dear anna . . . a letter to a friend who has passed away

the heavens


Dear Anna,

I can only guess at how things are where you are–either  a heavenly paradise or a deep void or something else entirely that our small, living, human brains cannot even conjure up. I hope from wherever you are and whatever your reality now is that you can see what goes on in the life you left behind—well, the good things, anyway. But if you can’t (and, yes, I think you can), let me fill you in.

Your two daughters have grown into amazing young women. When you left them, they were just fifteen and a day shy of fourteen years old. They were at the beginning of high school, a time no parent should miss, a time in which no daughter should be without her mother, but left you did by no fault of your own. No matter how hard you clawed at this world, grasping at branches that turned into rootless twigs, reaching for crevices in boulders that crumbled at your fingertips, you could not stay here. A bigger mission, I’d like to think, awaited you on the other side, something so amazing that we could never quite understand the why of it, but it needed to happen even if it meant separating you from the only loves you knew.

I keep in touch with your girls by text or email. Brian and I see them several times a year, to celebrate their birthdays and during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break times. Your older girl is now in college. And a good one at that! She is a freshman at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo (or Cal Poly SLO, as we call it), in that school’s top-rated engineering program. She lives near campus (yep, she is no longer at home full-time) and has made a bunch of friends. She plans to become a civil engineer, like her dad, and she has worked hard to do just what you expected of her: get into a good school and work hard toward a great career.

Your younger, more social and daring child, will be graduating high school in June already. She has high hopes of becoming a doctor, in part (but mostly) because of you. She felt helpless not understanding what you were going through. Studying your illness gave her strength and opened her eyes to how difficult an end you endured. Her grades are excellent. She got into every single UC school, and she should be on her way toward her career in a few short months.

Your husband is plugging away at work, missing you terribly, and looking forward to the day when the pain won’t be so bad. As hard as he fought to keep you here, he is trying at least that hard to forge a new life without you.

And the rest of us? I, for one, don’t go a single day without thinking of you. You were such a huge part of my life, and you continue to fill my thoughts. I think of the good times we had, like shooting the breeze while cracking crab legs at a buffet, and the difficult ones too, seeing you endure another demoralizing chemo treatment, listening to you describe how you could literally feel your life slipping away from you, “like my energy is leaving my body,” you’d say. And I knew just what you meant.

I think of you when the good times roll, like when the family and I are on vacation, or I am out with your girls celebrating a birthday lunch, and when life is not so spectacular. You actually help me get through the crappy stuff, you’ll be happy to know, because I always think, “Gosh, what Anna wouldn’t do to have to pay for a huge car repair or to have a migraine if it meant being here with her family one more day.” The small stuff is just that. But what you went through, my, that’s the big event we all fear.

I still work from home in my editing career, but now that I don’t have any minor children here needing me daily for rides or moral support, I took a job in a library, where I can be around some of the inanimate things I most love: books. I don’t see my old gang of friends much at all any more. Also free of young children, they’ve gotten on with their lives and have taken jobs that have shrunk their free time but have given them a sense of purpose that had been on hold. I wonder what you would be doing now, without having to devote so much time to the kids.

Time certainly moves, on and I have made some new friends at work. There are so many nice people at the library, and I’ve become quite close to a few of them, close enough, in fact, that I’ve told them about you. I just wish the story I tell of you had a different ending. I still am too busy for my own good and would love to see things settle down  so I can just get to stuff I want to do instead of stuff I think I have to do. I’m bringing in a little more money (and I stress the “little”), but because I’m home less often, some of the household projects that we talked about my wanting to get to years ago, go unaccomplished even now. I still can’t seem to get the nerve to hire someone to come in and do some of the stuff I don’t have time to get to. Some things never change, I suppose—like the ratty living room furniture that I spend money on covering with slipcovers but should just replace.

So, as you can see, dear Anna, life goes on pretty much as it was but in bigger and bolder ways. Life is pretty good for all of us, with one thing lacking. And I’m pretty sure you know what that is.




if you don’t see yourself in lady bird, you never were an american teenager…or her parent

lady bird and marion

                                  Lady Bird  (Saoirse Ronan) and Marion (Laurie Metcalf) 
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is impetuous, impressed by popularity, self-absorbed, and at times mean-spirited. In other words, she’s a typical modern-day American teen. If you don’t see yourself in Lady Bird, the nominal character in the Greta Gerwig-written and -directed movie, you may see yourself in her good-girl best friend Julie, or in mean-girl and popular Jenna, or pessimistic but privileged Kyle, or secretly gay Danny,  or as her parents…or all of the above. Because what Lady Girl doesn’t do is  people. What it does do–and wonderfully so–is take a pretty ordinary girl and view her struggles in her world and her family’s world and her school and give an accurate encapsulation of what life is like in these United States, circa the early 2000s, though it could be anytime in America.

When I was in school, I wasn’t a Lady Bird. I was a Julie, the nice girl, who’s a good student, well-behaved and shy, and not at all worldly. I was the sidekick. If Lady Bird characterized herself as living “on the wrong side of the tracks,” Julie lived even farther from the tracks as her friend and, unlike Lady Bird, who felt the world owed her something, Julie chose to accept the world, as unfair as it can be at times, and live within the boundaries set by it. Julie was a much better student than Lady Bird, but Julie ends up at the local community college, while Lady Bird sets her sights on an upper-scale East Coast liberal arts school.

As much as I can relate to Julie, the character I see myself as today, however, isn’t either of the two girls; it’s Lady Bird’s mother, Marion McPherson. I am not sure there’s been a character in any movie I’ve ever seen who doesn’t resemble me more because she resembles many moms. And what’s really interesting is that my elder daughter, who was coming of age at about the same time as Lady Bird is in the movie, told me that she saw herself in Lady Bird and, equally so, me in Marion, whose name, by the way, I had to look up on IMDb because in the movie it’s rarely, if ever, spoken. Why? Presumably because Marion is above all else “Mom.”

Marion is the hardworking, loyal, and at-times angry and put-upon Everymom, handling double shifts to pick up the slack while her husband loses his job and the family struggles financially. She lives in a basic, boring, circa 1970s-furnished house, but has a hobby of checking out open houses just to ooh and aah at the beautiful homes that are within driving distance but still way out of reach for her. Teens, including Lady Bird, sometimes feel (maybe oftentimes feel?) as though their parents’ world–where they live, what they drive–is what it is because that’s who they are, that’s how they want it to be, that’s what they made it, not realizing that dreams become deferred and desires are put on hold when raising a family. Think back to your teenage-hood and tell me you didn’t feel that way about your parents, that they just didn’t get it. Now come into the modern world and tell me everything is exactly as you always wanted it to be. See? This movie hits a cord.

I love Marion. I am Marion, the martyr Marion who comes home from a double shift in the morning and slaves away to make her family a decent breakfast only to be told the eggs are too runny; the frank Marion who is honest with her daughter, letting her know that of course she deserves to have her (selfish) dreams, but at the same time should be more aware of her family’s circumstances; the victimized Marion who sends her daughter to a pricey Catholic school because the local public school is unsafe only to have her daughter pull a stunt that gets her expelled for a few days; the misunderstood Marion who has a good heart (we see it many times) but comes off as the bad guy and in a constant struggle to keep the family afloat.

This movie is not heavy-handed at all and it doesn’t dumb down. There aren’t good guys versus bad guys because there’s a little good and bad in all of us.


brad’s status–a lot of us can relate, i’m sure

brad's statusWe might all learn a thing or two from the new film Brad’s Status. The movie explores middle-class discontent and the way comparing ourselves with others in this world of ubiquitous reminders via Facebook posts and Instagram stories can drive us to be miserable, when most of us are way more fortunate than we think and maybe more than we deserve.

In the movie, the middle-class Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) contemplates/overthinks what he deems to be his boring, unassuming life. On first look, Brad has it pretty good. He runs a nonprofit and his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), is likable, smart, and has a decent, busy career herself. His son, Troy (Austin Abrams), is not only a good kid, but bright enough and musically talented enough to be applying to and interviewing with top-notch East Coast universities, including Harvard. Brad lives in a tidy Craftsman home in a nice neighborhood of medium-sized Sacramento, California. So, what’s not to like about all that? Let’s ask Brad.

The audience learns through Brad’s voice overs just how unhappy he is. To Brad, his life pales in comparison to his college buddies’, one a successful movie producer featured in Architectural Digest for his lavish home; another a hedge-fund owner with an equally wealthy wife, four blond, rambunctious kids, and one private jet; a third who made it big in the dot-com craze and is now retired and living with two young girlfriends in Maui; and a fourth who is a successful pundit and author who is pulled in many enviable directions.  What’s prompted Brad’s over analysis is his and Troy’s East Coast trip, where Troy is to tour and interview at some of the schools on his radar, including prestigious Harvard. We learn that Brad hadn’t been accepted into his first-choice school, Yale, and see that he’s surprised (and envious) that Troy has a good shot at Harvard.

On the trip, Brad finds out how out of the loop he has become. He wasn’t invited to his L.A. friend’s opulent wedding, for one, and he feels his status, already teetering,  has not plummeted.

Of course, our Everyman does get a rude awakening, when he, of course, discovers that his friends’ perfect lives are really not so much. But the slap in the face comes late and one gets the sense that Brad may end up dipping back into the pool of despair on occasion but, for the most part, will stay on dry land.

A show of hands on who can relate to this scenario? Although we are witnesses to how good Brad has it–for God’s sake, he should be happy alone that he has just one kid to worry about and one college education to fund–we can see where he gets off feeling in the dumps about his life. Haven’t we all scoured Facebook pages, drooling over photos of our friends’ European vacations, their kids’ graduations from great schools and with exemplary grades that got them a choice of several jobs to turn down in order to take the one with the most amazing pay and benefits, and the new house/grandkid/car/kitchen–fill in the blank–that we wish we had? I know I have. Looking at my life as a married, college-educated homeowner and parent of four healthy and good kids, I think quite a few people would be envious, but the way you hear me talk of it on occasion, you’d think I lived on skid row and had a mountain of insurmountable problems to climb up and over each day. Truth be told, if we have a roof over our heads, our good health, and someone to love and be loved by we’re doing OK, my friend.

If we’re to learn anything from Brad’s Status it’s this: Be happy with what you have, be thankful for what you’re given, and stop envying those you think have it better than you. Everyone has his or her own problems or internal demons to work through even if on the surface they look like gods and goddesses.



a son not going to prom brings back icky high school memories

Prom is this weekend, but my son isn’t going. prom

He’ll be the first of my four kids to not go to the annual senior dance that is somewhat of a rite of passage. He’s never been to a high school dance either, so it’s not like he’s had his fill of them, and I think he wants to go, but none of his friends is going and thinks it would be awkward if he went. His not going is bringing up feelings I had thirtysomething years ago when I too didn’t go to prom. And it’s unsettling.

I had wanted to go to prom. I grew up back East and moved out West with my family before the start of my junior year. It took me quite some time to get accustomed to the differences on the left coast, but by the end of senior year, I had made some friends, not many, but a few, including two guys I hung out with in Honors English. I was hoping at least one of them would ask me to the senior prom. But no, the invitation never came. In those days, only couples could go to the prom, no singles and no groups of friends. It was a male and a female couple. I’m guessing the rules do not hold up today, nor should they.

My other kids all went. My first daughter was asked by a handsome, popular young man. My second daughter went with a male friend who was actually a grade behind but was taking extra classes to finish out his senior year as a junior. My older son, the athlete, went with the cute cheerleading captain, and they then started dating. But my youngest, whom I’d always pictured as going, being that he’s well-liked and, having sisters, is pretty comfortable aroundthe opposite sex, is not. My husband and I as well as his brother and sisters have encouraged him to go, but here it is, four days away, and it’s become pretty evident that he’s not going.

I hope it’s not something he regrets, as I do. Difference is, as a senior, going was out of my control. I had to be asked. He, however, could have asked a girl or just gone with friends, but I guess it doesn’t mean that much to him. Fortunately, my kids aren’t ones to need to be with a member of the opposite sex to feel validated. Of the four kids, three of whom are adults,, only one is dating someone right now.

Come next week, I’m sure seniors will be buzzing and Ben will hear stories of how great prom was. I would guess he’ll feel a little let down that he didn’t go. And I know I will be. In fact, I started talking about prom to him and my friend’s daughter way back when they were in the second grade, joking that they would be going together one day. Trouble is, by senior year she had had a boyfriend, and it wasn’t my Ben. But he is OK with the way things are. He will find something fun to do, and I will reward him with some sort of treat, considering the great amount of money he’s saved me by not going. For a seventeen-year-old, he’s pretty mature. I wish I could say the same for myself.

a little job offer and plenty of anxiety, to boot

I was offered a part-time job. Now, what?library shelves

Back in December I was given the opportunity to take a test for a possible library job. I took the test and, apparently, did very well. I know the Dewey Decimal system and having for years put titles of books in order on paper as a proofreader and copy editor, I could do it in a flash. The test was on knowledge (having to put three sets of fifteen books each in order by Dewey number, author name, or subject matter). It was timed too and I was finished in about four minutes. In my testing period (there were four testing periods of about fifteen people each), I was about number four to turn it in. I was asked to come back for an interview too, as were a dozen or more others.

At the interview, conducted by two librarians, one of whom is the supervisor for the aides, I did fairly well. I goofed on maybe one question, but the rest went pretty smoothly. I learned a few days later, however, that I didn’t get the job, and I assumed it was because of my age. The woman interviewed before me was about my daughter’s age. The librarian did mention, however, that another position would be opening up in a few more months. I went on with my life.

Fast forward to late April, and I receive a call asking if I’m still interested in the position that just opened. I ask if I can think about it and the librarian gives me a day. I kick myself for having picked up the phone, wishing I’d let it go to voicemail. Not having answered would have bought me a little more time, I thought, and an excuse to put off deciding, feigning I never heard the message. But I had picked up and I had spoken to the librarian, and I needed to make a decision.

That was my daughter’s birthday and the entire family went out for dinner. I ran the scenario by my younger daughter, who said she’d love to work in a library and wouldn’t it be great to be around all those books? She had worked at a bookstore full-time for nearly six years and had moved on to a better job at a publisher. So she gets me. The hours wouldn’t be great. I’d have to work Wednesday through Saturday, including one nighttime shift ending at 9, with an occasional Sunday thrown in, but the hours were four or five at most each day. The driving would stink, but after thirty-plus years at home, I figure I shouldn’t complain.

I called the librarian back the next day and told her yes. I start this coming Wednesday. I’m nervous, as everyone is when starting a new job, but a little excited too. It’s a beautiful environment to work in and it will get me out into the world. Once the first-day and first-week jitters are over with, I can see myself enjoying the job immensely.

I always have the option of quitting, especially if the commute is horrendous or the job takes me away from my family life too much, and the money just isn’t worth it. I am taking it to supplement my freelance editing career, and it will be nice during the famine editing months to have a little steady income. I’ll probably spend the equivalent of one shift’s worth of money on gas weekly, a drawback, indeed, but I’m hoping the benefits of the job will outweigh the negatives.

As a friends suggested, I will take it as an adventure, test the waters, and drop anchor if the water’s too choppy. I’m happy I have that option. Sometimes in life you have to sink or swim. I choose to brave the waters.

appliances breaking down: not a train wreck, but a bump in the tracks

washing machineI had to buy a new washing machine yesterday. Our fifteen-year-old Maytag finally gave out. It had been running on one setting for years and was quite a trooper. I washed every day or nearly every day for about ten of those years. Now I’m down to two or three times a week, but my eldest brings her laundry over on Sunday nights too and the washer runs for hours at a time then.

Buying appliances these days isn’t as simple as picking a color and a size. There are many options. For washers, for one, there are not only agitator machines but those with impellers (don’t ask me what they are; all I know is they don’t have a white spinny thing sticking up in the center). There are those that load on top and those that load from the front. There are those that run on 600 revolutions per minute to those that speed away at 1,200-1,400 rpms! There are clear glass lids and solid ones. Baskets are plastic or stainless steel. Cubic feet vary as well, which has always been the case, but they can get to over 5 cubic feet for top loaders now. That’s huge! Colors are another consideration. Pick from traditional white or go fancy with red, green, silver, slate, and so on. Do you have a front loader? You may want to consider a pedestal. Many washers are now HE, or high efficiency, requiring a special detergent (though many brands offer it) that uses less soap and saves money in the long run and energy. The choices abound.

I sort of knew I wanted a big stainless-steel basin and I came to believe the traditional agitator cleans better than the impeller washers.  I also knew I wanted a top loader. My machines are in the garage, which is not a pretty sight, so I don’t need beautiful front-loading machines in such a drab setting. Also, the washer wouldn’t match the old-fashioned dryer and I’d have a hard time bending down to retrieve the laundry since my Camry is parked inches from the machines. Plus, I’ve a friend with new front loaders who after just a few months has had a couple repairs done on them.

So I settled on a Maytag, now owned by Whirlpool. I love the clever Maytag commercials, with the repairman sitting in for the appliances. Although I wasn’t swayed by this creative push by Maytag, it didn’t hurt.

The appliance arrives tomorrow. I have my electrician here today, replacing the old, cracked wall outlet that the washer and the dryer will plug into, fearing the installers would claim the broken and not-up-to-code electrical outlet could void the appliance warranty. While I have the electrician here, I am having him replace a few other outlets and putting in a couple outdoor lights in place of our raggedy, mismatched set on the patio. That’s something I could do myself, but because the lights are exposed to the elements, I didn’t want to chance leaving a gap for water to get in. So I’m making his visit worth it for both of us.

Soon he will be gone and, after the delivery tomorrow, I will have a brand-spanking-new washing machine where the old one sat. I will be happy when all is back to normal. Being without a washer drives home the uneasy feeling of all not being right with the world. I don’t like disruption (who does, really?), and I hate when things go wrong, even things that are fairly easy to fix by buying something else. I am happy that the machine crapped out when Lowe’s was having an amazing sale, though. (I paid $479 yesterday for a machine that today is selling for $649 and lists for $799 on the Maytag website.) Sometimes life offers disruption, but the solution can bring better things.

when kids learn life lessons, it’s a little heartbreaking at times

lax-2We’re having a marvelous pre-Spring this year. Buds are blooming on the plum tree in the front yard and the grass is actually green for once. Bunnies are roaming in the yard. All annual signs that life’s seasons change and move on, even from the disappointments we all feel.

A case in point: My son went out for lacrosse this year. He had played for four years straight, from middle school through the tenth grade. After having a horrible assistant coach that year and a very weak head coach who looked the other way, Ben decided not to play last year. It was a shock to us, his parents, and his brother, who had starred in every sport he played in, including lacrosse. (His sisters also had played a sport every season.) But I figured Ben had good reason not to try that year and reminded myself that each kid is different. He was maybe not the athlete his brother was, although we never had a better baseball player than Ben, and we let him decide his own course in life. He wanted to get a job instead and to concentrate on school.

Fast forward to about six weeks ago, when Ben told me he wanted to try out for lacrosse again. I had mixed feelings, knowing he’d been doing nothing physical since the tenth grade to keep in shape besides swimming in the summer and skateboarding. Selfishly, I also had gotten used to not rushing out of the house midafternoon on school nights to drive to games as far away as 40 miles. But I let him make his own choice.

He started conditioning by going up to school on afternoons and weekends before tryouts, hitting the ball against the outdoor racquetball court walls for hours and running on the track. We drove the 20 miles to the Nike outlet store one Sunday so he could use a giftcard from a family friend to buy running shoes. We spent a couple hours on a school holiday at the mall, searching for lacrosse cleats, which aren’t available everywhere, as one might guess. Seventy dollars plus tax and a few more bucks for a couple new balls and he was ready for the season. The gear from a couple years ago pretty much already fit him since most of it was from his brother, who played varsity tenth through twelfth grades.

Tryouts were to last four nights and started out with Ben coming home the first night proclaiming, “I’ve still got it!” The next night’s tryouts also went well. The third night, Ben was a bit more quiet, but still optimistic. Friday’s tryouts were just “OK.” He would get a call that night with the news, he said.

But no call came.

Ben texted a friend, Jimmy, who had also tried out. Jimmy had played for another school the last couple years. He hadn’t heard either. Jimmy called the coach and learned that the coach hadn’t realized he had played before (he didn’t have our school’s helmet decals attached), so he gave Jimmy another chance. When Ben heard this, he also dialed up the coach, who asked why Ben hadn’t played last year. “Rigorous classes,” was his reason, not wanting to prejudice the coach by letting him know he had issues with the former coach. The new coach told him that there were only so many varsity spots and being a senior, Ben wouldn’t be eligible for JV (although this is not exactly correct, having had a friend, who’s now the school tennis coach, research this when her daughter wanted to play JV waterpolo in the twelfth grade and the coach said she couldn’t; but lots of coaches are misinformed about this and lots of seniors don’t want to play down anyway, so hardly anyone questions this “rule”).

The coach told Ben and Jimmy he’d give them one more try on Monday and Tuesday and he’d be watching them closely. Ben was happy about this. I told him, though, “You know, if you don’t make the team, it’s OK,” to which he answered, “What do you mean? I’m going to play!” All right, then.

Ben iced his ankles and feet over the weekend, which were extremely sore. (Was it those $70 shoes or the fact that he’s a late bloomer who recently had a dramatic growth spurt, which can cause major pain in the ligaments and muscles of the feet?) The two boys went up to the school to practice some more.

Monday came and, along with it, one of the fiercest storms of the winter. It rained hard all day, with no let up. Lacrosse is a bit of a brutal sport. Baseball, it is not. Games are played come rain, stifling heat, or snow. Unless there’s lightning, which could cause a little issue since the kids carry virtual lightning rods for sticks, the game goes on.

I was proud of Ben for sticking with it that night, coming home dripping wet, his gear soaked through. Fortunately, there was enough sun the next day to lay everything that couldn’t be machine washed out in the sun, because Tuesday night, he was at it again. Ben’s feet were still an issue and after practice, the coaches told him to wear an ankle brace. He called me from the CVS that night to ask if we had a brace at home. If not, he was going to buy one, and he did.

He came home, ate his dinner and waited for the news. But no call or text came that night. The next day, a couple hours before that night’s practice, Ben received a text. The answer was no, he couldn’t play. The coach said he already had the team settled up and Ben just wasn’t up to snuff to play varsity. I’m sure his ankles didn’t help win him a spot. Ben told me later that he was running “like a gump” that last practice.

An awkward fact about all this: One of the new assistant coaches is the son of close friends of ours, a young man who took up the sport of lacrosse after we introduced it to his parents back when he and my older son were in middle school. This young man went on to play in college and do very well. He’s known Ben his whole life. His sister is a friend of Ben’s. They grew up together. Also, he currently has possession of (and very likely brought to tryouts) an expensive portable goal I had bought my older son a few years back for his birthday. Awkward, indeed.

Anyway, that’s how it all turned out. “It’s weird,” Ben said to me Friday night. “I should be at practice right now.” It’s not easy knowing that others, including some sophomores, are representing the green and gold and building a team bond while Ben is sitting at the dinner table with his middle-aged mom, eating fish sticks.

I’m super proud of Ben for giving it his best shot even though it turned up empty. (His friend, by the way, whom Ben talked up to the coaches, made the team.) There were positives to Ben’s playing again, number one being he’d have a healthy outlet for his time, time he was spending watching YouTube videos and playing PS4. In fact, this was why he wanted to play again in the first place. He’s mature enough to want to do something productive with his time that’s also a healthy outlet. Unfortunately, he learned the hard way that giving your best effort sometimes doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped. As a parent, it’s a bit heartbreaking knowing your son tried so hard and the hard work didn’t pay off. Isn’t that what we tell our kids all the time, try hard and you’ll see results?

The lesson learned, however, was another valuable, inevitable one: Sometimes life isn’t fair. Of course, no matter what, the sun will shine another day, the bare branches will gain buds and then leaves. Time marches on. It’s just a little tough to face when it marches on without you.