“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

Today – May 23, 2018 – my husband Chris and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. About a month ago, I asked my beloved if he’d like to write something about marriage for my blog to mark this occasion, and I was delighted when he said yes. The final product is a gift that exceeded all of my hopes and expectations, and I am both humbled and overjoyed to be sharing it with you.

 

All the days of my life

In our first week of dating, attending an inaugural ball for President Clinton’s second inauguration. January 1997.

The first 7,304

It never occurred to me that marrying Gretchen was a choice.  Truly, it was no more a decision than it was whether to draw another breath.  I suppose I could have put it off, but then I’d eventually pass out and start again.  Breathing that is.  But you get the point.

We were engaged ten months after our first date and wed six months later. It didn’t seem fast because marrying her was the most natural thing I have ever done.  I had also been brought up to believe that’s how it should be. Blessed to be born into a family overrun with happy marriages, my mother used say that “you just know it when you know it.”  It was a uniquely unsatisfying, irretrievably irrational and absolutely accurate piece of wisdom, and I never doubted.

I gave little real thought to how “just knowing it” would feel.  But when I fell in love with Gretchen, I remember having a sense of peace that I hadn’t known before.  It was the kind of serenity that comes when you flow effortlessly in the stream of life.  I recall thinking calmly to myself,

“So this is her. The love of my life.  I knew she’d be smart.  Glad she’s pretty. Figured she’d be blonde.”

And I exhaled, as if I had been holding a small measure of my breath for the better part of 24 years.

Of course we did have some difficulties which were also learning experiences.  To this day, our biggest fight came as newlyweds setting up our first apartment.  The Great Spice Rack Dispute will live on in family lore for decades to come.  Well it should as a tale rife with lessons about life.

The facts of the matter, as stipulated by the parties, are these: Gretchen wanted the spice rack concealed in a cabinet so the kitchen wouldn’t look messy.  I preferred the spices visible and within arm’s reach.  Needless to say, it’s a miracle our marriage survived.

I recollect nothing of what was said but I remember it being explosive, at least by our standards.  I think I even left the condo that night, coming back a little later.  After all, my magnificent dog, Crash, was still there.

When the dust settled, we spoke about what had happened.  It turns out that Gretchen was actually not arguing about the spice rack’s precise location. Instead, I learned that she had a lifetime of plans and ideas about how to create a home; that these notions were an extension of her identity; that our disagreement seemingly threatened our very being as well as endangering all manner of critically important, authentically valid, truly emotional and deeply-held thoughts about herself, me and our new life together.

And for my part, I was arguing about where to put the spice rack.

May 23, 1998.

An important lesson to this day, I understand that the real cause of most conflicts usually has little to do with the ostensible terms of the debate.  That is, it’s easy to confuse the symptom with the illness and growth in our marriage has usually come from focusing on underlying issues.

That said, we have developed a few everyday strategies to avoid unnecessary flare-ups.  These include:

  1. No discussing anything after 10pm. Not the kids, not tomorrow’s schedule, not rainbows, not unicorns.  No matter how seemingly innocuous, a late day conversation is about 500 times more likely to end poorly and/or stupidly.
  2. No mind reading. And no demands for telepathy.  We try not to conjure up each other’s thoughts and if we want something, we need to say it.
  3. Always assume the best intentions. We want the best for each other.  Our frustrations are usually borne of a lack of understanding rather than an absence of love.
  4. No quinoa. Ever.  I’ve forgiven Gretchen for knowingly eating Grape Nuts, but there’s a limit.  Quinoa is bad for a marriage, your soul and for America.

Most importantly, over the years we’ve found that approximately 99.3% of our issues are not between us as a couple, but within us as individuals.  Gretchen brings out my better qualities, but she doesn’t rid me of my flaws.  I still bring me into every situation.

That’s one of the many reasons spiritual growth has become part of our life together.  We don’t always approach it in the same way, nor do we have to.  For instance, Gretchen is a Catholic convert.  Her kind can be found singing during Mass and probably sitting upfront being all attentive and holy.  On the other hand, I was raised Philadelphia Irish Catholic, so my brand of religion involves telling jokes during funerals.

Such superficialities aside, we both care deeply about growing personally and growing as a couple.  Early on, especially when we were finding our own way, we stepped on each other a few times.   But we have accepted that our spiritual paths run alongside each other, each meandering at its own pace, sometimes crossing, sometimes in parallel, always moving the same direction. And that works for us.

When reflecting on marriage, it’s easy to dwell on the bumps in the road.  I think doing so misses the joy in it all. After all, perfection is a fine thought, but it means that there is no further growth, no greater joy, nothing more to be revealed. I’m in no hurry.

The fact is that our problems are really just challenges, and our challenges are really just worries. The worries, trifles.  Job stress, busy schedules, not enough time for all the people we care about.  Each and every one just a reflection of some wonderful blessing in our lives.

I often need to remind myself of that great truth and to bask in profound gratitude for having been given such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman with whom I can greet life.  Gretchen is my greatest blessing.

When we married, I promised to love and honor Gretchen all the days of my life. Great days do adorn our past, but the best lay yet ahead.  And as each has passed over the last twenty years, I remain forever overwhelmed.

Shame On This Dog!

Shame On This Dog!

It’s public knowledge that dogs – as much as we love them – sometimes do disgusting things. Try as we might to keep them out of trouble, even the most adorable and lovable ones will occasionally drag their butts across a carpet, sniff the crotch of an unsuspecting guest, or worst of all, eat poop. Dealing with this nastiness is the dark side of pet ownership. You must be aware of the potential for your pet to act like the totally irrational and – heaven forbid I say it – bestial creature that he is, and be armed to the teeth at all times to fight the demons where they lurk.

And yet – doodoo still occurs.

Last week I was on the phone with the vet’s office giving them an update on our Beagle Luna (who currently has bronchitis), when I noticed that our other dog – a 22 lb. 13-year old mutt named Seamus – was voraciously chowing down on something in the far corner of our yard.

He’d had his breakfast of premium “keep your old-dog young and lean” kibbles just 2 hours before. Whatever this was, it was not OK.

I hung up with the vet, grabbed a Target bag and trekked out to deal with the “prize.”

I got closer and could see a fuzzy grayish cylinder protruding from Seamus’ mouth.

“Seamus!” I said in my best Mom-Boss voice. “Drop it!”

He ran.

Across the yard.

Wolfing down his treasure with a glee that brings new meaning to the verb I just used.

“Seamus!!” I screamed, “I saaaiiid, ‘Drop it!’” as if reprimanding a toddler.

By that point I could make out that the victim was a squirrel. Only its’ tail hung out of our dog’s mouth.

Seamus stopped and hunkered down. Mouth covering his prey. Frozen. Waiting for me to make my next move.

I stood over him, hands on my hips, my pathetic plastic bag flying in the wind from between clenched fingers.

“Seamus!!!! We DO NOT EAT SQUIRRELS!!”

Did I really say that?!

Yes. Yes, I did.

I was losing my mind.

Here we go, I thought.

I reached down, grabbed him by the collar, wrapped the flimsy bag around the mangled squirrel tail, and pulled.

I’m fairly sure Seamus used the opportunity to savor the last juicy bits, because it felt as if he scraped off the insides as I pulled out what was left of the outsides: tail, two hind feet, and about two inches of furry skin that would have covered a non-existent spine.

Five minutes later we were back in the house. Seamus was strutting around like Henry VIII with a visibly swollen gut after a palatial feast, and I was back on the phone trying to mask my fear and trepidation.

“Um, yes.…This is Gretchen Matthews. We spoke just a few minutes ago? Well, now I’m uh…Now I’m calling about my other dog. Seamus. He… Well, hmmm. He was in our backyard while you and I were talking and…and…and he ate a squirrel.”

Shocked silence.

“I mean, he actually ATE a squirrel. I know this can’t be good for him. Microbes and diseases and who knows what!? What do I do?”

I heard shock give way to mild amusement in the tech’s voice. Then she reassured me that since Seamus is up-to-date with his shots he’d likely be fine, and that Dr. Roy* would want to speak to me after finishing with another patient. Meanwhile, I could try giving Seamus two tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide (one T per 10 pounds of dog) to see if that would make him vomit.

Oh – if it were only so easy.

I put the ‘magical elixir’ in one of the kids’ old medicine dispensers, leashed up Seamus, and dragged him outside again. There was NO WAY squirrel was coming up onto my carpets.

Five minutes of attempted administration looked like a clown act gone off the rails. I pried open his mouth and got one drop in. That was enough to convince him he would have no more of it. So, I squatted on him like he was a log; and he backed out from under me. I cradled him next to my rib cage and he pushed off my thighs. In the end he was running around me endlessly, wrapping me in the leash loops as if I were a Maypole.

My neighbor walked by and took pity on me. She lovey-dovingly cooed over Seamus until he calmed and together we managed to get about one TEASPOON in.

I thanked her, and the pot-bellied mutt and I trudged inside, where I locked him in his crate and sat beside him, listening to his stomach gurgle for the next 15 minutes.

Dr. Roy called and told me there was a solution. They would put drops in his eye that would make him nauseous and in about 5 minutes he’d bring up the carcass.

I got our beloved mongrel to the vet immediately, where he was greeted at the door: “Here comes THE SQUIRREL EATER!!” and “Some dogs try their whole lives to catch a squirrel. Not bad for 13!!” Seamus soaked in his moment of fame, never flagging in his wags.

He weighed in at 23.5 lbs. Yep – that’s 22 pounds of dog and 1.5 pounds of squirrel.

The remedy worked as hoped, and when I talked to Dr. Roy later he asked me, “What did you get from him?” After I explained, he said, “Well, that makes sense. Because I got the rest of it.”

He told me it was all there – head, spine, innards. All of it. And when Seamus had finally given up the goods, he turned around and lifted his front paws up onto Dr. Roy’s chest, the way he always does when he’s perfectly content.

The dog was proud of himself.

“I heard you say to the staff that there was an eyeball lookin’ at you!”

“Yes, I was just having fun with them because they didn’t see the whole mess. And Seamus didn’t kill it; it’s pretty clear he found it dead. But he sure enjoyed it! I’m definitely going to tell my wife about this tonight. Once in awhile I see something a little unusual in here.”

Now, those of you who read my blog regularly know that I usually try to say something about life, love, and faith to encourage you. Today, I’m not so sure I have many words along those lines, except maybe these.

Dogs can’t change who they are. Seamus is – apparently – a squirrel eater. Given the right circumstances, your dog might be one too.

We, on the other hand, are blessed with a Creator who will help us to grow into improved versions of ourselves. The men and women He intended us to be. All we have to do is ask Him for the grace we need to transform us from those who favor the ways of the flesh, to those who walk in the Spirit.

“I say then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want….Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.”

– Galatians 5: 16-17, 24-25

*Name has been changed.

Kids Driving You Nuts? Make ‘Em Laugh.

Kids Driving You Nuts? Make ‘Em Laugh.

Can you make your kids laugh?

Allow me to rephrase.

Do you make your kids laugh?

I am not widely considered to be a funny person, but I have found that making my kids laugh is one of the most underrated joys of parenthood.

It also happens to be the perfect antidote for my own bad moods.

We’re a little more than halfway through spring break and the kids are very PRESENT. With me 24-7. And I’m an introvert. I REALLY like my time alone.

You can see the potential for conflict here.

But lately, I’ve been reminded of a delightful truth: grace can even take the form of humor.

When I’m my most cranky and selfish – the moments when I want to go hide in a long bath, read my novel, and paint my toenails over and over again – those are the times when I find that humor helps the most.

And how does a non-funny woman become a comic for her kids?

I do something out of character.

A case in point: I have been known to dab for laughs.

I know, I know – it’s a 2015 move. (I think?) It’s not au courant. Cam Newton and the rest of the cool people have moved on. But that’s why it’s funny.

Do things your kids think you don’t know about in an untimely fashion (and out of the sight of their friends) and they’ll think you’re hilarious.

A few weeks back, it was just me and my two boys at dinner. The conversation was not award-winning and my mood could generally be described as testy, so to counter its effects I did the unthinkable – I dropped my fork and punctuated a sentence with a dab.

Four eyebrows were raised.

“Mom?!” they asked incredulously as I went back to eating.

“What’s up with you?!” I asked them, dropped the fork again, and jerked my arms back toward the ceiling.

They started to choke in fits of giggles. So I kept it up, telling them about something (I don’t even remember what), and ending each sentence with the trademark move.

Milk and water were snorted and tomato sauce spilled on the floor.

Silliness won the day.

And grace won too.

Like so many adults, I get caught up in my thoughts rather than allow myself to just move freely from one moment to the next, embracing the possible spark of joy that each moment holds.

I spend so much time considering the past or ruminating on the future that I miss the NOW.

So this spring break, I’m trying to allow humor to work its magic, because the joy I give to others bounces back and rejuvenates me.

My youngest is whining and says he’s bored, and man, I hate it when he does that. I tackle him as he walks by me, pin him to the floor, and tickle him until he shrieks in laughter.

My tween daughter is making a private Musically video to “Firework” AGAIN, and so I act it out with her, throwing myself in front of her iPad camera like I’m Katy Perry gone psycho.

Tired of the same-old, tired of yourself, and tired of your own foul mood?

Mix it up and and do something I’m sure you’ve done at some point before.

Surprise the ones you love with a move that’s hilariously out of (your) character. It’s a gesture of spiritual generosity you’re not likely to regret.

You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

Valentine’s Day is upon us. The celebration of the heart.

Three years ago, my daughter and her friend made Valentines for our whole neighborhood.

No. I’m not kidding.

(If you aren’t familiar with it, feel free to read the story above by clicking the purple words and then come back.)

I was astounded by the girls’ actions, and I’ve never forgotten watching them spread light in a dark world.

I was in awe of their enthusiasm. I was enamored with their openness.

They reminded me of a simple lesson: Don’t ignore a generous impulse.

Even if you are not a Jesus-believer, you probably know this verse, a favorite of mine:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

Notice, there are no caveats in that command. (i.e. Only love those who love you, who live with you, who look like you, who are convenient to love, etc.)

If you’re really going to do it right, love demands a lot.

Walking in faith, you learn from experience that loving well isn’t something you do by yourself.

Knowing True Love is being in relationship. With Someone. The One.

He – the Spirit – makes it possible for us to really love others, because we alone do it so very, very poorly.

We think that Valentine’s Day is all about romantic love. And for most people, it is. But I would argue that it can be so, so much more. Because the world needs LOVE — in all its biggest and most brilliant, and smallest and very humblest forms.

I was thinking along these lines when I gave a short presentation to a group of 20 women a year ago. I told them the story of my daughter and her friend, and I explained the following:

“Don’t ignore a generous impulse. We all know that our world is beautiful, but broken. Lately, when we read the news, it may seem particularly dark and ugly. But the light isn’t far off. It lives within each of us. And we see it when we give it away….While many people told the girls how much they had appreciated the Valentines, the real gift the girls received was the joy they’d given themselves.”

Following the promptings of the Spirit will in all likelihood move us beyond our comfort zones. But how is God ever supposed to share ALL THE LOVE He has to GIVE if WE don’t step out and SHARE IT with OUR very own hands?

After speaking, I gave out 20 very basic valentines that I’d put together myself, and I invited the group to think about the people in their lives. Friends. Colleagues. Neighbors. Acquaintances.

I asked:

“Do you know a woman who was just diagnosed with a devastating illness?
Do you know someone going through a divorce?
Have a coworker who has a troubled child?
Have an elderly neighbor who lives alone?
Is there someone in your circle who is bearing a heavy, heavy burden?
Is there someone you can just tell feels hopeless?
Is there someone who seems fearful?
Is there anyone you haven’t thanked for a kindness you’ve been shown?

Valentine’s Day is about love, and we can make it about so much more than romance and friendship between elementary school classmates. Let’s use it as an opportunity to reach out and say, “I see you, I value you, and I care about you.”

We wrote those Valentines to the people we felt might need a bit of True Love, and gave them away.

Maybe tomorrow, you could buy or make a simple note, and then extend your heart and the Spirit to someone in your circle who might appreciate a little something sweet.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Hebrews 4:7)

My Husband: My Stylist

My Husband: My Stylist

My husband is my stylist. For real.

There’s a small pile of clothes on my dresser right now, awaiting the judgment of my stylist, who has been away on business for a couple days.

I ordered a few fall items last week, and I won’t rip the tags off without consulting my husband first. Not because I’m looking for his permission (gosh no!), but simply because he has a better eye than me, and I appreciate his input.

I first realized this when we were dating, and he convinced me to a buy a classic navy sundress from Ann Taylor that I wore for 5 years. It was flattering. It hugged my curves in all the best places and skimmed over the less-than-perfect parts, and the color made my blue eyes pop. But I wouldn’t have picked it on my own because it was, at the time, more than I would typically spend.

My husband’s fashion sense was confirmed during our engagement as I chose a color for the bridesmaids dresses. He actually knew (and could spot) the difference between cornflower and periwinkle blue.

Have I told you that I hate to shop?

Really. Hate. To. Shop.

Years later, I complained one June about needing to buy a couple new dresses, as we had a slew of Christenings, weddings, and sundry parties to attend in the following months.

That afternoon, he waltzed into our kitchen with two new shifts that he had bought straight off the Lord & Taylor racks in under 15 minutes. One fit me perfectly. The other needed minor alterations at the shoulders.

No joke.

I told him other women would laugh at me if they knew, because they’d think I have no ability to dress myself.

He shrugged. Then added, “I appreciate your body more than you do,” and smiled in a come-hither kind of way.

Ahem.

Alright, then.

It has taken some time, but I have accepted that my husband has a legitimate point. He values me (and my body, I guess) in ways that I don’t. And he is looking out for me and the image I put forward in the world.

So – I wonder – am I doing the same for him?

I might not have his same ability to find a garment that is both “on trend” and “spot on” for someone, but am I helping to create a positive impression of him for others?

I hope so.

Do I know his faults?

Of course.

Should I tell you about them?

Probably not.

In the last week, I’ve heard a few women speak poorly of their husbands or other men in their lives. Often, it’s just venting – relieving frustration that builds up in hectic times when we aren’t leaving enough space for deep connection with one another.

But we have to be careful.

There is a fine line between venting, complaining, and disparaging – a downward cut that slices into the bonds of love between us.

We are called to build one another up, to clothe one another with affection and caring. This process happens face-to-face, and when we speak of one another while apart.

Beautifully woven life stories are created when we consistently choose to celebrate our strengths, rather than focus on our flaws.

Be hospitable to one another without complaining. – 1 Peter 5:10

Creating New Memories of Dad

Creating New Memories of Dad
Ashe Gold

Have you ever revisited a memory only to discover that your recollection was, in some way, skewed?

This happened to me recently.

I was thinking back to when I was 12 or 13, spending a day with my dad. We were in Morocco. Epcot’s Morocco.

My folks had recently divorced. At the time, my sister and I were living in Jacksonville, Florida, with my mom but for reasons I can’t remember, this day-trip to Orlando was just for Dad and me.

We were having a blast – “hoofing it” as Dad always said – walking quickly all over the park to take in as much as we possibly could in 12 or so hours. Just before dinner, we stopped at Morocco, and as we admired the leather goods in the shops, I told Dad I needed to visit the ladies’ room.

There, I discovered what every adolescent girl dreads.

And dear God. I was not prepared. No purse. No supplies. Nothing.

Feeling slightly nauseous, with butterflies in my stomach, I marched outside. Dad was standing by a dim streetlamp, basking in the sunset over the man-made lake.

“Dad, I need a quarter.”

He looked down at me with his calm, bright blue eyes, smiled and asked, “Why do you need a quarter?”

“Uhmmm. For the machine in the ladies’ room.”

His forehead wrinkled and lips puckered in perplexity.

Time stood still for me.

Perhaps a millisecond later, he began to fumble ferociously for a quarter, patting his shirt pocket and the pockets on the front and back of his shorts without feeling anything. Finally, he found the handful of change, opened his palm, and fished out one shiny 25 cent piece.

I took it from him without a word.

When I returned, he was fidgety. There was a crisp air of uncertainty about him.

“So,” he tried to sound casual, “Where would you like to eat? We can go anywhere in the world!”

So Dad. So typical of Dad to attempt humor just then. And I showed my gratitude with a grudging smile.

We settled on Japan, where, over my first-ever bowl of udon I also felt for the first time that necessary parting of ways – the separation that comes between the child and the parent, and in this case, between a girl and her father. Things would be unsaid. Experiences would be unshared. Life would be lived separately.

But there is more.

I used to think this story was about me and the time my monthly cycle began at Epcot Center. And it is – in a very small way. What’s more important however, is that Grace showed up that day, and taught me a lesson for life about men.

My dad is a gentleman through and through. That doesn’t mean he always responds with composure or perfect words the first moment of a challenging situation; it means that he will respond correctly when given the fullness of an opportunity. The distinction is important.

This little incident was a building block planted by Grace in my life. How do I know? Because my father’s response to me – initially awkward, but full of love and tenderness – was a foreshadowing of interactions I would later have with my husband. By looking back on this memory, I can see that I was being taught that today I am to give my husband room and time to respond with the love and compassion I know he has for me, even if the circumstances of any given situation take him by surprise.

Men get a lot of bad press these days, and yes – there are more than a few out there who are behaving poorly and thus becoming fodder for headlines, memes, and tabloids. But I’ve been blessed to know many good men – righteous men who through their actions, big and small, show their love and concern for the women and children in their lives. Fathers especially, who shepherd their families with perseverance and thoughtfulness. They aren’t showy or prideful about their contributions; they do it out of the purity of their hearts, and we would do well to honor them appropriately and regularly for it.

The love these men express is a reflection of the bigger Love – the eternal Love. The One that brought all of us into being through the free gift of Grace and uses individuals to do work in the world. Love is an unparalleled force that we cannot escape, and we desire it above everything else.

Relationships with parents can be complicated. Holidays like Father’s Day can stir up a whole host of emotions. But deep within, many of us want to feel or say something more than, “Have a beer on me, Dad!” “Play some golf!” “Take a load off!” or the generic, “Enjoy your day!” Even if our dads have passed on and our interactions were troubled, we want to have hearts of gratitude for these men who touched our lives so deeply.

The not-so-secret secret that Grace teaches is that gratitude is a practice that can be learned. So here’s an exercise for building gratitude for your dad (and indeed any man in your life) that you can try – today.

1) Think of time when he was tender to you. An isolated incident.

2) Visualize yourself through his eyes. Remember that you were his child. Consider how he must have felt as he looked at your face. However imperfectly he expressed his emotions for you, try to imagine the stirrings of his heart.

3) Add the emotion you feel from this “imaginative view” to your databank of knowledge about your dad. Assume his best intentions. Grant him a bit more grace in your heart and you will want to act toward him accordingly.

Can the past teach us about the present?

Does Grace always show up in our life’s story if we look closely enough?

I believe the answer to these questions is ‘Yes.’ And we can respond with gratitude today if we can gradually come to believe that there’s a God who was walking with us then, and who walks with us still.

Someone Died and All He Could Think Was “Where’s the Pork Roll?”

Someone Died and All He Could Think Was “Where’s the Pork Roll?”
My children with their great-grandparents at their 75th Wedding Anniversary Celebration, January 2017.

I always knew there was a range of emotions to encounter in grief, but I didn’t count on humor being one of them.

We were sitting down to dinner on the day my grandfather died. On my own, I had already told the children the news one-by-one, something that needed to be done because my husband was in another state at a colleague’s mother’s funeral and our kids’ age spread meant they wouldn’t be able to process the info in the same way. We had all been together in Seattle just a week before to celebrate my grandparents’ 75th wedding anniversary. Telling the kids that their 94-year old great-grandfather – who had seemed the picture of health – had suddenly entered heaven came as a shock to them, to say the least. Kids are never prepared. But then again, are any of us?

Everyone was happy that it was ‘breakfast for dinner’ – pancakes, eggs, fruit and OJ, but about 5 minutes into the meal my 7-year old son asked, “Where’s the pork roll?” – a Philadelphia favorite and weekend staple in our house.

I let out a frustrated sigh that I wasn’t aware I’d been holding in.

“I forgot it, alright? Bestefar died today and I forgot the pork roll. We’ll be fine without it.”

Then I promptly burst into tears.

My 11-year old daughter dropped her fork and in a shaky voice said, “Oh, Mom! Are you ok?”

Banging his fist on the table – young man of the house – my teenage son declared, “Clearly, she is NOT ok!!”

Turning to me, he said – a little too loudly, “MOM! If you need to go lie down, or…or…or take a break…or something…you just do that, OK?”

Then, to my left, a sweet little 7-year old’s voice said, “Mom?”

In a state of disbelief, I turned to my youngest son.

“Yes?” I said.

“Are you thinking dark thoughts?”

It was all I could do not to burst into fits of laughter.

Maturity in three stages spread out before me. The 7-year old had forgotten the day’s events. The 11-year old could only feel empathy. And the 14-year old was desperately trying to control the situation.

It was a foreshadowing of my own grieving process – the one I would go through in the weeks ahead.

Grandpa passed in January and Grandma passed in March, and every day I’m in one of these three stages: denial, empathy and sadness, or trying to regain a footing. My grandparents meant more to me than most people may realize. Despite the geographical distance between us, they were a firm foundation in my life; I counted on them for stability and strength in ways that only now are becoming apparent to me.

And I’ve been rather silent on this blog as I try to process that realization, focusing instead on just getting through the days. But this morning I realized yet again that what they were to me is what I have been called to be to others. The mantle is passed in this way from generation to generation. And if I spend my life trying to emulate theirs, I will have succeeded in giving my children the precious gifts my grandparents gave to me. These three things abide: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

What Makes a Couple Truly Beautiful?

What Makes a Couple Truly Beautiful?
My grandparents, Allen and Hazel, who celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary January 18, 2017. He passed into eternity on January 28, and she followed on March 2.

It seemed like a dream as I pressed the receiver to my ear and heard my dad’s voice.

“Grandma is no longer with us. She’s with Grandpa now.”

She passed late Thursday night. Her decline had been swift. Just 11 days earlier I was in Seattle for my grandfather’s memorial service and she had seemed frail but steady.

But when you lost your spouse of 75 years just weeks ago, and you’ve held out for one final trip down memory lane in the company of family and friends, perhaps you just decide once and for all that enough is enough.

At a certain point, the body won’t hold a soul that wants to go where a body simply can’t.

She was one half of the most beautiful couple I have ever known.

I said on their 70th wedding anniversary that it was my right to put them on a pedestal, and I still believe that it is. Their relationship exuded a quality I seldom see – a quality they would never have thought described them, but then, most people who have this deny it out of sheer humility.

That quality is holiness.

Too often, holiness is associated with religiosity, and this, my grandparents were emphatically, not.

Holiness is something so much more sublime. Divine. An intention of the heart.

As I wrote on their 75th wedding anniversary, which we celebrated together in January:

It has been said that the purpose of marriage is not to make us happy, but instead, to make us HOLY.

I’ve been considering this statement for the last several years. And even if a person does not submit to the idea that our universe – and all that lies within it – is here for a divine purpose, namely, so that we can learn how to live like the Creator – a force of Love with a capital “L” that gives so freely He even wants to live through each one of us….Yes, even if someone does not agree with this heartfelt belief of mine, there is value in considering holiness as a purpose for marriage. And here’s why.

The process of becoming holy is the refinement of a person. It is a gradual sloughing off of all that is flawed in order to move toward perfection in goodness and righteousness – like placing rocks in a crucible and burning away impurities to reveal hidden gold or silver.

When I think about the ideal marriage, this is exactly what happens for the 2 individuals involved.

When it works well, marriage does several things to us and for us. It brings us joy. It brings us love. It brings us companionship for life’s adventures.

Most importantly though, it helps us to understand the long-term benefits of practicing a myriad of virtues such as acceptance, compassion, consideration, flexibility, generosity, humility, kindness, and forgiveness….

A good spouse encourages us, and calls us back toward the best version of ourselves. Over the long haul, there is benefit to both people in choosing:

patience over edginess,

service over self-centeredness,

understanding over egoism,

honesty over deceit,

and unity over division.

Was the path my grandparents took an easy one? Almost certainly not. I’m sure they faced tests and struggles that the rest of our family never knew about. But they passed through those fires and came out stronger and purer because of them.

My grandparents taught me by example what the path of holiness looks like. In their quiet way, they kept faith in God and lived as servants to one another. This, more than any other, is their enduring legacy to me.

Yes, they have left me beautiful memories, family I love deeply, and a few precious mementos, but it’s the love and honor they gave each other that I value the most.

Perhaps that’s why I can’t think of one without the other, and why Grandma couldn’t stay with us any longer than she did.

“Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.”
John Donne

 

How to Know When Following Your Heart is Right

How to Know When Following Your Heart is Right

I lost my grandpa this week. The pain is new and deep, and I know that I will miss him for the rest of my life.

Memories comfort me, yes, but so does something else. The knowledge that I told him on so many, many occasions that I loved him. I did not let key opportunities slip by.

Just a week before my grandpa passed, my family and I had gathered in his retirement home in Seattle, WA, to celebrate his and my grandma’s 75th wedding anniversary. They were married in January 1942, just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Grandpa realized he’d be entering the Army Air Corps and knew he couldn’t go without his love. Allen and Hazel were high school sweethearts who truly grew up into adulthood together. As Grandpa said just a few days ago, “We met in May 1939, and I knew she was the one for me.”

Over the years, our family gathered from across the U.S. to celebrate 4 of their major milestone anniversaries: 60, 65, 70, and 75. At the 60th, I hardly said a word about the love and pride I was feeling. But something changed by the 65th, and today I suddenly realized why.

It was January 2007. I was midway through the 8-month process of learning and discernment that is required of people who wish to enter the Catholic Church – smack dab in the middle of the longest stretch of time I had ever spent considering God’s Word and thinking about His role in my life. And since we often can see with clarity in hindsight those things which seem muddled in the moment, now I know that God was working in my heart and gently coaxing me on to joy in the pursuit of His purposes.

Not everyone is comfortable expressing love in words, and the truth is, it wasn’t always that way for me. On the flight out to the West Coast in 2007, I wrote a letter to my grandparents that I planned to read at the anniversary dinner. I was full of adrenaline as my pen shot across the pages, charged with emotion as I lay down memory after memory, puffed with happiness at the thought that I would be able to share them with Grandma and Grandpa. And when the time came to read, I was shaking all over. It wasn’t seamless, but I got through it, word by word, my voice faltering and cracking.

My family praised me, but what meant the most was the knowledge that my words were a gift my grandparents truly treasured. Grandma called me over with a gentle wave, held my hands in both of hers and said, “Gretchen, dear, have you ever thought about being a writer?” She knew I wrote nonfiction educational materials, but she was talking about something more. She was urging me forward. “Yes, Grandma. It’s actually what I think I want to do.” “You should do it.” She nodded slightly to indicate her seriousness and squeezed my hands. “You should do it.”

Me reading to Grandma and Grandpa at their 75th Wedding Anniversary Celebration, nearly two weeks ago.

I had reservations and told her so – that I didn’t think I had any worthy material, had no idea what to write about. She listened lovingly and nodded understandingly, but my grandma encourages regardless of fear. She is a quiet repose of strength and confidence.

I would go on to write another letter for their 70th, and deliver it with less anxiety than I had on the 65th. And when last weekend came, I was filled with calm and a deep conviction that I was doing the right thing, regardless of whether the thoughts I expressed were the same thoughts as those of others in the room. It turns out I was right – Grandpa was just a couple days from meeting his Creator, and this was my last chance to pour out my heart to him.

How can we know when we’re on the right path? How we can know we are saying or doing what we should? For me, there are a few indicators:

1) I ask who I’m serving. Who am I doing this for? If my actions are born of love, a desire to be in community and relationship with others, and above all, if I’m aiming to please God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength, I’m probably headed in the right direction.

2) I consider the voices I’m hearing. Encouragement and gentleness come from Love (with a capital “L”). He does not chastise or tell me I’m an unworthy, useless, untalented wanna-be. If negative voices are dominating my thoughts, I must call them out to fight with the blinding light of Truth. God is Love. He is Light. There is no hate and no darkness in Him. And He alone can give me the strength and confidence I need to move forward, if I surrender to His good will and love for me.

3) I remember in faith that I am not an accident. The desires of my heart to do good work in my life were planted there by the One who loves me more than I can comprehend, and wants me to enjoy life to the fullest. My desires are part His divine plan.

In His Word, God tells us how to live joyfully, and He promises us that we are all given gifts. Don’t we believe that He’ll help us to use those gifts? Don’t we know without having seen that Love is real, and therefore we can step out with our talents, trusting in that Love to see us through? We move in faith, believing that He has blessings in store for us if we work with Him, if we don’t give in to the lies that plague us.

“Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” – Hebrews 3:15

Do You Hear the Whispers of the Sea?

Do You Hear the Whispers of the Sea?
image
God’s wonders from Corolla, NC. Collected in Summer, 2016. Gretchen Matthews.

In 1955, a little gem of a book was published – Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I am blessed to have a very old copy of this book, with yellowed pages and a weathered turquoise dust jacket.

For today’s Month of Good News 2016 reflection, I want to share some of Lindbergh’s words at the end of her book, which reflect in a profound way, not only her time, but ours as well.

Perhaps we never appreciate the here and now until it is challenged, as it is beginning to be today even in America. And have we not also been awakened to a new sense of the dignity of the individual because of the threats and temptations to him, in our time, to surrender his individuality to the mass – whether it be industry or war or standardization of thought and action? We are now ready for a true appreciation of the value of the here and the now and the individual.

The here, the now, and the individual, have always been the special concern of the saint, the artist, the poet, and – from time immemorial – the woman. In the small circle of the home she has never quite forgotten the particular uniqueness of each member of the family; the spontaneity of now; the vividness of here. This is the basic substance of life. These are the individual elements that form the bigger elements like mass, future, world. We may neglect these elements, but we cannot dispense with them. They are the drops that make up the stream. They are the essence of life itself. It may be our special function to emphasize again these neglected realities, not as a retreat from greater responsibilities but as a first real step toward a deeper understanding and solution of them. When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle. We find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth. (pp.127-8)