Tag Archives: Family

“The Best Grandma Ever”

I’m sitting here this morning listening to Andrea Bocelli sing the exquisite “Sancta Maria” from Pietro Mascagni’s famous opera, “Cavalleria rusticana”. It’s one of a handful of CDs and photographs we carried away from an out-of-town family reunion, brought together for the memorial for Cheryl’s Mom, Anne, who passed away last month.

As she had in life, Anne continued to bring together her extended family. We spent the three days renewing old acquaintances and making new ones, talking about old times we knew about, and many we could only imagine. Prior to the gathering, we had put considerable effort into digging up old photos, piecing together Anne’s family history, which seemed shrouded in

Grandma to be in her 20s

Grandma-to-be in her 20s

mystery. Like many in her era, she didn’t talk much about her often-challenging past, and like so many in our era, we didn’t think to ask about it … until it was too late.

I – and even Cheryl – didn’t get to know Anne well until she lost her husband about twenty years ago. Perhaps the two of them had “lived in each other’s shadows” for her widowhood propelled Anne into a series of new adventures: traveling solo and striking up conversations with unlikely strangers, enrolling in self-development workshops, and, of course, visiting us more frequently (all despite her fear of flying.)

It was also during this time that Grandma joined us for a spell during our half-year in Costa Rica. She and two friends toured some of the back roads with us, sleeping uncomplainingly in bug-infested mountain shelters that let the light through the walls. I recall one night when we stood on a barely cooled lava flow of Mt. Arenal, watching and listening to orange-red rocks tumble toward us from the glowing peak. I could tell that she was nervous, but she wasn’t going to let that get in the way of a good adventure.

Mount Arenal at night (This was the 2008 eruption.)

Mount Arenal at night (This was the 2008 eruption.)

Our two boys, now young men, had nominated Anne as “best grandma ever”. When they were still too young to fly alone, they began a practice of each visiting Grandma for a solo week every summer. They must have been good times as both boys continued these annual visits well into their late teens – at least one of them had his first legal drink courtesy of Grandma. (The drinking age was lower where she lived.) More so than the boys’ parents, Grandma was game for the kinds of restaurants and movies that teenaged boys appreciated: Star Wars, the Matrix, Bruce Lee, and who knows what else. They drove her golf cart and probably lived in a junk food heaven.

Grandma also collected her extended family on other occasions. In the late 90s, she discovered Maui. The occasion of her discovery was not a happy one: the favourite aunt who’d invited her passed away while out in the surf. We were quite surprised when Anne elected to return to the same condo the following year,… and included all of us: kids, spouses, and grandkids. “Do you mind that I’m spending your inheritance?” she’d ask Cheryl. No one objected.

The last time Grandma took us to Maui

The last time Grandma took us to Maui

She did this twice more over the ensuing years, hooking the family on Hawaii forever. One of our boys talks of moving there, and both of them were quite happy to join the reunion a couple of years ago, which Grandma was unfortunately not well enough to enjoy. I suspect that Maui will be a spot of choice for future family reunions.

Anne was also a thoughtful conversationalist, well read, and interested in many subjects. Always when we saw each other, she and I would start conversations about politics, or demographics, or religious fundamentalism – and then continue them for months afterwards by email. While she held strong opinions, she was always open to persuasion by a good argument.

As for her opinion of me, her son-in-law, I’d say that once she’d sized me up and decided I would be good for her daughter, she was content to trust us, and never interfered in our lives. This sizing up took place quite quickly, thirty years back, and she’d reached this conclusion despite the fact I’d appeared out of nowhere, had not yet officially divorced my ex, and Cheryl and I had just applied to immigrate to Australia. I’d like to think Anne was a good judge of character: she was “no nonsense” and would size people up quickly. She also knew that “hands off” was the best policy once her kids had left the nest: a good example for Cheryl and me with ours.

One of our earlier visits

One of our earlier visits

Whatever challenges Anne may have had in her early life, she continued to have quite a few in her later years. Her husband died young. Several members of her immediate family became increasingly ill in their later years, and relied on Anne for daily care. By the time the last of them had passed away, she was exhausted. And determined never to set foot in a hospital again. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Like Mascagni’s sacred aria “Saint Mary”, which comes from an opera about seduction, revenge & adultery, Anne had her contradictions. Despite her generally healthy lifestyle, she was a lifelong smoker, and in the last few years, it caught up with her. Her declining health pushed her away from the activities she loved: golf, championship bridge, and time with friends. As she weakened, she resisted suggestions to move into an assisted living complex, … until it was too late, and she landed in a hospital ward instead. Over the next couple of years she bounced back and forth between the hospital and a senior’s complex. It took a toll on her “can do” attitude, and affected her family as well.

Grandma with our niece

Grandma with our niece

The last time I saw Grandma, she had made it out to visit us at Thanksgiving. She and I were discussing the idea of cohouseholding, one of the themes of this blog that Cheryl and I are investigating for our retirement. Anne turned to me and said, “You know, Paul, here’s what I wish I’d done 15 years ago. I wished I’d gotten together two or three of my widowed friends, and all moved into a big house together. I wouldn’t be in the condition I’m in today.” I had to agree.

In preparing for Grandma’s memorial service, I learned things I’d never known about the impact she’d had on our boys. One of them, now a producer of marketing videos, put together the DVD for the celebration of her life. He was relating to me one of his favourite memories about Grandma, one that was unfamiliar to me.

At the time, he was 12 and Grandma was traveling with us in Costa Rica. We were on a tour of a number of smaller locations around the country. All the arrangements for these two weeks had been made by our guide and driver, Alexander. This particular day, we were staying at a hotel run by an expat who thought himself above the “help”. He had put Alex in the “servant’s

Already the "world's best grandma"

Already the “world’s best grandma”

quarters” and hadn’t invited him to join us for meals. My son told me that Grandma would have none of that. She insisted that Alex be treated as part of the group, … or else, … and offered to pay extra if necessary. She must have had her way because Alex ate with us for every meal.

Clearly this had a deep impact on my son, and he clearly still sails by her sense of fairness a dozen years later. Such is the impact that the “world’s best grandma” can have.

When and if our turn comes, may we rise to the task.

PS. Here’s a link to my post about my own Mom.

 

 

 

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Small Meditation on a Big Marriage

Paul is postponing his planned post due to a death in Cheryl’s family.  Instead, here is a piece he wrote three years ago about his parents’ relationship – just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Last Friday was my 28th anniversary – of my wedding to an inspiring and wonderful woman. We spent the day apart. Instead I was diving into a weekend workshop on self-expression, knowing that my efforts there were fully supported on the home front.

Sharing about my marriage with the other participants and seeing how it moved them, I was again reminded how blessed I am to be in such a loving relationship.

My teenaged parents, five years before their wedding

My teenaged parents, five years before their wedding

So many people tell me that what my wife and I have is rare, almost extinct. That may be. But another anniversary last weekend reminded me of other examples – right in my own back yard.

Two years ago last Saturday my beloved mother passed away at the age of 84. When I was going through her effects, I found, framed and faded and hanging on the wall, an old vinyl 78 recording of “their song”. Sixty-five years earlier, Mom and Dad had courted to the musical poetry of “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.

I knew this of course. On their 40th anniversary, we had gathered friends and family in an intimate banquet room, where my own wife and I surprised and delighted my parents with our wavering a-cappella rendition of the Kern classic.

My parents remained “an item” for over sixty years including the time of their courtship. Their friends still thought of them as they did when they were first “going steady”. They were smitten with each other their whole life through. My brother used to say that if you looked up the definition of “devoted” in an illustrated dictionary, you’d see a picture of Dad. He wasn’t far wrong.

Wedding Day in 1947

Wedding Day in 1947

After Dad passed away, Mom continued to live her life as the vibrant woman she was. She was lively and healthy, involved in numerous activities, a fantastic mother, mother-in-law, grandparent – and a wonderful friend to many. She helped many of her peers deal with the advancing years, and when she needed a little more action, she hung out with new friends in the younger set.

Yet vibrant and alive as she was, half of her was no longer with us – the “Dad half”. That was our daily experience of Mom for the next six and half years. When Mom learned that her time with us was running out, sad as she was to be leaving us, she was – I believe – very happy to be “following Dad”. She told us many times how her lifelong love affair with Dad had made her life as full as any person could wish for, and that she was completely satisfied with how her life had turned out. I doubt I will ever have the privilege of witnessing another spirit whose final days were as full and serene.

When the time came to find a home for Mom’s ashes, the answer came strong and unbidden to me and my siblings. So a few weeks later, the three of us gathered around Dad’s grave on a chilly afternoon, where we sprinkled Mom’s ashes over it – in the warm care of Dad’s loving arms. Our three loving spouses were there with us in every way: a most fitting sendoff to a love that had begun more than sixty-five years earlier. I like to think it’s a story that will be repeated.

During their overseas years, 1947-1952.

During their overseas years, 1947-1952.

More than once.

(Dedicated to my brother and sister, and our three loving spouses. To those who believe in love. And of course, to Mom and Dad.)

References

A Peace of Christmas

We’ll be taking a Christmas break from the blog, but before we go, Paul shares some holiday memories.

I’ve never fallen out of love with Christmas.  I’m thankful for that.

Somehow the madness of the holiday season – the crowded malls, the in-your-face commercialism, the social occasions with relatives you can’t stand – have all passed me by.

My personal Christmas is still infused with the memories of more than fifty years ago.  The smallish city I lived in then was blanketed in peace and tranquility on Christmas morning, with ghosts of solitary tire tracks on snow-covered lanes.

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...

Scrooge’s third visitor, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To this day, some of my favourite seasonal music were the songs I first heard on an old Columbia Masterworks 10-inch Christmas LP – sounds that came out of hiding every December to evoke the holidays season:  “Patapan”, “Gloucestershire Wassail”, “Sing we Noel once more”, and others one hears too rarely these days.  The music was similar to that which played on my favourite Christmas movie – then and now – the black-and-white version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim.

For a few glorious years in my childhood, the family assembled at least thirty five members from cousins to great aunts and uncles for a dozen hours of feasting and games.  Not willing to choose between the English tradition of ham and plum pudding, and the North American tradition of turkey and trifle, the family did both – one meal at one house, then everyone heading over to a second home for the other tradition.

Now perhaps as young children, my siblings, cousins, and I were protected from harsh realities such as family feuds.  But I doubt it.  I really believe that all thirty five of us were happy to be there, and everyone got along.  We were a family that truly enjoyed each other’s company, playing games, singing songs, and generally being jolly until the night overtook us.

Somehow I’ve been able to carry that sense of Christmas peace and love and family with me for half a dozen decades, despite the many changes the years have wrought.  The grandparents, great aunts and great uncles are long ago departed – most of the parents, aunts and uncles too.  Cousins and siblings have scattered far and wide.  The city has grown substantially and no longer shuts down completely for a couple of days in late December.

All the older photos were destroyed in a flood.  At this time, the gathering was under a dozen.

All the older photos were destroyed in a flood. At this time, the gathering was under a dozen.

I think my secret has been to keep the spirit and not fret the form.  A few years ago, when we were still buying a few Christmas presents for close family, I made a decision that I would henceforth avoid the box stores, malls and traffic jams.  I would eschew the best bargains for presents bought in the spirit of Christmas.  I would choose a quiet area of town, where stores were walkable, and do my shopping on foot at a leisurely pace, and without really knowing what I’d find.  I’d stroll the relatively quiet streets, chatting to shopkeepers, and seeing what caught my eye.  I always found what I needed. While others all around me were complaining of crowds and Christmas commercialization, I felt the same inner peace I’d felt in my childhood.

Not many years later, I noticed that Cheryl was finding Christmas more stressful.  Despite pacts with parents and siblings to eliminate gift exchanges, as our kids were growing up, it seemed as if old rituals were evolving into new obligations.  Holiday parties were becoming impositions, and even shopping for Christmas meals seemed to involve fighting crowds and traffic.  So we made a further pact with our two sons that we’d skip the presents altogether and put the money towards a Christmas holiday in Hawaii or some other tropical destination.  As it turned out, Cheryl’s Mom chipped in generously on more than one occasion, and we’ve enjoyed several low-stress extended-family tropical Christmases in recent years.

Christmas in Hawaii:  stars in the gift shop.

Christmas in Hawaii: stars in the gift shop.

More recently we’ve had to adapt to new realities.  Changes in family dynamics mean that getting everyone together on Christmas Day is rarely possible.  Both of my siblings are now grandparents, and the grand-kids may be claimed for the day by other families, taking their grandparents with them.  One or the other of our boys may be invited to Christmas dinner with their girlfriend’s family.  So, we roll with the punches.  Some years the day itself is a quiet one – this year, for instance, we may be on our own and spend the evening taking in the light displays in the neighbourhood.  Our family Christmas dinner may be on the 24th.

Still, new traditions are forming.  In some recent years, we’ve held a variant of the “widows and orphans” party on the 26th – we’ve invited friends and acquaintances who perhaps have no relatives nearby, and who we think might enjoy the sort of  fun, songs, and games my family used to enjoy over half a century ago.  This year we’ve invited about fifteen from a variety of backgrounds – we’re hoping to play Murder, a game we learned from one the recent immigrants I’ve been assisting, and who’ll be joining us that day.  Like our childhood games, this one requires no purchases and no supplies beyond a few pencils and scraps of paper – only a willingness to slow down and enjoy the family atmosphere.

It doesn't take much to enjoy Christmas.

It doesn’t take much to enjoy Christmas.

Will things change again?  No doubt they will.  The arrival of grandchildren – not yet on the horizon – will herald another major shift.  Gift-buying may once again be part of Christmas for us.  The “peace” of Christmas may only be found after the little ones fall asleep on the couch.  One day we may be celebrating Christmas in a retirement commune.   I have one other dream – a bucket-list promise to take Cheryl to a small village in the Alps for a traditional Austrian Christmas.

Thinking back over the years, I can remember many other sorts of Christmases.  Gatherings with family friends where my father would sing – the only time of the year I ever heard that.  A decade later, it was tobogganing with friends down the hill behind our country home..  Ten years after that, Cheryl and I were living in Australia and passed several Christmases on the beach under a blistering sun.  One year, while camping at Byron Bay, NSW, a Christmas-eve flash flood left us drying everything on tree branches the following day, while we barbecued crabs and sucked on fresh mangoes.  A few years later we were snowed in for days at my parents’ hilltop home, periodically hiking down the hill for supplies.  There was one low-key Christmas in Costa Rica.  More recently, I joined a Christmas choir one winter to sing at the light show at the botanical gardens.  And so it goes.

Main accessible beach from Byron Bay ...

Main accessible beach from Byron Bay (Australia), close to the swimming pool. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The same theme runs through them all:  a sense of peace, and love, and family – externally shaped by the conditions of the day, internally unaffected by the ebb and flow of life.

If I have any trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, I have only to play an old musical favourite like Patapan, and my heart once more fills with all those wonderful Christmas gatherings of family and friends.

Have a peaceful holiday season, both inside and out.  See you next year!

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Back from Costa Rica, into the “Real World”

In the previous two posts, we talked a little about why and how we came to spend half a year in Costa Rica with our two boys, aged nine and 12, and touched on the irreplaceable education we all four acquired from this experience.  Here Paul talks about the aftermath.

All good things must end.

We ran out of money in Costa Rica perhaps ten days earlier than we’d planned, and so booked our travel back home around the time of the first few showers of the impending rainy season.  Including our air fare, as well as various tours and admissions, our average cost of living for the entire six months was about half of what it would have been had we stayed home.  Since we’d canceled our lease and put everything in storage, we had few other expenses during that time.  However, there was other financial fallout.

We spent one morning "helping" make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We spent one morning “helping” make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We quickly rented a new home, but before we’d even had the storage containers delivered, we learned that our company had suffered a major crisis in recent days.  My partners had taken the unprecedented step of laying almost everyone off – including themselves, Cheryl and me.  So there we were with a new lease and no jobs.  I won’t say it was easy to recover, but things did work out.  Cheryl, who had been the work-at-home Mom, eventually found a full-time job outside, and she still works there ten years later.  I picked up the slack at my former company by sub-contracting there part time, allowing me to take on more of the at-home parenting role for the next few years.  The company never fully recovered and we wound it down a few years later.

We had originally thought we might buy a house again, but the experience of being mortgage-free – together with our employment uncertainty – had us defer the purchase.  By the time our finances looked better, the real estate market looked overpriced and we stayed out.  We still rent – not a bad thing, as it turned out.

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Despite all this, Cheryl and I never wavered.  This was one of the best things we ever did for our kids.

Still, I thought I’d best verify this again, and so I asked our two boys, now in their 20s, how they would sum up their experience.  (They had not yet read the earlier blog posts.)

Al, the younger, said emphatically that it was the best thing we’d ever done as a family.  It wasn’t just all those exciting adventures, including all those new animals he “never knew even existed.”  Most important, he said, was just that “time out of time”, when he and the rest of us could escape from the relentless schedule of everyday life, and for a few months, follow our spirits and our curiosity.

Dennis, who was still 11 when we were planning the trip, even wrote me something:

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

I remember vividly the day my parents told us we would be moving to Costa Rica for six months.  We were walking through our favourite city park when they dropped the bombshell on us.  I remember being pretty upset at first, especially when they said I couldn’t bring my Game Boy.  Fast forward 13 years later, and I can safely say I have absolutely no regrets regarding the trip.  I got to be surrounded by warm weather, awesome animals, cheap delicious food, and learn the Spanish language.  We lived on a farm, in an apartment, in the house of a Costa Rican family, in hotels, motels, inns on the mountain, bungalows by the beach, you name it.  I have dozens of interesting stories to tell from that six-month period, and it was definitely an experience I hope to repeat someday with my own kids.

Whew!  (I hope he still says that after he sees the picture in Part 2.)

Yes, it was worth it.  If you are reading this, and considering creating your own family adventure, and holding back … just go for it.

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw - and that means spunky monkeys!

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw – and that means spunky monkeys!

After I’d returned from Costa Rica, with the failing fortunes of our business partnership, I found myself years later confiding in one of my favourite career counselors.  I had the impression that my peers in the high tech industry looked askance at me because I had other interests – because I was willing to put my job on hold for half a year to go traveling with my family.  She told me that, in her experience, many parents work their whole lives, hoping “one day” to be able to do what Cheryl and I had done … and many never do.  It was good hear her acknowledgment.  Since that time, even some of my peers have admitted to taking inspiration from what our family did.  Some have admitted to envy.  Some have even compared me to the

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

fabled Mexican fisherman in this story.

I was reminded again of my priorities and Cheryl’s when I read “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, a short review of a book by the same name.  The author, a palliative nurse who worked with the terminally ill, had made a short list of the things she heard most frequently from those who were running out of time:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Referring to the second point, she went on, “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

During our family’s six month adventure in Costa Rica, we truly experienced each other’s companionship, our children’s youth – and, truth be known – our own.

What do you want to experience?  What will you miss if you don’t?