Piped ashore, but still rocking


Francis and I being piped ashore on July 29th; photo taken by Francis’ cousin, photographer Marianne Mangan.

At 7:55 am Monday morning, the base loudspeakers blared the five-minute warning, alerting us to the upcoming daily broadcast of our National Anthem. I cracked an eyelid, squinting at the bright sun blasting persistently through our closed blinds. With a mop of tangled hair stuck to one side of my forehead, I heaved my torso reluctantly upward and let one foot fall to the floor.

“Why am I so tired?” I thought. And then, it dawned on me, “Oh, yeah … Francis retired from the Navy over the weekend.”

I made my way to the kitchen for fresh-brewed sustenance, noting the evidence of the weekend events along the way: my husband’s formal white uniform hanging from a knob on his dresser, relatives sleeping in kids’ beds, kids sleeping on the floor, flowers, cards, and gifts. Opening the fridge in search of cream, I found it still packed with leftover food from all the parties over the last couple of days.

I slumped at our kitchen table, inhaled the steam from my cup, and tried to remember it all.

Relatives and friends arrived on Thursday, enough to occupy a 40-room block at the base hotel. On Friday, we buzzed like bees. Did Hayden shave? Is Lilly’s skirt too short? Did Grams take her insulin? Does Father Joe need a ride to the reception? Does Uncle Frank know where to park? Will the rain stop before the tent party? Are my Spanx in the dryer?

Miraculously, everyone arrived to Spruance Hall on time. After speeches, awards, and a tear-jerking flag ceremony, Francis took the podium, drawing laughs when he said that his square-jawed boss, Admiral P. Gardner Howe, had to contemplate some of the most significant leadership and ethics issues facing the Navy, but was never able to solve the unanswerable riddle, “With such a chiseled physique, why didn’t Francis ever become a SEAL like me?”

At the end of his remarks, I thought I heard Francis’ voice crack as he said, “…and so, in just a few moments, as I figuratively load Lisa and the kids into the jolly boat and make way to the near shore, we will look back at this magnificent vessel that is the United States Navy, the finest in our world’s history, and forever hold our heads high with pride, honored and humbled by the fact that were allowed to be part of its crew for nearly three decades.”

My damp eyes turned into a full-on ugly cry face, as the poetic words of The Watch were recited. “For twenty-eight years, this Sailor has stood the watch … Today, we are here to say … ’Shipmate, you stand relieved.’ We have the Watch.”

Before I could find a tissue in my purse, Father Joe gave the Benediction, the Orders were read, and, to the tune of the bosun’s whistle, Francis, the kids and I where whisked over the red carpet  flanked by saluting sideboys — a ritual symbolizing being “piped ashore” for the last time.

Minutes later, we were caught in a whirlwind of guests, chatter, drinks and food that started at our reception, and continued on to a tent party for over 150 out-of-town guests, where we danced like fools until the wee hours. Running on less than four hours of sleep, we threw an afternoon tailgate party at a local polo match on Saturday, and everyone came back to our house for pizza until after midnight.

Somehow, by the grace of God and a sugar-free Red Bull, I made it to the 9:00 am mass Father Joe organized for everyone in our yard on Sunday morning, where we gathered one last time. At the end of his homily, Father Joe asked our backyard congregation of lingering family and friends the question posed by poet Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your wild and precious life?”

As I sipped my coffee on Monday morning, I realized that we have no idea what is in store for us next. After 28 years in the Navy, it’s hard to contemplate civilian life.

Like all things, it will take time. And meanwhile, we will find comfort in the “mal de débarquement” — the feeling that we are still on board the ship, swaying, rocking, sailing toward the endless horizon.

Father Joe celebrating mass in our front yard at the end of our military retirement weekend.

Father Joe celebrating mass in our front yard at the end of our military retirement weekend.

Military Retirement Event Planning: Beware of Bridezilla


My husband, Francis, is truly extraordinary. And no one knows it better than he does.

Some men humbly avoid excess attention and accolades of praise. But not Francis. He prefers the limelight, and finds no shame in celebrating himself.

So, several months ago, when he announced that he would transition out of the military after 28 years of service, he knew he wanted to plan a spectacular retirement event that would match his exceptional personality.

While I expected Francis to dictate the details of the program for the retirement ceremony, I thought that he would naturally want to leave much of the minutia of the after-party — food, drink, decorations, music, etc. — to me as his more domestic partner.

But early on, when I suggested a modest guest list and affordable catering at our house, Francis scoffed. I soon realized that, although he would stand before the throngs of well wishers at the retirement ceremony and tell them “we are a team,” he had no intention of leaving any of the planning to me.

I would have been perfectly happy setting up borrowed folding tables in our back yard, but before I knew it, Francis had signed a contract with a professional company for a 60-foot rental tent that included lights, a dance floor, and tables. He met with musicians, security personnel, caterers, photographers, bartenders for hire, and the members of a steel drum band. He stayed up late night after night, picking the format for the program, selecting photographs for a slideshow, writing his speech, and going over the ten-page guest list spreadsheet.

As if a one-day retirement event wasn’t enough, Francis also rented three tailgating spaces and two shade tents at the local polo grounds, and invited our guests to continue the celebration at the polo match the next day.

While worrying that Francis was draining our kids’ college accounts to pay for everything, I began to realize that planning his military retirement event was very similar to planning a wedding. I warned our youngest daughter, Lilly, who was turning 16 a few days before the ceremony, that she might get overlooked. “Go watch the movie ‘Sixteen Candles’…” I told her, “… you’re Molly Ringwald and your dad is the bride.”

And just like a bride to be, Francis soon became frazzled with all the details. A cousin said she’d cancel unless Francis could find a suitable kennel for her dog, friends announced they were bringing uninvited guests, no one ordered bowls for the bisque, the tent company needed more electrical outlets, the caterers asked that we provide a floral arrangement for the dessert table, and the weather report called for thunderstorms.

The most popular last-minute questions that came in from guests were “What the hell is ‘business casual’ anyway?” and, even though detailed maps went out with the invitations, “Can you give me directions to the event?”

“I have got to get my hair cut!” Francis barked yesterday morning while I tried to keep up with him on a power-walk around the base. “And please do not let me forget to ask the caterers if they are supplying the cutlery. I still need to wrap the highball glasses I bought for Father Joe, and borrow two more chest coolers for the polo match. Do you think I should play the slideshow before or after my speech? ”

When I asked him what I could do to help, he gave me the following list: “1. Charge the camcorder, and 2. Pick out your outfit.”

Fortunately, I really don’t mind that Francis is planning the entire event without me. In fact, as long as we don’t go broke, I’m pleased as punch about it.

Besides, unlike some weddings, a military retirement ceremony only happens once in a lifetime, and after 28 years of dedication, sacrifice and service to our country, Francis deserves to have the celebration he has always dreamed about.

And I’ll be the first one to kiss the bride.

retirement cake

Once A Military Family

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At seven in the morning, the summer sun was already shining hot and bright. I found space among the passengers on the train platform. My husband, Francis, hastily parked my luggage at my feet, inadvertently nicking my toe in the process.

“Ooo, sorry Hon, but I’d better get to work … call me when you get to your mother’s.” He leaned down to give me a quick kiss good-bye, wearing his khaki uniform — buttoned, tucked, pinned and polished. In 22 years as a Navy wife, I’ve become quite accustomed to good-byes, but this one felt different.

I observed the other passengers waiting, and drew conclusions about their lives. A sleepy student, a hip grandmother, an arrogant businessman, a frumpy divorcee. It dawned on me that they had taken notice of Francis’ uniform, and deduced, “A military family.”

The uniform that I scrubbed ink stains out of, ironed countless times, hung on the back of the kitchen door, and often took for granted, had defined us for more than two decades.

The uniform dictates that I am a military spouse and our kids are “military brats.” It is a sign that Francis has dedicated his career to military service. It tells a tale of duty, deployments, separation, transition, challenges, hardships, patriotism, pride and adventure. The uniform speaks to the strength, resiliency, and courage of the people who wear it, wash it, and hang it on the back of their kitchen doors.

At our wedding in 1993, Francis was a young Navy Lieutenant and I was brand-new attorney. Within two years, we rocked our baby boy, Hayden, in base quarters in Monterey, California at the Naval Postgraduate School. In another couple years, we were in rural England, where Anna was born by an Irish midwife, and where Francis drove a beat up Fiat on dark, winding roads to stand the watch. A few years later, we were in Virginia Beach, where Francis completed a sea tour, three shore tours, and a year-long deployment to Djibouti, Africa while our family grew to include our youngest daughter, Lillian.

After a three-year adventure in Germany, where Francis worked at Africa Command, we found ourselves at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, where we could see dolphins, frigates and destroyers in the Atlantic waves just outside our base house’s kitchen window. Now, in Rhode Island at the Naval War College, we watch our children use their skills as military kids to succeed in high school and college.

A rooster suddenly crowed from behind a house across the tracks, bringing me back to the present. I gulped hard, remembering that at the end of the month, after 28 meaningful years of military service, Francis is retiring from the military.

“Where do we go from here?” I wondered, squinting at the sun’s reflection on the tracks. Francis and his uniform were long gone, and I was there, just another passenger on the crowded platform. Is this what it’s like in the civilian world?

“Stand clear of the yellow line, fast train approaching,” blared from the loudspeakers. Instinctively, I gripped my heart, as a flash of metal and momentum blew by, sucking the air from my chest and clearing the cache of my wandering mind.

With newfound clarity, I realized that our military identity lies deep within our hearts, not in outward signs and symbols. In a month, Francis’ uniform will be stored in the back of the hall closet, but our family will always be military, through and through.

The Number 95 arrived right on time, and as I stepped off the platform and onto the train, I knew that our military life was not coming to an end. We are on to the next stop as our journey continues.

The Middle-aged Woman and the Sea


Thanks to a guy named Big Victor, I’m finally free of years of bitter resentment. No, I didn’t put a hit out on anyone — although, Big Victor did seem like he’d be up for that kind of thing — I simply went fishing.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve idealized fishing. As an awkward kid, I would search the neighborhood gutters for the slightest trickle of a creek. I’d fashion a fishing pole out of a stick, string, and a safety pin. I’d pack a canteen of lemonade and a little snack — Oatmeal Cream Pies were tasty and doubled as decent bait.

To me, catching fish was secondary to experiencing a classic summer past time — leaning against a shady tree on the edge of a river, jeans rolled up, bare toes dipped in cool water, waiting patiently for a nibble while communing with nature.

Fortunately, I had an active imagination, because my childhood fishing trips mostly took place in a drainage ditch under Route 286 and the only thing I ever caught was a bacterial infection. My family was not into fishing, so other than a few fruitless tries with a rental pole from a pier while on vacation, the opportunity to go on a real fishing trip never presented itself.

That is, until the summer of 1978, when my parents arranged to go off-shore fishing. They invited my grandfather, aunt, uncle, cousin and brother … surely this was my big chance! “Lisa, you’re staying at home with the dog,” I was told. A tiny spark of resentment ignited deep inside.

In the summer of 1990, I was at school studying for my law exams, and called to find out how my family’s summer vacation was going. “We’re eating the tuna your brother caught today on our deep sea fishing trip!” I was told, and the embers glowed red.

In 1995, a couple years after marrying my Navy husband, Francis, we were living on Fort Ord, just outside of Monterey, California, and the opportunity to go salmon fishing came up. “Nope, you’re eight months pregnant,” I was told, and steam rose from my ears.

In 1998 while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, there was a bachelor party fishing trip (“No women allowed”) and in 2012 while stationed in Mayport, Florida, a fishing trip with guys from work (“Who will watch the kids?”) Before I knew it, the spark of resentment had flared into a raging wildfire.

But recently, in a strange twist of irony, the chance I’d been waiting for came among the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles, California. While visiting family there, Francis’ brother, Chris, proposed a five-hour off shore fishing trip.

“FISHING?” I blurted, “SERIOUSLY? ME, TOO?!” I may not have been an intended invitee, but at that point, Chris had no choice.

We boarded the boat in Marina Del Ray, looking like idiot tourists with our fanny packs, sunscreened noses, and a cooler with enough snacks and drinks to sustain us for a month. The hulking hispanic deck boss, “Big Victor,” carried a knife, a gaffing hook, a large gold chain, about 150 excess pounds, and a look on his face that said, “I eat idiot tourists for lunch.”

After finding a good spot among the whale watchers and the oil tankers, the crew flung chum over our heads while we set our lines. Four and a half hours later, we thought Francis had finally caught the big one. His hands shook as he strained to pull in what was surely a 40-pound yellowtail.

“It’s kelp,” Big Victor said, and used his gaffing hook to retrieve Francis’ mangled line.

I knew I’d be coming home from my first real fishing trip empty handed, but it didn’t matter. The sun on my face, the spritz of chum flying overhead, the bubbles of a cold beverage, and the satisfaction of baiting my own hook had fulfilled my childhood dreams.

“Fish on!” I yelled excitedly, just as we were about to haul anchor. “Is it big enough to keep?” I whispered to Big Victor.

He nodded his massive head, and with a swipe of his knife, I had two tiny fish fillets to contribute to dinner. I stepped off the boat that day, grateful for my first real fishing trip …

… and that there was plenty of spaghetti at home.


Reconstructing Patriotism


Back in 1976, it was our country’s Bicentennial, and I was in the 4th grade. At East Pike Elementary, Ms. Degatano’s class was picked to reenact life in 1776. For five months until school let out for summer, we wore bonnets and three-cornered hats, churned butter, sewed our own flags, ran a general store, and did our classwork by candlelight. Not only was it an excellent way to learn our nation’s history, it was really cool.

When Independence Day rolled around, copious hot dogs were grilled, watermelon sliced, and cobs of corn boiled as friends and family gathered in honor of this exceptional national birthday. With bellies full of barbecue, we bent our faces upward to see what our forefathers saw in The Revolutionary-War-torn sky two centuries ago. We “oooed” and “aaahhhed” as the fireworks imitated “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and we took it for granted that Americans are special.

But nowadays, thanks to the complex quagmire of extremes in modern society, the mere act of being patriotic has become a political statement subject to judgment, debate, and controversy.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “patriotism” simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country,” but the complicated gridlock of ideas regarding politics, economics, religion, domestic issues, gender roles and sexual norms has politicized national pride.

A person can no longer identify as “patriotic” without suggesting that he or she might also be pro-life, pro-gun, pro-war, anti-gay, anti-amnesty, or racist. How did patriotism become bogged down with so much extra baggage?

Terrorist attacks have become a regular part of our 24/7 news stream, and rather than banding together the way Americans did after 9/11, public discourse degrades into bitter debates over gun control, administrative failures, race and religion. The “new normal” for political campaigns includes tabloid-like press coverage, bitter personal attacks, Twitter wars, and violent protests. Extreme divisiveness has the public defensively poised, ready to pit black against white, gay against straight, atheist against believer, male against female, choice against life, and animal against human in an all-out fight for who has rights.

In recent years, scholars, pundits and pop stars have pontificated over whether patriotism is the quiet and unpretentious love of the best ideals of one’s homeland, or ferocious blind faith jingoistic nationalism that incites excessive military action. (See http://www.thenation.com/article/what-patriotism/ and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-do-you-define-patriotism/.)

Every year around this time, new polls on patriotism ask questions such as: “Would you describe yourself as patriotic?” “Do you feel this country has gotten off track?” “Are you proud to be an American?” “Do you think the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world?” Each statistic is broken down by gender, race, age and political party, so that inferences can further separate individual groups. (See https://www.aei.org/publication/aei-public-opinion-study-polls-on-patriotism/.)

Despite the attempts to deconstruct patriotism, the intangible notion of “The American Spirit” remains intact, having transcended current governments and political parties. Ever since our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence back in 1776, America has been a truly unique melting pot of democratic values, personal liberties, military superiority, industrial and scientific advancements, and humanitarian responsibility.

As a military family, we have daily reminders of how fortunate we are to be Americans. Every morning, we pause reverently to face one of the many flags flown on base, hands over hearts, to hear “The Star Spangled Banner.” “United States” is in the job title of every military serviceperson. War monuments and memorials on base remind us of those who fought and paid the ultimate price for our democracy and freedom. For us, patriotism is a lifestyle.

But average Americans caught up in the complications of the 21st Century may need to be reminded that patriotism is not a political statement – it is an expression of our undying American Spirit.

This July 4th, keep it simple. Wear red, white and blue. Fire up the barbecue. Fly the flag. Raise your face to the night sky. Wipe away the tangled web of rhetoric and divisiveness, and remember what it means to be free.

Just listen: A father’s full story

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I stepped from airport baggage claim into the steamy Richmond sun, and found a bench at curbside pick up. I hadn’t seen my father in a while, and a twinge of nerves caught in my throat.

When in a good mood, Dad is fun, larger than life in every way. While watching his favorite sitcoms, his loud and uncontrollable laughter is infectious. Also, he has an uncanny ability to seek out the best restaurants, always over-ordering for the table, and insisting on paying the bill. But like many people, my father has moody side. When angry, he makes it uncomfortable for everyone, especially those he loves the most. We had both traveled to Richmond for my cousin’s wedding, and agreed to share a hotel room. Knowing my father was a man of extremes, I didn’t know what to expect.

Suddenly, I heard three sharp blasts of a car horn. Then three more. I stood up to investigate, just as I heard the blasts again. They were coming from a car driven by my Dad. Good mood, I detected gratefully. I knew that the obnoxious greeting was my father’s way of being playful.

I hopped into the passenger’s seat, and while exchanging side hugs over the center console, I noticed that his skin was like crepe. Getting old, I thought.

“Okay,” my father said in his characteristically domineering voice, “we don’t have to be at the rehearsal dinner until six, so I thought I’d take you on a tour of Sandston.” I knew the excursion to my father’s hometown was more for him than me, but I was curious to see the setting of his  upbringing.

“When I was a kid, this road seemed to go on forever,” he said of Sandston’s sleepy main drag. He pointed to a faded drug store sign, explaining that his nanny, Irene, used to take him there for ice cream. “She wouldn’t go in with us, because she never wore shoes.”

We turned slowly down Garland Avenue, and my father told me about the “creek” he used to wade in, now a grassy ditch along the side of the road. Among the line of tiny steep-roofed houses, he pointed out the one he used to live in, where his parents divorced when he was only six years old. We rounded the corner to the school, and on to a small civil war cemetery, as my father told of being sent to Fork Union Military School at the age of ten.

For once, I let him do all the talking, and he told all the stories I’d heard before, and a few I hadn’t. Something in me sensed that my father needed to reflect on his life, and the best thing for me to do was to listen.

“I was devastated,” he commented about his father leaving. “I always wanted the kind of dad who would take me fishing, but he just wasn’t that way… After my mother sent me to Fork Union, I held the record for the most runaway attempts. But eventually, the school became like family to me.”

Later, in our hotel room, my father napped while I settled into a polite routine intended to minimize the awkwardness of the situation. Although we had visited each other many times over the years, sharing a hotel room was more chummy than we’d been in decades. But something in me sensed that my father simply needed a witness, not only to his stories, but to the advancement of his life.

Rather than armoring myself with defenses formed during rockier moments in our relationship, I opened myself to see my father as he was: a 73-year-old character with a unique story to tell. That weekend, I enjoyed his company, helping him with his buttons, brewing him coffee, researching local breakfast joints, and even plucking a particularly conspicuous white hair from his nose.

“This has been nice,” my father said after breakfast at The City Diner on our final morning together. Grateful for having had the opportunity to get to know my father in the context of his full life story, I genuinely agreed.

Traveling on Auto-Potty

airport toilet

With gas prices at an 11-year low, people are packing up and heading out for a busy summer travel season. But the highways, bus stations and airports aren’t the only places that will see a lot of action this summer. With all those travelers on the go, and needing to go, public restrooms will be at maximum capacity.

Recently, I took a trip to Florida, requiring my 49-year-old bladder and I to frequent several airport bathrooms. It occurred to me that travel pottying has changed significantly over the years.

Growing up in the 70s, our station wagon simply pulled over to the side of the road for pit stops during long trips. And my husband’s family kept a mayonnaise container known as the “tinkle jar” in the back window of their vehicle. If we did manage to find a gas station with a bathroom, my mother would spread half a roll of toilet paper on the seat before I was allowed to sit down.

But those improvised methods of yesteryear are no longer considered apropos — or sanitary for that matter — so today, the transportation authorities have provided travelers with state-of-the-art public toilet facilities.

The problem is, the newly automated restrooms are so high-tech, they sometimes leave one longing for the simple practicality of a roadside patch of weeds.

During my recent visit to an airport restroom, I selected one of the many stalls, latched the door, straddled my humongous carry-on bag, and grabbed for the paper seat cover dispenser. The first three ripped in half, the fourth fell into the toilet while I was trying to position it, and the fifth one disappeared when the toilet unexpectedly flushed.

Known as “phantom flushes,” the sensor-triggered water swoosh in public restrooms not only suck down the paper seat covers, they can scare the you-know-what out of you, which by the way, would defeat the entire purpose of being in the toilet in the first place.

With a seat cover finally in place, I took my position.

Strangely, the otherwise noisy bathroom fell dead silent. I could see the feet of the occupants next to me, but could hear a pin drop. I prayed that someone would turn on the sink, while my bladder refused to release the 64 ounces of coffee I’d consumed that morning.

I had experienced “stage fright” on other occasions, most notably in college, when perpetually clogged bar toilets caused long lines in the bathrooms. The one working toilet usually had no toilet paper, a broken door lock, and gaps in the stall that allowed everyone in line to stare through the cracks. Once it was my turn, I was paralyzed by stage fright.

Waiting in the airport stall for someone to make noise, I fidgeted, and — WHOOSH! — set off my own phantom flusher again. It scared the bejeezus out of me, but provided the break I needed. Relief!

The toilet paper was affixed to some type of conservation dispenser that stopped the roll at each half turn. The flimsy tissue ripped with the slightest resistance, forcing me to make several attempts — roll, stop, rip, roll, stop, rip, roll, stop, rip — until I had enough scraps to do the job.

Finally, I stood up to trigger the flusher, which up until now seemed able to react to a falling eyelash from three stalls down. However, nothing happened. I stood there, wondering if the sensor had a tiny camera inside that transmitted to a flushing control room. Had the person on duty gone to lunch? I swiveled my hips, bobbed my head, and waved my hands to no avail.

With only minutes to boarding, I gave up on flushing and left the stall. Halfway to the sinks I heard it — WHOOSH! I imagined the flushing controller giggling over his ham and cheese.

The bank of sinks had no knobs, controls or buttons. “Here we go again,” I thought, waving my hands in search of automated soap and water. I had a choice of hand dryers: a high speed “air blade” that nearly blows your skin off, or the old fashioned kind that emits a warm breeze that requires you to give up and wipe your hands on your pants.

Frustrated with newfangled automation, I chose the latter.

“Coffee?” the flight attendant asked after we took off.

“Sure,” I said, “but do you happen to have an empty mayonnaise jar?”

Dresser’s Last Stand

thumb_20160526_131644 (1)_1024“Mom, can someone finally do something about my dresser?” my daughter Lilly demanded this week. 

“Oh, is it broken again?” I feigned ignorance.

“Yeah, the thing is like, totally falling apart this time,” she told me, but I already knew.

Two pulls were missing from the drawers. The mirror was perched precariously on its supporting wooden arms, one of which was wobbly. The drawers no longer slid easily on their brittle rails. With warped wood and ancient glue, the entire piece was coming apart at every joint and dovetail.

“Nothing a dab of Elmer’s won’t fix!”

Poor Lilly rolled her eyes. She knew it was no use. Not only is everything in our house showing its age, half of what we own was already old when we bought it. The treasures I lovingly refer to as “antique,” “vintage,” “retro,” or “shabby chic,” my family calls “a bunch of broken down used junk.”


I bought Lilly’s dresser for a cool $150 at an antique mall in Virginia back in 2005. It was tall, with a beveled mirror mounted on two curved arms, and a working skeleton keyhole on each of its six drawers. Its lovely bird’s eye maple veneer was a cheerful shade of yellow-gold.

“It’s used, Mom,” Lilly said quite accurately, begging for the new pink and purple particle board set imported from China that she saw at Walmart.

Much to my kids’ dismay, our entire house is filled with “used” furniture – hand-me-downs from family, discards from military friends who moved away, garage sale finds, and some legitimate antiques. The girls tell me they feel like they’re living in the midst of a flea market, and our son calls our house “The Rest Home.”

But what the kids don’t understand is that we furnished our home with affordable things out of the necessity of a tight military budget.

When my husband and I married back in 1993, he contributed a couch, a desk, and a bed to our new apartment, all of which we still use to this day. I contributed a bookcase that is currently in my daughter’s room, an old Singer Sewing table that is in our hallway, and the red-painted sideboard that sits in our mudroom. When Aunt Millie died, we got her dining room buffet, my husband’s dresser, and some end tables complete with Millie’s cigarette burns. And we filled in the gaps with items we found along the way.

Believe it or not, it isn’t all junk – while stationed in Europe, we bought a Victorian marble-topped wash stand, an English pine armoire, a 100-year old French bed frame, and a sturdy Belgian mid-century farmhouse kitchen table and chairs.

Sure, I’ll confess that I shamelessly salvaged a couple of items from other people’s trash. I once scrambled into a dumpster to save two sturdy solid oak English chairs that sit at our kitchen table today. And I just barely squeezed a channel-back armchair into our minivan after seeing it sitting on the side of a lonely Pennsylvania country road cradling a sign upon which was written the irresistible word, “Free.” It only took a year of fumigating in the garage before I put it in our living room, and that musty smell is almost all gone.

As for Lilly’s dresser, with some fresh glue and a few strategically placed clamps, I’ll get a couple more years out of it. Besides, it doesn’t really matter whether I pay top dollar at Pottery Barn or pocket change at Pete’s Salvage Emporium, as long as the love in our home is given freely.

Lost on Memory Lane

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Believe it or not, hoarding comes in pretty handy around high school graduation time.

Over the years, my family has been concerned about my propensity to save everything from hospital bracelets to matchbooks.  But I’ve always felt compelled to squirrel things away, like my old Holly Hobby sewing machine, our daughters’ confirmation dresses, my son’s sock puppet, and the collar from our long dead cat Zuzu.

When my son Hayden graduated two years ago, I sent 36 t-shirts I’d been saving since he was a baby — from Montessori preschool to tae kwan do to boy scouts to football to band — to a quilter to make him a one-of-a-kind bedspread for his dorm room that would memorialize his particular childhood experiences. The quilt was such a meaningful graduation gift, I’ve been vindicated.

Turns out, my hoarding actually had a purpose after all.

With our second child, Anna, about to graduate, I recently went down to our basement to find the t-shirts I’d saved for her quilt. However, what should’ve taken ten minutes, took an entire afternoon and a half box of tissues.

The first tub I opened was full of baby items that I hadn’t seen in years. There, in the musty fluorescent corner of our basement, I got lost in memories. I caressed the soft flannel receiving blankets, remembering that she was born while we were stationed in England, in a village hospital by an Irish midwife. Pastel afghans, a tiny gingham dress and Anna’s baptismal cloth took me further away.

The layers were like the rings of a tree. In between were lumps – a special rattle, a tattered pink doll, and a string of wooden beads. My eyes lost focus as I recalled Anna as a sleepy toddler, stroking the beads, over and over.

The next box was full of old toys. I saw the plastic yellow baton, gripped by Anna’s perpetually sticky fingers, relentlessly beating the chubby Fisher Price xylophone. The pink and purple play purse put me in our old house in Virginia, where Anna would strut around with the purse over one arm, stopping to apply the fake lipstick and pose precociously before a mirror.

Pink and yellow plates, cups and pots looked exactly like they did when Anna served up smorgasbords of plastic toy pizza slices, hamburgers, peas, bananas, cupcakes and cheese wedges. “Mmmmm,” I would say, smacking my lips loudly and pretending to chew in hopes of eliciting her brightly dimpled smile.

The doll at the bottom, still stained with an ink scribble in the middle of her forehead, looked serenely relieved to have retired to a cardboard box. Her life with Anna had not been easy. With the doll slumped in an umbrella stroller, Anna would push her around our cul-de-sac, sometimes hitting a crack that would catapult the poor doll head-first into the pavement. A quick kiss on the scuffed head, and Anna was off again.

A file box contained artwork, crafts, and primitive pottery – ancient relics with cracking macaroni and yellowing glue. The items, ironically, gave no indication that Anna would eventually develop a talent for art and design. Small spiral notebooks were scribbled with Anna’s endless ideas, garment sketches, and redecorating plans. “How to make money this summer: 1. Sell my old Barbies; 2. Make lemonade; 3. …” one page read. “Rules for Secret Club House,” another read.

It’s an incredible privilege to watch a human being grow, I thought. Cradling a helpless budding newborn in my arms, I could never predict the distinctive person that would take 18 years to bloom before my very own eyes.

Through the dusty basement air, I finally found the box of t-shirts, and the wonder of our exceptional daughter came into focus. Bossy, stubborn, controlling and pensive. Intelligent, driven, hilarious and creative. With big brown eyes, a sparkling smile, and an uncommon dimpled chin. Determined to become a successful fashion designer.

As I trudged sniffling up our basement stairs, I realized that I didn’t keep all those boxed basement relics for my kids, I kept them so I wouldn’t forget. Regardless, High School Graduation, the monumental milestone that heralds adulthood and independent life, has a way of making the last 18 years unforgettable.

Even if we don’t create quilts or shadow boxes or scrapbooks memorializing our child’s life, graduation has a way of melding past and present together into one great epiphanic flash, imprinting the incredible image of our children’s evolution in our minds … forever.

Housewife Burnout


It took four punches of the snooze button to get me out of bed this morning.

I wasn’t tired. Or sick, for that matter.

But I was sick and tired. Sick and tired of the same old routine, minute after minute, day after day, year after year, since 1995, when I made the decision to stay at home to manage our family.

Now don’t get me wrong — I truly love my life and wouldn’t have it any other way. I am proud that I gave up my own professional ambitions for the humble satisfaction of providing home cooked meals, a warm and loving environment, and a constant and dependable presence to my family.

But frankly, after two decades, I’d rather chew my own arm off than empty the dishwasher again. I’d take a frying pan to the head to put me out of the misery of defrosting another pound of ground beef. If given the choice, I’d rather swallow a fistful of wriggling grubs than dust the ceiling fan blades one more time.

I often fear that I’m on the brink of some sort of total housewife breakdown. Emptying the lint trap gives me the shakes. Putting the steak knives away makes my left eye twitch. I can’t sponge another sticky spot off the countertop without feeling palpitations, and I have completely lost the ability to par-boil anything.

Over the last year, my poor family has been witness to the steady decline of my cooking, cleaning and parenting skills. It has come as somewhat of a shock to them, because for almost two decades, I was Supermom.

A licensed and gainfully employed litigation attorney, I made the decision to put my lucrative career aside two years into marriage, to raise the kids and support my husband Francis’ active duty military career no matter where it would take us. I’ll admit that my initial high standards and work ethic were based primarily on one thing: guilt. Since I wasn’t bringing in any income, I felt that I had to knock it out of the park as a homemaker.

But as the years passed, I saw the value of my choice. Not just during the obvious times when being at home was crucial, such as deployments, but also during the subtle everyday moments when my family was better off for having a dependable presence in their lives.

My kids knew that, no matter where we were stationed, I would always be there to walk them to school, pack their lunches, keep them home when sick, bring cupcakes to soccer games, and chaperone field trips. The subtle sense of security they felt was crucial in turning our typical military kids into the independent, accomplished, confident individuals they are today.

I was fortunate too, because I’ve had a front-row seat to our children’s lives. While Francis worked long hours to support our family, I got to see each kid get Citizen of the Month. I cheered at every raucous flag football game. I secretly cringed at every pitchy middle school band concert. I toasted every waffle, mashed every potato, posted every chore chart, and kissed every boo-boo.

Now, with only two more years left before our youngest goes off to college, I’ve lost sight of how lucky I’ve been. After fourth alarm went off this morning, it dawned on me. “Anna’s graduating in a month,” I scolded myself, “now, get up and fry her a lousy egg!”

“No thanks, Mom, we’re leaving early to have breakfast with our friends,” Anna told me, her hand held out in hopes that cash would land in it. With the melody of “Cat’s In the Cradle” playing in my head, I gave her my last $20, and watched out the kitchen window as they drove away.

That was all the motivation I needed.

I may not skip around the house in search of dust bunnies today. I won’t do any cartwheels over the latest Crock Pot recipe. I’ll probably avoid cleaning the rust stains off toilet bowl. But I won’t let myself get so bogged down in the mundane tasks of every day life, that I forget the subtle yet countless blessings of making a loving home for my family.

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