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London Calling

airportThere’s nothing like the nudge of a book a flight or lose your Sky Miles standing to get out the door and across the pond for Christmas. Using miles and buying one ticket, the four of us left Christmas Eve for London. The Virgin Atlantic flight attendants greeted us in red skirt suits, with matching nails and heels, their long blonde hair tucked into big neat buns, each brandishing her own strain of English drawl and cheeky disposition.

Dinner was capped off by a doll-house sized dessert, a 200 calorie 5-bite wonder, cakelove (cakelove.com). The tiny jar, no bigger than a hotel marmalade, contained the most fabulous cake and salted caramel icing. Afterward, I drifted into a delicious sleep waking in a few hours to a British version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” The only thing missing on our flight were those hot towels you get sometimes, the ones that wipe off the day.

cabCHRISTMAS DAY: Back on the ground, we got a cab and made our way down the dark pre-dawn Christmas streets toward the hotel. Taxis here look like a mini Rolls Royce, taller and with fancy grilles, and inside they’ve got a cushioned bench running the cab’s width and three fold-down seats opposite it for six people and their things.

The hotel was tucked away down a cobblestone motor court, a fairyland of lights and trees. The front reception counter had a wide mouthed jar of candy canes and next to it, a bowl of tangerines, simple old-fashioned Christmas treats straight out of The Little Engine That Could for good little boys and girls. I don’t think that book was referring to jet lagged surly teenagers, but nevertheless, those candy canes caught their eye and their hands went right in.

The reception told us the mini bars were free, and in ours we found two bottled still waters and a KitKat. Originating from York, UK,  KitKats here tasted different, strange with less sugar and more cocoa and fat, but free chocolate, nonetheless. These bars are made by Nestle and those in the U.S. by Hersey, and each has its own distinct recipes and branding. It was a delight to return to our room each day to beds made, towels replaced and the mini bar, once again stocked with two still waters and a KitKat.

piesWe were settling into our double room when I heard a knock on the door, and a jolly bellman appeared carrying mince pies wrapped in cellophane with purple ribbon. His eyes, how they twinkled, his dimples how merry! Wait, wrong story. He wished us a merry Christmas, and then he was off, certainly a spring in his step, but I didn’t wait at the door long enough to look. Exhausted, we hunkered down for a long winter’s nap.

We woke hungry and headed out to find a snack. Red double decker buses snaked around the streets as dusk fell, and we found a pub with a table by the window. Shepherd’s pie came with sweet glazed yellow and orange carrots, and fish goujons, with chips and mushy peas, and a half lemon wrapped in white mesh, an intriguing first for Evan, the lemon and goujons.

phone booth

We left the pub and walked around passing Westminster Abbey, Big Ben (covered in scaffolding), Buckingham Palace, and Parliament, and I was surprised to find each iconic giant so close to the other, a mile walk if that. Red phone booths were everywhere, as if placed on this London set, and thatched rooftops silhouetted the grey sky. In the distance you could see the London Eye, a cobalt blue Ferris wheel at first, and closer up, a slow-moving London observatory.

Back at the hotel, we dressed for Christmas dinner. Black pants from five years ago barely fit, but determined, I zipped them up. I imagined the dining room from Hogwarts, with hurricane lamps over glowing tapers, and berries and garland framing windows. Servers dressed in tails and tall hats carrying trays of Yorkshire pudding and popovers, roasts and chestnut stuffing too, and pouring red wine into pewter goblets.

christmas dinner

Instead, the dining room was low key, light and festive with all kinds of people seated and eating, some wearing gold paper crowns, one of the party favors rolled at each placemat. The multicourse menu was sophisticated, but our picky eaters managed to (somewhat) dig into their Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. After dessert we fell back into our beds, jetlagged as we would be for days.

tablesBOXING DAY: Our room came with two buffet breakfasts so each morning two of us ordered off the menu and two got the buffet, which had everything — eggs and pastries, yogurt and cereals, and sausages and grilled meats. I’m amazed how much food these hotels prepare, and hope the leftovers end up in needy hands or at a food pantry. My omelet was perfect and garnished with a lively nest of watercress, as is most everything here. Small carafes of milk were on each table, and if you preferred half and half in your coffee, you could request double cream, and they’d bring you the heavy whipping kind.

Today was Boxing Day, a day of giving and reflection and celebration. It was noticeably quiet, and we headed out walking through St. James Park, which had a pretty lake with ducks and swans, and apartment buildings along it, and home to the fattest squirrels I’ve ever seen. I wore my new velvet fedora hoping to up my style. At the very least, my ears stayed warm.

fish n chipsWe stopped in a pub and Evan ordered the fish ‘n chips, large fillets this time, and they came with “mushy peas”, which vary in presentation: some are mushy like baby food, others al dente, cut in half and seasoned with mint, and some just regular ‘ole green peas. Back outside, I noticed a refreshing absence of lit wreaths on doors and instead, they were fashioned from pine cones and plaid ribbon or simple greens and a bow. Walking through the park, we saw the London Eye and its reflection on the lake, moving so slowly it looked perfectly still.

lemon slicesTucked into a cozy drive, our hotel was a comfortable place to return. The trees outside were decorated with gold and silver balls and luscious dried orange slices, hanging from simple wires, a nod to war time decorations when many had so little. Inside, the ornate lobby was painted white top to bottom, and overhead, crystal chandeliers with cinnamon drum shades sparkled. A table by the window held two wooden trees with real handmade white and milk chocolate ornaments.

DECEMBER 27: The next day walking toward the Tate Modern museum we noticed a sliver of blue sky, rare for London. I packed umbrellas for this trip, but over the course of the week we never once opened them. Back in Atlanta, we heard it rained every single day, not showers, but epic, monsoon soakers. Oh, the irony!

With Christmas and Boxing Day over, the streets were full of people again crossing the bridge over the river Thames and past a stout bagpipe player, who posed with passersby dropping coins in his case. The river was choppy with boat traffic and along its edges pop up shops sold bric-a-brac.

Outside the Tate’s entry was the “Ice Watch” installation, two dozen Greenland blocks of ice, detached from an ice sheet, a reminder that more ice is melting, sea levels are rising and global warming is no hoax, but sadly, all too real.

The Tate’s exhibits inside sparked interesting conversations, which infused our day with a new energy, a welcome connection for parents and their teenagers.

churchWalking along the Millennium Bridge at night we saw London bridge, which is actually Tower bridge, but everyone confuses the two. In the distance St. Paul’s cathedral loomed large and majestic, its dome lit up at night, and we went inside in time to light candles and sit down for holiday hymns. Leaving, we walked past an enormous tree outside decked with blue lights. Simply beautiful.

DECEMBER 28: We explored Westminster a little more, window shopping while Ben got a haircut, and then stopping at an Italian place for lunch, fried prosciutto and chicken salad, pizza and risotto. By 4pm dusk was falling, and we walked along Victoria Street and then toward Harrods, its blazing lights pulling us in. Harrod’s was spectacular, if not overwhelming, and after an hour or so we left for Hyde Park where we came upon Winter Wonderland, a traveling holiday amusement park. Its happy energy was contagious, and we got in line to ride the München Loopin, a loop to loop coaster. Tempted to stay longer, but most rides had long lines, so we headed out, my three blokes and I, and found ourselves another pub. Boys had really good burgers, and my baked camembert with onion marmalade and toast hit the spot.

tea potDECEMBER 29: We woke Saturday and headed to Portobello Market, Notting Hill’s outdoor version of Atlanta’s Don Scott’s market, throngs of people minus the big furniture, and with loads of silver vendors. Ben saw wonderful potatoes, and we bought a serving, rich with cream, brie, garlic, onions, chives and parsley, and pastéis de nata, too, the to-die-for Portuguese custard tart. We branched off in different directions and I stopped for some mulled wine and walked with it browsing vendors’ booths. I found a pretty teapot for 20 pounds, which I bought from a lady, also mom to an 18-year-old. We chatted about our sons and her ceramics as she carefully wrapped my new teapot.

Next up was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s fashion exhibit, which was interesting albeit brief, and directly across from it the Museum of Natural History, where we peeked into the dinosaur exhibit housed in a grand lofty space. London museums are free and easy and don’t eat up your day, as some can.

We headed to Kensington Park and the Serpentine Gallery and Arcade, an architectural exhibit that changes annually, but unfortunately had been disassembled for the season a few months earlier. We walked through Kensington Park, expansive and home to Diana’s memorial fountain. Loads of songbirds were performing as if just for us, but the fountain was quiet, turned off for the day 20 minutes earlier.

Years ago, I remember waking in the middle of the night with my mom and sister to watch Lady Diana’s wedding on TV. Her life ending so abruptly gave pause to my own and its possibilities ahead. Her sons no longer having their “mum,” I felt particularly grateful to be here with my boys. The park’s large swaths of green space, the birds’ sweet singing and the hint of sun trying to appear combined to make this place full of grace and beauty and hope, a legacy I’d think anyone moving on past this world would want to leave.

Later we took a cab to Shepherd Market, and our friendly driver had a fabulously exaggerated British accent, the only one I heard up close all week. I could have lingered longer here as it was quiet and the dark streets resembled Italian piazzas, but we left to get to a store, Selfridges, that was closing soon and which Ben wanted to see. I stayed on the main level killing time with a glass of wine at the champagne bar, and the boys shopped with Ben.

We reconnected in an hour, our energy sapped in the way only a department store can sap it, overwhelmed by aggressive shoppers with too much money to burn. On our way out, we saw a bizarre sushi bar with a rotating display, like airport luggage carousels, but substitute sushi in plastic domed containers parading out on a catwalk. I never did see someone grab one in motion; maybe they were too entranced by the spectacle to reach one in time.

rum babaDECEMBER 30: It was our final full day and the boys took the buffet breakfast vouchers since Joe and I were saving up for our high tea reservation at noon. What a treat tea was, especially the rum baba with Chantilly cream, and the small perfect scones and homemade jam and clotted cream. Afterward, we all walked by Westminster Abbey, the bagpipe player and across the bridge over the Thames for the afternoon London Eye boat tour, where a lively guide pointed out interesting bridges and buildings.

Next we walked to Trafalgar Square, and saw street performers and ended up at a great pub, The Admiralty, Ale and Pie. It had a good mix of lively people and high ceilings, delicious food and a guitar player, just the pub experience Joe had been looking for, the bee’s knees, you could say. I had rarebit and a mini steak and mushroom pie with thyme and onions – divine! – and a pint too. Kids had burgers and Joe, a pint and a Thai inspired pie, and he nibbled on boys’ food they didn’t finish. We later rode the London Eye. One revolution took 30 minutes, and being inside an enclosed car with 20 people (complete with crying child) made me a little impatient, but the expansive city views were impressive.

barBack at the hotel and in no rush to pack, Joe and I went to the bar for a drink. The Sardinian bartender was fun and chatty, and we talked about all things Italian. I charged his dead iPhone for him so he could share pics of his very much alive and adorable 1.5-year-old son, Valentino. Grateful to get a few bars on his phone, he kept refilling my prosecco. We ordered calamari, amazing, flash fried and with an Asian twist, and the boys came down later for a final fish and chips and Caesar salad. Then it was time to pack and sleep as we had to be up before 6.

NEW YEAR’S EVE: We silenced our alarms through a few snoozes but managed to get up and out, showered and packed. The car was on time waiting for us outside in the dark. We loaded our things in back, climbed in and made our way toward Heathrow, passing the queen’s house, darkened but for two silent lit Christmas trees flanking the entrance.

I will remember this Christmas week as magical and exhausting and new, and will recall the many walks exploring London together, all of us now carrying new memories. I held on to the water bottle from the mini bar and keep it filled by my bedside at night. I’m planning a high tea at my house, too, and will try my hand at Devonshire cream and scones, and maybe even a rum baba. As for those daily KitKats, those I left back in 2018. Cheers!

buckingham

 

 

Simmer down

doorway

It’s that time of the year when the world falls in love. The simple act of wrapping up a gift and giving it, and the delight once it’s opened. Waking up Christmas morning, coming down the stairs. Traditions, togetherness, decorating, lights. It’s sharing, it’s connecting, it’s a moment you want to relive over and over.

Christmas is extraordinary. As the calendar moves down to the end of the year, we send friends off into the season with our good wishes, hugging them goodbye before the holidays hit — big long hugs like you mean it, because you do. It’s ok to linger on these; it’s Christmas for crying out loud.

When we give out these hugs, these bursts of love, what are we wishing others and what are we wishing for? Is it the silent sparkling night that is Christmas Eve and that quiet pre-dawn grace that comes to blanket the next morning? Hope is packaged up in all sorts of forms getting us to and through these holidays, holy days, giving us a new start. It’s not a package, it’s a feeling. It’s not a present, it’s presence.

It’s different this time of year. Most mornings leading up to Christmas I find ornaments on the floor and ribbons missing from packages. The cat is having a ball after we go to sleep. Nothing is broken. It’s ok.

Earlier this month I pulled up to the post office mailbox struggling to push my bills in the slot overflowing with cards – gorgeous red white and gold envelopes all vying for a place in the mail. With so many good wishes pushing through to get where they want to go, my annoyance melted away and I realized people are good natured at their core and they want to send love.

A few weeks before Christmas as I tried wiping down my dirty laptop screen, my fingertips inadvertently swiped the Spotify icon and Santa Baby came through the speakers. I couldn’t figure it out and uncomfortably rushed to quiet it, the noise I didn’t start. But I realized it’s here, the season, and I should pay attention, listen even. I let Christmas songs fill up the room, not knowing what was coming next. I didn’t choose this; it chose me, and I went along for the ride.

Each year around Thanksgiving, Christmas comes in like a lamb, ramps up like a lion and then tiptoes back out as a lamb. Come and gone in a twinkle, the season can be a bumpy sleigh ride juggling Christmas balls, bills and bonbons and gearing up for full throttle acceleration and the exciting skating skid into Christmas. A slow simmer dances into a rolling boil, then a simmer and a sputtering flame and it’s a wrap. We’re all done with wrapping, baking, eating and drinking and are left cozy and content. We stand there in those precious moments slack jawed at the astonishing beauty around us and the enormous dollop of gratitude swirling in the air that seemingly came out of nowhere. And which quietly ushers its way out.

Now we’re at the bottom of the calendar, the end of the year, which so recently felt merry and bright, and we’re left basking in the afterglow we know is fading. With Christmas now behind us, how can we keep that low simmer going, those good feelings in the warming drawer waiting for us when we are ready to slow down and nourish ourselves and each another? Surely they’re still there, aren’t they?

It is Boxing Day today, the day after Christmas which in the UK was traditionally a day off for servants and the day when they received a Christmas Box, a Present, from the master. The servants would also go home on Boxing Day to give Christmas Boxes to their families. It’s a day of giving, reflecting, celebrating and sharing the abundance you have to give.

My Christmas Box to you is that you find more presence with loved ones, friends, family and most importantly, yourself. Love to you this season and the next and the next. Let’s keep it going. Merry everything.

the eye

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Self Care

It’s here! December, in all its glory: eggnog, sugar plums, peppermints and parties. Will you make the naughty list or the nice? Will you yield to temptation but deliver yourself in January? I’m reminded of a hand towel I saw in a store downtown which read, “Don’t blame the holidays, you were fat in August.” How’s that for encouragement?

Every Christmas I make batches and batches of cookies, usually my favorites, with the idea that I’m giving them as gifts, which I actually do.  As I bake, though, I nibble on the dough and then the warm cookies, which sets my palate into a no filter overdrive, which means now anything goes — cheese straws, gingerbread or maybe even Bailey’s over ice, which is oh so nice. Dinner goes by the wayside and it looks like snacking is the menu until bedtime.

Each year I put exercise clothes on my list, because while I don’t particularly like walking my dog in the cold, I’m convinced I’m going to get out there if I have on new gear — the new me, a veritable page out of Athleta. We promise ourselves loads of things and envision our return to our 20-something bodies, yet we keep right on eating whatever is within reach. And let me assure you, there’s a lot.

Don’t blame the holidays. You were fat in August.

This past October I changed things up. I’d been hearing about the Whole 30 program from several friends who all attested to being noticeably transformed by their month-long  journeys, so I wanted in. Not sure what I was looking for, but I needed a reset from summer travels and eating and drinking too much and moving my son into college. This plan isn’t for everyone and definitely not for those who can’t say au revoir to alcohol, sugar, grains, dairy, gluten and legumes for four (yes, we’re talking consecutive) weeks. Basically, it’s goodbye to your old life. Everything you typically touch is pretty much on that list, that is, unless you follow this plan.

What I assumed was going to be the biggest concession was actually the easiest. I switched from 2% milk in my coffee to unsweetened almond milk, and it was surprisingly better than tolerable. It just worked. No sacrifice there. Alcohol was a different matter. I hadn’t realized how often I’d included that glass of wine or two while I was cooking, catching up with friends on weekends or always accepting the glass my husband poured me at night after dinner. I needed a stand-in and craving mojitos, I muddled mint into club soda squeezing in lots of lime. This worked at home and out in bars, which still had mint on hand from summer drink menus. Out, I fit right in, “cocktail” in hand.

I discovered the secret was feeling full, and the less deprived I felt, the better. Potatoes were allowed on the plan, and I used my potato peeler daily. I added onions and red bell pepper and folded them into omelets or alongside sautéed steak and garlic at dinner. Sweet potatoes were good too, and I mostly ate them roasted because to enjoy a baked sweet, you need a generous pat of real butter, off the list this month. Another memorable meal was Brussels sprouts sautéed with crumbled Whole Foods sugar free sausage. I drank loads of water, too, and that filled me up. Handfuls of cashews covered the sugar and fat cravings I had, and over the month I went through an entire Costco jar.

Salads made the menu most days and I got creative adding sunflower seeds, chopped avocado, red onion, and roasted meat or fish. Over and over there were gorgeous meals which I found myself photographing before inhaling. I treated myself to the really good tomatoes from Whole Foods – true stand-ins for homegrown – and haricot vert and organic potatoes from there too. Ghee was my clarified “butter” and along with olive oil, my foods were for the most part lubed. Avocado was great for adding the fat and creaminess I craved, and I had good luck over the month finding them ripe and ready.

I discovered the secret was feeling full.

I rolled along still challenged until the half way point which was the month’s sweet spot. I felt the accomplishment behind me and it seemed all downhill from here. However, coasting into week three found me tired of the rotation of foods with little hope for change. I felt hungry and the fistfuls of cashews weren’t getting it done. I knew what I wanted, something so perfect, so easy, so off my list. I wanted pizza, just a slice, but a really good one. I ignored my cravings and rounded week three, planning what I might eat when I could let myself out of this maze.

You aren’t supposed to weigh yourself during the month and I didn’t. At the end I had lost four pounds, less than I thought, but four pounds is four pounds. The weight came off the hard to lose areas, which for me were my outer thighs. I got narrower over the month and clothes fit differently, which was great. Lying in bed at night I could feel my ribs and trace the outline of my entire rib cage. My stomach was still soft (Pilates is always ready when I am), but it had definitely flattened and as for my digestion, my system was textbook. Every. Single. Day.

When the month ended, I was proud of the work I put into each meal. There had been no packaged foods, no quick grabbing of kettle chips (Non-GMO and all), no standing with the refrigerator door open eating slices of Swiss cheese, no looking for something to fill the void. No buns with my burgers, no yogurt in my smoothies, no corn, no bean burritos. Everyone around me was eating normally and I found I didn’t envy them but preferred my approach — the big salads and gorgeous avocados and omelets and seeds and such. Afterward, I wasn’t particularly overjoyed returning to “regular” eating and never did find that perfect slice. I eased back in slowly but didn’t notice any major food intolerances, though I was more bloated after pasta and legumes than before.

Now December and the holidays are here. I think I’m ready to take on the baking, the eggnog, all of it and come out the other side just fine. The secret will be moderation and adding exercise, proven advice I’m returning to. I couldn’t juggle the Whole 30 and exercise because it’s just too much. I don’t need white bread and sugar but when I do have some, I’m going to be selective and it is going to be good. Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures and this program reinforced that. If you frequently fill your plate with colorful foods that you sliced and roasted and prepared yourself with gorgeous garlic and herbs and seeds, and then sit down and let it nourish your precious body, you might find you feel cared for. Loved even.

Happy holidays.

tomato

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Again

I am a nester. Every house I’ve lived in, every apartment I’ve rented, each space I’ve occupied is in me still. Moving through them, living and sleeping in them, you can’t help but take on a sense, a flow, an inimitable soul that sticks to you long after you go. It’s a smell, a memory, a repeating loop of sights and sounds. Hardwoods creaking, a daddy long leg in the tub drain, calloused feet walking down a gravel driveway, the orange glow of ceramic heater tiles, getting mail with a key, watching summer rain from a screened porch, I can’t shake these memories, and I wouldn’t want to.

Growing up I treated my room like my apartment and rearranged my twin beds into various configurations, switched out the plants in pots clamped around my standing lamp. Things on the felt bulletin board over my desk could easily come and go which minimized my mom’s don’t put holes in our wallslecture when I’d occasionally want to hang things outside of my supplied rectangle, and then of course move them, too. Eighteen years there started my itch to change up and play with my space and set me on a lifelong course of doing it. I eventually moved away as did my parents who divorced and sold the house. Now a girl from my high school lives there and they’ve changed it to suit their own family. I still want to roam those woods (that have been replaced with a lawn) and look out those windows again and wonder. Even though my parents have long ago passed, these memories stay present.

As a little girl, I remember reading The Little House, a book about a well-loved house perched on a hill with sloped grass and shade trees, and the challenges it faced needing love and care. Its illustrations showed carefree children romping around it amid a colorful changing seasons backdrop, and as it gave its all year after year, each occupant was better for it. It had a soul and you rooted for it as you saw the city began to surround it and disrepair settle in.

randall mill

In summer when we stayed outside late past dark, I’d look up at our own house and get a great sense of security, as if it would be there until the end of time and there was nowhere else that I belonged. The charming tied back curtains’ silhouette in the windows, the zinnias climbing the fence outside and the moon above magically decorated this already warm glowing place. The house was my beacon, wrapping itself around everything I knew and loved.

Leaving a place is weird – you get flooded with memories and the instinct to protect and preserve the space you’ve lived in. I moved from my own little brick house perched on a hill a decade ago, the first home we bought as a couple, yet I vividly remember life there. We knew it had been loved, but a forgotten yard and dowdy avocado trim inside and out said otherwise. Like peeling an onion, we went about undressing it layer by layer, and the kitchen floor alone had five: sheet vinyl, indoor/outdoor carpeting, sheet linoleum, asbestos tiles and the pièce de résistance under it all, hardwoods. Every Sunday we filled the curb with piles of debris which were gone by Monday’s trash pickup. We touched everything, but the moving parts (electrical/plumbing/ hvac) we left to contractors, and we went about undoing shoddy work and restoring the house with our own enthusiastic vision of grace and dignity.

Sixteen years happened in a flash, and as our kids grew and more stuff accumulated, I began to want more elbow room. A big old Victorian house nearby caught my eye. It had good bones and intact details, and so we went for it using equity in our little house to buy the big one. We’ve been loving on it for ten years now in small ways, but it needs more. We’ve hung on to the little house and are now landlords. Every time we list it for rent, I worry that we won’t find a tenant, that we will go months into debt and that we made a terrible mistake. Then out of nowhere someone else inquires, I show the house and things fall into place, those fears tabled until next time.

Each tenant has nudged us in their own way to improve the house, tending to things we overlooked when we were there. And they’ve learned things too: don’t peel a bag of potatoes and think the garbage disposal will cooperate. Don’t install your own home alarm system and think it won’t derail the doorbell we had in place. If you leave the shades down all the time, don’t be surprised if the neighbors wonder. Don’t assume your large SUV will fit in our 8’ driveway and if you do, expect the stone wall to buckle as you back down. Sometimes I glorify the time I spent there and want to move right back and walk into my old life, but I remind myself that home is where I am, and besides it’s fascinating to see others’ vision for life at our house unfold.

So far we’ve had five different tenants. First came the Irishman, G. He had recently split from his wife and our home had a good vibe – the calm he needed after the storm that is divorce. He loved it like we did, and that it was so close to an international farmer’s market. He often entertained, and dinner parties extended his dining table well into the living room. G appreciated the finer things in life. His cappuccino machine was serious, the size of a mini microwave. He turned a small bedroom into his walk-in wardrobe. My boys loved his accent and stories of Ireland when he was a boy there. Unfortunately, G lost his job so couldn’t finish out the year.

Next came S. Also divorced, she had two girls who lived with her part-time and a mom nearby who helped her feather the nest with custom valances and a shower curtain. It was fun to see my son’s former room dressed in pink and white gingham, dollhouses and ballet shoes – with nary a truck in sight! She cooked and entertained too and loved the house, even planting a garden out back. Her boyfriend visited often, and they eventually married. His son slept in my older boy’s room, which now had a tv and cool sports memorabilia on the walls. My boys were envious wishing that’s how their room could have looked, if only I would have allowed a tv. Poor things. After three years, S and her hubby wanted to buy their own house, and so they moved, saying they were sad to leave our house which they’d grown to love.

Next came T with her boyfriend and they quickly signed the lease. Like S and her husband these two were crazy in love and also seemed to enjoy setting up the house together with their two cats, whom I especially liked. It was a cozy haven for them in between going to work, to workout or shopping at the nearby farmer’s market, as our Irish tenant did. They soon became engaged and married several months later. They made the house their own and filled it with family photographs and plants and music. Eventually, they also wanted their own house and found one to buy just a few blocks away.

We found ourselves again on the hunt for a good tenant and had what we thought were serious leads. Some were a “sure” thing, a lawyer who definitely wanted the house and then bailed at the 11thhour – another, a woman who assured us that her ex whom she had mistakenly remarried “shouldn’t be a problem” because she had a court order keeping him away which she “hoped” would be effective. Then an older couple, R and his wife, arrived, tape measures in hand and in love with the place, hoping to be considered if the others didn’t pan out. The others weren’t contenders after all and R and his wife moved in. They loved old houses and ours worked well for them, retired and downsizing. They hired their handyman to pressure wash our driveway (a first!) and garden shed and steps. They brought in their big pie safe and other large dark antiques they’d amassed over the years, and their interior designer arranged their furniture and art. They also loved the nearby market and walkability of our town six miles east of Atlanta. However, nagging health concerns began in their second year and R wanted a walk-in shower and quieter street, so they left for the suburbs.

Once again, I posted the house online and a new renter, P, from western Europe, seemed particularly interested. He took videos of most rooms for his wife who still lived in their city out of town, and they decided after a few weeks that they wanted the place. With two small children and no pets, we had ourselves a deal. Now, it’s lovely inside with their white furniture and European minimalist décor. They’ve already planted a garden and made memories there, decorating for Halloween and now Christmas. Their kids look out the windows and smile and wave when I approach to visit, and they love the house just as we did. Once again, the house is full of new life and energy.

They say you can’t go home again,  but you can invest in the home you’ve got, give it your all and make new memories there. The old ones will come around from time to time, but there are more ahead if you can shift your gaze from behind. The house we gave everything to has returned the favor and become a home for people who are helping to pay our mortgage, allowing us to start over and love on another house. It will be a few years before we can finish everything, but this house, like the others, is ready and willing.

We’re all looking for home. Big or small, lavish or lowly, beyond the obvious protection from the outside, it is so much more. Home seeps into your insides and stays there. There’s no place quite like it.

 

 

Plane View

plane view

I saw Hoda Kotb today in New York about to start her third hour of The Today Show. I waved through the glass and she waved back! It was raining, but her sunny smile lifted me, exactly what I needed after settling my son into his dorm.

The morning before was the big move-in. We were happy, packed the right things (and they fit), the roommates were nice, and his succulents were digging their 14thfloor window. We left him there that morning since he wanted to get a feel for the place and grab lunch with his new buddies, and we drove around to find our own lunch. The morning’s high started to fade, and a strange quiet floated around us as we ate, cloaked in the bizarre enormity of our visit. My stomach was queasy, as if I had a root canal planned that afternoon, bringing the day down a few notches. A margarita offered a slight salve, temporarily tabling the pain.

We went about our day but didn’t hear from Benjamin who was busy with orientation. After the 6pm parent meeting, the three of us walked around outside close to his dorm in case he would want to join us for dinner. We looked up toward his room, craning our necks to find the 14thfloor. We were paparazzi waiting out a Ben sighting. It’s the one with the art leaning in the window, rightDoes anyone remember how low his shades were pulled? We needed a sign. Nothing.

Looking for a restaurant, we kept staring at our phones. Still nothing. I saw an ice cream truck inching along, its sick I took your child and he’s in my creepy van music droning, as if from an old Victrola. That same queasy feeling returned. We settled on pizza, telling the hostess table for three — but it might be four — and she got us a booth.

We walked the eight blocks to our hotel. 10 p.m. and still nothing. He is busy, I told myself, wondering what he did all day. The silence was deafening. I know he’s fine. He’ll move along carried by the stream of this city, lifted by friends and the good energy college brings. Certain he’s eaten, but where? Did he go to the dining hall or outDid I transfer money to his account? My monkey mind stopped long enough for me to sleep.

Up early the next day before anyone, I headed out on a fabulously long walk, ten miles if you count the whole day. After a few hours, I stopped for coffee, wondering how his first night went. Was the bed comfortable, roommates nice, dining hall decent? I thought of Maurice Sendak’s book, Pierre, about the family who came home to find their son missing, eaten by a lion. Where’s Pierre? Forget Pierre, where’s Benjamin? Maybe the city gobbled him up. I wanted to turn it upside down by its legs, give it a good shake and have it cough up Ben. Then we could all exclaim, “Ben was in there!” and  give him a hug and reunite, all happy and grateful.

Where in the world is Ben Greco? Will I get to see him before I leave? I bought him his favorite, Twizzlers, which I kept in my bag with the toiletries he forgot, as if carrying them around would will him to call. Still nothing.

Getting up to leave I checked my phone once more, and voila!, there it was, a shiny new text. He’s up, needs art hooks and two-sided tape, and might be free after his 10am session. A feast for sore eyes, the text lunged me back into our rhythm, our connection, and I felt a new purpose scanning my phone for a store. The packing, road trip, move in and now worry had worn me out, but all the walking smoothed out the rough spots. I reminded myself that while this may be his time, it’s mine too. Time to unlace our fingers, stop hovering, which served me well once upon a time, and park that helicopter. He knows the way home and will return.

It’s well documented that this college drop-off is a big deal for families. Friends tell me we should have a drink together to cry about the children we’ve sent away. Everyone keeps asking how I am, as if they know what’s ahead, seen my labs and feel the sympathy I’m evidently going to need. I’m scared to cry about this; maybe I’ll look like a loser, a wuss or the tears won’t ever stop. Instead, I’ve honed the ability to build up my eye’s tear duct muscles and am expert in holding it all back. I’ve felt it coming a few times but willed it to stop, willed my eyes to dry, shamed them into it even. So far, it’s working.

His roommate’s mom from Staten Island is darling and keeps texting me with news about the guys, hoping they’ll visit her one weekend. A mother hen, she went to IKEA on move-in day to buy furniture to hold their appliances — a microwave, toaster oven, even a rice cooker. She called me in the car, disappointed, wondering why I hadn’t taken a photo with her on my way out. At the height of move-in-my-child mode, I never considered this trip could bring me new opportunities. We were only a block away, so we stopped the car, and I walked back to the dorm so her husband could take our picture. She’s texted me every day since. I guess I’m not the only one missing her son.

So what’s there to cry about? I’m just a mother who dropped her child off at college. He’s healthy, in a great city, so what’s the big deal? It’s the shutdown of communication that gets me and the new normal with which I now must grapple. I won’t let myself text him often as I’ve read too many articles warning me what not to do at drop off and beyond. Let him reach out to me, they say. I know he will and when I see him again, he will have changed. We will soon fly home and walk into our own new normal, changing too. Our old and new selves will weave into something bigger, and we’ll see bits of each when we come back together again. And again. I know all of this.

Still, I feel it. A big chunk of my heart is walking around without me. I think it’s the strong part that holds back my tears, lifts me up and pumps B positive blood reminders through my veins. So why am I left with the weak part lamenting this and remembering that? I was the lens through which he saw so much. For this next journey, he will see things that I won’t, and vice versa. It’s not just walking, running, college and beyond. There is in-between stuff for which no mother can prepare you. It’s curiosity, confidence, growing up and seeing life and yourself through your own lens. Wherever he is, I know he will always be in my heart. Turns out, my muscles aren’t getting it done. Those damn tears, they keep returning.

I’m on the plane now heading home. The city below is alive and sparkling, and I can see the Empire State building near his school. He’s out there, down there, somewhere, and I’m leaving my heart in New York City. When you decide to have children, you sign up for your heart to break into pieces and live in other places. I’m a collision of equal parts proud, glad and sad. The memories are messing with me, tugging me to go back in time to tender moments, little hands and lullabies.

After we landed and got home, I noticed we each wandered into his room at separate times, looking around in the dark, the pillow and lamp gone, art taken off the walls. We feel him everywhere, while his stuff, his shoes, the physical evidence now lives six states away. It’s not a death, it’s life. It’s not negative, it’s positive. Still, I decided to torture myself and open his closet door. Gone, all of it. His brother came home from school today and as he often does, asked, “Where’s Ben?” He stopped himself, smirked and rolled his eyes. Duh.

What a trip it’s been but what a trip it still is. There are new memories ahead, family get togethers, conversations, work to do and places to go. I’m going to dry my tears, dust off my running shoes and get back to the business of life here with my family. I heart New York and I heart Benjamin, but mostly, I heart myself enough to let the sadness give way to joy. There was yesterday and there is tomorrow, but I think I’m going to tune in to Today.