Musings on writing

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Tomorrow I head to Ragdale, an artist- and writer-in-residence retreat in Lake Forest, IL, to spend 18 glorious days focusing on my writing. I’ve wanted to write for as long as long as I can remember. I was blessed with a career and awesome bosses who allowed me to write for clients and—god love them—a salary. The idea of being allowed the time, monastic quiet and like souls to work on my own words and ideas that have been percolating in my mind, on my computer and in notebooks is akin to winning the lottery (I’m guessing).

I’ll miss my family and friends. We just moved to a beautiful highrise overlooking the frozen lake. I’ve finally emptied the last box. Admittedly, the thought of how all that time-consuming organization might be rearranged is a little bit more than a nagging concern. But I can use the change in scenery, and I know my family can use a break from me!

My oldest daughter, Jill, is moving into her first house today. Last year when I left for Ragdale, I’d been helping with her newborn son. This year within weeks after I return she’s due to deliver a brother to Patrick Xavier (Pax) and Caitlin. For one week in my absence my youngest, Jackie, is heading to Florida as assistant softball coach to North Park University’s softball team and to help recruit new players in return for a Master’s Degree she’s earning there. I cannot articulate how surreal it is to write and read this last paragraph. Where did the time go? How did this happen so fast?

We moved into our first home 31 years ago, a few months before Jill was due. Reagan introduced his trickle-down effect, Ghostbusters was a hit and my friends made those costumes for a Halloween party! Tina Turner was asking What’s Love Got To Do With It and the clothes we were wearing are too silly to even try to describe. Phones attached to wires and walls, computers were a new technology and we got mail through the post office in an envelope with a stamp. Addresses were at least three lines long, and I don’t know of anyone who thought much of an @ symbol.

We were in our second home when Jackie arrived. Clinton defeated Bush, Sr., Johnny Carson turned The Tonight Show over to Jay Leno after a 30-year run, Basic Instinct, A League of Their Own and A Few Good Men were at the box office, and I’m pretty sure a bunch of my girlfriends and I attended our first Madonna concert.

I’ve learned of love and loss, shared laughter and shed seas of tears, survived what I was I sure I wouldn’t and experienced moments I never dreamt could happen. Very little remains the same except my desire to write. Can I capture those fleeting moments and the profound significance of so many of them with my words? Will anyone care if I do?

I don’t know that I’m writing for fame or fortune. Maybe it’s to share that universal experience of the sum of those days and months where we plan and fail, trip and fall, get back up, celebrate successes and mourn losses big and small and repeat it all, thinking that combined those events lead us to something more meaningful than the sum of those days and months.

All my life, all our lives, add up to right this moment, don’t they? We’re products of our past, but all we really know is only in this very moment. It’s been said we make plans and God laughs. I wonder what She thinks when we work so hard to share the meaning in our lives?

The Greatest Gift

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Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my mom. The lingering scent of Chanel No. 5, a reference to Gone with the Wind, a sip of scotch and water and now baking Christmas cookies—those and a million other prompts bring her top-of-mind even though she’s been gone nearly two decades.

I think of how much she’d love her great-grandchildren. She adored our daughters for the too short number of years she knew them. She was as wonderful a grandmother as she was a mom. My niece who has a handful of years over my oldest daughter remembers her the way I do. To share memories of her with my niece is priceless. She’s a reminder that those recollections are real and not just exaggerated reminiscence of the years when I, too, had the title of daughter.

Everything I know about being a mom and a grandmother are from lessons I learned from my mom. She had a huge heart, and she shared it mightily and without condition. Maybe that’s because she was so close to her mom, my grandma Toto. Toto left her husband when my mom was very young. He hit her, once. She wasn’t going to wait and see if there was more to come. Instead, she got a job in the men’s department at Sears Roebuck & Co. on States Street in Chicago and kept it over 25 years, eventually transferring to a mall in the suburbs when she moved in with us. One day my mom and Toto went downtown to cash in some of the Sears stock she’d been accumulating. It happened to be on a day the stock split. My mom and I got new cars, my sister a down-payment for a house. And Toto still had money left. They laughed about that day all their lives. Sharing it was never in question. It’s what they did.

My mom and Toto lived together most of their lives. During the war when all the husbands and dads were gone they had a studio apartment on Hampton Court in Lincoln Park. After that, Toto went back to Sycamore to live with her mom, my great-grandma Mama, until she got ill. Then they both moved in with our family in the suburbs of Chicago.

“Room in the heart, room in the home” is a saying I grew up hearing and my family exemplified day in and day out all of my life together with them.

Sometimes I’m sad my girls didn’t get a chance to really know my mom—and my my dad whose heart was just as large. I know they’d understand me better. And I’m sure they’d have a clearer idea of what I miss so much some times, particularly around the holidays. But then they too would feel that big hole in their hearts, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

It’s bittersweet to be blessed with such wonderful family only to loose them too early. Yet, I wouldn’t give up the memories and the lessons I learned from Sycamore and Glenview for anything. Funny how life works. Their loss is indescribably painful, but everything about their lives was soothing, healing. I was blessed to be born into that family and the cousins who remain are powerful reminders of my great fortune.

I only hope I can do justice to those who filled my life with so much compassion and helped guide me into my future with such a strong moral compass. While the first to admit they were far from perfect, they were the first to offer all they had to those they loved. What more can we ask from our parents? As if that alone isn’t an incredible gift. Now as a veteran parent I understand I lucked out big time. If I can be half as missed and memorable I’ll have succeeded. Even at that measure, those are huge shoes to fill.

Maybe that’s why not a day goes by when I don’t miss my mom and dad, Toto and Mama, and all the others who loved and laughed and made the most of every day they had.

How to Learn the Value of Thanksgiving

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Miss it. I was contagiously sick. The kind you can’t hide because you sound and look awful and no one wants to get near you. 50+ years and this is a first I never wanted to experience, especially because my beautiful niece and her family were joining us at my oldest daughter’s apartment, something that doesn’t happen often enough.

Jill's husband, Chris, and my granddaughter Cait at a dance. He's one of the nicest men I know.

Jill’s husband, Chris, and my granddaughter Cait at a dance. He’s one of the nicest men I know.

My firstborn, Jill, whose smile lights up the city.

My firstborn, Jill, whose smile lights up the city.

AND, as if we don’t have an incredibly selfish amount to be thankful for, Jill couldn’t drink any wine because she and Chris are going to have another baby! Patrick  turned 9 months on the 16th, so the love that we are surrounded by continues to grow, and at the end of April we look forward to another healthy bundle of love.

My "baby," Jackie," and this tall guy hanging around her A LOT:) He's Drew and he's a great guy, too.

My “baby,” Jackie,” and this tall guy hanging around her A LOT:) He’s Drew and he’s a great guy, too.

To think, when I was pregnant with my second daughter, Jackie,  I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough love left, I just loved Jill so much.  I couldn’t imagine until Jackie entered our life how love is an infinite gift. It makes me think we should make every day Thanksgiving.

My niece, Nikki, and her handsome husband Jason. Nikki is the placeholder for my mom, dad, her mom and my brother, gone too soon-and she will never know what that means to me.

My niece, Nikki, and her handsome husband Jason. Nikki is my placeholder for my mom, dad, her mom and my brother, gone too soon-and she will never know what her presence means to me.

After all, we’ve long disregarded the true meaning of the holiday, and with all the nasty finger-pointing and meanness going around, we should awake every morning to a sign that says, “We don’t need turkey and dressing to be thankful. Happy Thanksgiving Everyday!”

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Pox and Pax–there are no words.

Here are some of the people I missed so much it hurt my heart last Thursday. Some of the pictures were taken on Thanksgiving, others weren’t. And I don’t have everyone here.

But to all of you, I missed you as much as I love you, and I could not be more thankful to have you in my life. I am one lucky woman.

Cousins Caitlin & Brayden (Nik & Jason's son).. Friends for life.

Cousins Caitlin & Brayden (Nik & Jason’s son). Friends for life.

Jason & Nik's daughter, Brynlee. When I see her I get goosebumps. Mimi-mom.

Jason & Nik’s daughter, Brynlee. When I see her I get goosebumps. Mimi-mom.



He Speaks for Himself

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His babble is adorable. His tears are heart-rending. One look and you go through every emotion in the most overwhelming way. Need I say more? Now this is how to start your week!

 

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Patrick Xavier Gattorna 9 whole months today!

p.s. it is also an excellent source for a writer with writer’s block. But now back to my homework.

Once you get started…

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it’s so much easier to be nice and not nasty. Sadly, that works both ways. Once you get started on the nasty route, it’s often too easy to stay on that and not quickly get your foot on the brake and turn yourself around.

We live in a scary, contentious world. Long before we put our condo up for sale, I wrote in marker over the closet (the first place you see when your eyes spring open) “Wake up with joy, then take it with you wherever you go.”

My granddaughter was mortified. Her very own grandmother wrote on the wall with a marker?!?! I finally completely understand the concept, “being beside one’s self.”

After convincing her it was erasable and that she should never think about doing it herself because I was the only one on the planet that owned that particular kind of marker, she slowly got back to the point of the message—but I must add this was traumatizing. It took quite awhile for her to get her head around what Grandma did before she could think about what Grandma was trying to point out.

We laugh about it now. After all, she was only a young, unknowing 6-year old then. She’s all of 7 now, she gets it, and we talk about it often because she likes to sleep w/me when she stays over. The house didn’t sell, but we had to paint the room so the message no longer exists―physically. It remains as real and concrete as I imagine an algorithm is in a techies head.

Wouldn’t it be great if some similar thought could be implanted in everyone’s thoughts when they are most vulnerable and remain as tangible? We could shake them up enough so they wouldn’t forget and keep tcait+grammahe message alive so they wouldn’t forget.

Think about it. They’d get started on the right foot. Default is “kind.” Whenever that doesn’t power up, we know to call in a technician to fix the problem immediately because we know beyond any question something’s amiss. We’re able to catch it and bring someone in to fix it right away, and we’re right back to waking up with joy.

A little naÏve? No, a LOT naÏve, but worth thinking about every now and then.

You Know, We’re Just Passing Through

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In the history of the universe, or at least the galaxy as we perceive it, we’re molecules hurtling in and then out of life in a blink. Sure we’re a big part of the world to family, friends and others we interact with. But on a planet of over 7 billion, only a relative handful remain internationally renown for centuries, and that takes into consideration cave paintings and Gutenberg’s press, which allowed us to communicate fame and infamy in the modern world.

No immediate family remain who were the center of my universe when I began my journey. Thankfully there’s extended family I rely on. Still, I work hard to keep my original family alive in my heart and memory because they continue impacting my life. I wish the family I created could know the ones responsible for me. Maybe because of the Depression and World War II, my grandparents and parents seized their days so meaningfully. They’re often called the Greatest Generation, and the title is well-earned from my perspective. Acutely aware of the past, they nonetheless lived and reveled in the moment. I remember them partying, dancing and celebrating with gusto while working hard to create a better world for those they brought into it.

What strikes me more as the years pass was their selflessness. I learned of incredible sacrifices they made, rarely through their admission but from others. I’m talking about single decisions that were daily life-altering acts of kindness and compassion done because they were the right thing to do, no matter the hardships or lifelong consequences. I’m not talking about the courageous men and women who defend our country every day, rather regular people like my mom and grandmother who lived together in a studio apartment during The War. For as long as I remember, they each recalled what sound like desperate days as some of the greatest of their lives. My grandma remembered food lines. My mom, graduating high school and losing all the boys to the war. But their stories were of perseverance and making the most out of horrible situations. It wasn’t sacrifice then; it was life.

That doesn’t seem as commonplace today. We weigh decisions that might impact our life more heavily. Many seem to have surrendered the greater good for their own. Look no further than our country’s political dysfunction. Locally and globally, think about the hardships of the masses, be it economic or health-related, and the apathy and even open hostility toward those suffering. There’s famine, genocide, disease, environmental chaos—all sorts of atrocities happening among the 7 billion around the globe, and it feels like finger-pointing and victim-blaming trump humanity. The bigotry, racism, entitlement, insensitivity and downright viciousness that flood news cycles leaves me sad and disappointed.

My point? We are just passing through, and I think we should find out why and pursue it with the same zeal as my parents and so many of the Greatest Generation. Our passions and making the most of what we have are the greatest motivators. Following them make us better friends, parents, colleagues. They make us better human beings because we’re happier doing what we love. More important―call me naive―I believe we’re happier when we’re doing the right thing. It’s easy to be a cynic, complain, pass judgment on others as if we’re the standard to which others should hope to become. Despite what we may believe, we’re not going to remain top-of-mind to others very long. Gutenberg, Edison, and other inspirational, religious, political and humanitarian icons are the exceptions.

It’s rare to leave a lasting mark on the world once we’ve passed through, and even harder when those who remember us join us wherever we end up when we complete this life. Maybe we can’t change the world, but we can make our small piece of it safer, kinder and even happier by appreciating what we have and the uniqueness of those around us. What’s to lose by giving it a shot?