In Remembrance

One of the best things about reaching middle age is having friends that I have known for many decades.  These are the people that knew me when I was just a little kid wearing scuffed saddle oxfords, and have stayed in my life ever since.  We understand exactly where each other came from, because we were there, too.  Their parents were friends with our parents, and now, our kids are often friends with their kids.  They may be “just friends,” but our relationships have lasted so long and our families are so connected that I think of them more as close, personal relatives.

Thanksgiving in NorthfieldI have very good friends that I have met in recent years, but they can’t share the stories of the past the way these long-term, family friends can.  They can’t talk about the time my parents had the neighbors over for a backyard barbecue and it started to rain heavily.  Rather than risk losing his precious pork steaks, my father simply picked up the grill and ran in our back door and down the basement steps with it, leaving a trail of curse words and black smoke behind him.  Or the time when my husband and I had just moved to St. Louis and we all packed into my friend’s father’s van to head to Chicago for Thanksgiving at my parents house, never mind that it was a cargo van with no real seats in the back.  We even took our friend’s dog, who was the only one who seemed comfortable sitting on the floor for the six-hour trip.

But one of the worst things about middle age is losing so many of those life-long, family friends.  Tomorrow I’m going to a funeral for one of those family friends, one from my parent’s generation, who was the father of a very dear, life-long friend of mine.  He was someone I’ve known my whole life, a very smart man who told funny stories, who could make just about anything in his shop, and who gave my husband a part-time accounting job on the side at a time when we desperately needed the extra money.  He was a part of my past, and my family’s past, but now, like so many others, he is gone, and my heart aches for his grieving family.

I do know that as I age, everyone else in my life is aging as well.  I mourned when my beloved grandparents and great aunts and uncles grew old and died, and now we are losing my parents’ generation too, one by one.  Between my husband and I, we have only one parent left.  I understand that this is just the natural progression of life, and that my generation’s turn will come soon enough.  But I’m not going to lie; sometimes it makes very very, very sad.

It’s not that I want to live in the past, or am yearning for a “better time.”   I’m not.  It’s just that it’s hard to lose so many people who I loved or cared about, and that with each loss, there is one less person to “remember when,” one less person who shares my past, one less person who knows not only who I am now, but who I was then.  It’s one more reminder that time is moving relentlessly forward, and that life is, and always has been, both precious and fragile.

Forever Family

familyMy daughter got engaged last summer, and her wedding is coming up fast.  Even though we’ve spent the past few months booking a venue, reserving a church, selecting her wedding dress and making all the hundreds of other decisions that seem to be required for a wedding these days, it has only recently begun to sink in that she’s actually getting married.  And soon.

I still remember the first day I brought her home from the hospital, and how everything single thing in my world suddenly felt so different.  The house my husband and I had lived in happily for a couple of years had to be completely reconfigured to accommodate a baby, a good night’s sleep became nothing more than a distant memory, and even the shortest outing required careful planning as we either had to find and hire a reliable baby sitter or pack a diaper bag with more provisions than I normally packed for a week’s vacation back in my childless days.  My husband and I had shifted from being a couple to being a family, and life was never the same again.

Later, as we were raising both my daughter and her younger brother, I couldn’t even imagine what life would be like when they grew up and moved out to start their own lives.  The four of us were a complete and happy family unit, and the thought of us not living together anymore was almost frightening.  At the time, I had a friend whose youngest daughter had recently moved out and I asked her how she could possibly cope with that loss.  She told me that in her opinion, the teenage years were God’s little way of making it a bit less painful to see them go.  And as the years went by, I understood that she was right.

When our turn came to have an empty nest, it wasn’t the horrible adjustment I thought it would be, because I realized that I hadn’t really lost my kids at all.  They had grown up, but we were still a family and our relationship was simply different than it was when they were children.  Now I could see the young woman and the young man they had become, and I liked what I saw.  And the little bonuses of having an empty nest, such as the extra closet space, much smaller grocery bills and not having to listen to either country or rap music in my house helped, too.

MarthaIn a few short weeks, our family is going to change again, and in a big way.  My daughter will be married, which means her first priority will be her new husband, and not us.  She’ll even have a new last name.  But, once again, this is just a change that means our family will be different, and that’s not a bad thing.  We’re gaining a terrific son-in-law who already feels like a member of our family.  It’s reassuring to see my daughter in love with someone who makes her happy and to know that they are choosing to spend their lives together.  And I know she is marrying into a wonderful family whose love and support will only enrich her life.

I have come to believe that family is something that is both constant and constantly changing.  And that change isn’t always a bad thing.  In the case of this particular change that is coming to our family, I believe it’s a very good thing indeed.

Moving Forward

IMG_0040Sometimes I have a tendency to wallow in nostalgia, especially during the holidays.  I decorate my Christmas tree with antique ornaments, and my house with Santa Clauses, nativity scenes and other knick-knacks mostly from the 1950s.  I have lots of old family photographs and have used them to create memory albums, carefully noting the name of each person in the pictures.  So I definitely get the attraction of living, at least now and then, in the past.

I also know that the past has shaped me, for better or for worse, and that who I am today is mostly the result of everything that I have experienced so far in my life.  When something provokes a particularly strong memory, it can seem as if the past has reached out and touched me, like when I hear Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” and am instantly transported back to a fun night out with my college friends.  The same thing happens when a perceived slight can make me feel like a solitary child on the playground, watching her best friend linking arms and walking away with someone else.  Whether good or bad, it can feel very real, even though it’s just an illusion.

By the time we’ve reached our middle age, I think most of us have learned that life really is a journey that moves relentlessly forward.  Returning to the past isn’t a choice, whether we want to or not.  We can’t return to the days when our bodies were young and the world seemed full of endless opportunities.  We can’t change what we’ve done or not done; we can’t take back our mistakes; and we can’t erase any damage that was done to us.  The past is over and done with, and the only we we can ever revisit it is through our memories.

All we have, and all we ever will have, is the reality of our present and the hope of our future.  The past may have shaped who we are now, but the present is what we can control.  And I think that’s a good thing, because the present…our actions, our words, our choices…is what will determine our future.  Which means that, even at this point of our lives, we still have quite a bit of control over what our life will become.

We may be middle aged, but if we are lucky, we still have many miles to go on our life’s journey.  I have come to believe that the best plan is to look ahead and search for that spot on the horizon where we want to be, and point ourselves firmly toward it.  Because we are always moving forward on this one-way journey, and the direction we take is ultimately up to us.

Traveling Light

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I have never been a person who is comfortable with having a lot of “stuff.”  Maybe that’s the result of spending part of my childhood in a five-room apartment, where I was allotted two drawers, half of a small closet and three narrow shelves in which to store all my belongings, although I have to say that I never felt I needed more space.  Later, when I was heading off to college, my family was also moving to another state, so I had to pack up everything I owned at the same time.  I don’t remember how much I packed to take with me to college, but I do remember that the rest of my possessions fit neatly into two medium-sized cardboard boxes.  And the movers lost one of them.  I took that as a further sign that, in the grand scheme of things, I was not intended to have a lot of possessions.

All I do know is that if life is a journey, and I believe it is, then I prefer to “travel light.”  I don’t want a lot of material possessions weighing me down, especially since I can’t stand clutter or mess.  As far as I am concerned, having a lot of things just means I have to spend way too much time keeping all those things cleaned and organized, and that’s not how I want to spend my time.

But lately, I’ve come to realize that “traveling light” is not just about material possessions.  One of the advantages of being middle aged is that we are just over the half-way point of our life’s journey.  We can look back over the long road of where we’ve been and clearly see what worked, what could have been done better, and what was a downright disaster.  But we can also look forward to a road ahead that is still long enough (if we’re lucky) that we can make the needed adjustments to get us closer to living the life we want to live.  And I think the key to that is also “traveling light.”

I may have screwed up a lot in my life, but that doesn’t mean I have to carry that guilt or embarrassment with me forever.   And like everyone who has ever been in any kind of relationship, I’ve had my share of hurt feelings and disappointments over the years, but that doesn’t mean I have to nurse those grudges for the rest of my life.  That’s just too much baggage, and all it does is weigh me down.  It makes so much more sense to forgive, both myself for the things I’ve done that I’m not so proud of, and others for the times they have unintentionally hurt me, and move on.

With my material possessions, I’m constantly evaluating what I have, deciding if it’s worth keeping or if it’s time to let it go.  And I think that’s the best way to handle my emotional baggage as well:  decide what is good and worth keeping because it enhances my life; and what is no longer worth hanging on to because it doesn’t serve any positive purpose.  Because I really believe that if I want to get the most out of life, I always need to “travel light.”