Friday Book Whimsy: Tending Roses

Sometimes I dream about moving to a small town where everybody knows your name and you can walk to anywhere you need to go and the stress level is virtually nonexistent. But then I remember that there wouldn’t be a Whole Foods three-quarters of a mile from my house and I would be hard pressed to find an Asian market or a symphony hall. So I am satisfy my urge by reading about such a community.

For that reason, I enjoyed Tending Roses, the first in a series by Lisa Wingate. I had previously read — and reviewed — Before We Were Yours, also by the same author. I really liked that book and the author’s writing style. Tending Roses is very different, much cozier than the somewhat disturbing Before We Were Yours.

Kate and her husband Ben, along with their baby Joshua, come to visit Kate’s grandmother, mostly at the behest of other family members. Grandma Rose lives alone in the house where she brought up her children, but now, because of aging and increasing dementia, the family believes it is time for her to move into a nursing home. Kate has been asked to break the news to her grandmother.

It isn’t long before Kate realizes this is easier said than done. Grandma Rose is very happy where she is, and it becomes increasingly clear to Kate why this is so. The slower life in the smaller town is a big change — and a refreshing one — from their busy life in Chicago.

Days turn into weeks turn into months, and Kate becomes more and more peaceful. Adding to her quiet joy is a journal of stories apparently written by her grandmother that tell the tale of her life, and her wonderful memories of being a child and raising her family in this small town.

The book has a quiet charm that was refreshing after reading some of the graphic mysteries I mostly enjoy. I found myself rooting for Kate to convince her family that a slower, easier life is the way to go.

Here is a link to the book.


Thursday Thoughts

Hey Cuz!
I got a Facebook message from Bill’s brother the other day in which he told me that his son Edward was going to be in Denver for business and would like to see us. This led to that, and Edward joined us for dinner at Dave and Jll’s house Tuesday night. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife and three boys — a 10 year old and 7-year-old twins. It was fun to see him again, and gathering family together always makes my heart happy…..

Four handsome McLain men: Allen, Edward, and Dave, with Bill standing sentry behind.

Hello Friend
Yesterday I had lunch with a friend that I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years. We worked together back then, and though we kept in touch for a while, life happened and we drifted apart. We reunited once again thanks to Facebook. See, there are some positive things that come from social media. Like having lunch with my friend Cori after all this time. Funny thing was, we talked as though we had seen each other just last week…..

About the time I last saw Cori, Bill and I purchased our grill from Sam’s Club. We got years and years of grilling from Ol’ Faithful. The numbers on the dials had worn off, but I could live with that. What I couldn’t live with was the fact that we were having trouble getting it to light up when we returned from AZ. After the second time it blew up as we tried to fire it up (and Court nearly lost his eyebrows), I decided perhaps a new grill was in order. I heard my late brother-in-law Terry’s voice in my head telling me that you couldn’t go wrong with a Weber. Bill and I went to Home Depot and bought one a few days ago. Because of the funny weather pattern which brings heavy rainstorms each afternoon, I haven’t had much of a chance to use it. However, last night the rainstorms passed us by, and I grilled turkey legs. They were delicious, and my grill is awesome…..

And speaking of awesome, my Snow-in-Summer plant is beginning to bloom. Next to my peonies, that plant is about my favorite. It doesn’t last long, but I enjoy it ever so much when it’s blooming…..

Bill went on a rampage a few weeks ago while cleaning up the pond area, getting rid of anything he didn’t like. I’m thankful this plant made the cut.




Table of Love

I just finished reading a book by author Rick Bragg, called The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table. No, this isn’t going to be book review (although I will tell you that I enjoyed the book tremendously). It is, however, going to be about bringing families and friends together over a table of food.

It isn’t necessarily true that everybody thinks their mother’s cooking is the best. There are moms who can’t cook a lick. They probably don’t like to cook, and perhaps their moms didn’t like to cook either. Still, most of us are used to eating meat loaf or fried chicken or vegetable beef soup the way our moms prepared it. I do, anyway. You need to throw a beef shank into a bowl of vegetable soup before you can call it vegetable beef soup. I’m firm on that.

And before anyone gets up in arms, yes, I realize that men cook too. I’m sure there were even fathers of those of us in the Baby Boomer generation who cooked, though I would venture to say that was somewhat unusual. Times have changed; in fact, times had changed even when my son was born. It wasn’t unusual for Court’s dad to make dinner.

But mostly what I got out of the above-referenced book was the importance his family placed on preparing food as part of gathering together friends and family. That was certainly the way I was brought up. It wasn’t simply cooking; it was feeding those you love. It was gathering together and saying grace and laughing and talking as the food is passed around the table.

I come from a long line of good cooks from both sides of my family. I have memories of many meals prepared by a lot of wonderful cooks. I especially remember holidays and summer gatherings of all sorts. There would be turkey and dressing, or fried chicken and potato salad and homemade three-day dill pickles and coleslaw and cookies and brownies, all washed own with beer or pop, and made better by the sounds of laughter.

My mother (far right), with her sisters (l-r) Ann, Vicky, and Clare.

Bill slices up one of about a million turkeys he’s carved over the years.

My nephew Erik carves one of the many prime ribs prepared by Beckie on New Year’s Day.

I learned to cook from watching my mom prepare dinner every single night. I not only learned to cook, I learned the importance of feeding those we care about. When I heard that my friend had passed away last week, the first thing I did was begin to prepare food. Without even giving it a thought, I looked in my refrigerator and my pantry and figured out that I had the ingredients to make a bacon and spinach quiche and a pan of brownies. It’s how I roll. It’s what I learned from my family of great cooks.

My siblings and I share a love for cooking…..

…..and our need to provide fellowship over plates of food was passed on to our kids……

Bonding Over Murder

I believe that days go slow and years go fast,
And every breath’s a gift, the first one to the last. – Josh Kear, Eddie Hill, David Frasier

Yesterday, following an afternoon that included geocaching with Maggie Faith and watching three — count ’em — three episodes of Death in Paradise, I mentioned to her that I needed to get busy and write a blog for tomorrow. “What do you think I should write about?” I asked her, as she ate her onion rings and I slurped my limeade recently purchased from Sonic.

“Hmmm,” she said thoughtfully. “I think you should write about how we went geocaching and found two caches, and how we always go to Sonic after we geocache, and how that’s our tradition.”

I explained to her that while it was a very good suggestion, I had written so often about our geocaching experiences and our subsequent trips to Sonic that I thought people’s eyes would glaze over if I tried again. (Though I will mention offhandedly that we went two for two, and we each found one. It doesn’t get much better than that, geocachewise.)…..

Dagny and Maggie during one of our earlier geocaching escapades.

But having said that, it occurred to me that the importance of my yesterday is that I spent good, quality time with one of my grandkids. Actually, with two of my grandkids, because Addie is the one who reached out and called me mid-morning to begin with.

“Nana, I just got finished with Swim Team and I’m hungry,” she said. “Can we go have breakfast?” What? A chance to spend valuable time with my 16-year-old granddaughter AND eat? Why would I turn down that opportunity?

I have used the words with which I began this post more than any other quotation simply because they resonate with me every time I hear Luke Bryant sing that song. (The truth of the matter is that those words resonate with me far into the night, because it wins the award for the song most likely to be on an endless track from the time I crawl into bed until I finally throw in the towel and Luke and I get up the next morning.) While I’m not sure that most people are good, as the song claims, I am certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that we must enjoy every minute that we have with those we love. Because years go fast. And s**t happens.

I sent an email to a former colleague who also knew my friend Megan to let him know of her passing. While he’s not as rich and famous as Luke Bryant, his response was just as wise: Wow. Time is fleeting and life is too short.

In a desperate attempt to not let this post become too maudlin, let me tell you that there is another reason that it’s good to spend time with a grandkid or two. Death in Paradise, a murder mystery that is set on a fictitious Caribbean island, is, well, not going to win any awards for creativity or meaningful writing. But it’s just plain fun to watch, all those ocean views and that reggae music as background and all. Still, it’s nice to tell Bill (as he heads outside to do some actual work) that I’m going to stay with Magnolia and watch this program in case anything comes up that seems inappropriate. Besides, watching a program like Death in Paradise with a very bright 11-year-old is a ton of fun. From the first scene, she begins finding clues and guessing potential murderers. Being a fan of the murder mystery genre myself, it makes my heart happy.

Life is short: might as well enjoy it with an 11-year-old on a desert island.

Farewell, My Friend

Many years ago, my friend Megan told me that she was going to go camping by herself for a week in the mountains of Utah.

“You’re going to do what?” I asked, incredulously. “I think that’s a very bad idea, what with bears and mountain lions and rapists and all.”

She was not to be dissuaded. We compromised with Megan agreeing to call me whenever possible throughout that week to check in and let me know she was alive, unmauled, and unraped. The thing is, while I would never describe Megan as fearless, I would say that she never let fear get in her way.

Megan passed away this past week, succumbing finally to the cancer that she battled for over three years. Cancer is a word that puts the fear of God into everyone, but pancreatic cancer practically paralyzes. Except it didn’t paralyze Megan. In her matter-of-fact way, she researched, she studied, and she fought. She fought hard. People aren’t generally victorious over pancreatic cancer, but she convinced me she could win, primarily because she never thought beating it was out of the realm of possibilities. I can’t say that she wasn’t afraid; I can, however, say that once again she didn’t let fear get in her way.

I never understood why we were friends. We couldn’t have been more different. She was ever-so-much smarter than I. We were thrown together in the capacity of our respective jobs. She was a research analyst for the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, and I was a writer. Not long after Megan began working at CHFA, the two of us were asked by the powers-that-be to write an application for an award by a national housing organization. We immediately found that we worked well together as a team. We had mutual respect and — perhaps more important — we liked to laugh, though my puns fell flat next to hers. And we found each other to be quite hilarious, thank you very much. CHFA won the award, and we were asked to write more applications.

Literally, the day before she died, we laughed (for about the millionth time) about one error we nearly made on an application that we worked on well into the night. CHFA’s mission in part was to provide affordable housing to those in need. In our application, instead of saying CHFA houses the under-served, we inadvertently put CHFA hoses the undeserved. I’m happy to say we caught that error before anyone important saw it, and managed to keep our jobs. We also forged a solid friendship.

Megan collected friends. She had lots of them, from all different times of her life. Unlike many people (cough, me), she held on to friends mightily, because to Megan, friends were more than friends; they were family. She also was close to her siblings, and though life with her parents was not always smooth-sailing, she had a strong relationship with her father until he died, and with her mother, who will outlive Megan.

Some might be surprised to hear that during the past couple of years, one of the things we often did together was attend the noon Mass at the Cathedral downtown. I don’t know as I would say that Megan was devoutly religious. She was much too practical to rely on faith alone without proof of the existence of God. Still, there was a yearning for something beyond herself. She would say to me, “I wish I could just believe in God like you.” But she was ALWAYS the one to initiate going to Mass. I was more concerned about the lunch we would have after. Often that was the Imperial Restaurant where we had — every single time — the sesame chicken. They will miss us!

And I will miss Megan. This past December, she sent me this email the day after my birthday…..

I should have said this yesterday, face to face, but I think disease makes me self-centered, and I had completely forgotten it was your birthday. Happy birthday! 
I am so thankful that your parents had you, and raised you to have such a great sense of humor, an upbeat energy, and a fierce sense of self (acknowledging you aren’t ALWAYS saintly). I’m so thankful you choose to share all that with me in our friendship, especially now when I might otherwise sink down into a morass of self-pity. So this isn’t a present or a real birthday card, but I didn’t think, in these hard times, a thumbs-up on Facebook was quite enough.
And, can I say…it was a present and a real birthday card.
I will miss Megan very much, and I hope that right now, God is telling her, “See? Your friend Kris was right all along.” At which time he will hand her a gin martini with a prairie fire chaser.

Scott and Megan and Bill and I following dinner at one of Megan’s favorite steak houses, Bastien’s.

This was taken not too long after she was first diagnosed with cancer. We were celebrating because her cancer marker numbers were improving. Thus, the champagne. And we were at, where else?, Imperial.

I couldn’t possibly love this photo more. It was taken not long after her initial diagnosis.

One day we took a field trip on the A Line to the airport since neither of us had ridden that rail line. We had lunch at the expensive Westin Hotel. I love this photo because her glasses were crooked, which they almost always were!


Saturday Smile: Continuing On

Thursday was a day that filled Bill and I with much joy. Maggie Faith had her continuation ceremony at her elementary school, and she will move into middle school in the fall. She was one of the selected speakers…..

Thursday night, her brother Alastair had his continuation ceremony, signifying that he moves from middle school into high school. Alastair (below) is the one in the back who is taller than his dad, but not quite as tall as his papa, at least not yet…..

Kaiya also is continuing on to middle school next year, but there was no ceremony. I”m proud of them all, and they made me smile.

Friday Book Whimsy: Growing Old With Grace

In lieu of the book review I usually post on Fridays, I am sharing an article I came across from Glamour Magazine written by the author of one of my very favorite children’s books: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst. Her advice on making the most out of life was amazing. Her outlook on enjoying life even more as we are older and wiser should be embraced by everyone.

How to Be Happy? A Nearly 90-Year-Old Has Some Advice

Judith Viorst, the author of iconic children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, has never loved her life more than she does now. She’s also almost 90.

Senior woman eating ice cream by ocean portrait
Stuart McClymont/Getty Images

“What’s been your favorite time of life?” I was asked a couple of months ago. My answer astonished my questioner—and me. For instead of a choice that approximated when I fell in love, or gave birth to my first baby, or held my first published book in my hot little hands, I looked back on my 80-plus years, my nearing 90 years, and said, “Right now.”

It seems I have no wish to turn back the clock to 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. I prefer to press “hold” on the life that I currently live. That’s true in spite of the fact that I am indisputably old—not older, not elderly, just…old. And the fact that so many people I’ve loved are dead. And the fact that my upper arms are in no condition to ever again be seen in public. And the fact that, as some late-night comic once said, my back is going out more often than I am.

It’s not that the days themselves now are so fabulous. My hair is thinning. My body is not. I can’t find my glasses or keys. And I spend so much time seeing specialists that, if they gave doctorates for going to doctors, I’d easily have earned a Ph.D. But still, I don’t hesitate. The best is not ahead or behind. It’s now.

Having surprised myself by finding out that my favorite time of life is right now, I decided that I would like to figure out why. And so I’ve been sorting out some of the qualities, attitudes—some of the somethings—that have helped to make me happier as I near 90.

But before I go any further, I need to observe that I’m an exceedingly lucky lady. Lucky because I’m still married to (and still love) the person I married 60 years ago, even though he still claims that he can listen to me and read the Times simultaneously. Lucky because all my children and my grandchildren are, at the moment, doing just fine. Lucky because I have friends with whom I continue to share a deep, enduring history. Lucky because I’ve somehow been spared (at least as of today) time’s harsher assaults on the body and the mind.

I’m also lucky enough to be conscious of, and grateful for, the bountiful blessings of this great good luck.

Do I have my griefs and losses, my regrets and disappointments? Of course I do. But I’ve found that being grateful, though this is something of a cliché, offers great comfort to me, and could for you too. For cultivating gratitude for the good stuff in our lives, being aware of and even counting our blessings, brightens our view of who we are and where we are in the world—and can make us happier.

I’ve found that a little surplus of gratitude often has downstream effects, helping us become more tolerant, less judgmental, more forgiving of family and friends when they annoy or neglect us, hurt our feelings, or let us down. It’s tempting to add up their failures and flaws and compare them with our far superior selves, but we make a big mistake if we do. For while most of the folks in our life can, on occasion, be pains in the ass, so—let’s face it—can I and so can you. Figuring out that we, like they, are in need of a lot of acceptance and forgiveness can make for a happier old (or any) age.

Famous children's author Judith Viorst at her home
The author Judith Viorst in 2013Getty Images

When I was younger, I spent too much time obsessing over what would make me feel better or how I imagined a certain set of circumstances would magically transform my life and career. But I learned, though it took me a while, to look around and pay attention to what—if I’d let it—could make my life feel better right here and right now. My book Nearing Ninety opens with a wonderful quote from philosopher George Santayana, whose proposition all of us should heed: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” I believe he’s telling us that instead of wistfully looking back at what we once had, or anxiously imagining what might come, we ought to be seeking what satisfactions, what pleasures, what meaning, the season we’re in has to offer us.

In my poem “At the Japanese Restaurant,” I describe a long-married couple observing a pair of young lovers, “So in love. So newly in love. So wildly in love.” And having already been there and done that, they find themselves surprisingly content:

With not being crazed-with-love lovers anymore,
But an old, old married couple,
Here on the further, calmer shores of love,
Sharing, along with sashimi and a California roll,
A hot and sour, sweet and spicy life.

I fear some people assume that we who are older are racked with envy, jealous of young people. For me, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m adding to my list of what can make for a happy late life: reaching out to offer a helping hand, using what we’ve learned to be a mentor and guide to younger generations. Instead of being the star of the show (again: been there; done that), we can share what we know in order for others to shine. And until you’ve actually done this (helped a student in your writing class get published, for example!), you cannot imagine how gratifying it can be. For we’ve got all this knowledge, this wisdom, this experience, to impart—and are our own children listening? Probably not. But other people’s children may be asking for, longing for, eager for our guidance, and how sweet it feels, how happy it makes us, to give it.

If all else fails, though, my final piece of advice is the simplest of all: Laugh. Although I’ve always counted on a sense of humor as one of life’s essential survival mechanisms, it took me decades to learn to laugh at trouble. It was only after I’d wept and wailed and cursed and bitched and moaned and blamed my husband—which sometimes felt like it lasted weeks, months, years—that I could finally manage to find the humor in what at the time looked a lot like Apocalypse Now.

These days there’s not much (in my private life, at least) that looks like Apocalypse Now. And my days are too precious to waste on bitching and blame. Laughter comes sooner and easier now, for it would be a shame to miss the delights winter offers to those nearing 90.

Judith Viorst’s Nearing Ninety and Other Comedies of Late Life is the latest in her series of decade poetry books, which include It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life, Forever Fifty and Other Negotiations, and Unexpectedly Eighty and Other Adaptations. She is also the author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.