life transitions (Hello!) and she was Jewish (Nuff’ said).

But, of course, people can look great on paper and still be total duds in real life. (I once went on a date with a guy in DC who seemed like reasonable enough boyfriend material, but who then spent the entire evening telling me how he’d been been listed as one of Washington’s 100 most powerful people. Right after telling me his salary and his work-out regime.) Blech.

Not so here. Within half an hour, this therapist and I began jointly analyzing the link between my being the youngest of four children and how that affects my attitudes towards my own kids’ sibling rivalry.

I knew I’d found my people. By the time we ordered our second pot of fresh mint tea, I was in love.

Why Real Life Friendships Matter

In the hyper-connected world which we all inhabit these days, it’s easy to fall back on virtual friends.  I, myself, have made loads of friends Online over the years. Some of those friendships have now claimed a seat at the table on my personal Board of Directors. Others are people I simply enjoy catching up with from time to time on Facebook.

But the internet can’t yield the sort of benefits that derive from close, real-life friendships. Research shows that having robust, diverse social relationships can have a host of wellness benefits, including longevity, happiness and professional success.

And it’s not just close friends who matter, either. The New York Times recently published an article on the importance of loose ties. The thrust of the article was that by cultivating low-level friendships at places we frequent – whether churches, bars or PTA meetings – we become less lonely and more empathetic. These “low stakes” friendships are also a fantastic source of recommendations for everything from hair salons to accountants.

The Value of Friendship

In a compelling column in 2014, New York Times columnist David Brooks declared that if someone magically gave him $500 million, he’d use it to foster adult friendships. His vision was sort of like a giant summer camp, composed of grown-ups drawn from all different backgrounds. Brooks believes that having close friends helps you make better decisions, adhere to a higher standard of behavior, and – ultimately – be more authentic.

I’m totally with him. I’m not sure I’ve got the cash right now to go to camp. But I do know that I need to keep putting myself out there, meeting new people, and soldering old ties.

In the meantime, I’m having dinner next month with my new Bestie. She’s bringing her husband and I’m bringing mine.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll become friends too.

Image: Backlit Dawn Foggy Friendship by Helen Lopes via Pexels

How to Live Forever: Book Review

inter-generational learning

inter-generational learningAt first blush, I didn’t think a book entitled  How to Live Forever was for me.  I was expecting a hard sell on a new killer vitamin that would add years to my life…gene therapy that could prevent chronic disease…botox for the brain. That sort of thing.

As with many books, however, the book’s main message is revealed in its sub-title: “The enduring power of connecting the generations.” The author, Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, wants us to understand that we live in an age-segregated society, one where housing, labour markets, education and pensions policy combine to separate the old from the young. This “age apartheid” is not only out of step with current demographic trends, he argues, but down-right counter-productive:  It impedes the happiness of individuals, who benefit enormously from these cross-generational relationships, and it limits progress on a host of social ills.

Read the rest of this post over on the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Image: Art and Feminism NYC Generations via Wikimedia Commons

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Women and Money: Crowdsourcing Financial Advice

stock market

stock marketI was on Facebook recently when a former colleague who has just started a new job jumped in with a query about investment portfolios.

“I need advice on stock-picking strategies,” she wrote on her wall. “I want to feel more in control of my finances.”

Within minutes, a whole bunch of us who’d worked with her had glommed onto this thread. Turns out, she wasn’t alone. Several of us – seeing the cusp of retirement in the not too distant future – had taken a sudden interest in managing our money more wisely.

At some point several comments in, someone in the thread suggested that if my colleague was able to obtain the answer to this question, she could share it with the rest of us over drinks. (We’d pick up the tab.)

And then someone else had this brilliant idea: Why don’t we make a deal where one of us is put in charge of making these sorts of vital, grown-up decisions for the entire group on a six-month, rotating basis?

And just like that, the “Designated Adult” (DA) Club was born.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Stock Market Indices by Karsten Reuss via Flickr

Should Marriage Have a Sell-By Date?

Sell By Date

Sell By DateIn the months leading up to our wedding some 20 years ago, my husband and I had a series of meetings with the priest and the rabbi who were to preside jointly over our ceremony. These weren’t exactly pre-cana classes – more like a series of “getting-to-know” you sessions – but they were thought-provoking all the same.

We got a lot of good advice from our respective officiants. The Rabbi leaned in and told us that the secret to a good wedding wasn’t the food, but the music. He then proceeded to recommend a band from the South Side of Chicago called The Gentlemen of Leisure which he assured us would rock the house. The priest, for his part, counseled us that we should never go to bed angry.

Both kernels of wisdom turned out to be true. But something else the priest said has also stuck with me through the years: “In my opinion, it’s far too easy to get married in this country and far too difficult to get divorced.”

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Seal Best Before Date Black Rotated via Wikimedia Commons

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips For Staying Monogamous

sandy ring

sandy ringhave a friend who is thinking about having an affair. He loves his wife, and they have two lovely kids. But in an ideal world, he would like to conduct his sex life outside of the marriage. Needless to say, he’s torn about this impulse, and has yet to take any concrete steps, but he has verbalized his desires to me and a couple of other close friends.

Whatever you think about that arrangement – or more importantly, whatever his wife thinks (!) – his very honest and open attempt to grapple with his feelings reminded me, once again, why monogamy is such a difficult ideal to uphold, even in the best of circumstances.

For those of you who recognize this as a real problem – in your own marriages or among those you are close to – here are five tips for maintaining a monogamous relationship:

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50:

Image: Sandy ring by Derek Gavey via Flickr

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways to Cultivate Gratitude in Daily Life

thank you card

thank you cardOn occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

So it’s that time of year: the time when we make resolutions. A few years back, I decided that rather than set specific, time-bound goals for myself each year, I would embrace a annual concept. One year it was slow living. Another year it was authenticity.

This year my concept is gratitude.

A lot has been written about the putative health benefits of gratitude: it’s great for making friends…feeling less envious…even sleeping better.

I buy that. I know that I always feel better when I’ve thanked someone for something they’ve done or when they’ve acknowledged me for a good deed.

Where I fall down is remembering to do this on a regular basis.

Here are five quick and easy ways to build gratitude into your daily life:

a. Start a Gratitude Journal. I’ve read about gratitude journals for ages and I know some people swear by them. The concept is really simple: at the end of the day, you set aside 15 minutes to write down everything you are thankful for in that day. It could be a person, your health, a specific event. It doesn’t matter. The point is to focus on things that made you happy that day and to reflect on why they made you happy. I’ve never actually done an actual journal per se (I have too many other journals in my life!), but the Headspace mindfulness app I use every morning is a really useful tool for cultivating gratitude. Many of the series there ask you to begin your meditation by asking yourself who you are doing the meditation for – i.e. who will benefit from your personal reflection on anger/stress/fill-in-the-blank? There is also a stream specifically designed to cultivate appreciation that also asks you to write things down.

b. Ask your spouse/partner what you can do for them today. I love this idea. I’m stealing it from Richard Paul Evans who wrote a now-viral blog post about how he saved his marriage by choosing one day to put aside whatever anger and frustration he was feeling towards his wife and instead ask a simple question: “How can I make your life better?” At first, he found himself cleaning the garage and attending to other household chores she wanted help with. Over time, however, they both started asking each other this question each morning and their relationship improved immeasurably as they realized what they most wanted and needed to do was spend more time together.

c. Praise your kid for a very specific act. As a parent, it can be hard to resist the temptation to constantly coach your kids. It’s very easy to notice what they’re doing wrong or not well enough, rather than what they do right. And before you know it, you’re treating them more like a project to fix, rather than as human being. If you’ve ever gone to a parenting seminar on how to induce good behaviour from young children, they’ll tell you to heap praise on anything they do right in very specific terms. But it’s also good advice if you’ve got teenagers. Don’t just say – “Hey thanks for cleaning up” say: “Thank you so much for putting your dishes in the dishwasher after dinner; that really helps me out after a busy day.” The specificity of the praise is much more likely to resonate than criticizing them for not also doing the pots and pans!

d. Give your colleague a thank you card. When I left my job last summer, one of my colleagues gave me a thank you card to thank me for all that she’d learned from me on the job as well as for my friendship. I was truly bowled over. It’s completely natural to give someone a “good bye” card when they go but a “thank you” card is actually that much more special because it is a really easy, personal way to thank someone for the impact they had on you. Going forward, I’m going to do this whenever I say good-bye to someone.

e. Recognize people on Social Media. If you’re on it, social media can be a great place to give a shout out to people – particularly strangers -and give them public recognition. Part of this is inherent in sharing someone else’s blog post and explaining why you liked it. But there are other. more specific ways of showing gratitude Online. On Twitter, for example, you can use the hashtag #followfriday (#FF) to list people whom you follow and think others ought to follow and (ideally) *why* you followed them. There are also specific hashtags like #tuesdayblogs where you share blog posts that champion someone else’s book. It’s a lovely  as a way of expressing gratitude to strangers.

What other simple ways of expressing gratitude in your life have you found and how do they make you feel?

Image: Support List Thank You Card by Andrew Steele via Flickr