Just walk beside me… (Wednesday’s Wisdom)

When I was in my 30’s my mom gave me a copy of Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Though we often talked about the books we read, it was rare for her to give me a novel out of the blue. She loaned me novels, but she gave me cookbooks. Outside of my youth, it is the only novel I think she ever gave me as a “just because you need to read this” gift. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it was life-changing. It changed how I saw my mother. It changed how I saw myself. It changed how I saw my girlfriends. It changed how I saw motherhood. It changed me. I wondered if that was her plan. I suspect it was.

I read the book quickly. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me think, about my mom, about myself, about girlfriends. I had never thought about my mom having had “a life” before children, even in my 30’s. I didn’t know who she had been; what she had dreamed about, what she regretted, what surprised her about her life? There were many questions I never got answers to.  She was young when she started a family. Only 21. I wonder if she knew herself at all. There are pictures of her before marriage. She studied art. She was in a sorority in college. She had girlfriends. She had a world before motherhood and marriage became her world. She loved being a wife and mother. And, gradually, those two roles edged out “girlfriends.”

I don’t remember my mom ever meeting a girlfriend for coffee. There were no shopping trips or long phone chats. I know she had girlfriends when I was born. I know one of her closest friends was my godmother.  I don’t know if that friend moved away, if there was a falling out, or if my mom’s schedule became so full with family obligations there was just not enough of her to go around. I suspect there was simply no room. A husband and 9 children filled her world. She was often squeezed out of her own schedule. She wasn’t a martyr, but it doesn’t take a mathematician  to calculate the chances for some “alone time” on her calendar. By the time her children were of an age she could leave them at home without a babysitter, she had been parenting for close to 24 years. I never thought about what that must have been like…until she gave me Wells’s novel.

Though I certainly wasn’t the “most popular” in high school, I had a fabulous group of tight-knit friends that supported me through those years. We had fun. We created memories. We confided. My closest friend in high school encouraged me to date my husband and stood next to me when I said “I do” 4 years later. We are still friends today. We share almost 35 years of history together. She knows things about me that no one else does, and still she loves me. There is comfort in that. Though we no longer live geographically close and our lives have taken very different paths, we keep in touch with the help of email, Facebook, and phone calls. She will always be a part of my fabric and I, hers.

A few months ago, I watched the “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” movie (starring Sandra Bullock) with my daughters. It was fun to share with them. My older daughter asked if I had any “Ya-Ya’s” that might kidnap her someday. I thought of my girlfriends from high school. I thought of others from college. And there were others from more recent years. I simply said, “Yes, but they wouldn’t kidnap her.” We talked about my friends, past and present. We talked about the importance of girlfriends, both casual and close. We talked about “Ya-Ya’s” that help us grow as women. My younger daughter asked about the “oldest friendship” I have. I told her about the friend I made in kindergarten. It has been more than 40 years and we are still friends today. She said that she hoped she would be able to say she had a friend of 40 years someday. I hope so, too.

Last month, I was indulged by my sister. She is one of my very closest friends; she is a “Ya-Ya.” This month, we will both celebrate birthdays. (However, her birthdays started well in advance of mine–just sayin’! 😉 ) In early celebration, she flew me to San Diego for the weekend and bought us tickets to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”–a flashback to my high school years. I hadn’t had an entire girls’ weekend away since…Well, I couldn’t remember ever having one. For booking reasons, she asked what we should name the trip. The choice was obvious; we called it the “Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The weeks that lead up to our weekend were filled with excitement and giggles. There was a lightness in my step, and there were calls spent “planning.” The joy spilled over to my children and my husband. My girls learned how to do the “Time Warp.” My husband laughed.  They witnessed the importance of friendship in my life and they honored it. On Friday, my husband and the girls emerged from warm beds at 3:30 AM to drive me to the airport. In the car, we all celebrated  “Mom’s Weekend Away.”  Three days later, they got a better mom, with cheeks sore from smiling.

Perhaps, it is that weekend away or the approaching holiday season. Perhaps, it is simply the reflection that comes with middle age. Either way, I have been giving a lot of thought to the friends in my world. I have mentioned before that I have been blessed with many good friends. I don’t know what I’d do without them. But then, I don’t know what I did to deserve them either. “Friends” appears often on my “Thanksgiving Chain.” (Linking the past to the present and the future ) They have helped keep me accountable, offered counseling, been my extra “mommy eyes and ears”, and have both literally and figuratively lifted me up when I couldn’t lift myself. They ask why I am crying and understand when I say, “It’s just menopause.” I love my husband, but certainly don’t expect that level of understanding from him. My girlfriends have made me laugh, made me cry, made me think and helped me forget. They have helped me become the woman, wife and mother I am.

Looking back, my mother succeeded in changing me with that book. My children were babies when she presented it to me. In a way, I learned lessons about friendship I had never learned growing up, and yet I heard my mom’s voice throughout the pages of that novel. The other day, I spent two hours on the phone with my “Ya-Ya” in Kansas. (Long–unitnerrupted–phone calls are one of the many perks that come with older children!) We schedule our calls much like we would schedule coffee if she still lived in town. We are confidants. We are giggle buddies. We are honest mirrors. There is no topic “off limits.” At least not that we have found. Yesterday, we talked about what we learned from our mothers about friendship. We talked about our friendship and how it helps us to be better women, wives and mothers. We talked about our husbands’ support of our friendship. And, we talked about our daughters. We hope that they, too, remember the blessings their friends are, even after they become wives and mothers.

Yes, I have been changed by my “Ya-Ya’s.” The first was my mother. Albert Camus wrote, “Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” To the women that have walked beside me, be it only for a day or for more than 40 years,  I thank you. I am a better woman because you have. And, to my “Ya-Ya’s,” I am trusting you, on all that is holy, to guard my secrets! 😉

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Linking the past to the present and the future.

Family traditions are the foundation for some of my favorite memories. I love traditions–especially holiday traditions. Traditions link the past to the present and the future.  Family customs that are shared, yet very personal, have the power to bond one generation to another and a new family together; they create a sense of belonging. I wrap myself in warmth when I reflect on the traditions of my childhood. It is the same warmth I feel when I look upon the smiles of anticipation on my children’s faces as they eagerly remind me of this or that tradition, especially at this time of year.

When I was growing up, my parents would cart all 9 of us out to shop for a new Christmas ornament every year. It was always followed by a special lunch out. As a child, I looked forward to that day almost as much as my birthday. As a parent, I have a great appreciation for the courage, patience and logistical planning that went into that day. It was a tradition my parents had begun with their first-born. Eventually, we each had our own box of ornaments. We were responsible for packing, unpacking, and most importantly, hanging our own ornaments every year. Over the years, there was the predictable jockeying that went on for the “best ornament locations” on the tree. That competition became just as much a part of the tradition as did selecting a new ornament. Somehow, the oldest always seemed to get his in the most prominent locations, closest to the top of the tree. He was a falconer and he collected “bird ornaments.” Every year, he claimed “the tails needed room to hang down.” And every year, my (self-proclaimed) “funniest” sister would threaten to cut the tails off his blasted birds. In true sibling fashion, she would squish her ornaments up around his, chaffing him just enough to irritate, but not enough to get in trouble.  Any one of us could look at the tree and name whose ornaments were whose. It was bitter-sweet to watch the once full tree slowly empty as my older siblings moved out and took their boxes with them.

Like my brothers and sisters, my box went with me when I left. It was strange decorating my first Christmas tree. I topped it with an angel I had found at Sears. I missed the star that had always topped the family tree. It seemed so bare, so small. It looked nothing like the trees I grew up with, but in that box was a lifetime of Christmases past. Each ornament held a snap shot of a year in my life. My first, a small doll in a red felt dress, was selected by my mother. Every year, I hold her in my hands just a little longer than all the rest before I place her on the tree. I cherish that connection to the past. I cherish that she is a part of my present. I never tire of the stories that are told and re-told each year as I decorate the tree with my husband and children. We share memories. We fill in gaps. We are bonded by tradition. The past and present are woven together by a tree that holds both.

Ornament shopping is one of the many traditions my family looks forward to each year. Our holiday excitement begins its ascent each Halloween–probably because it triggers the start of my husband’s laborious excavations through boxes of seasonal decorations in the attic. I have always thought of November 1 as the “official kick-off” to the holidays. I love November; the crunch of fallen leaves, the need for cozy sweaters, the weather-induced excuses to slow the pace, stay indoors and snuggle up together.

When my girls were small, I initiated a new tradition in our family–the “Thanksgiving Chain.”   Every November 1, colorful construction paper littered the table and construction began on our paper chain. Everyday leading up to Thanksgiving, each of us would take a strip of paper, write one thing they were grateful for and add a link to the chain.  It taught our kids about gratitude, and reminded me of all we had to be grateful for before the hustle and bustle of Christmas overwhelmed the household. Some years, in lieu of a chain, I would tape a large cornucopia made from construction paper to the wall that was slowly filled with paper fruits and vegetables with words like “family”, “my pets”, “friends” and even “chocolate” scribbled upon them.  Frequently, each girl would add more than 1, 2, or even 3 items to the chain or cornucopia. By Thanksgiving, we were visually reminded of the abundance in our lives.

I don’t remember how old my girls were the last time I hung that weathered cornucopia or built a  “Thanksgiving Chain.” Sadly, as children age, traditions are slowly packed away in a box of memories. Busy schedules and maturing minds edge out “child-like” traditions. As my children have grown, clandestine shopping trips to conceal Santa’s identity gave way to admonishments to stay out of mom’s closet. Homemade baked goods were replaced by “boxed chocolates” for friends and neighbors. And, the years of handmade crafts remain boxed in favor of mature, minimalist decorations.

Times change as children get older. Sometimes. Over the last several days, I have thought about the upcoming holidays. It has not escaped me that my husband and I are fast approaching a season of change. It won’t be long before our daughters take their boxes of ornaments and decorate their own trees. Will one want the “Rock n’ Roll Santa”, a gift from my mom, that plays every year? Will the other ask for the star that graces the top of the tree–the same star that topped the tree as I grew up and was passed on to me by my mother?  Will they hold their first ornament in their hands just a little longer than the rest before they place it on the tree? Hopefully, they will cherish their connection to the past.

This was the first year both girls didn’t dress up for Halloween. I was sad. A chapter had closed, and for just a bit last night, I mourned the Halloween’s past. In bed, my mind wandered to the approaching holiday season. Time has passed too quickly. Would this be our last year to ____________?  I felt gratitude for our traditions and the memories they have helped create. And then, I remembered our November tradition, our “Thanksgiving Chain,” tucked away long ago when the girls grew “too old.” Last night, I lay awake calling forth pictures of the little hands that had “trick-or-treated” together so many years. The same hands once helped create a paper chain and picked out Christmas ornaments. I thought of all I had to be grateful for over the years, and I decided, this year we would build a “Thanksgiving Chain” once again.

As soon as I mentioned the chain to the girls, they knew immediately what I was talking about. Enthusiastically, they jumped in. Construction paper littered the table, strips were cut, and sentiments of gratitude were scribbled across the strips. They remembered; the past came forward into the present and memories filled the room.  And, I felt grateful for this time, this opportunity to share a tradition and create a memory with my children once again.

Happy November, everyone!