view from the back porch

Decided to share a little thing I wrote about my grandma, more than ten years ago, not long after she passed away. Forgot I even had it. This one’s for you, Dee-dle-dee! Just like your daughter, you were pretty amazing. :)

Growing up in Indiana where cornfields and gravel roads are far more common than buildings three-stories high, I cultivated an early appreciation of simple things: old houses, spacious backyards, playing on dirt hills, ritual Sunday dinners with the family, eating sweet corn and tomatoes with EVERY meal in the summer, and long drives in the car through the countryside that hopefully ended in ice cream somewhere. My childhood is full of memories like these, and most would not be possible without one person in particular: my grandmother, Mary Margaret Redenbarger.

She was a happy soul and just about the sweetest thing in this world or any other. Like her lyrical name suggests, my grandmother loved to hum the old tunes of Guy Lombardo, Billie Holiday, and Rosemary Clooney. She was well read; she hugged me generously; and an unfinished jigsaw puzzle always awaited me on her kitchen table.

We had the most special of relationships. I was the apple of her eye and she was like a heaven-sent angel to me; our time spent together was always splendid. And how I loved visiting her! Her house was just a short bike ride from my own, close enough that my mother entrusted me and my sister to travel the brief journey by ourselves. This delicious freedom granted to us by our mother, combined with the seemingly endless stretch of summer days, made us want to visit often and stay long.

Grandmother’s house quickly became my second home. Although I loved every part of it, perhaps nothing in that house was lovelier to me than the back porch. It was nothing elaborate or fussy or extremely decorative, but it provided an extraordinary view of the world. Its ambiance permeated every corner, crack, and crevice. No matter what time of year, a welcoming atmosphere greeted anyone who passed through its door. On a more poignant level, its inherent plainness taught me many truths about life.

As imperfect as it may have looked, the porch was perfectly square. Two of its walls were screened-in; the other two were brick and contiguous with the house. The floor was smooth, cool, gray concrete – the kind her dog Heidi loved to nap on, as dogs are wont to do during the oppressive days of summer. The studs between the screens were given a fresh coat of bright white paint every few years; but I actually preferred the peeling, weathered look the porch obtained after several thunderstorm beatings so common to the Midwest. It was the most inviting place on earth. Dare I say it was magical??

Because of its location leading into the kitchen, the back porch naturally became the “front door” of her house. For as long as I could remember, friends and family entered that way; no one ever came to the proper front door. It had a glorious view of the neighborhood. Its open screened walls faced, at once, the backyard, sideyard, and street. Looking up the street to the corner, I could see who was headed this way for a visit. Come twilight, the dense canopy of maple trees would be filled with the flashes of fireflies. I could smell the sweet perfume of the magnificent lilac bush not twenty feet from the corner of the porch. Robins sang, cardinals chirped, squirrels chattered; I would be mesmerized.

After my grandfather passed away and I was in my twenties, I moved in with my grandmother and the porch was mine to visit, whenever I wanted, every day. I could now spend time gleefully pondering all the possibilities of a long summer day or perfecting the fine art of simply doing nothing. When I stepped through its threshold, the porch would work its subtle magic. It became a place to reflect on my own path in life. And it taught me to appreciate the natural pace of things, while observing even the smallest detail in my surroundings.

My grandmother and I would spend entire afternoons reading books and flipping through magazines on the porch, silently enjoying each others’ company. Or we would talk about lost boyfriends, all my crazy hopes and dreams, angry fights with my parents, and my very serious (yet probably imagined) bouts of being completely misunderstood by EVERYONE. She would listen sympathetically, with nary a harsh word or judgment, as grandmothers are so wise to do. We would often doze off, in a state of unspoken camaraderie, carried away by the rhythmic sound of cicadas. And when the heat and humidity became almost unbearable, she would ask, “How about a glass of lemonade? Lemonade, made in the shade.” My worries were forgotten; my cares seemed to drift away. Of all places, grandmother’s porch provided me escape and peace.

We would watch the seasons change. In the summertime, the voice of some enthusiastic parent announcing the players at the Little League diamond would drift across the fields. As warm August nights gave way to cool autumn evenings, I would keep score of the high school football game myself, listening to the cheers from the crowd and the music from the band. In the winter, the snow would push its way through the tiny metal squares in the screen and swirl itself into small drifts on the cold floor. Then spring would come and with it, thunder rolling across blue-gray skies. The falling rain would make a pleasant hollow trickling sound as it rushed down the metal drainpipe and splashed over the gutter edge. How I loved when it would rain!

Over the years, the porch became a symbol for our family’s gatherings too. It was here that my Aunt Lynn orchestrated masterful Easter egg hunts. It was here that we spent Memorial Day weekends dining al fresco on grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. We celebrated birthdays, graduations, holidays, new jobs; and it was here that we gathered with friends and relatives to celebrate my grandparents golden 50th wedding anniversary.

And as life goes on in its continuous and sometimes unforgiving cycle, it was there on the same porch that I learned of my beloved grandmother’s passing from this world. It only seemed fitting. When I recall that day, I am lost on the details… but her spirit was thick in that place, as if at any moment, we might hear her yelling at us from the kitchen to come inside for some lemonade.

Of course, that was several years ago. I have since moved on and her house belongs to a new family. When I think of that porch now, I often wonder if it was blessed. It was where I genuinely came to know my grandmother, connecting with her not only as a relative, but also as a true friend. Perhaps that’s what they mean when they speak of sacred places – places we hold near and dear to our hearts for reasons we cannot explain.

I firmly believe there are lessons to be learned in everything we do, in every place we inhabit, in all that we are. Grandmother’s back porch was more than just a room; it was a place symbolic of our special relationship – weathered and timeless, sweet and serene. It was here, in this sacred place, that I learned these lessons: to nurture strength of spirit, to leave my day’s worries and cares on the doorstep, to know the warm comfort of safety, to be accepted no matter what, to be loved unconditionally.

I miss that porch terribly now. But maybe I’m really missing the innocence of youth and angelic grandmothers and days when the biggest worry in the world was whether the tires on my bike were flat. I may be here at the desk in my office now, but in my mind, I’m sitting on that porch wiling away the hours with my grandmother. There, it’s always spring and summer, and I’m a child again. If I close my eyes, I can smell the lilac blooms. I can feel the gentle mist of rain on my cheeks and nose and forehead, as I press my face to the screen. I can taste the sweet lemonade. If I listen carefully, I can even hear my grandmother singing in the kitchen.


aunties are the best ♥

When I was 12 or 13 years old, my Aunt Lynn bought me my first Sweet Valley High book at the Glendale Shopping Mall in Indy. Of course, I had been reading long before then – with Mom being a teacher, it was difficult to escape reading in our house. Each trip meant not only the promise of 4 or 5 new books from her, but also involved a lengthy, carefully curated process by me. I would browse the shelves excitedly, select only the most pristine copies, and carry them to the register secure in the knowledge that my aunt loved me very much indeed. Thus began our shared love of books and literature and reading and writing that continues to this day. And that happy memory – visiting a bookstore with my aunt – is one I’ve grown to cherish above many others from my childhood.

That’s the way Aunts (or Aunties, as I like to call my Auntie Lynn now :)) should be: a role model of the best kind, one who embodies the same values as the parent, but who can also be a true friend. One who loves unconditionally and can do so without ever being the bad guy. I’m fortunate. My mom was blessed with two sisters – my Auntie Lynn and my Aunt Jayne – and they have both been integral to my development as a person. Their influence in my life is far-reaching and continues to this day.

Besides bookstores, I share a love of old movies with my Aunt Lynn. Jayne and I are completely mad about dogs. We all three love to shop, for shoes especially. I’ve spent numerous nights with them in their homes… everything from putting on fashion shows with my Glamour Gals as a 10-year-old to fine dining and drinking wine as an adult. Lynn taught me to play cards. Jayne encouraged me to taste new foods. When I finally got my learner’s permit in high school, Lynn let me drive her car when no one else would. I admire my Aunt Jayne as a strong example of what women can accomplish in their careers. And neither one of my aunts had children, so it has always seemed – to me, at least – perfectly normal (and acceptable) to contemplate a life without kids.

Aunties are the best, really. I should know after all; I’m an auntie myself now. :) Six times over. Three times in the last three months (!). Five nephews and one niece: Abbi, Rusty, Emmett, the twins Hayden and Parker, and the newest Everett. The whole Aunt Mary Beth thing? I find it’s a role that suits me well. It never gets old, and I dearly love it.

Being an auntie affords you the best of all worlds. You can be the cool aunt, the exemplary role model, the wise mentor, or the goofball extraordinnaire. You might be the pseudo-parent-when-the-kids-hate-their-own-parents or the procurer-and-purchaser-of-items-your-mom-refuses-to-buy-you. You are the encourager, cheerleader, less-evil disciplinarian, and mother figure. The big sister, teacher, confidante, and friend.

And so, I take my role as an Auntie seriously too, because I know the lasting impression it can have. Now that Mom is gone, I feel like there is a gaping hole and I have to sorta fill in for her too. While I’ll never be as good as a grandma (that’s a whole other post, right?), it’s a hole I’m happy to fill. I want to be the kind of person my aunts were to me: engaging, smart, patient, fun, and above all else, loving.

For the last several years, I’ve made it a top priority to visit my Aunt Jayne, wherever she lives in the country at the time. Right now, she’s in Texas. I go there to recuperate… from work, from the world, from the craziness, even from the memories of Mom that sometimes overwhelm me. Again, just as I’ve always felt my whole life, the unconditional love and unspoken understanding are ever-present. She and my Aunt Lynn both are like my mother in many ways, and when I’m around them, I feel like Mom is there too. But it’s more than just that – they are also my friends. And they are part of that internal history – the history of ME – that I’m afraid is slowly being forgotten now that Mom is gone. So I try to hang on to every thread and scrap that I can.

I’ll be at Aunt Jayne’s home in a few weeks, and I can’t wait. I think that’s what has eaten away at me the most about Mom’s passing… the intangible support, the constant stability, the secure knowledge that my family will be there for me: those have been yanked right out from under me, shaken up and rearranged quite a bit. And I struggle mightily with that. I need this vacation to reconnect and to remember all the good things I still have in my life – like my two wonderful aunts. And to not forget how lucky I’ve been.

happy birthday Mom

Hello boys and girls. I’m back. Been awhile, hasn’t it? Oh, I have my reasons, which you’ll learn in time. If there is such a thing as the Struggle Bus, I’ve not only been riding it lately, I’m pretty sure I’ve been steering it. Or NOT steering it, as it were. :D

What’s kept me away for so long? Over a year? Well… as it turns out, writing about a loved one isn’t as therapeutic as one might have hoped. In fact, it’s pretty painful. Just the thought of putting words to my memories of Mom was enough of a force to sink me into the proverbial pit of despair. I’ve been wholly unmotivated – and in almost every facet of my life. You see kids, I deal with depression – the real, clinical kind that’s often diagnosed with medicine and lots of therapy. I chose to ignore it for a good chunk of my adult life, believing instead that something was horribly wrong with me. It was Mom who pointed out my cheerless moods, reminded me of our family history, and so I sought help. After Mom was gone, it was inevitable that I’d slip up somewhere. I just didn’t realize how low I’d go.

The highlights of my year (or lowlights??)…

To start with, I didn’t fully comprehend how individual the grieving process would be for me and my entire family, and how the grief would choose to attack us at inopportune times. Truly, I didn’t know what to expect; but then, who does? You really can’t prepare yourself for something like this. It’s interesting to watch how each of us deals with it – from eating too much to imbibing on weekends, from not cleaning the house to sleeping all the time or not sleeping a wink, from not leaving the house to being careless at work, from worrying too much to not caring at all, from ignoring all the important relationships in our lives to simply not even having the urge to try anymore. Grief can be rather unforgiving.

And oh, how the wisdom poured in! Most people said the holidays would be hard, particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas, those heavy with tradition. Honestly? They weren’t; they were oddly comforting. Maybe I’m fortunate to have a family that chooses to stick together when things get rough. So that’s what we did. No, no… for me, it was the double-whammy of January and February that sucked balls. Short days, NO SUN, little to do, might as well be eternal darkness for all I care… BLAH. Some people said birthdays, anniversaries, and other significant milestones would be the trigger. Again, not so much. Her birthday and the 6th of every month passed by with little fanfare. She certainly wasn’t far from my thoughts on those days, but then, she NEVER is. In fact, Mom’s birthday is today. She would have been 66. And while that is incredibly sad, it’s not the thing that gets me down either…

Mother’s Day? Now that was horrendous. The annual Komen Race For The Cure, which I’d done for years with absolute joy and compassion? I was nothing but angry at all the survivors there. The return to school in August also bugged me – probably because Mom, a teacher, always loved the fresh start to the academic year. And hey, the one-year anniversary of her death? It was akin to living her showing and church service all over again. Flowers, cards, words and prayers from well-meaning friends and family. I was in awe so many people remembered. It both consoled me and tore my heart in two.

In the middle of all that madness, exactly ten months to the day after Mom died, I lost my dog. My beloved Teddy, the sweetest soul in all the world. “Bereft” didn’t begin to describe my general state of being. I like to think he left me to keep Mom company – at least, that’s what I tell myself over and over again. But it’s a poor lie.

So, between the ongoing grief over Mom, the added heartache over losing my dog, and with it, an unholy stretch of pitiless gray days, my depression returned in full force. Weeks went by with absolutely nothing to punctuate the monotony. I settled into the comforting, deadly routine of: get up, go to work, come home, put on pjs, read books, go to bed. Oh, and eat – often and badly. Wake up the next day and repeat. I was so down, that to enjoy living required effort… to just live really, really hurt.

I’m not sure what finally got me out of that overwhelming hole, because I had dug down deep. Maybe it was fear. Maybe I had a little help from above. Maybe, like my mom, I’m a fighter after all. I began to pay attention. I made note of every emotion I felt, every thought I made, and every word I spoke. It just seemed important to do so. And slowly but surely, I started to see color where only the grays had been. I also reached a turning point… a point where I realized that this is the way things will ALWAYS BE. Mom is gone – really gone. She is NOT coming back. And this is how it will always be… how it will be WITHOUT her. Different, but somehow already feeling the same. I don’t want to get used to that feeling. This has shocked me to the depth of my soul; it has also allowed me to move forward.

It’s frightening to know I may have years ahead of me without her. And while that thought is very sobering, and almost paralyzing, I’ve managed to find the tiniest, most distant sliver of hope in it. My mom can’t be forgotten. Not by us certainly (her family), not by her friends, not by this world. She was just too good. So I have to keep her memory alive, and the only way I know how is through my writing. That’s the main reason I’m back here, on this blog… to write again. Mom would tell me to; in fact, she’d be my biggest, loudest supporter. I have to remind myself of that, when the ups and downs and middle-grounds threaten to take over. So I write today because I just can’t stay away from it. And that’s my gift to you, Mom. Happy Birthday. ♥