Growth

Resurrection is the reason for our hope and joy

We all have a story.

For families, the story includes those of parents, children and the ones we love, living life intertwined, each person affected, for better or for worse, by the joys, Crossonsnowmountain
sorrows, and choices of those whose stories touch ours.

Sometimes, it is in the darkest moments of our stories that we become aware of our own capacity to love.

My epiphany came on Mother’s Day, 2015.  It was not, perhaps, an epiphany to match that of Thomas Merton, the very famous Trappist monk who had an epiphany of love on a street corner in Louisville. But it was my epiphany and all the more meaningful for me.

I was sitting in the locked-down lobby of the county jail while waiting to visit my son. I had been visiting once or twice a week for the past two months, and every time, as I sat waiting, I was thinking, “This was never part of my plan. How did we get to this place?”

My first visit was surreal … being buzzed in, the police officer checking my ID behind a protective shield, the glass window behind which my son stood when he was brought down, the phones we used to communicate, the prisoner’s uniform. It just seemed like a scene from “Law and Order” instead of one from my own family story.

I realized that, in jail, they use the more politically correct term of inmate instead of prisoner, but prisoner is what my son really was – a prisoner of opiates long before he ended up behind that glass window in that uniform. I felt sick, heart-broken, guilty and alone. Surely, looking around the lobby on that first visit, I didn’t belong here, and neither did my son. Still, here we were, at the cross.

But in one instant on Mother’s Day, in that dreary jail lobby, I realized that all of us, waiting for our turn to visit, had entered, in our own way, into the life of Christ. Like the Apostles, each of us, no matter how different and in spite of our own weaknesses, were there because we loved someone, hoping to make a difference in their life by our simple presence – and I heard the words of the powerful Taize hymn, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.”

In the Gethsemane stories of those who sat waiting with me, I heard their unique, yet familiar, struggles – broken marriages, broken relationships, drug addiction, the death of children, bad choices, bad friends, loss of faith, loss of family, suicide, terrible financial difficulties and, sometimes, homelessness. Some stories were so heartbreaking I could barely contain my emotions, and I was grateful, and privileged, to have exchanged promises to pray for one another.

Not long after Mother’s Day, my son called to tell me he had been paroled. His time in jail had been good for him. He was drug free, though he would need continued support to stay so, and he was positive and prayerful, looking forward to a new chapter in his life. “See, I make all things new,” filled my heart.

I remember breaking down in tears. “My son is coming home,” I thought, and I wondered if God might have had a similar feeling on the day of the Resurrection. Surely, the God of Love would have felt the pain and anguish of his only beloved Son, and would have known the joy of Jesus’ coming home, the joy of new life. Certainly, Mary did.

How far we have come, my son and I, since the days when an exceptionally inquisitive toddler would find ways to escape the locked doors of our house and wander happily in his pajamas in the new winter snow in our backyard. Loving him has taken on new forms as he’s grown into a man. One of the most meaningful has been waiting with him in Gethsemane, and walking with him as he embraced his crosses. It has not been easy. After all, the hallmark of a mother is to fix everything, to take away pain and make things better. Part of the growing up process for moms is accepting that there are many things we cannot control.

For us, as Christians, Jesus’ Resurrection changes everything.  With love at its heart, the Resurrection is the reason for our greatest hope and our greatest joy. It allows us to accept the invitation to new life that is inherent in every cross, and to hold on to our faith in God’s promises.

For me, the Resurrection has become a new focus of my faith, one that as allowed me to believe, when others didn’t, that my son would experience his own resurrection through his singular faith in God.

That is reason for a very joyous, “Alleluia!”


We must open the gift to discover what's inside

My mother loved receiving gifts, as most of us do, but for her it seemed to be a sworn duty to IMG_0199
display as many of them as she could, and once displayed they rarely came down.  It didn’t matter if the gift was a small, wild-haired troll or a beautiful porcelain sculpture of Rapunzel, with golden locks cascading around her feet.  They all shared a place of honor in our home.

Among those gifts were a variety of painted and jeweled eggs, most often given to her by my dad. Their beauty was in the remarkable designs and craftsmanship on their shells.  So when I received an exceptionally lovely porcelain egg music box from a special friend several years ago, I assumed all the beauty was on the outside.

I placed it behind the glass doors of our hutch, for protection, but close to the front so I could see it every time I walked by. But today was different. After having a heated “discussion” with my guardian angel earlier in the morning, and not being surprised if she were to take the day off, I stopped in front of the hutch and stared at the gilded egg.  Something inside me said “open it,” and for the first time, upon closer inspection, I realized the egg was formed of two separate halves.

I pulled the halves apart and there stood an enchanting guardian angel adorned with rhinestones.  Finally, the guardian angel prayer written in gold letters beneath the egg made sense, and I wondered if it were possible for me to be any denser.

I immediately moved this very thoughtful gift to my desk, leaving the egg open so I could see the little guardian angel who brightens my day.  She also serves as a reminder of a few things: Guardian angels are very patient with our humanness, friends are a true blessing for which we should be grateful, and never be impressed solely by outside appearances.  You never know what waits on the inside.

" ... let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart ... " 1 Peter 3:4


Love, like bread, needs to be made and remade

My mother may not have been the best of cooks, but there was never a night or a Sunday afternoon Hand-making-of-bread-2-1307330-1599x1070 when she didn’t put a home cooked meal on the table in spite of working every day. She had some specialties, like a mean macaroni salad and an awesome salad dressing which still gets me rave reviews when I make it for family or friends. But when it came to making meatballs, she should have taken lessons from her sister, my dear Aunt Ginny.

Aunt Ginny’s meatballs were robust and tender, full of spices and homemade bread crumbs, and it seemed she always had a pot full of meatballs and sauce on the stove when my cousins and I came to visit.  On the other hand, my mother’s were small and hard and, I discovered by accident, made a loud thud if they fell on the floor.

My mom never mastered the art of making shankleesh like my Aunt JuJu and Aunt Jeanette, so I always relished the Sundays when a mound of this (mold ripened) cheese, covered with spices and drizzled with olive oil, was sitting on the kitchen table with warm Syrian bread when we came to visit after Mass. In spite of the fact that my five cousins were almost always there, along with any number of adult family members visiting from downstairs or down the street, there was always enough.

And who didn’t love when my Aunt Evelyn came to family gatherings at our house carrying a pot of stuffed grape leaves or a bowl of tabouleh? I swear I remember someone taking a good number of those stuffed rolls and hiding them in a separate container in the back of the refrigerator “for later” when most of the guests had gone home and the immediate family was left to clean up…and eat leftovers.

But I also learned from my mom how to make some of my favorite Syrian food: riz and lubee (rice and green beans), mamool (dough stuffed with chopped nuts and sugar), and pita bread.

I especially loved the days when she made bread. The anticipation of warm round loaves coming out of the oven, of pulling off a piece and spreading the inside with real butter and then having a good strong cup of tea was heavenly. But sharing it with family seemed to make everything taste better, and, certainly, the animated conversations of a house full of Syrian women, and the occasional courageous male of the family, was always memorable.

But I didn’t realize how much work went into the bread making until I went through the whole process by myself as a young married woman – the measuring the kneading, the rolling, and then the waiting. The experience was a lesson that helped me see the truth in a lovely quote by writer Ursula K. Le Guin:

“Love doesn't sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.”

In looking back, I've realized her words are a beautiful description of the most important work of a family - love ... made, shared and made new all over again.


Spend today riding dragons into the future


Dragonon woodMy mother had a fondness for dragons, and it caused a tussle between us on more than one occasion.

You see, whenever she came to visit she would steal the little pink plastic dragon that came with my sons’ Fischer Price Play Family Castle.

One summer weekend, when I took the boys to visit my parents in Albany, I noticed the dragon sitting on the book shelf in the spare bedroom. Well, that was the last straw! We had a dragon showdown.

My mother's  excuse was that my children did not care about the dragon, and were always leaving it on the floor. My logical response, that a house full of young children, six to be exact, are likely to leave toys on the floor, fell on deaf ears.

I confiscated her ill-gotten gains, and my oldest son decided the best course of action was just to hide the dragon when Nanny came to visit. Eventually, as the boys got older, they gifted her with the little pink bit of fantasy and it moved to a prime spot in my mother's dining room hutch.

My mother never completely lost the heart of a child, and her fondness extended to fairies and unicorns and the little people of the old sod, though she had not an Irish bone in her body. She loved the romance of pirate adventures, mystical places like Brigadoon and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table.

I can imagine her delight had she been able to see her youngest grandson, now 6’ 2”, greeting customers with his heavy Scottish accent at a pub in the shire of the N. Y. Renaissance Faire, and to take a step back in time with other costumed guests to a little piece of Elizabethan England, made a bit more comfortable with flushing privies!

From my mother I caught the enchantment of myths and the romance of days gone by. From my father I learned to appreciate the endless possibilities within dreams for the future. But from the example of how they actually lived their lives, I learned to embrace the gift of the present, full of potential and the need to be God's love for others.

As Thomas Merton wrote: “Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.”

 

 


A little bit of love in a muffin tin

JiffyNever be without a box of Jiffy muffin mix.

That was the bottom line for my mom, who loved to give guests something fresh from the oven.

As a mom who worked outside the home, quick and easy was a welcomed choice, and you couldn’t get any quicker or easier than Jiffy. Still, we loved the small yellow muffins hot out of the oven, sometimes with a pat of butter or a dusting of powdered sugar. But on weekends, when she had more time, she would sometimes make ma'amoul, a Syrian pastry, or Syrian bread – both worth the time and effort.

She was proud to share her ma’amouls with my cousins when family came to visit. I suspect there was a bit of a rivalry between aunts as to who could make the best ma’amoul, but if it meant my mom would keep trying to make it better, I was happy to be the taste tester.

Today, it’s the one family favorite I continue to make.

My mother-in-law, Muriel, on the other hand, preferred Entenmann’s. My sister-in-law once said to me, “If I ever bring an Entenmann’s cake to a party, shoot me!” We were both about home-made in our younger years. Not so much anymore!

I have often recalled the many animated, and sometimes, loud “discussions” that took place at the table set with a plate of muffins or ma’amoul or coffeecake, and sometimes wonder what it was like at Mary’s house during those years of Jesus’ grounding. (You know, after Mary and Joseph find the 12 year old in the temple after he was missing for three days? You think there’s not a reason why we don’t hear from him again until he’s 30? Mary was no push-over.)

Of course, my less than theological version of Jesus’ time at home, working as a carpenter alongside Joseph, does not do justice to a time that served as a profound experience of Jesus’ growing “in wisdom and grace,” before beginning his ministry at exactly the right time – God’s time.

Still, I wonder what it was like for guests at the home of Mary and Joseph while Jesus was there.

What did Mary serve her guests? What did she bake? Did she participate in the conversations? What were the loud discussions around the table?  And assuredly they would be loud if they were about religion! Did guests from Nazareth, their home town, chastise Jesus, as one of their own, for thinking he knew everything? What was the dynamic between Jesus and the guests, or even Jesus and Joseph?

So many questions, so few answers, other than those that might be expected from the culture of the time. But thinking about the unknown life of the Holy Family, reminds me that they were just that – a family, like mine, with the same challenges and joys. And Mary was a mother, like me, dealing with all the same issues and relationships that we each deal with, from putting muffins on the table to following a child to the cross.

I often think how good it would be to have Mary to tea, and muffins, and talk about the old days.


A mother's presence is full of lessons

Frogs on love seatAs we continue the work of restoring our home in Ortley Beach, so heavily damaged from Sandy, it’s interesting to note what survived the storm that took whole houses from their foundations.  A sentimental survival from our yard was a small cement statue of two frogs sitting on a love seat. My father, who gave the statue to my mom on the occasion of their 25th anniversary, had the umbrella under which the frogs sat painted with the anniversary dates of their wedding.

The statue is beat up, but the cracks and chips only serve to remind me of what life, and marriage, is all about. It also is a reminder, for me, of the two different people who were my parents. Two people who taught me many things, but each in their own way.

While my father taught me much with words, written and spoken, my mother taught me by her presence. Her gracious hospitality, her devotion to her family, her integrity, generosity and willingness to sacrifice for those she loved are all lessons I learned just from being in her presence.

A look at Scripture reveals the same for Mary. There are only four times in the Bible when we “hear” Mary’s words – when she speaks with the angel during the Annunciation, when she meets Elizabeth and she speaks the words of her Magnificat, when she finds Jesus in the temple  and when she intervenes at the wedding in Cana.

Throughout the rest of the New Testament we come to know Mary simply through her devoted presence with Jesus throughout his ministry.  We do not hear her speak, but we know she was there, in all the moments of his life, in the joy, in the disappointment, in the pain, in the grief.

As a mother, I have turned to Mary often as I travel those moments with my sons, and now their families, as well, continuing to draw strength and wisdom from Mary’s example.

When I consider the last words of Mary recorded in Scripture, I think that perhaps there was no reason to record any more, for her few last words reflect the most profound wisdom ever offered: Do whatever he tells you. 

What else is there to say?


A mother's appreciation for Inspector Gadget

Inspector_Gadget1While babysitting for my delightful grandson, Jacob, my oldest son was showing me where to find all the accoutrements for making coffee. Much of what I needed was on the top shelf of an upper cabinet, difficult for me to reach.

“How does Nikki reach these things,” I queried, referring to my petite daughter-in-law who stands at least several inches shorter than me.

“She has go-go gadget legs,” he quickly retorted. “You should remember that; all mothers get them in the hospital when the babies are born.”

Thinking back to the popular cartoon show, Inspector Gadget, which my sons often watched, I had to laugh at the image, but also at the fact that he was basically right. New mothers seem to find a way to do anything they need to do, as if they have been given superpowers, or at least outfitted with a never ending supply of James Bond paraphernalia.

Certainly, I had my own version of go-go gadget legs, arms, fingers and eyes while raising my six sons. But I’ve been noticing the past few years that the warranty must be up, because my seeming superpowers have, for the most part, petered out.

I think it goes hand-in-go-go-gadget hand with the empty nest syndrome; the many legged version of the supply and demand principle.

But things are looking up. Today, when my grandson was moving precariously towards the edge of couch, my go-go gadget knees kicked in and I lept across a space insurmountable just months ago. I actually beat him into the kitchen when his two- year-old legs propelled him too close to the hot stove. Even he was shocked.

And now that grandchild number two has arrived, I’m sensing a resurgence of power.

It seems the empty nest was just a time and space to refuel and recharge all the moving parts for round two.


Navigating the sea of change in an empty nest

Empty%20nestWhen the oldest of my sons was preparing to leave for college, I spent the last night of our family vacation sobbing like I would never see him again. Even as I cried, I tried to analyze why I was behaving so irrationally, considering he was only going to Pennsylvania.

 “It must be all about our mortality,” I mused soulfully, assuming there is always a profound, often obscure meaning behind all human behavior. It couldn’t possibly be as simple as I was going to miss him.

 By the time the third son was leaving, it was a quick hug and kiss at the dorm room amid piles of unpacked stuff, because my husband and I wanted to hit the local diner for lunch.

 When the fourth and fifth sons decided college was not their thing, I figured the empty nest syndrome was a vague promise that would never be fulfilled in my lifetime, though there was a sliver of hope when son number six went off to NYC to study drama.

When the revolving door began spinning with their subsequent (temporary) returns home in well-timed succession, some staying longer than others, I was certain I would never know the “pain” of having the house to myself.

But I have since learned, as so many before me, that the empty nest syndrome is not so much a physical space phenomenon as it is an emotional one, and no matter how many big feet are still roaming through the house, it’s possible, or more to the point probable that, as a mother, you will, at some point, feel alone. It seems the empty nest is not your house as much as it is your heart.

The beautiful thing about the heart is how it grows to hold more love, more people, new experiences and creative energies. If we open our hearts to all things new, it will never be empty.


For moms, even slippers can be running shoes


It seems to me the adage, “You can’t fool mother nature,” was really a take-off on the original, “You Girlonrailroadtrackscan’t run away from your mother.”

I will never forget the first day I really tried. I don’t remember the circumstances that initiated my bolt out the front door, around the corner to my cousins’ house. They lived directly behind us, our yards touching in a corner across a few feet of fence.

As I ran like the devil was chasing me, I remember thinking, “She’ll never catch me. She doesn’t even know where I’m going.” Silly me.

I rounded the second corner, up their gravel driveway and concrete porch steps to pound on the front door. “Let me in! She’s after me!” I yelled, certain my cousins would know who “she” was.

Relief flowed over me as I heard the click of the front door latch and a voice saying, “I’ll let you in.”

But it took only a few seconds for the emphasis on the “I’ll” to sink in, and to realize the hand reaching out of the door to pull me in was my mother’s.

I don’t remember her words after that, though I am certain there were many. I just remember thinking “how??”

I began to realize that you should never underestimate a mom when it comes to doing what’s best for her child, and that includes vaulting over a split rail fence in slippers and an apron so your daughter doesn’t grow up believing she can get one over on you.

With the wisdom of age, and being a mom myself, I’ve realized it’s not so much a matter of running away from mom, but of mom always being present, and unconcerned about the cost, when a child has a need, even a need for correction.

Thanks, Mom.

 

Image at Pinterest, Alida Bigham, Black and While photos, found at 500px.com.


True strength comes from surrender to the Word of God

Annuncia-thumbDifficult times in life often encourage us to wonder how other people do it. How do they navigate the losses, the pain, the simple day-to-day struggles that life brings with it?

 

Mary is one of those people. We look to her with wonder, considering the challenges of her life as Jesus' mother and the profound losses she incurred. I often wish that Scripture had recorded more of her words and her actions, but even without them, we may find a key to her strength in one sentence of her Magnificat: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” No pre-requisites, no codicils, just surrender.

 

In a homily for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Benedict XVI taught a lesson on Mary and God’s word that is worth reflection whenever we need to be reminded of the source of our wisdom and strength. He said, in part, “Thus, we see that Mary was, so to speak, ‘at home’ with God's word, she lived on God's word, she was penetrated by God's word. To the extent that she spoke with God's words, she thought with God's words, her thoughts were God's thoughts, her words, God's words. She was penetrated by divine light and this is why she was so resplendent, so good, so radiant with love and goodness.

 

“Mary lived on the Word of God, she was imbued with the Word of God. And the fact that she was immersed in the Word of God and was totally familiar with the Word also endowed her later with the inner enlightenment of wisdom.

 

“Whoever thinks with God thinks well, and whoever speaks to God speaks well. They have valid criteria to judge all the things of the world. They become prudent, wise, and at the same time good; they also become strong and courageous with the strength of God, who resists evil and fosters good in the world.

 

“Thus, Mary speaks with us, speaks to us, invites us to know the Word of God, to love the Word of God, to live with the Word of God, to think with the Word of God. And we can do so in many different ways: by reading sacred Scripture, by participating especially in the liturgy, in which Holy Church throughout the year opens the entire book of sacred Scripture to us. She opens it to our lives and makes it present in our lives” (2005).