“You won’t like it…”
“I really want one please, it sounds so good!”
“I just think you’re not going to like it…”
“I think I will!”
My daughter and I are having an intense conversation about the unfortunately named Red Velvet Latte at Dunkin Donuts. She feels this sounds delicious and nothing I can tell her will persuade her that this is actually a coffee drink that will you know, taste like coffee. At 14, Liza is at the stage of liking the idea of coffee, even flirting with drinking coffee by consuming concoctions that may have coffee somewhere far down on the ingredients list but are really closer to hot chocolates or milkshakes. My warnings that this deliciously named Red Velvet Latte will not, in fact, be like drinking a cupcake fall on deaf ears.
The drink is purchased and we pull away from the drive up and head home. The first sip is taken. Silence. I drive. A second sip, a wrinkled face and a slight shudder follow. I drive. Silence. “It has a strong um…aftertaste,” she finally admits. “Like coffee?” I ask? A sigh and silence answers me. Then, an outburst: “This latte is like my life!” she exclaims, “I keep thinking I’m going to like certain things and then when I try them they’re not what I think they’re going to be at all!”
Planted squarely between the safe excitement of middle schoolers entering the teenage years and the effortless sophistication of 16 or 17-year old high schoolers, life as a 14-year old Freshman can seem a minefield of decisions large and small from which language to study to where to sit at lunch. And from the painful decision to say goodbye to ten years of dance study to allow for more time for theater and extracurricular activities to the choice of a homecoming dress. Every option is scrutinized, studied and discussed. All the possible outcomes are weighed and more than a few tears are shed. Everything seems monumental when you’re fourteen, even a red velvet latte.
I continue to drive, wondering if I should say something and risk making the situation worse. It had been a rough week for us in mother-daughter land. My four months of rich acting work (back-to-back shows with two of the best parts I’ve ever played) came to a close and I was left feeling as though I’d had a limb amputated. I missed my rehearsal process, I missed my cast-mates from both shows, I missed my characters, I was restless and grumpy at 7_30 each night, and the coming year loomed in front of me with the near 100% certain knowledge that no acting work was out there for me. (On a tangential note, I’m ready to declare a moratorium on casting notices that only feature parts for 20-30 year olds, but I digress). My family was thrilled that I was “home” and that our lives could return to some semblance of normality, yet I was at odds with everyone and everything. It was not my finest hour, and it was made all the more difficult by a certain 14-year-old’s inability to see that I was, as I reminded her in a fit of pique, “an actual person, with actual feelings.” To say I was testy with her dramatics was an understatement. But since she had to put up with my moods it was only fair I put up with hers.
So, I took a deep breath (when you parent a teenage girl, I highly recommend a cleansing deep breath before saying anything… seriously…anything), and I told her sometimes that’s what happens when we take a chance. Sometimes the latte doesn’t taste good. Sometimes we burn our tongue. And that it doesn’t mean that the latte won’t taste delicious in a few years when her taste buds have acclimated to coffee. (Although between you and me I still have doubts about this whole Red Velvet flavor). Just as toddlers stubbornly insist, “do it myself!” teenagers have to find out for themselves as well what fits them, what suits them, and what challenges them. She took a chance, and while the outcome wasn’t what she had hoped, she still took that risk, the same way she took the risk to run for class office, to audition for a new show, to speak up in class at a time when girls her age fall notoriously silent, to be herself, to be this loud, goofy, slightly klutzy, thoughtful, stubborn, emotional tempest, without sacrificing her self on the altar of teenage conformity. In that stupid Red Velvet Latte I suddenly understood all that she had been feeling, and just as I had implored her to see me as a real person, it was incumbent upon me to do the same.
I thought back to my own Red Velvet Latte moments, the risks that paid off and the ones that didn’t. I thought back to my parents who never said, “don’t bother,” but instead said, “Well, try it and see!” I thought about my wife who pushed and pushed me to audition for a role I was certain I’d never get and who never stopped beaming with delight from the moment I was cast to the moment I took my final bow – even amidst all that she sacrificed so I could shine. And I thought about a line from one of my favorite Sondheim songs, “The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not.” At 14 every choice is fraught with peril and potential. At 47, it’s not much different. But still we choose and still we risk, for the alternative — stasis — is simply unbearable.
We are much alike, my girl and I, full of big feelings, and deep currents of emotion that can cloud our reason and elevate simple things to critical importance. And as we mirror each other, we are often impatient with each other, unwilling to see our similarities even as they stare us in the face. Maybe the next time I find us at odds with each other, clashing over little things and biting back our tears, I’ll take another deep breath and ask her if she wants to take a break and share a latte, and try again.
It’s time. Each holiday season for the past 23 years I’ve wrestled with loss, with absence, with the feeling of someone missing. First my dad, then my sister, then my mom — each gone, each take from me at holiday time. Each leaving a place that never ever seems to be filled. For the past few years Thanksgiving has been a day of quiet reflection, of stillness in a house alone (waiting for Kelly to get home from work and go to a friend’s for dinner), of mentally preparing myself for the onslaught of holiday memories that greet me at every turn each year. Memories of holiday dinners mixed with memories of funerals. Thanksgiving was a day to face the ghosts.
This year I set them free.
This year my day is spent with Liza for the first time in over a decade, an occurrence that has me grinning from ear to ear. She puts up with my spontaneous hugs, I put up with her need to cuddle on the couch and look at the sale papers for Black Friday. We went to Thanksgiving Mass and then returned home to eat Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls and watch the Macy’s parade… just like I used to with my family growing up. In a few hours Kelly will be home, we’ll gather our contributions to June’s annual Thanksgiving feast and head out to celebrate with dear friends. This year I’m not lonely and I’m not sad.
At Mass this morning I said prayers for my family as I always do and turned to look at Liza. This tall young woman, with lashes so long they touch her glasses frames looked back at me, and my heart caught with an indescribable fullness. Ten years ago I flew to my sister’s funeral on Thanksgiving. Today I see her in my daughter’s eyes and I know as sure as I know my own name it’s time to let her go. To let go of that holiday ache that surrounds her memory and the memories of my parents. It’s time to set the ghosts free.
I do so with the total understanding of how much I have to be thankful for in this life I lead and that it’s time for gratitude for the gifts I have to overshadow the pain of the gifts I’ve lost. For all that fills my life I give thanks. Especially for:
My wife Kelly who loves me, understands me, supports me, stands up for me, cheers for me, cooks for me, holds me, challenges me, teases me, laughs with and at me, shares my heart, my life, my past, and my future.
My daughter Liza who seems taller and more beautiful every day, who rolls her eyes at me, calls out for me, texts me, hugs me, needs me, lets me borrow her perfume, advises me on eye makeup, laughs at and with me, helps me, challenges me, and fills my heart with a pride that bursts out of every fiber of my being.
My best friend Joe, whose morning phone calls light up my day, who shares a history with me that can never be replicated, who is proud of me even as his own accomplishments eclipse any I could hope for, and who always knows the exact right thing to say.
My friend June who has opened her home to us on every holiday, who hosted our wedding, who never ceases to check in, and who is without a doubt, our famiy.
My friends who put up with my sarcasm and snark and who aren’t afraid to call me on the carpet for it. Even at 47, I know there is room to grow and I’m thankful they remind me of that when I need it.
My friends from high school and college who have stayed with me all these years.
My theater family who wrapped me in a web of support and love as I tackled the toughest role of my career, whose belief in me is still astonishing to me, and who give me a sense of home and belonging that humbles me.
For friends who honor me with the gift of their confidences, who reach out for support during their own tough times. For they allow me to carry on my mother’s legacy of one who always had an open door, a ready ear, and a steady shoulder for a friend in need. I don’t know what I did to deserve the trust of so many people but it is a gift and a honor I take seriously.
For my extended family of in-laws who have finally given me that big family I always wanted, and who have welcomed me and Liza with open arms.
For amazing gains for families like mine who are inching ever closer to full equality.
For a new Pope whose humility, straight talk, and open heart has made me feel welcome in my faith for the first time in years.
For my big brother Patrick, who, in his own way, has never stopped looking out for me and who figured out how to text so he could check in with his baby sister now and then.
For the memory of my sister Marie, who taught me about makeup, Danielle Steele novels, White Russians and General Hospital, about how to write a resume, how to flirt, how to be a mom, and how to say goodbye with grace.
For the foundation that Joe and Mary Youngs laid for their three children on an island in Maine, one of love, honesty, service, liberal politics, show tunes, chips and dip, summers at the beach, scrabble games, and thank you notes. A legacy that endures in me and my brother, in Liza, and in my nephews.
This year is different. No tears. No ache. Just peace. The ghosts are gone. It’s time now to make some squash, pack the wine, pick out an outfit and share a dinner of thanks with my friends.. and my family.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Like most of us, I grew up in a small town. Falmouth, Maine was a town of contradictions. Kids whose families were members of the yacht club, who lived in sprawling stately homes on the water, who spent winter breaks skiing at Killington or “the Loaf” and summer out on their boats. These kids went to school with those who lived ‘out to the power lines,’ who showed their livestock at the Cumberland County Fair each year, who went to Pit Parties, kids who lived a life much further from the wealth on the water than the reality of the modest distance that separated their homes. And in between were the middle class kids who grew up on modest but comfortable homes on the ‘flats’ or Middle Road. Our early years kept us separated by a system of small grade schools assigned to our geographical area. Then, in fourth grade, we all collided in our big shiny new elementary school and realized that our town was bigger than our little neighborhoods had let us to believe. And for the remaining eight years of our time together we formed friendships, acquaintances, and learned to come together as a class. For many of us, the ties that bound us to Falmouth chafed and hurt. We knew we were different, ready for more, ready to get out. And we did. Even if we didn’t go further than the next town or the next state we flew from Falmouth and the memories it held. I flew from a lifetime of taunts that made the fat girl cry. From the reputation as the “smart girl” the “good girl” the “nerd.” And with me I carried my secret of who I really was, a secret I couldn’t and didn’t face until well into my thirties.
We left. We grew. We married. We had families. We became success stories. We divorced. We became grandparents. We failed. We tried again. Some of us stayed and built lives in Falmouth seeing children occupy the same classrooms, hallways, baseball fields, and gymnasiums that we had. Those of us that left returned for holidays, for weddings, funerals, an occasional class reunion, to visit our parents, and, for some of us, to bury our parents. Every time my car made the journey across the Martin’s Point Bridge, I’d turn my gaze to the right, to the island where my home had stood, and I’d battle with a mix of emotions. The voice insisting I was “home” fought against the voice urging me to get in and out as fast as I could so I could return to my ‘real’ life. Falmouth. Complicated, beautiful, Falmouth, always calling me home and then pushing me away.
The first summer that I was dating Kelly I brought her to Portland for a romantic weekend and to show her my old stomping grounds. She’d heard me complain about my small town and how eager I’d been to escape it, and, as we drove through town on our way to my mother’s apartment she looked at me and said “you realize you grew up in paradise right? Someday I’ll show you the alley in Lawrence where I grew up and then you’ll realize how lucky you were.” I scoffed at her, telling her she didn’t really understand and left it at that. Then we pulled into my mother’s place and went inside and I saw the ghost of my father in her face. I walked outside, looked at Kelly and said “my mother has cancer.” For the next four years I would drive again and again to Falmouth to take my mother to doctors appointments; to sleep in her bed while she lay in the ICU of Mercy Hospital; to close up her apartment when it became clear she’d never come home; to plan her funeral; and finally the spring after she died to lay her to rest next to my father in the thawed ground of Pine Grove Cemetery – right across the street from where my brother and sister had gone to grade school. A few days before her funeral, after making arrangements with our parish church, Kelly and I went to Skillin’s greenhouse to order flowers. I sat down across from one of the Skillins who had gone to school with my brother. We instantly launched into that most Falmouth of conversations “which of my siblings was in your class?” and “were you at FHS with my brother or my sister?” The fact that we weren’t really friends in high school didn’t matter. We had a shared history that had to be examined and honored before the business could commence. After we were done I turned to Kelly and said simply, “ Falmouth.”
This week my class lost one of our own. Lisa died suddenly and tragically and far, far too young. The news travelled the way most news travels these days, through Facebook, where most of my small class remains connected in a polite and cordial way. I was stunned and shaken by her passing. I remembered her home and her birthday parties. I remembered her mom’s ceramic studio and the mug she had made for Lisa to give me one Christmas – it had my name on it and a silly green frog at the bottom that gradually appeared as the mug emptied. I still have it. I remembered Lisa in high school, skinny with dark hair and big eyes. Our paths didn’t cross much but in a class of barely 90 kids it was impossible not to see everyone every day. I remembered sitting near her when we graduated — me, Alison, Lisa and Ann – - the four tallest girls in the class sitting on the top row on the hottest night of the summer of 1984. Getting ready to leave Falmouth.
A few years ago, when I reconnected with Lisa and most of my classmates on Facebook, I was amazed at how similar we were politically. How much we had in common. I was touched by her messages of support when I announced my marriage, and the way she was always one of the first people to “like” my status updates. Once we messaged each other regretting the fact we didn’t realize 30, 35, 40 years ago how much we had in common. “If only we knew then what we know now,” she had said. How true.
When Lisa passed this week I watched something remarkable happen on the pages of Facebook. My classmates, and those in classes ahead of and after me, expressed their sadness, sent wishes of sympathy, and almost to a one said something about their hearts and minds being in Falmouth during this sad time. Facebook messages and posts flew back and forth as the news spread and I saw something happening. We were no longer those kids who had chafed against restrictive labels, the kids who bore the scars of teasing, or who still lived the past glories of high school stardom. True, now we were adults but more than that we were Falmouth. And one of our own was gone.
With both my parents gone, the reasons to return to Falmouth are few and far between. But now when I think of my hometown my heart does tug a little and I think soon I will need to plan a trip back there, even if only for a day. To visit my folks where they rest; to stop at Shaw’s for a bottle of wine and the chance to run into someone I know; to say a prayer for my family at Holy Martyrs; to buy a cup of coffee at Town Landing Market; to drive out to West Falmouth to take a look at what I will always think of as the “new” high school; to see if I can find my best friend’s house from memory only; and to stop for a moment at the spot on the island where we scattered my sister’s ashes; to remember Lisa, to remember all of us - the kids we once were and the adults we’ve become, and to let myself enjoy what it means to be in Falmouth. To be home.