Just Enough

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday, which meant that I spent the days before it in a futile search for a gift for him.  We stopped getting each other big presents for our birthdays years ago, but we still have a family dinner to celebrate and I like to have something from me that he can open with the rest of his gifts.  The problem is that my husband already has most of the material possessions that he wants and I can’t afford to buy him the ones he wants but doesn’t actually own.  And every year it gets harder to come up with a creative idea for something I actually can get him.

I’ve already made him several photo books,  and had his broken college “Outstanding Athlete of the Year” and MVP Baseball trophies remounted.  I spent hours carefully removing the photos and articles from the disintegrating scrapbook his mother had made him and remounted them all in a brand-new scrapbook.  I bought him tickets to see his favorite comedian when he was in town.  My kids have given him photo collages of his grandson, had a painting made of the house he grew up in, gave him a key-chain engraved with his parent’s signatures and even made him a pen and pencil holder with a photo of his grand-dog that reads “I love Grandpa.”  As far as sentimental gifts go, I think we’ve covered the bases.

By late last week, I was almost in a panic mode.  What in the world was I going to give him this year?  When I asked for suggestions, he went to his closet and handed me a new sweater he’d already bought himself and suggested I simply wrap that up.  When I said that I wanted to get him something he didn’t already know about, he answered, “But I don’t really need anything.”

I was getting ready to argue with him when it hit me that he was actually telling the truth.  We celebrated his birthday last night with a dinner at his favorite restaurant, surrounded by his family.  He is in good health, has a family that loves him dearly and close friends he knows he can always count on.  In all the ways that really count, he has enough.

I don’t know why it’s sometimes so hard to realize that we don’t really need more stuff, bigger houses, fancier cars and all the latest gadgets.  Maybe it’s because we live in a society that constantly urges us to get more, and to equate having more with success and happiness.  But the truth is that when we have a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear and most of all, people we love and cherish in our lives, then we really do have….enough.  All the rest is just icing on the cake.

And when I looked at my husband last night, sitting at the table with his grandson in his lap and the rest of us nearby, I realized that I really was looking at a man who not only had enough, but a man who was very blessed indeed.

But that didn’t stop me from giving him one more thing, because I still think of birthdays as a time when it’s fun to open an actual gift.  I found this by a happy accident just a couple of days ago, and I think it will go perfectly on his desk at work, right next to the pencil holder with the photo of his grand-dog.  Some habits are just too hard to break….

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The Greatest Gift

Last weekend was a busy one.  We had a death in the extended family, which meant taking a quick out-of-state trip on Friday to attend the visitation.  On Saturday, we drove back home so we could help our daughter prepare for the family lunch that would follow the baptism of our grandson on Sunday morning.  One of the disadvantages of growing older is that I don’t bounce back from those kinds of weekends as quickly as I used to, so I am only just now actually processing those recent events.

In many ways, the death of a loved one and the baptism of a baby are completely opposite events.  One life is ending and another one is just beginning, and the emotions we feel are so very different.  It doesn’t matter if the death came at the end of a long and well-lived life, or if it was sudden and completely unexpected, we still grieve and wonder if we are ever going to feel quite whole again without that particular person in our life.  And you don’t have to be religious to feel the wonder and joy of an infant baptism, since it represents the beginning of a new life full of promise and hope.  Any way you look at it, funerals and baptisms are very, very, different.

But as I look back over the weekend, I realize that those two seemingly polar opposite events have one very important thing in common.  At both times, family and close friends gathered together to offer community and support.  In the one case, they came to offer comfort and share memories of the loved one who is no longer physically with us.  In the other, they came to show their support of, and love for, a rather new little person who is just beginning his life journey.  But in both cases, the important thing is simply that they came.

Sometimes, life gets in the way and we can’t actually be present when someone needs our support.  Last week, the mother of a dear friend of mine also passed away.  Unfortunately, her funeral was held on the same day as our family’s visitation, five hundred miles away.  As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t physically be there for my friend.  But I could still reach out to her, thanks to modern technology, and make sure she knew she had my love and support.

Life will always be full of ups and downs, of occasions that seem unbearably sad and of other occasions that fill us with joy.  And the people who gather with us at those times to share our grief or our happiness are a powerful reminder that we aren’t in this alone.  They are the community that supports us through the life’s biggest changes.

So my take away from this busy last week and weekend is simple:  be there for those who need us.  Physically when we possibly can; or by calling, sending flowers, a card, or even a quick text when we can’t.  The details don’t really matter.  What’s important is just that we be there for each other, each and every time we are needed.

Off The Hook

Ann and SandyWhen I was seven years old, my father decided to become a minister and enrolled in a local seminary.  My family moved into the campus housing which meant that we had to give up our beloved dog Sandy.  Luckily, we had good family friends who were willing to take her.  They lived nearby and we would be able to see Sandy often.  I know it sounds like an ideal solution, but the truth was that I hated giving Sandy away, even to family friends.  I not only mourned the loss of my dog, but I worried that she would miss us and that they wouldn’t treat her as well as we did.  How could I be sure that the boys weren’t teasing her, and that the family was giving her enough attention?  How could Sandy possibly be as happy with their family as she was with ours?

IMG_3178Luckily, my fears proved ungrounded as our friends provided Sandy with an incredibly loving home until she died at the ripe old age of sixteen.  The transition from one family to another may have confused her for a little while, but she was well and truly taken care of for her entire life.  We are still close to those friends, and recently one of the sons (one of the boys my seven-year old self didn’t quite trust with her dog) recently texted me a photo of him holding Sandy when she was in her twilight years.  “She would sit in my lap and let me pet her like this every night,” he said.  It is one of the sweetest photos I have ever seen.

I doubt that he has any idea how much I appreciated getting that picture.  First of all, it confirmed what I had already known:  they loved and cherished Sandy just as much as we did, and she was quite happy with them.  But even more importantly, it reminded me that as much as I loved Sandy, I wasn’t the only one who could care for her and give her a good home.  Her happiness didn’t depend entirely on me.

I have always been the sort of person who likes to get things done, and who tends to believe in the old saying, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”  And while I know that the world needs those of us who are willing to take on responsibility and get things done, I also know that it is both arrogant and foolish of me to think that I am the only one who can do that.

I need to remember that when someone tells me about a problem, they are not necessarily expecting me to solve it for them.  Sometimes, all they are looking for is a sympathetic ear.  I need to understand that not only is it not my job to take care of everyone and everything, but that I can’t possibly do so.  In short, I need to recognize my own limitations.  And I especially need to learn to trust in the the fact that there are plenty of other people in this world who are fully capable of taking care of things, even without my help.

I have kept a copy of that photo, partly because it makes me smile whenever I look at it.  But it is also an important reminder that I don’t, actually, carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.  It’s enough that I do the best I can, as often as I can.  And then I have to trust that there are always others around who can handle the rest.

The Perfect Vacation

My husband and I just returned from a fun week spent vacationing with some good friends.  We rented a home in Florida that was within walking distance to the beach.  The weather was warm and mostly sunny, and we had great time just relaxing and exploring the area with our friends.  It was the sort of vacation that my husband and I will be talking about for a long time, and I’m sure my friends will be talking about it as well.   But the thing is, I strongly suspect that we won’t be saying exactly the same things.

IMG_2990My husband and I will talking about how nice it was to walk to the beach, how much we enjoyed getting a break from what has been an extremely cold winter and how much more relaxed we feel after a week away from everything.  I’m sure our friends would agree with all that, but I still think their conversation about the past week would go something more like this:

Him:  “Did you notice that they vacuumed the floors four times?”

Her:  “They also did a load of laundry every single day.  Who vacuums and does laundry on vacation?”

Him:  “Apparently, they do.  The way they kept the kitchen so spotless should have warned us.  I barely finished my coffee before they whisked the cup away and stuck it in the dishwasher.”

And the thing is, all of it would be true.  I remember pulling into the driveway of a vacation house one year and seeing my husband up on a ladder, washing the living room windows.  When I asked him about it, he said he didn’t want to spend his vacation looking out dirty windows.  Later that week, we were sitting in a beach bar chatting with some of the locals, and I mentioned the window cleaning story.  After a brief and stunned silence, several of them offered us their business cards, telling us that they had wonderful vacation properties that they were quite sure we would love to rent.

The simple fact of the matter is that my husband are the ideal renters.  When we check out of any kind of vacation rental, the condo or house is usually much cleaner than it was when we checked in.  And if something was broken when we checked in, you can bet that it’s been fixed when we check out.  Sometimes I think that the property owners should be paying us to stay in their properties, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  We’ve never even been offered a discount.  The world is still an unfair place in so many ways.

I know our habit of cleaning and tidying while on vacation is, to say the least, unusual.  (I’ve even been known to vacuum hotel rooms when I can talk the staff into lending me one.)  But vacationing is all about doing what makes us happy, and my husband and I are happiest when we are staying somewhere clean and tidy, even if that means we have to do a bit of that cleaning ourselves.  And if we happen to be vacationing with friends or family, it also gives them a vacation experience that they’ll be talking about for quite some time.

Time Well Spent

Sadly, time is no longer on my side.  Even though I still think of myself as middle aged, I am actually well past the mid-point of my life and fast approaching the “golden years.”  Which means I am always startled (and not in a good way) by what I see in the mirror every morning, and that I have learned to accept that all the hair dye, concealer, push-up bras and cosmetic procedures in the world aren’t ever going to make me look young again.  And I’ve gotten used to that, I really have.  Because at this point in my life, I’m much more concerned with making sure that I don’t waste any of the precious time I actually have left.

A healthy perspective is one of the few gifts of aging, but I think it is a very valuable one.  I no longer believe I can put off the important stuff, counting on a tomorrow that may never come.  If something is important, it deserves to be done now, or at least as soon as possible.  Procrastination is a luxury reserved for the young.

Beyond that, I have a much better sense of what is truly  important.  I used to waste far too much time trying to push myself into situations that didn’t work for me, just because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.  I wasted even more time trying to get the approval of almost everyone in my life, even from people who made it clear time and time again that I wasn’t living up to their expectations.  Now I know that life is too short to waste on people who don’t enrich my life, who aren’t willing to accept me as I am, or who seem intent on trying to shape me into whoever they happen to think I ought to be.

Last weekend, I visited the small town in Kansas where I lived during my preteen and teenage years.  I got together with dear friends I have stayed close to for over forty years, and also got the chance to reconnect with old friends I haven’t seen in far too long.  It was a wonderful weekend full of laughter and memories, and we had a terrific time acting (almost) as silly as we did when we actually were young. And when the weekend drew to a close, we all agreed that we needed to get together again, sooner rather than later.  Because we aren’t getting any younger, and we’re no longer willing to wait quite so long to hang out with people whose company we enjoy so much.

When I was young, I honestly believed that I had all the time in the world to do the things I wanted to do, to spend time with the people I loved, and to chase after each and every one of my dreams.  Now I know better, which could be rather depressing.  But I choose not to look at it that way.  Instead, I have  come to see my aging as a gift that forces me to realize that time is an incredibly valuable commodity, and that I need to spend it wisely.  I just wish I hadn’t waited quite so long to figure that one out.

Where I Belong

It’s taken me a long time to realize this, but I don’t do groups well.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m in a small group or a large one, sooner or later I know I’m going to get that familiar feeling of not quite fitting in, of hovering around the fringes of the group rather than being firmly planted in the center of it.  For a long time it sort of bothered me that I was always just slightly out of step with the people around me, but as the years have gone by, I can honestly say I’ve gotten used to it.

I remember when I young and thought that fitting into a group was about the most important thing in the world.  It was a popular custom at my grade school to “lock the gates” after choosing sides for a particular playground game, which involved standing in a circle, holdings hands and chanting “Lock the gates, lock the gates, nobody else can play!  If they do, we’ll take their shoes, and then we’ll run away!”  I know it sounds awful, but being a part of that circle actually gave me a feeling of security, even if I did feel sorry for the kids who tried to join in later and were turned away.

IMG_0402But somewhere along the line, I began to value my individuality over my need to belong.  I think it happened in stages, from not wanting to be limited to a particular clique in high school, to registering to vote as an Independent, to not joining a “play group” when my own kids were young.  (Don’t ask me why, but the concept of a play group just seemed too limiting.)  I love being around other people, and I care deeply for my friends and family, but I can’t tell you the last time I have sat among a group of people, any group, and really felt, “This is it.  This is where I belong, completely and absolutely.”  And that’s okay.

The connections I have learned to value aren’t the kind that come from being a long-term member of a particular group.  Instead, they are those moments when someone seems to speak directly to my heart, calming a fear or validating something I have long believed but been afraid to articulate.  They are the insights I get when someone shares one of their dreams or fears with me, alone or in a group, trusting that they will get nothing but help and understanding in return.  They are the moments when I feel such a strong connection to someone else that I can almost see it.  Those moments are brief, but they are real and profound.

There’s security in fully belonging to a group, no matter what our age, and there will always be people who want and need that sense of belonging.  I respect that, and sometimes even envy it, but deep down, I know it’s not for me.  I am, for whatever reason, just one of those people who feels the overwhelming need to “march to the beat of my own drummer,” even if that means I sometimes walk alone.  But that doesn’t mean I’m lonely, because believe me, I’m connected to others in all the ways that truly count.

Shower Gifts

Yesterday, I helped host a family shower for my son’s fiance.   I admit that I was a bit nervous about the whole thing, because I really love the young woman my son is marrying and wanted to throw her a nice shower to welcome her into our family.  My daughter, who also helped host the shower, wanted to do a champagne brunch, so we booked a room in a nearby restaurant for the event, ordered some petite fours and cake pops from a local bakery to serve, and in general, did all the things that one does when planning a bridal shower.  Still, I was just a little bit on edge, wondering if everything would go well and being more than a little bit afraid that something would inevitably go wrong.  Little Mary Sunshine, that’s me.

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But I am happy to say that everything went just fine.  The restaurant staff was very professional, setting up the room the way we wanted it and serving delicious food.  We had a nice turn-out, and everyone seemed to have a good time.   As is the tradition, at the end of the shower, the bride-to-be opened her gifts while we all watched.  She got some terrific presents and seemed very happy with all of them, which was a wonderful thing to see.

Still, while I was watching my future daughter-in-law open her gifts, I found my mind wandering a bit.  I kept looking around the room at all the people who were there, and realizing how much I appreciated each of them being there.  Each and every person in that room made the effort to take time out of their busy weekend to come to this shower, showing their support for the newest addition to our family.  And their presence was a gift.

My sister helped host and provided the beautiful flowers for the shower.  My mother offered assistance in any way that was needed, and helped us set up the room.  My sisters-in-law from Iowa not only came a great distance to attend the shower, they showed up early to help us get ready and stayed late to help clean up afterwards.  My sister-in-law from downstate, her two daughters and her granddaughter, all came to help us celebrate and show their support.

Family friends came, some of whom I have known for my entire life.  Friends I met when I was just a baby and friends I met when I was newly-married and childless were all there, knowing how important this shower was to me and my family.  The youngest attendee was the seven-week old granddaughter of a dear family friend, and that baby represented the fourth generation in the friendship between our two families.  It doesn’t get much more special than that.

Yes, the bride-to-be received many terrific gifts at this shower, and that’s as it should be.  It was her day, and she handled it with grace and style, just as I knew she would.  But as I looked around the room yesterday and took in all the people who were there, the friends and family who showed up to offer their support and to welcome the newest member of our family, and to meet her lovely mother and grandmother, I couldn’t help but realize that my son’s fiance wasn’t the only one who was receiving gifts.

True, the love and support of family and friends is not a gift that I could open.  But it was a gift nonetheless, and one that I will remember and appreciate for a very, very, long time.

Stay In Touch

There’s no denying it, life is busy these days.  Most of us spend our time rushing madly from one commitment to another, trying to meet the demands of our jobs, our families, or whatever it happens to be that requires our time and attention. So it’s only natural that we look for areas in our lives where we can cut back, and chores are ignored, obligations are dodged, and relationships are neglected.   And sadly, one of the things we are often too quick to let go of is our friendships.

I remember being shocked once when a friend told me, “I’m not interested in making any new friends, because I have all the friends I want already.”  But now I understand what she meant.  Friendships, like all relationships, take time, and there are just so many hours in the day.  So in an effort to maintain her current friendships, she had simply declared a moratorium on making any new ones.  I think the same theory is at work when people make room for a new friend in their life by dropping an old one.

But for me, my friends, both old and new, are too precious to let go.   So I have been vigilant about trying to stay in touch with my old friends, even during the phases in my life when I have very little time to spare, and for the most part, I’ve been successful. Sometimes connecting is as simple as a quick text, other times it’s a phone call just to touch base, while still other times it involves a drive across the state for a girls’ weekend with my high school friends.  However it happens, it’s time well spent, because it means we are keeping the friendship alive.

0553Recently, I enjoyed a high school reunion where I reconnected with many old friends, was visited by one of my best friends from college, and had lunch with a dear childhood friend who now lives on another continent.   I was thrilled when several of my life-long friends, even those who live far away, attended my daughter’s wedding.  There’s just something so satisfying about sharing my life’s major moments with people I have known for decades, and in meeting a friend I haven’t seen in years and still feeling that instant, close connection.  With every single encounter, I find myself being so very glad that I made the effort to stay in touch with my “old” friends.

Yes, making friends and keeping old friendships alive does requires a certain amount of time and effort.  But I’ll gladly put it in, because they’re worth it.

Making an Impression

Sometimes, it’s just nice to get away, no matter where I happen to be heading, and that was part of the reason I was looking forward to driving to Kansas last weekend for my 40th high school reunion.  I was also looking forward to seeing some of my old classmates, and the chance to spend a little extra time with some good friends who live near that area and who I don’t get to see nearly as often as I would like to.  Still, it was a high school reunion, and that’s just not the same thing as heading off to a vacation on the beach.  A reunion involves making the effort to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in years, and engaging in small talk with lots of people for an extended time.  For an introvert like me, that’s a little intimidating, no matter much I enjoy someone’s company.

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I also had a vivid memory of my 20th high school reunion, which was the first reunion I had attended since graduating high school.  My high school was in a small town that hosted the County Fair each year, so it was a tradition for the classes to hold their reunions on the weekend of the fair, and for each class to participate in the fair’s parade by riding on their class float.  It was hot sitting on an open float in the summer sun, which meant there was also a tradition for each class to toss water balloons at those sitting on the other class floats.   I won’t bore you with the details, but at some point near the end of the parade, I tried to grab a water balloon and promptly fell off the float, landing hard on the asphalt street.  I scraped the skin off the palms of my hands, had a bleeding head wound, and suffered some very serious damage to my pride. I know there are people who dream of making a big impression at their class reunion, and I certainly made one.  Trust me, it’s over-rated.

Luckily, this reunion was uneventful, as I shed no blood and had no need for medical care, most probably because they no longer have the classes participate in the parade.  I managed not to embarrass myself (at least as far as I know, but there might be photos that haven’t surfaced yet), and had a great time catching up with old friends and acquaintances.  Everyone talked to most everyone else, and unlike the class reunions we always see on television shows, the tone was relaxed, friendly, and casual.

I think one of the the best things about growing older is how most of us shed the need to try to impress each other, which means that when we do gather with classmates we haven’t seen in years, we don’t ask about their accomplishments, try to gauge their material wealth, or scrutinize their appearance.  We simply ask how they are doing, and genuinely hope that they are happy with their lives, no matter what their circumstances.  And if they are struggling in some way, we offer sympathy and support, rather than judgement.  Maybe that kind of honesty and acceptance only comes with age, I really don’t know.  But if so, it sure is worth the wait.

Pass It On

Recently, I spent a Saturday afternoon at my daughter’s house, helping her paint one of her bedrooms.  I’m one of those rare people who actually likes to paint, so I didn’t mind spending a beautiful weekend afternoon up on a ladder, doing the edging.  Even better, my mother stopped by and offered to pitch in as well by painting some of the trim.  So there we were, three generations of family working together to give a room in my daughter’s house a much-needed sprucing up.  For me, it felt like one of those family bonding moments when the older members of the family get to pass along some of their knowledge and experience to the younger members.  (Which is an increasingly rare thing in theses days of ever-changing technology where the young are usually the ones who teach the old.)

Milentz houseI remember when my husband and I bought our first house and how hard we struggled to turn a very run down “fixer-upper” into a livable home.  We couldn’t have done it without the help of friends and family who loaned us tools (and showed us how to use them), and helped clean up years worth of dirt and grime.  We had a good friend who showed my husband how to build walls, while others helped him assemble our own kitchen cabinets.  I remember clearly how my mother helped me in our overgrown yard, pointing out that the “weeds” I was about to pull were actually just flowers that needed some pruning.  My aunt gave us money to buy kitchen curtains, and my brother-in-law even offered to install a wood-burning stove for us to help with heating costs.  All that support made the process seem so much less overwhelming.

And now that my own son and daughter have bought houses of their own, both of which were fixer-uppers (we never buy anything else in our family), it’s our turn to help.  I paint, do yard work and clean, my husband brings over his tools and shows them how to use them while he’s working on a project, and in the process, we help teach our kids what they need to know to fix up and properly maintain their houses.  Frankly, it feels good to pass along some of the skills, support and knowledge that was given to us.

It’s not that our kids (and their husband and fiancé) couldn’t do it themselves, they most certainly could.  They’re young, hard-working and smart, and what they don’t already know, they’ll figure out.  But I know our help means that they are learning much more quickly, and I believe that they appreciate the support of their family with this important milestone in their lives.  These are the acts that solidify our family bonds, that remind us that we don’t actually have to face every challenge on our own, and that demonstrate the importance of working together to help the people we love.

Sometimes fixing up houses is about so much more than just creating a nice place to live.  Sometimes its also about building memories, strengthening family connections and passing on the best of who we are to the next generation.  It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a paintbrush and a power drill.