Category Archives: Family

282 Miles – Zero Distance

Rocco worn out from fetch.

I spent the last weekend with my daughter. She called it the Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend. (We need to work on a catchier title. That’s never going to fit on a bumper sticker). The Adventure Days and Mother-Daughter Dinner Dates of her childhood have evolved into weekends at her home in her college town. On the way over, I always stop in Ellensburg (mile 120). The Chevron and Starbucks are just off the freeway and only a couple blocks apart, so I can top off the Jeep, and me, in less than 15 minutes. When I drop down to the Columbia (mile 150), I am just over half-way. Though I am still 11 miles out when I hit the first exit into town, in my mind, I am there. All told, it’s 282 miles—the perfect distance.

There ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you.
Marvin Gaye

I know there are moms and dads who are thinking 282 miles?!?! and perhaps that’s 280 miles too far or possibly that’s 2000 miles too close. For us though, it’s exactly right. There is a sweet spot when a young adult goes off to college. On the one hand, the first years of college are stressful. As a student, you should be close enough to be able to get home when you really need to. On the other hand, college is stressful. You should be far enough away that you can’t run home when you only think you need to. Likewise, as a parent, you should be close enough that you can visit them when they need you. You should be far enough away that you can’t just pop over anytime you think they need you. That distance might be 10 miles or it might be 1000 miles. Trust me, you need to know how far.

You never know how strong you are
until being strong is the only choice you have.
Bob Marley

I found an old spur to inspire me at Boulevard Mercantile.

For us, the sweet spot is 282 miles away. It is not that we don’t want to be closer to her. I would love for her to live around the corner from us. If she lived closer, however, she might not have had to struggle through her first year of college in a way that helped her emerge the happy and capable adult she is today. If not for a mountain high and a river wide, in the words of Marvin Gaye, I would have hopped in my Jeep before the first late-night phone call had ended and had her packed up by dawn. Who doesn’t want to save their child from the inevitable pain that accompanies becoming an adult? The truth is, there is no saving. The only path is through. While encouragement and support are helpful, in the end, we all have to get through it on our own. Learning to be with the most uncomfortable feelings – fear, loneliness, uncertainty, and sadness  – and move forward despite them is a critical step toward adulthood.

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over,
it became a butterfly.
Chuang Tzu

The Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend was glorious.  It was as if all the memories of all of our Adventure Days were photoshopped together in saturated colors and polarized.  We laughed and talked for hours. She took me to all of her favorite places and some new places she thought I would love. I reveled at her confidence and wisdom in managing a full load of classes, a strength and conditioning coaching job, a home, a relationship, and a rambunctious dog. She’s found her path through and our relationship is not separated by 282 miles.

The only thing better than being with my daughter and a dusty Jeep would be my daughter and a muddy Jeep.

When I hit the interstate, though I was only 11 miles away, I was already gone. When I climbed back up from the Columbia, I was half-way home. I filled up in Ellensburg on regular gas and high-octane coffee. By the time I hit Snoqualmie Pass, though I was 67 miles away, I was home. And so was she.  

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

You can learn a lot from pancakes.

Last week, one of my former students asked on Facebook, “What is your signature dish?”  I was tempted to write Take Out.  It would be funny if it weren’t true. I am going to admit something very vulnerable here. These are my pancakes:

This morning, I stood pondering why my husband’s pancakes are always fluffy and round with perfectly distributed blueberries, my daughter’s pancakes are golden brown and artistically sprinkled with fruit, and mine look like they are preschool art project. I consoled myself with the reminder that I can make wine, bread, cheese, popovers, and pizza. Enormous, delicious popovers, I mean, what else do you really need?! OK, OK, vegetables and fruit, but those could be eaten raw.  Slicing vegetables isn’t really cooking. It’s dangerous, but hardly qualifies as cooking.

I used to cook. Then I became a science teacher and a three-sport coach. Then I went to graduate school at night. Then I became a principal, and I supervised a lot of evening sporting events and dances and concerts and plays. Over time, my husband started to cook. It turned out that my husband is an amazing cook, which is lucky because he could have starved being married to me. Most of the time, I don’t even think he uses a recipe or, if he does, he tweaks it to be just right. He has a gift.  Our daughter does too, largely because she grew up watching and helping him cook. She loves to try new recipes and create her own. Her Instagram is filled with pictures so enticing you can almost smell and taste the dishes. 

She learned literally nothing from me in this department. I remember, when she was elementary school, she asked her dad to make her a toasted cheese sandwich. It was one of the times that I was home for dinner. I was offended. So, I said, “You know, I can cook you dinner too. Dad is not the only one who can make a toasted cheese sandwich.”  Our daughter is a very compassionate individual. So, against her better judgment, she apologized and asked me to make her a sandwich. Mortifyingly long story short, I burned it. To be clear, the bread was charred and the cheese only mildly warm. Though she offered to scrape the ashes off and eat it, in the end we both asked her dad to make her a new one.

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So, my amoeba-shaped pancakes this morning were not unexpected. I had eschewed my husband’s offer of blueberries and sour cream. I stuck to the basics, water, pancake mix and vanilla. I got the consistency right, but that was the easy part. I never flip them at the right time. Mid-way through the flip, I lose that smooth arc of the spatula when I realize that they are going to land half on the griddle and half on the stove. Jerking it toward me, the batter slides off the uncooked side, instantly scorching across the surface. Today was no different. They were misshapen and varying in density and color. But I was hungry and calculated the probability of a better outcome with a second attempt to be about 1 in 10,000, so I threw caution to the wind, added butter and syrup, and ate my Franken-Pancakes. They tasted great. Great might be an overstatement. They tasted fine.

As I watched the butter melt on the rough edges of the uneven slopes, I thought, there must be a life lesson in this that I have yet to learn or the great Power of the Universe would not make me endure such ugly pancakes year after year after year.  This is what I learned today:

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It doesn’t really matter what my pancakes look like. They tasted fine and filled my tummy. Sure, I wouldn’t call it my signature dish, or subject you to it, but looks aren’t everything. Sometimes, I am too hard on myself in this department. (How many of you have a Pinterest fail story of a birthday cake or inspirational wall hanging?) Aesthetics are great, but substance matters. The world is a wonderful, messy place.

Ugly pancakes are not evidence of my failure as a woman or mother. (Can I get an Amen!?) Pancakes do not make the woman, I say. I have a lot of other important skills (see wine et al above).  I can dazzle you with data. I wrote a novel. I’ve got skills. Variations in skills do not make you a failure, period. We all have different gifts, and they have nothing to do with gender or any other demographic characteristic.

Never pass up a great pancake for one that is merely fine.  I love my family. We are unconventional in many ways. We have always done what works for the three of us. We are not constrained by what dad should do, what mom should do, and what daughter should do. We do what works. We keep the rules to a minimum, show gratitude, and act from love. We all have our gifts and our shortcomings. Combined, our home is a messy, wonderful place.

Petit Verdot and Sangiovese

Always put the sour cream in the batter. I know my pancake making skills are weak. So does my husband. I should have taken his advice. His are fluffy because of the sour cream. Mine are not because I am stubborn. He said, “You should put sour cream in the batter.” I heard, “Your pancakes are dense.” Both are right, of course. My pancakes are dense, and they need sour cream. It is also true that I am resistant when I interpret someone’s helpfulness as criticism. He was being helpful. I suffered from my pride by having to gnaw through my pancakes.

I wonder what I will learn from lunch?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

The thought absolutely counts. In fact, it might be the only thing that really does.   

I just turned 54.  Normally I like to throw myself a big party.  I like birthday parties. I like a house full of people I love- laughing, eating and talking.  I think we should celebrate life every chance we get.  But this year has been a quiet birthday. There is just so much going on at home and work that quiet and small was what my heart really needed.  I got to thinking that size, energy, and extravagance aren’t really what makes those big parties great. It is the tiny moments that happen between two people in those loud moments.  The tiny moments that forge bonds that outlast all that life throws at us. The tiny moments that remind us we are connected in ways that matter.  We are connected not just by blood or DNA but by lifetimes shared, bruises healed, miracles rejoiced, and hands held through the darkest nights and earliest mornings.  If we do it right, that kind of love becomes an avalanche that sweeps up our children, collects our friends and theirs on the fringe, who are afraid to dive in. It is not about gifts but the thought behind those gifts. The best gifts are the moments that we give each other. This year, more than ever, I am celebrating all of that on my quiet birthday.  My heart is so full.  This has been a year of reconnecting with old friends.  It has been a year of learning to lean on my pack and of being there to hold them. It has been a year of forging deep bonds with my sisters.  It has been a year of learning how all those great kids who touched my heart as teenagers turned out. (Spoiler alert for future posts–  They turned out just like I knew they would- amazing. Every. Last. One.)  

The most important moments of this year have been the moments that we have spent as a family preparing to send our daughter to college.  There have been a million, beautiful, tiny moments.  There has been laughter so deep and bold it turned to tears of joy.  There have been tears so deep and painful that only bear hugs and time could cure them.  We have walked down memory lane. We have practiced being adults. We have practiced being just a couple again. We have practiced letting go. We have practiced being in the moment.    

 

Everything is sacred

when you take time to notice.   

Big love happens

in small moments.

– JJ Heller. 

 

So, for my birthday, that is all I wanted- a day of moments.  But I got so much more.  I got 14 sealed envelopes from my daughter.  They are worth a thousand times their weight in gold. They are stronger than diamonds. I wouldn’t trade a single one for one hundred birthday parties.  What greater gift for a mom than to know you are sending a young woman into the world who has a beautiful heart and who knows that it really is the thought that counts in life.  Today I am giving myself a gift that will remind me of all of these moments and the ones yet to come.  Give it some thought.  Maybe your next present doesn’t require wrapping paper.   

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Copyright 2019 Catherine Matthews.

 

Living in the Moment

I was awakened at 2:51 AM yesterday morning by the unmistakable rumble of an earthquake. It was a relatively small one, 4.7, but it shook me awake.  My daughter shouted from the other room. I realize I have failed her in the Emergency Preparedness training department because she immediately ran to my room and jumped in bed with me. It only lasted a few moments and, in my 54 years, I have experienced many of these tremors living in the Pacific Northwest.  I probably should have run for a doorway.  But my lack of good sense is not the topic of this story so I will let that go for now.  Buttercup the Boxer Pup apparently knew it was coming because she was already hunkered down by the time the quake jolted us awake (apparently it is every dog for herself in an earthquake). We lathere snuggled togetherButtercup and my daughter were very distressed by the whole thing. Buttercup was panting uncontrollably. My daughter was furiously Googling earthquakes which of course brought images and statistics of the worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  Don’t misunderstand me, emergency preparedness is very important.  In the end, that is all that you can do- prepare.  When Mother Nature tries to wipe the planet clean or the earth tries to shake us off, we are powerless to stop it.  We can prepare but we cannot prevent most natural disasters.  I hate that. Literally. I hate it. I hate that something bad could happen that is completely beyond my control.  I hate that I can prepare and practice and do all the right things, and still an earthquake (tornado, illness, freak accident, hurricane….)  could change everything. I am a planner. I am always thinking about the long game. I believe what we do today makes a difference in our tomorrows.  I do believe all of that is true.  It is also true that we live in the present moment. It is also true that we cannot control the millions of things that might happen in the next moment. So, the present moment matters.   

That is what occurred to me as I was snuggled in close to my daughter and our pup.  This present moment matters. It matters to let her talk it out.  It matters to give comfort and reassurance. It matters to listen.  While we were laying there waiting for the aftershocks, I  was reminded of one of my favorite moments from her childhood.  When she was very little, just out of a crib and into a big girl bed, she would listen for her dad to get in the shower in the morning. Quiet as a little mouse, she would pad across the hall and slide into bed next to me. She would snuggle in close and fall asleep with her warm cheek on my shoulder and her tiny hand on my arm.  In the morning, she would have a dreamy look as I would get out of bed to get ready for work.  Invariably the pups would jump in bed with her as soon as I left, soaking up the warmth I left behind.  As I did my hair and makeup, she would chatter away telling me everything that was on her mind. I can feel the smile now, just thinking about it, that I had hearing her describe her adventures and discoveries.  A moment. A string of moments. That is all that life is – a string of moments.  Each one a gift. Not all of them are good. Most we cannot control. We should not miss a single one of them.  I thought that morning:  I should get up and check the house for damage; I should call my husband (I did); I should do something. Then I realized I was doing something. I was having a very special moment with a very special person. A moment I was never getting back.  And so, I laid there awake for a couple of hours – in the moment. 

I selected this picture because it reminded me that when she was little, the best moments were the simplest ones. Just holding her, in my arms, heart and mind, while she slept seemed like the most important thing in the moment. It still is.

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Big Love

Last weekend, our daughter graduated from high school.  I brought three packages of tissues to the ceremony and a camera with a 600 mm lens. I was not going to miss her face as she walked across the stage. I was prepared to weep openly, unapologetically, for two hours. I didn’t open a single package. Actually, that is not true. I got a fingerprint on my glasses and used a tissue to clean them.  I did not, however, shed a single tear.

IMG_2671.JPGDon’t get me wrong. I have cried thinking about graduation for the past year.  I just did not cry that day, as I imagined I would. The truth is that I could not have been anything but joyful on that day.  

As I confessed earlier, I was in a flurry of activity getting ready. My youngest sister and I were planting flowers and decorating the house the day before graduation.

DSC02155.JPGWe strung twine on the walls and hung pictures of my daughter with family and friends throughout her life.  As I looked at all the big moments and the small ones, all my fears and sadness slipped away.  I saw her dressed as a snowflake riding on my dad’s shoulders.  I saw her wide-eyed on her grandmother’s lap reading a book. I saw her giggling in her silly uncle’s arms and snuggling with her cousin.  I saw her bouncing on the bed in a cabin at Kalaloch wearing red suspenders her dad bought for her in an Ace Hardware store in Forks. I saw her growing older in the arms of her aunts. I saw her playing basketball and softball, boxing, skating, rowing, and tumbling. I saw her laughing and hugging her best friends who held her close through heartbreak and loss, and shared mischief, laughter and joy.

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I saw her hand in hand walking down the beach with her dad and riding with me top down in the sun. I saw her with the teachers who shaped her education and her character. I saw her with the community of family we have made with our friends – the aunties, uncles, cousins, and grandparents not of birth but of love still the same.  That string of pictures held the first chapters of a life built on love. Not much to cry about there. Unless you are crying tears of joy. 

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On the day of graduation, my dearest friends pitched in to get ready for the party.  I could not have pulled it off without them. They worked so hard to set everything up while we were at the ceremony so that we could have the party while my family was in town.  I have the kind of friends who grab their keys and are out the door before you even ask for help. They are the kind of friends who pull together for each other no matter what. I realized that she will be just fine. Because I know, in good times and bad, I am surrounded by big love from family and friends. And that is what we have raised her in- big love.

Leading up to this day, as I suspect all graduates do, our daughter has had moments of fear and sadness. She will miss her friends.  Girls cuddlingShe will miss the safety of a community that supports her.  She will be challenged to go farther academically and personally that she has thus far. I have reminded her that she is ready. I know she will make friends. I know that she will achieve her goals.  I have assured her that she has a safety net of people who love her and will be there to support her as she takes these first steps into independence, even when she is away at college. 

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On graduation day, I realized that we too are ready as parents. I realized that we too have a safety net of people who love and support us. They will be there as she takes these steps away from us. They will be there for her and they will be there for us.  And we will be there for them when the time comes with big love. 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Busyness of Avoiding

My father tore the carpet out of our house a few weeks before my sister’s wedding.  The carpet started out the color of sand on a southern beach.  After years of being trampled on by firewood toting teenagers, it had grown dingy and rough.  Once he got a thought in his head, it was like a worm boring in deep and taking up residence. He bought planks of tongue and groove hardwood and piled them high in the living room.  He was invisible save for the tapping of his rubber mallet against the slats.  He moved with the deliberation of a military exercise from the dining room to the living room.  With a hand-held electric sander, he methodically planed each surface on his knees.  In paint-splattered Levi’s, which he was perpetually pulling up, he knelt on the floor and brushed each piece with a thick coat of varnish. It was exasperating to watch. With each painstaking stroke, he seemed more and more oblivious to the tornado of wedding preparations going on around him. He was blind and deaf to the herd of women stomping their feet and tapping their watches.  This was not the first time he engaged in a Herculean task as the timer counted down to a graduation or wedding.  I didn’t understand him at the time. I thought him inconsiderate at best, selfish at worst. But I was wrong, so wrong.

For the last year, I have been planning a party that I have known, for 19 years, was going to happen in the second week of June. I thought I had learned a lesson from my father:  Don’t drive your family insane by doing an enormous job right before a big event. I planned ahead.  A year ago, we tore out our rustic Ode-to-Alaska firepit, and built a circular patio large enough for a crowd and safe enough for old ankles.  We built a 110-foot raised garden to fill with lovely flowers.  We replaced the lawns, which our energetic boxers had decimated, and built a dog run to contain their enthusiasm.  We weeded, planted, and barked.  It is beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be.

I was wrong, though. I did not learn that lesson from my dad.  The truth is that I dragged my heels on the smaller details. Now that we are a few short weeks away, I am in a flurry, ordering photographs, creating announcements, planning a menu, and locating plates, napkins and decorations in green and black.  I have a long list of things to do and an even longer list of things to worry about. Generally, I am driving everyone around me insane.

I think I have procrastinated, something I am loathed to do, because having a million things to do leaves no time to think about what is really happening.  Our only child is graduating from high school. The glassware in the hutch needs to be washed.  She will be going off to college soon. I must dust the slats of the blinds. When I slow down for even a moment, my chest is heavy and my breath catches in my throat. The entryway has spiderwebs. Even though this is the right thing and she is ready, I am grieving the loss. Did we pressure wash the patio? Soon I will not see her every day. I will not have those right-before-bedtime mother-daughter talks about the little and the big things in life. I need to borrow a cooler for the pop.  I won’t chuckle at her admonishment of my loud music and excessive Tweeting.  We will need lots of ice.  She won’t be exploding through the door ready to tell us the amazing thing she did that day.  The windows need washing.  We won’t hear about the drama of everyday life. I need to order the food soon. I won’t be close enough to hug her when she needs comfort – or when I do.  I need to move tables out for the food.  Mother – daughter dinner dates will be bi-annual events.  The flowerpots in the front need planting.  Adventure Days will be rare. I need to get a journal so guests can write their advice to her. I will miss her laughter and tears. Should I have bought more decorations? I will miss her wicked wit. I will miss her soft heart and hard head. I need to order more pictures. And so, I make lists. Before I cross that last item off, I add one to the bottom. I should refinish the hardwood floors.

I am my father’s daughter. But I am also my daughter’s mother, and, though I may not have learned the lesson from him, I have learned this lesson from her. I must not fill every second with the busyness of avoiding feeling these feelings. More importantly, I must not fill up every second with busyness and miss out on spending time with her.

 

I took this picture on the highway near Verlot.  It was such a beautiful day and we were shooting her senior pictures. I snapped it as she was walking down the road.  It seemed fitting for this post.

Walking Away

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Seeing Through the Memories of Your Heart 

Our book club recently read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less by Andrew Sean Greer.  It was a strange and beautiful story.  Toward the end, the main character is reflecting on giving up a younger lover as he grapples with the disdain he has for his aging body. One of his friends points out that this lover did not know him at 20 in all his youthful glory. They fell in love while Less was in his 40s and that is all his lover knows and remembers of Less.  That struck me as profoundly true and beautiful.

We see ourselves as we are now,

knowing what we once were. 

Those who love us, though, 

see us through the memories in their hearts.

Like all great books, Greer shined a light on a universal truth of the human condition:  We see ourselves as we are now, knowing what we once were. Those who love us, though, see us through the memories in their hearts.  Whenever my husband exclaims “Your mama is hot!”, in the presence of our mortified daughter, I know for a fact that we see through our heart memories.  In the strictest, traditional sense of the word ‘hot’, I haven’t been ‘hot’ for decades (unless you are counting the hot that comes in flashes).  Though my daughter rolls her eyes and warns, “All right, that’s enough of that now!”, I don’t roll my eyes. You see, I know something at 53 that she cannot possibly know at 18.  I know he sees me through the memories in his heart.

He sees the 18-year-old me he fell in love with, who he apparently thought was hot.  He sees a girl in a pink polka dot sundress in the bright midnight sun of Alaska. He sees a girl in cowboy boots and jeans moving mares and foals to the pasture.  He sees me driving his truck too fast on a dirt road, belting out a John Hiatt tune.  I know this for a fact because when I look at him, I see a strapping buck of 19 in a Hickory shirt, jeans and Carhartt jacket who made me laugh and rode out the storms of my over-the-top Greek-Irish personality.  I see the strong man who held me gently when my best friend died. I see the adventurous spirit who drove us into the wilderness and changed the way I looked at life. I see him through the memories in my heart.

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I realize this does not just apply to him.  It applies to all of the people who have meant something in my life. I see them all through my heart memories.  Unfortunately, like Less, I also see I have held back from reaching out thinking that too much time has passed, or I have changed too much, or they won’t remember me.

At Christmas, a friend from high school messaged me through Facebook.  I had not talked to him since 1984.  In mere moments, we were caught up with each other and the crowd we hung with.  We have, of course, changed so much in the last 35 years. And yet all of those changes are so easy to fold into my vision of him that is solidly implanted in the memories of my heart. He was so kind to me when I was a new kid in a small town where acceptance seemed predicated on whether or not your first breaths were taken there. As a junior in high school with a southern accent and an east coast style, I felt so apart and he made me feel a part.  There is nothing that has happened in thirty-five years, and believe me a lot has happened to both of us, that will ever change the vision I have of him and his friendship through my heart.

That loosened the reins holding back my heart. I thought about all of the people along the way I have lost touch with who still hold a solid place in the memories of my heart.  I started reaching out.  It made me realize that, if I see people through my heart’s memories, then I must be seen that way too. So, what is the price of reaching out really?   The only risk is what you have right now – a connection broken. It may stay broken. More likely, it will become a connection interrupted.  It is beautiful to see that the girl with the biggest smile is still smiling as she chases around her grandbaby; that joyous, kind former-student is raising two lovely girls of her own; and the quiet boy with a quick wit is realizing his dreams. From the milestones to the mundane, it is beautiful to see them all now through the memories of my heart.

Who are you missing from the memories of your heart?

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Snow Days: Sometimes the warmest memories are made on the coldest days!

If you are reading this, there is a good possibility you are an adult.  I know you have responsibilities and obligations.  Maybe, when you hear that forecast for snow on the evening news, you get a sinking feeling.  You imagine slogging to work at 25 miles an hour praying you won’t slide into the ditch while keeping one vigilant eye on the three-bedroom SUV riding your bumper. You imagine braving the local grocery store only to find the last carton of eggs being scooped up in a mob-induced frenzy rivaled only by doomsday preppers on the eve of the Zombie Apocalypse.   You worry about finding someone who can watch the kids if you have to go to work. Knowing this, I am aware that what I am about to say is controversial, but I am going to say it anyway.  I love snow.  I do. There, I said it. I am owning it.  Now admittedly, I don’t love to drive in it much anymore, especially after losing my beloved Angus last winter.  And I have the luxury of having some vacation time saved up for just this kind of a situation, so I can stay home. But even when I had to get up an hour early, don my Sorrels and a parka, and trek 50 miles past 4 school districts that wisely closed due to snow just to get to my job in the foothills on time, I still loved the snow.  I love the fat flakes drifting slowly to the earth.  I love the heavy drifts building on evergreen limbs. I love the quiet calm that a blanket of snow brings to an early morning.

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Most of all I love those two joyous words: Snow Day!  I probably shouldn’t broadcast this (although literally hundreds of current adults, once-students, know already) but when I was a teacher and I knew snow was coming I would convince my students to do the Alaskan Snow Dance at the end of class.  I told them it was something I learned while living in Fairbanks. What can I say?  Freshmen are gullible – and fun!  It was silly. I only did it when there was a better than 50% chance of snow because, after all, reputation matters. I knew I had to deliver if I was ever going to get them to do the dance and chant “Snow, Snow, Snow” again.

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Just like everything else, snow days bring back great memories.  When I was little, my dad had this enormous toboggan.  It would practically hold the whole family – no small feat if you are an Irish Catholic family.  We would bundle up in layers beneath our winter coats.  Donning our boots, hats and mittens, we would make the frosty trek two blocks to the nearest side street hill.  It was a long walk when your joints barely flexed beneath the layers of wool.  Three little Stay Puft Marshmallow girls trailing behind our brawny dad as he dragged a path through the snow for us. I remember I always tried to walk in his footsteps.  I would swing the whole side of my body forward trying to land my foot exactly where he stepped. Invariably I would fall behind as my sisters tired of my Frankenstein pace.  When we arrived at the hill, he would place the toboggan in the center of the road and take his place in the very front where the wood curved up and back like a sleigh.  Grabbing the rope that allegedly steered the sled, he would shout, “Jump on and hold on tight.”  With a couple bumps of his seat, he would launch us down the hill. We would hold each other by the waist, shrieking as we flew through the snow.  At the bottom, we would fall off the sled into the snow drifts giggling.  Then we were back up the hill as fast as our little legs could carry us, slip-sliding all the way.  We would go up and down that hill all morning until we were soaked and frozen.  I would be so sad when the sun would come out and the snow would begin to melt.

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It was even more fun to have a snow day when my daughter was little.  The first time she encountered snow, she was only a year old.  I bundled her up like the Michelin Man and took her out to play.  My father gave her a sled that Christmas and she giggled her way around the neighborhood shouting. “Again, again, again!” In the way only small children, who are just discovering their world can, she plopped in the snow and rolled around, lifting it in armfuls aloft and letting the snow fall all around her. She searched the sky with her tongue out, trying to catch the flakes.  She tossed it to her dogs as they bounced through the drifts.  That was just the beginning. As she grew, she would search the refrigerator for just the right vegetables to top off her snowmen. She would slide down the lawn with her best friend on flimsy sheets of plastic, collapsing together in raucous laughter as little girls do. Afterwards, wet clothes discarded for PJs, we would snuggle by the fire with cocoa and a movie.  Bliss.

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At our house now, we have our own pre-Snow Day ritual.  My daughter insists, even if there is a 100% chance of a 10-inch snowfall, that we get ready for bed as we always do. We make our lunches.  We go to bed at the normal time. We set our clothes out.  We wake up at the normal time. She is convinced, and I agree, that we must not anger the snow gods, or we won’t even get a late start let alone that mystical unicorn- the Snow Day.  Last week, we had two snow days.  It was a mess, I know, for many people.  The roads were terrible, and I did not want to drive unless I really had to. I realized that our snow days together are numbered.  I am glad I have had all of those snow days with her.  I know, after this, her snow days will be hundreds of miles away from mine. The snow won’t bring a spontaneous pajama day with popovers, cocoa and silly movies.   So, I took two vacation days and spent them with my husband and daughter. We didn’t go sledding but we enjoyed the snow, nonetheless.  We watched movies and talked. We played games. There was none of the usual hurrying to get everywhere and do everything on time.  There were no distractions – just making a few more warm memories on a cold day.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Father (-in-Law) Christmas

I get a little nostalgic at Christmastime.  I suppose I am not alone in that. Christmas is such a magical season. It brings back bright and twinkling memories of people and places long gone.  I miss my father-in-law most at Christmastime.  My father-in-law loved having Christmas morning with his granddaughter.  We would travel to his house on Christmas Eve and spend the night just so that he could see her face on Christmas morning.  He made a huge production of putting out cookies and milk for Santa Claus.  He had a special plate just for that night that he put on a table next to his chair in case Santa needed a rest. He would let her pick out the cookies. For her troubles, she would eat a couple and insist that he join her.  My father-in-law waited so long for her. I would like to say patiently but it would be a lie.  He wanted a grandbaby from the time I first met him, I think.  When she finally came along, he was the best kind of grandpa. You know the ones.  They get down on the floor ignoring the roar of their creaky knees.  They hide drawers of candy because they love to hear the squeals of delight and feel those reckless hugs.  They can be talked into any mischief by doe-eyes and butterfly kisses.  They will walk hunched over for miles just to be able to hold those tiny fingers as they explore their old world through their grandbaby’s new eyes.  They know that in the potentially 42,048,000 minutes in a lifetime, this one minute right now is the only one that truly matters.   That was my father-in-law. I was so happy that my baby was his special kid.  I had that with my grandpa. I knew he would not be around forever, but I also knew the memories of being loved so deeply and unconditionally would last her a lifetime.

They got into quite a lot of mischief over the years.  One time she even talked him into a water fight in grandma’s kitchen having discovered that the faucet was actually a hose. For a time after that he was barred from unsupervised babysitting for fear she would talk him into buying a motorcycle and heading down the coast. Believe me, when she aimed those baby blues at him, he lost all reason. He would do anything just so see her smile.

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Caught in the Act – The Fateful Faucet Incident of 2003

One year, I went alone to mass on Christmas Eve leaving her, secure in the fact that she would be safe with her father, grandma and grandpa.  I naively thought that at least one of those adults would be impervious to her wily ways.  When I returned, there was a somber mood in the house.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Somebody spilled glue on grandma’s dining room table,” my husband replied.

Somebody?” I asked incredulously.  I wasn’t even there when it had happened, and I knew “somebody” didn’t do it.  I was sure I knew the ‘body’ that did.  I briefly wondered how she even ended up with glue in the first place but, even at the ripe old age of 4, she could have charmed them all out of their car keys.

Sheepishly he replied, “She says the cat did it.”

“Seriously?!” I wasn’t sure if I was more annoyed at her lying or their inability to get her to admit she was lying.

I called her to my side. “Who spilled glue on the table?”

“Grandpa did,” she stated firmly.

I looked up and was met by two pairs of wide eyes signaling their amazement that she had taken it up a notch.  I turned to my father-in-law, who was putting a superhuman effort into not breaking out in laughter. “Did you spill glue on the table?”

It took a moment for him to compose himself and I was grateful that he understood the gravity of the situation.  Laughing at this moment would have launched many more exasperating moments.

“Um, no. I did not spill glue on the table,” he replied in his most serious voice.

I looked her in the eye and said, “Grandpa says he did not spill the glue. I don’t think Grandpa would lie to us. Do you?”

She didn’t bother responding to that.  Instead, dismissing the other adults as possible suspects, she turned on the only other living being.

“The cat did it.”

I had to dismiss the adults as they were now all holding back their laughter.

“Sweetie, the cat does not have opposable thumbs, so I think we can safely rule out the cat,” I stated, hoping she would come clean faced with this undisputable evidence clearing the poor cat.

“Well,” she started (and I groaned), “I don’t know about disposable thumbs, but the cat did it.”

It was time to bring out the big guns.  “Sweetie, do you know what mama does for a living? I am a high school principal. Believe me, I get kids to tell me the truth who’ve done far worse things than spilling glue on a table. You are not even a challenge.  I want you to sit here and when you are ready to tell me the truth about what happened, you let me know.” I walked away. While outwardly I was resolute and confident, inwardly I was a tornado of emotion.  She was lying! She would not admit it. Parenting is so hard.

In the end, I was right. It took her all of three minutes to come clean.  With tears in her eyes, I hugged her and reminded her that it is not OK to lie.  That lying about it is far worse than spilling glue on a table. I also told her that she needed to make things right, especially with her Grandpa after throwing him under the proverbial bus.  She clung to my legs, sniffling. I could tell she was afraid to take that first step.

“Go on. Tell him you are sorry for saying he did it. He loves you. He will forgive you.”

With a teddy bear in one hand and a thumb in her mouth, she walked tentatively to her grandpa. Eyes fixed on her patent leather shoes, she squeaked, “I’m sorry.” He scooped her up in a big hug and told her it was OK.  He told her he loved her as she clung to his neck crying.  She stayed particularly close to him that Christmas.  She probably does not remember this incident except that she has been told the story a million times. I know she will never forget his hugs, his candy drawer, or singing “Splish, Splash”. She will never forget those special Christmas mornings.  She will never forget she was his favorite and he was hers.

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Her First Motorcycle- His Idea!

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The House That Built Me

I was staring out the dusty screen door of our canary-yellow, cookie-cutter rambler when I first realized he had superpowers.  My bangs glanced off the cheap metal door as I followed his deliberate movements back and forth across the patio.  My mother hooked me around the waist, dragging me back as she slammed the glass slider closed, “Come away from there. Don’t you know that stuff will kill you?”  But I was rapt and would not budge.  He looked like a different man in his white t-shirt, faded jeans, and boots.  I wondered if this was the real him – the real person beneath the Brooks Brothers suit, bow tie and shiny wingtips.

The canoe, or what was going to become a canoe, was resting on two sawhorses he fashioned out of spare two by fours.  That was him. He wouldn’t buy it, if he could make it.  A mask covered most of his face. I could tell it irritated his twice broken nose by the way he harshly brushed it with his forearm. With gloved hands, he carefully lifted a fiberglass sheet over the shell smoothing it down gently. It sparkled white in the sunlight like tinsel on a Christmas tree.  He inspected each piece bending down to sight the line of the hull along the fat ribs before starting the process again.  He was making a boat. I guess I knew someone made boats.  I didn’t know you could make your own boat.  It occurred to me that maybe not just anyone could make a boat. That this was his superpower. He made things from nothing. He would stop periodically and survey the scene like a king, chest swelled with pride.  Watching him, I learned there must be something deeply satisfying about rowing a boat you made with your own hands.  In so doing, you earned the pleasure of it all. And somehow, building that boat built him.

But it wasn’t just that boat. He would get an idea to do something, the harder the better, and the next thing you knew he’d buy a book or find some expert to talk to.  My dad had a gift for getting people, no matter how shy or reluctant, to spill all their knowledge and, sometimes, even a few secrets.  From our next-door neighbor, an odd man who wore a button down and dress pants even in his garden, he learned to grow hybrid roses with buttery blooms of swirling yellow and pink that made me think of lollipops.  He built bunk beds and bookcases. He carved clawed feet for the chairs he made and personally stood by as a plank of mahogany was planed into sheets that would fit our whole family for Thanksgiving.

Throughout my childhood, I watched him build. He always started the same way- with a book.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized I had inherited his thrill for a challenging task and his sense of pride in doing something for myself.  When I was in high school, we moved back to Washington from Georgia.  Rather than buy a house, my dad decided to design and build the house himself. With a rudimentary understanding of the process, he bought some machetes and we set out to hack a path to make way for the backhoe.  Even when he seemed frustrated that he could not get something to work, he persevered.  The harder the problem, the harder he worked to solve it.  Although there are still some light switches that turn nothing on, he rejoiced when he finished wiring the house.  I rejoiced right along with him. At the time, I felt like I was rejoicing that we were finished wiring and were one step closer to finishing the house. But I can tell now that I was rejoicing because we conquered wiring. We didn’t give up and call an electrician. We stuck in there until the last wire was connected and everything turned on.  It felt so good to accomplish something that was really hard. I know that building that house built me in many ways.  There is nothing that motivates me more than a complex problem. Give me a book, Google or an expert and I will conquer that hill.  The steeper the better.

I felt that same exhilaration and sense of accomplishment last week working on a difficult project with my team.  We were recreating a complicated data display in a new software platform.  After several days of learning, and learning from our mistakes, we did it.  I felt like doing the touchdown dance right there in the conference room. The easy things in life do not build you.  Taking on the challenges in life, even seeking them out, that is what builds you.

I selected this picture of my dad for this post.  It was taken in October of 1964 when he was working as lineman to put himself through college.  It reminds me of how hard he worked to achieve his dreams. Based on the date of the picture, he was married with a child, going to college and working as a lineman.  He never took the easy way. Once he set his mind to something, there was never a hill he could not climb.

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A note about the title of this post, The House That Built Me is the title of a Miranda Lambert song that always resonated with me.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Heading for the Door

She was three and a half when I spied her heading for the front door out of the corner of my eye.  She shuffled down the hall in a pair of my black heels intently watching her feet.  On one side, her tiny fingers were outstretched to the wall for balance. On the other, she had slung her diaper bag over her shoulder. It skipped and bounced across the carpet with each awkward step.  I was curious, so I let her go.  When she reached the stairs, she carefully grabbed the railing and slowly eased her foot down the way a little kid does when each step is nearly the height of one leg.  I headed to the top of the stairs and sat down, my eyes now level with hers. “Hey, whatcha doing with your diaper bag? You can’t be running away from home already.” I chuckled at the thought. She looked at me quizzically and proclaimed, “It’s my beefcase. I got a meeting.”  After a short moment of cringing (I had 4 “beefcases” and many more meetings), I laughed and scooped her up.  She was squirming because, after all, she had places to be and I was holding her back. Like every other three-year-old though, she was easy to distract and redirect. I was the master of that.  I asked about her meeting and she went into great and emphatic detail about the many important things that had to be done. I made a note to remember that she was a sponge- soaking everything up that she saw or heard.

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It took me back to my own childhood. I loved to play in my dad’s office.  He had fascinating pieces of paper and so many books. Even before I could read, I would pretend to fill out the forms and make notes. I would pretend to read the textbooks.  The pictures filled my imagination – exotic animals, colorful maps, geometric shapes, and paintings.  I particularly liked the Spanish books. I wanted so badly to be able to read so I could read in Spanish. Back then, I had no idea what he actually did, but it seemed so important and I wanted to be just like him.

That is the natural course of things. You look up at the significant adults in your life. You mimic what you see and hear. You play house and school and super heroes.  Then you grow up and, as you do, you test the waters of individuality and independence.  You discover your own passion and that puts you on the path that will be your life. As a parent, even though I want to scoop her up in a big hug and distract her, I know that it is nearly time. It is nearly time to let her go out that door.  When that time comes, we will both be ready. After all, she has places to be and I’m not holding her back.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Of Grapes and Friendship

Last weekend, my best friend and I recruited a few enthusiastic volunteers (our husbands and one of our dear friends) and we pressed 400 pounds of grape must.  I have been making wine from kits for about 20 years with pretty solid success.  In addition to getting about 30 bottles of delicious vino for my troubles, I have always marveled in the process.  In particular, I find yeast to be one of the most interesting organisms.  The fact that it can turn sugar into alcohol is nothing short of miraculous.  Don’t get me started on what it does to wheat!  One tiny packet of yeast cells, a couple of weeks multiplying exponentially and out comes 30 bottles of wine.  I had always wanted to start with grapes, though. Truth be told, I wanted to grow the grapes, harvest the grapes, crush the grapes….. you get the idea.  We’ve never had the room to do it.  Even though the yeast is doing much of the work, there is a lot of labor and we have never had the time.  Last year, a friend of mine told me about his adventures in home winemaking from the vineyard and I was hooked.  So, I did what I always do- I got a book. Then I asked about a million questions of my expert friend. Then I called up my best friend and said, “I am going to buy a couple hundred pounds of grapes and make wine. You should do it with me. It’ll be fun.”  I always throw that last part in, even if it might not really be fun because, when we are together, we are always having fun.  And she’s the best kind of best friend because she never says “No!” or “Have you lost your mind?” or “What is wrong with you?”. No matter how hair-brained my idea might be, she’s always in.

“We should ride up Mount St Helen’s to celebrate my 50th birthday. It’ll be fun.”

“We should go see Great Big Sea. It’ll be fun.”

“We should stand in the rain all day waiting to watch a 5-minute race. It’ll be fun.”

And even at 0400 on my birthday, standing next to our bikes white-knuckled and shivering, frost hanging from our noses, wishing we had dressed for winter not fall, fixing a flat tire on the side of the road, she would say, “It’s all good.” It was a bear of a ride. I know because it took three hours up and only one hour back down.  But she never complained, and I talked her into a way worse ride eight months later (after her memories started to fade). Let’s just say they advertised a mostly flat 75 miles with a couple of hills and it was a mostly hilly 75 miles with a couple of flats.  I think of us as a cross between Lucy and Ethyl (if Lucy and Ethyl had doctorates) and Thelma and Louise (if Thelma and Louise were not self-destructive and made better choices where men were concerned).

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Like all other things, she was all in on my grape acquisition adventure.  We ordered three hundred pounds of Sangiovese grapes and the real fun began.  We spent hours planning how we were physically going to manage this. By the time we collected all of the equipment we already had and bought some things we needed, we applied what I call the “20-Mile Logic”.  The 20-Mile Logic goes like this:  If we can ride 40 miles, we can ride 60.  If we can ride 60, we can ride 80. So, if we can ride 40, we can ride 80.  And it only gets more absurd from there.  So, a couple weeks before the harvest, we called the vintner and asked for another hundred pounds of Petit Verdot. Because, of course, if we can ferment 300 pounds, we can ferment 400 pounds. With each passing week, I watched the Brix levels come in with an intensity I only remember in the final months of pregnancy. When will the grapes be ready?!

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When the day finally came, my husband volunteered to drive over to the Portteus Vineyard in Zillah to pick them up. We really had no idea what to expect as we made the long trek from the rainy side to the sunny side of the state.  As we rolled through the vineyard, we passed row upon row of vines fat with clusters of grapes.  Each variety was unique- some fatter, some deeper in hue, some hanging on the vine lazing in the sun, some seemingly floating off the branches.  We stopped at the tasting room purely for scientific reasons. It is important to know what your wine is supposed to taste like, after all. Then we headed out a large cement patio covered in crates of grapes.  With a short lesson on filling buckets from the crusher-destemmer, we jumped in the back of the pick up and quickly started laying out the buckets. I was given a 6-inch-wide hose which I surmised was going to be shooting out grape juice shortly as the crate was dropped into the bin.  As I looked at my friend, I was picturing Lucy and Ethyl trying to keep up with the candy conveyor belt. There I was precariously perched on the tailgate, gripping the hose for dear life.  Instinctively I crouched down against the impending force of 400 pounds of grapes like I was preparing to be on the receiving end of a charging foul.  I imagined myself shooting backward from the pressure and the viral replay on America’s Funniest Home Video.   It wasn’t quite that bad in the end, but we were working hard to keep the empty buckets coming forward and the filled buckets lined up in the back.  That was the easy part it turned out.

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My dining room furniture was pushed into a corner to make room for our winery.  Barriers were erected to thwart my curious Boxer.  In the following days and weeks, we perfected testing for the Brix level, pH and tartaric acid. I felt like I was back in CHEM101. After we threw the yeast, the cap of grapes skins that floated to the top of each bucket had to be punched down at least three times a day. The cap seemed to be swelling before our eyes each time. At one point, I put out an SOS when two of the buckets had grown mountainous caps like something out of a horror movie. When the Sangiovese finished days before the Petit Verdot and way before we had a bladder press reserved, I frantically googled and then hysterically called my friend to alert her that we had an emergency- Carbon Dioxide or Argon were needed stat.  After a short and awkward silence which I was sure was going to be ended by “I’m out!”, she said, “My soda stream makes CO2. Why can’t we use that?” She is brilliant. Though we had seen countless ominous videos of first-time pressers covered in raw wine from head to toe, pressing was a breeze. We had a lot of help and it went off like clockwork.  So now we wait for several weeks in this last phase before aging. It will be months before we bottle and more still before we know if all our efforts have yielded the nectar we hope it will.

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This has been a learning process.  Making wine is a lot like life.

  1.  Sometimes the smallest things have the greatest impact: yeast cells, simple kindness, holding a baby, wiping a tear, helping someone up, cheering someone on. It is the little things that multiply exponentially- just like yeast.  If you don’t believe me, try smiling at everyone you see tomorrow.

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2.   Think ahead and read the directions. There are a lot of steps in winemaking and they can come at you so fast.  You don’t want to be standing with a siphon full of wine without a clean carboy.

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3.   Improvise- sometimes reading ahead just isn’t enough. Who would have thought we could use a soda stream and a fish tank tube in winemaking?

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4.  Have faith. Just because you cannot see something happening doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

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5.   Patience. Sometimes the greatest rewards take the longest time.

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6.   Most importantly, everything is always better when you have a best friend you can count on who gets you.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Girl’s Best Friend

I remember when we picked him up. After months of looking, we found him at a breeder in Omak.  My husband has a knack for tracking down the best pups.  Dog-less for a year or more, we finally decided it was time for our daughter to have her own dog.  After much negotiations on breed, color and sex, we settled on a brindle Boxer of either gender. We weren’t planning to breed so it was a moot point anyway, although personally I leaned toward female dogs as I found them much more protective and loyal than males.  As the days slowly passed, I started to think that this new puppy was going to be very lonely. I mean there he would be, all day in his kennel, no one to play with.  If he was cold or scared, he would be alone.  One dog? Two dogs? How much work was it really?  Besides, they would play with each other.  If they were playing with each other, they wouldn’t be bored and eat things.  So really, two dogs are less work, if you think about it.  I can make a compelling argument for just about anything.  So, I made one -or three. I can’t remember. Fortunately, there was one pup left in the litter.  So, I was getting a puppy for her birthday too, which was totally fair after 19 hours of labor.

I am not sure how we hid this secret from our daughter, but we did. We wanted it to be a surprise and, until we had a healthy dog in hand, we did not want to get her hopes up.  On Friday, we dropped her off to spend the night with her godfather and his family.  I felt so mischievous keeping this secret that I just wanted to blurt out.  But I held it in. After all, I’m the mama and a grown woman…on the outside.  On the inside, I was a little girl, hiding at the top of the stairs waiting for Santa, holding in my giggles with both hands.

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After procuring the basic puppy necessities (and several that were definitely not), we headed east of the mountains.  We fell in love the minute we saw their googly eyes and fat bellies.  One brindle for our daughter and one fawn for me.  I had named the fawn Sir Finnegan McMuggles, but we called him Finn.  On the long ride home, the brothers (who we affectionately referred to later as the Bruise Brothers) snuggled in the back, alternately lying on top of each other. They were still asleep when we led our daughter to the truck and told her that her birthday present was on the back seat.  Of course, that didn’t last because no one can sleep through the gleeful shrieks of a little girl discovering a puppy.

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

“The brindle one is your’s. Finn is your mom’s,” my husband replied.

“Does he have a name?” she asked earnestly.

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

“I will have to think about that, “she said. “I will just call him Buddy for now.”

My husband and I looked at each other and said, at the exact same time, “The dog’s name is Buddy.”

And it was. And he was.  He was her Buddy every day.

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The Bruise Brothers were playful and loving.  I found them often sleeping on her. Later, she would sleep on them.  I was right that they would keep each other company. I was wrong that they would be less destructive together.  They were about three months old when they ate my kitchen one day. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way or a metaphoric way. I mean that literally. They ate my kitchen.  We had to remodel it.  We built them a kennel in the garage.  Boxers can jump five feet in the air easily.  Though we built the walls high, they were hard to contain.  One day, they managed to pull a Skill Saw off of a high shelf. To this day I do not know how they did it but one standing on the other’s shoulder is not beyond the realm of possibility.  By the time we got home, the only thing left was a cord, a couple bolts and the blade.  It was hard to be mad at them though. They would look at you like they knew they did something wrong, and they were really (really, really) sorry but couldn’t make any promises about better behavior in the future.  They were soft and sweet.  We always forgave them.   They always forgave us.

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Being litter mates, they were inseparable.  We kenneled them once apart and they nearly broke the wall down trying to get back together.  I made sure to tell the kennel they had to sleep together after that. Boxers have the unusual habit of sitting on each other.  These two were no exception.  At first, I could not figure out what was going on. Buddy would be laying there, and Finn would walk backward until his was on top of Buddy. Then he would just plop right down.   They both had this expression on their jowly mugs like “What? There’s nothing weird going on here.”  It was both bizarre and endearing.

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Finn passed away suddenly after having a seizure while on a walk with my husband and me.  It was such a jarring tragedy for all of us, but none more so than Buddy and our daughter. They spent days snuggled together. As she cried, Buddy burrowed in and loved her the only way he knew how- with all his heart. And he had a very big heart.  They were inseparable.  At night, I could hear her talking to him as they fell asleep.  It reminded me of all the pups I had as a kid. I was so grateful she had this loving animal to keep all her secrets.  I always knew when she had a bad day because she would lie down with him on his bed in the living room and pet his ears.  He would put his big jowly head on her belly like he was anchoring her to the earth.  He would rush to the door when her heard her car pull in and greet her with such joy.

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Two years ago, we decided he needed a friend.  It was a tough decision as he was already an older dog and we didn’t know if he would accept a puppy.  Again, my husband went on the hunt and found a breeder in Yakima.  We picked a fawn female.  Our daughter was older and much harder to hide a secret from, but we pulled it off. We needed a night without her to make sure that Buddy was fine with this new addition.  I remember I was sitting on the floor of the kitchen with her when my husband let Buddy in.  Buddy rushed to us and I was momentarily afraid that I might have misjudged the situation.  As soon as Buddy saw little Buttercup, he stopped in his tracks.  He leaned down and gave her a sniff.  He looked up to my husband.   He looked down to me. And then he started bouncing on his front paws – a sure sign of joy in a Boxer. He loved that little girl and she gave him a whole new lease on life.  He had been slowing down.  As soon as she came into our lives, he started acting like a young pup himself.  Oh sure, he schooled her more than once when she got out of hand.  Mostly though, he let her goad him into playing with him. They were inseparable. (You can follow Buttercup’s antics on Instagram: @buttercupboxerpup .)

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Last week, we said goodbye to Buddy.  We are all mourning his loss deeply.    It is worse, I think, because it is so painful to watch your child grieve the loss of her best friend.  Buddy had an accident and broke his leg. He couldn’t recover from it. We had time together to care for him. We had time to talk as a family.  Still the pain of loss is sharp.  It seems this year, we have experienced a lot of loss- too much really.  We have to remember that this is the price of big love from a big heart. What is the alternative?  To insulate yourself form the pain of loss by refusing to give or accept love.  For me, I would cry a thousand tears now than to have missed even one minute of knowing true love.  Knowing the love of a big-hearted dog – true, unconditional, freely-given, forgiving, endless, unselfish, loyal, trusting – I would not trade one tear.

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Memories Under the Big Sky

The summer before 5th grade, my father took me on a week-long backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. We planned the trip over the spring on our every-other-weekend visits.  My dad pinned a map to the wall in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. Back then, the map shifted from grey to a deep green as you looked east across the page. In my child’s mind, I imagined an endless park stretching across the state.   In thick black ink, he traced the route across Washington and Idaho. The line snaked through Kalispell and north to Hungry Horse.  Montana sounded so exotic when I said it in my head- towns like Whitefish and Missoula and Great Falls. As he talked about his trips to Montana, I pictured this vast, untouched paradise of tall pines, jagged peaks and wild rivers. We were hiking in to the Hungry Horse Dam and fly fishing along the way.  It was all I could think about that spring.   He bought me some waffle stompers and a package of mole skin for the inevitable heal blisters.  He said I had to break them in so that I wouldn’t get blisters on the trip.  I loved the light brown suede that changed colors as I ran my fingers across the toe.  On our practice hikes around the reservoir in Seattle, I carried my backpack. Each time he added some weight. I was so proud of that. It was a real backpack with a metal frame like his and a belt that hugged my hips.  He showed me how to strap my sleeping bag beneath it. As I stomped along, the bag bounced on my rear end. I didn’t care. It was a small price to pay for a big adventure.  At REI, we searched the aisles for containers for food and cooking equipment.  We bought large tubes that reminded me of toothpaste containers.  He showed me how you could fill them with peanut butter and clamp the end.  He bought freeze dried beef stew in crinkly silver packets and paper boxes of hardtack.  He picked up complicated tools and clamps and rubber balls. I couldn’t follow how these would be used in the wilderness, but he assured me that they would keep us warm and dry. On the weekends that I visited, I would lie in the living room on the leather psychiatrist couch (the coveted sleepover spot) underneath his down sleeping bag staring at the map and dreaming of the trip.  I would will time to speed up and July to come quickly.

Though we left early in the morning, I was up, waffle stompers laced, before he was out of the shower. We drove all day, stopping only for necessities- donuts in North Bend at the bakery, gas and Sno Balls in Ellensburg and lunch in Spokane.  I loved long road trips with my dad. It was easier to talk to him without the phone ringing or work looming.  For hundreds of miles, we talked. He talked about his childhood and told me cautionary tales he featured heavily in.  Somewhere on the Palouse, I got the courage to ask about my mom and their divorce.  It somehow made me sad to know that they had once been in love. It was childish because of course I knew they had to have been. When there was silence, he turned the radio up and we listened to the country music stations fade in and out with each passing town. John Denver and Willie Nelson became a soundtrack for that trip.  Once we hit Idaho, he pulled off the highway to an old quarry.  He told me that he was going to show me how to shoot a gun because we would be in the wilderness and there could be bears or other wild animals.  It wasn’t a surprise that he brought a gun.  He was a hunter and I had seen his rifles. Though to this point, I was not allowed to touch them.  In solemn tones, he showed me how the gun worked. It was a long- barreled revolver. He showed me how to release the cylinder and load the bullets. He helped me pull the hammer back and sight the gun.  It took several shots to get used to the feel of the kick.  When he felt sure I was comfortable, he took it back and emptied the cylinder.  He reminded me that the gun was not a toy.  I asked him if it would kill a bear.  He said, “No. It will annoy a bear. Just shoot me. I don’t want to be eaten by a bear.”  I stared at him agape.  He put his hand on my head a shook my hair, “I’m kidding!  Just shoot it in the air. The noise will scare animals away and alert other hikers.”

When we finally arrived at the trailhead, it was everything I imagined it would be.  Heavy logs funneled hikers to the path.  The forest was dense and dark. Light shined in ladders through the boughs.  As we checked our gear, I watched a family unload and saddle their horses. They had a girl my age and I asked her if I could pet her horse.  She told me her name was Cherry and her family was riding up to the dam. I couldn’t decide what was cooler, being named Cherry or riding a horse on a trail.  The hike was long, but he let me take the lead and stopped when I got tired. The trail wound around and, as I looked across the ravines, I would see bears and deer behind us.  My dad would point out that the bears were merely stumps.  I would squint long and hard before I conceded.  It was so peaceful in the woods.  At the end of the trail, the Flathead River appeared before us bright and blue, and sparkling in the sun.  We sat there just looking at it for the longest time.  And then, for the longest time, I watched my dad fly fish.  He was never more at peace than standing knee high in a river, whipping that bamboo rod back and forth, back and forth.  The tip would dip toward the water. The line would follow slapping the fly across the surface.  There we stayed, on the banks of the river, fishing and hiking.  We sat by the fire at night and ate freeze dried beef stew and hardtack.  Somehow the food tasted so much better by a fire in the wilderness.

I dreaded the hike back, not because it was long, but because it was the beginning of the end of the trip.  I wished I was back in the spring dreaming of the trip.  I wanted the hike down and the drive back across three states to last forever.  But I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. Nothing does. Except for memories.

 

I took this photograph last summer on the Icicle River where my daughter and I were lounging in the sun with our dear friends.  Sitting in the sand with my feet in the icy water, talking with my friend and watching our girls – far from a cell tower.  It reminded me of the trip my dad and I took to Montana and the memories that last a lifetime.

Icicle River Leavenworth Washington
Icicle River
(1/500 sec., f/11, 55 mm, 400 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Just the Facts, Mom.

One of the challenges of parenting is knowing how much information to give your child. I remember my daughter once asked me where rain comes from.  In retrospect, the correct answer at the time was “It falls from clouds in the sky.”  But I was a science teacher, so I was a full paragraph into the technical aspects of the water cycle before my husband intervened wisely with “It comes from clouds in the sky.”  Her eyes had glazed over and it took a moment before it registered that he had answered the question. As she skipped off happy with this explanation, I knew my instincts in this area were not to be trusted.  In fact I had an assistant principal once (ironically who had no children) who repeatedly reminded me to answer the question that was asked and only the question that was asked.  I was not a quick study in this area.  Sometimes my ill-advised explanations were met just with an eye roll. Sometimes I made a mess that I had to clean up.  Such was the case when the first dog my daughter knew passed away.

I had gone three long years without a dog of my own when we found her.  My husband had cats. They hated me. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic sense. They actually hated me. In fact, I am pretty sure they were actively trying to kill me or at least run me out of town.  In the middle of the night I would be awaken by Fallon who would try to push me out of bed by burrowing under the covers and putting her claws to my back. She and her partner in crime shredded all of the long skirts in my closet. They took turns slinking silently atop the shower door where they would wait patiently like feline ninjas until my head was soapy.  Once my eyes were closed, they would strike.  I nearly broken my neck every time I felt a paw hit me in the head.  Suffice it to say, they gave my husband fluffy and cuddly.  They gave me claws and teeth.  I was so excited when we finally moved to a house where we could have a dog.  It was late fall (which is actually mid-winter in Fairbanks) and I heard about a litter of Spring Spaniel / Border Collie pups.  It is not ideal to have pups at this time in Fairbanks as the frigid temperatures and snow pack made housebreaking nearly impossible. Despite the challenges, I fell in love with the pups right away.  They were in a crib wrestling around like puppies do.  One was clearly bigger than the rest and moved about like a bulldozer.  He was plump and fluffy and bold.  I picked him immediately.  When we came back a couple of weeks later to pick him up, the runt of the litter attached herself to his ear and held on for dear life. I couldn’t bear to separate them, so we took them both.  We named them Levi and Strauss.  Strauss was a sweet girl. She went just about everywhere with me. As soon as I picked up my keys, she would jump into the bed of my pickup. In the winter, she would sit beside me on the bench seat, leaning gently against my shoulder as she stared through the windshield. True to her Border Collie nature, every living thing that entered our house became her herd.  When we played in the yard, she would stick close to my toddler contently enduring the petting, which was much more like awkward slapping.  She started to slow down at about 14 years old and I knew her time was short. She was 16 when the time came to let her go.

I pulled into the driveway one afternoon to find my husband waiting in front of the garage bay where I normally parked.  He put his hands up to stop me.  I remember he said, “I’m glad you’re home.  Strauss can’t get up. I am going to run to the store and get some toenail clippers.” With that, he jumped in his truck and left.  My husband is a strong man with a big heart.  Though his comment really made no sense, I knew he was trying to make things better. He knew how much I loved that dog.   I could tell just looking through the windshield that toenail clippers were not going to solve this problem.  Strauss lay on the cement panting though it wasn’t hot.  She wouldn’t move and barely acknowledged me when I called her name.  I called our vet and, with tears in my eyes, told her it was time.  She was a big dog so it took all the strength I could muster to lift her into my car.  She whimpered, and it broke my heart that she was in such pain.  Our vet was a kind woman who allowed me to sit on the floor with Strauss as she examined her. When the time came, I held her in my arms as she passed.  I could feel my heart break.

As I drove home, I sobbed. I called my dad crying so hard that I could not talk.  At first, he thought something had happened to my husband or daughter but I finally choked down the sobs long enough to tell him that I had put Strauss down. He was a dog lover and I knew he understood how sad I was. He tried to comfort me by saying that, “You loved that dog more than most people love their kids.”  I asked him how I could tell my daughter. She was going to be heartbroken too.  He said, “You are going to do what every parent does. You are going to tell her that Strauss went to heaven to live with God. That is all you are going to tell her. Keep it simple.”   I pulled into the garage dreading what I was about to do. I blew my nose and wiped my tears. I found my daughter on my bed watching cartoons.  I took her in my arms and asked her to turn off the TV for a minute.  Then I said, “Strauss isn’t coming home.”  She asked, “She’s not?  Where is she going?”  I took a breath in hopes that I would not break out crying again and said, “She’s in heaven with God.” She searched my eyes, “She is in heaven? With God?” “Yes”, I said.  She pursed her lips and said, “OK, can I watch Sponge Bob now?” I could not believe that worked!  My dad was a genius! I was home free.

But grief, even realized much later than the passing, still must be experienced. Sometimes the distance from the event does not really lessen the pain. Several months after Strauss died, I was driving my daughter to daycare on the way to work.  We passed a cemetery that saw every morning. On this particular morning, she noticed it.  She asked what it was and I told her the name. She asked what happened there.  I explained that when people died, they were buried in a cemetery.  She asked if I knew anyone who died. I explained that my mom had died.  Her eyebrows stitched together.  “Your mom died?”  I said, “Yes. She is heaven with God.”  Her eyes grew wide. “She is heaven?!  With God?!” “Yes”,  I said.  She looked at me stunned and screamed, “Strauss is dead?!”

It was in this moment that I learned three important things about parenting.  The first was to answer just the question asked.  Kids will let you know when they are ready for more information.  The second is that you might think a child understands what you are saying when they really don’t.  Finally, never talk about difficult or complicated things on the way to day care… or work… or school… You are going to be later for work and your shirt will be covered in tears and snot. Worse than that, you will relive the situation all day long.

 

I chose these photographs of my daughter and her puppy posse: Strauss (black and white) and Sadie (fawn).  I remember this day vividly. I was weeding the front garden and I put her on her blanket in the spring sun.  The dogs immediately took their places next to her and sat patiently as she crawled on them and patted them. At one point a young dog got loose from down the street and Strauss jumped in front of her while Sadie ran down to chase him off.  Once the threat was gone, they resumed napping in the sun together.

Shannan & Puppy Posse Logoshannan and Puppy Posse 2 logo

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

I Got This, Mama!

In a couple of weeks, my daughter will begin her senior year. Stamped in my mind and on my heart is a picture of her decked out in pink from head to toe; smiling from ear to ear; proudly carrying her backpack filled to the brim with fresh school supplies on her first day of kindergarten.  She was raised in school. She was only a few weeks old when she attended her first wrestling match. She toddled on the track in the spring and by fall she was learning to walk at the football games. She gazed pie-eyed at the glittery cheerleaders and clapped gleefully at band concerts. Sometimes on the weekend, she would ride her trike up and down the hall outside my office.

So, when it came time for kindergarten, she was filled with excitement for this new adventure.  Kindergarten made her one of the big kids. I remember her earnestly checking her understanding with me one morning, “OK. So, it’s kindergarten, then high school, then college. Right mom?” To which I responded, “Uh not quite…. but close enough for now.”

I loved school.  By the time my daughter was in kindergarten, I had had 35 first days of school either as a student, teacher or principal.  But I was not prepared for this first day of school at all. I remember that I took the morning off, so I could drive her to school.  As we drove, she chattered enthusiastically from the back seat – all her questions and thoughts tumbling out in random order.  Do my friends go to this school?  Where do I eat lunch? I know my numbers, so the teacher doesn’t have to teach me that. Do I have to share my crayons? I have a backpack! What is recess? I can’t wait to have a desk.

Random stuff, earthshakingly critical to a five-year-old. She had (has) such a curious mind.  I knew she was ready for kindergarten. She could read. She had strong social skills – emphasis on social.  I knew she was ready, though I was constantly wondering if I had done enough to prepare her or made the right parenting decisions. My heart ached because this day signaled the beginning of so many changes. People would be coming in and out of her life. There would be influences beyond my control. Not just classroom learning but life learning was about to start. While I was excited to watch her grow into an adult and experience all the wonderful parts of life, I had worries too.  I had seen firsthand how challenging growing up could be even if you had the best possible parent.  What if kids were mean to her? What if she was sad or scared or needed me? What if she didn’t like math?!? What if she lost a shoe? Or went to the wrong bus line? Or daydreamed through science? Or talked too much? She is a talker and we love that about her but what if her teacher didn’t love that about her? Random, earthshakingly critical worries of a kindergarten mom.

I put a smile on my face because I thought weeping openly might put a damper on her excitement. If your mom, who is a principal, is crying on the way to kindergarten, that has to be a bad sign right? So, I smiled on the outside. I parked near the classroom. Before I could get around the car, she bounced out of the back seat dragging the backpack behind her. She shrugged it on and grabbed my hand. We walked (well, I walked, and she skipped) to the classroom where pairs of students and their parents were standing.  The parents looked around nervously, afraid to make eye contact.  I think the general feeling was that seeing someone else who wanted to cry somehow would open the flood gates. The kids took those tentative first steps toward friendship with the awkward ‘hi’ or ‘what’s your name?’ spoken in tiny voices.   Finally, the door opened and a petite, curly-haired woman exclaimed “Good morning, boys and girls! Come in.”  Some children grabbed their parents’ legs.  Others stood stock still.  Others took a step then waited unsure.  Mine turned to me and smiled.  Then turned back to the teacher and took two bouncy steps in her direction.  I called her name.  She stopped and twirled around. I took a step toward her, but she put up her hand in a wave and said, “I got this, mama.” She smiled and disappeared.

I stood there amongst the leg holders, criers and huggers, and I felt a bit embarrassed.  I mean, I just got unceremoniously dismissed by a five-year-old.  I wondered if this was a serious problem. Should I have read more books on parenting. Was this evidence of a lack of bonding somehow?   Why was my child not clinging to my leg begging me to stay?  But then I got a grip on reality and I knew that all this uncertainty was about me. It wasn’t about her. I just wanted to be the best mom I could be.  The truth is that she was (and still is) a capable, confident, bold girl.  We prepared her for that moment by giving her the tools to be successful. We read to her. We talked about feelings. We helped her learn to solve problems.  We played.  When she needed us, we were there for her. So that moment was more about my grieving the loss of being needed just a little bit less, than it was about her. She was right when she said, “I got this.” She did.  She got it alright.

So here we are twelve years later.  On the first day of school, she won’t be covered head to toe in pink. I doubt she will be smiling ear to ear at 0630. She’ll drive herself to school.   There won’t be any hand holding. Even though I will worry that there is something I should have done or should have done differently or better, in my heart of hearts I know she’s got this.  In case there’s any doubt, I’m going to tell her just that, “You got this!” I might even throw in “Piece of cake!” In the end, she knows we will be right here if she needs us.

Kindergarten girl

I Got This
(1/50 sec., f/3,2, 9.2mm, 400 ISO Cybershot)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Two Sides of the Same Girl

When I was a little kid, I felt strangely like two different people.  In retrospect, I imagine that other children of divorce felt the same way. But it was the 70’s and divorce was rare in our Catholic community, so I didn’t have anyone to compare my experience with. You see my parents were diametrically opposed in their personalities and nature.  My mom was mercurial like a tornado touching down and disappearing unpredictably.  My dad was more like a granite wall- decisive, determined, disciplined.  My mom was a worrier, afraid of new things and fearful of future she talked about as if it had already happened. My dad believed in action. He never backed down. Nothing was too daunting for him to tackle.  My mom wanted help. My dad eschewed it.  As I grew and traveled between their homes, I became an awkward combination of daredevil and rule follower.  Like armor, I would take one suit off and don the other.  My mom’s tentative nature spurred me on to take risks.  She would catch me climbing the tree in front of the Rossellini’s house and she would gasp. So higher I would go. I’m sure in some small childish way, I wanted her to gasp and marvel in my fearlessness.  I think my dad liked my fearlessness.  I am sure he was trying to prepare me for the inevitable challenges of life.  But fearlessness was only tolerated within the rules. For him, I was a rule follower, diligently adhering to his expectations for grades, behavior, and performance.  And, in case you are wondering, I bent a few rules but only safe in the knowledge he would never know.

Those two parts of me converged one day on the snowy hills of Snoqualmie Pass with an object lesson I will never forget.  After a rocky start to ski lessons, I quickly embraced the rush of feeling the icy air pelt my cheeks; the way my tears froze crystalline in my lashes; the feel of my breath condensing in hot puffs beneath the raised neck of my sweater.  I craved the edge of speed and control – the bounce of my knees left and right, shifting the tail of my skis as I slid between the chaos of moguls.  For some reason, I felt anxious as I got on and off the chair lift. But once those were conquered, I was home free.  The world faded as I perched above the drop.  My stomach clenched, and my chest heaved with each frosty breath. I bent my knees, leaned over my poles and pushed off.  One hundred yards of rolling slope flew beneath me as the moguls approached loosely at first but tighter with each passing second.  I hit one late and new with absolute certainty that I would be eating the next one.  A thought, which ran through my head with disturbing regularity, hit me, “This one is gonna hurt.”  And down I went. Hard. I hit the next mogul shoulder then head.  The impact brought my legs keister over kettle and I tumbled until I ran out of momentum.  (My crashing skills are legendary.) I lay there on the hard, packed snow looking up as brightly colored skiers narrowly sped by me.  I did an internal inventory and thought I probably escaped uninjured.  I turned my head slightly and saw that my skis had not released. They were spanning the snow in an unnatural way. I remembered the ski instructor explaining that the binding release prevented you from having a broken leg.  My first thought was not “is my leg broken?” but “Mom is never going to let me ski ever again if I break my leg.” I knew I pushed the limited just a bit over the line this time. Clearly, I was on a slope beyond my ability (though apparently not beyond my delusions of my abilities).  Then the rules kicked in. I searched my brain to remember what I was supposed to do if I got hurt on the slopes.  All I could remember was “stay put and wait for ski patrol”.  So that is what I did.  I waited as the cold snow melted around my body seeping in the cracks between my boots and pants and my gloves and jacket. I waited patiently shivering until the nice men with a basket arrived.  I am not sure exactly how long I waited but it must have been quite a while. I know this because after the ski patrol guy unhooked my boots from my skis, he realized that the tip of the ski had frozen to my forehead. With a grimace on his face which foretold the pain I was about to receive, he explained that he was going to try to knock it loose from my forehead.  With one sharp smack of his gloved fist, he popped the ski tip off my forehead and with it came my skin.  With the pain on my forehead as contrast, I knew I was not injured but they insisted that I had to be checked. They wrapped me in a blanket and strapped me in the basket and we glided down the slopes.  In the end, my only injury was a cut forehead.  The ski patrol guys kindly explained that I didn’t have to follow the rules so strictly.  I could try to get up and see if I was still in skiing condition.  Then they gently recommended I drop down a level or two in difficulty on my next run.  Probably they didn’t want to break my spirit, but they also didn’t want me to break a leg.

I didn’t have a revolutionary change in personality as a result of the great forehead scar of 1975 (I have a list of scars spanning 50 years to prove that.) I did realize that I should question some rules or at least how I was applying the rules.  I learned that sometimes things seemed black and white to me because of how I was raised, when in fact, the world beyond my home was not just full of shades of grey but a whole rainbow of colors.  I realized I could still get a rush from doing daring stuff, but I should give some thought to the risks.  Though much later, I also realized that I am me. I may share some traits with my parents. But I am not my parents. Becoming one full and complete person means letting go of stories of what I think I have to be, and just being who I truly am.

I selected this photograph because it makes me think of my true nature – the me I truly am.  It was taken when I was around 18 months old.  I know when I am relaxed and at peace I can still feel that joyous, exuberant, loving spirit.

Just me

Just Me

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Stronger Than I Thought

It was a spring, Saturday morning in Georgia.  My father must have been away on business because, had he been home, I would never have realized my own true power.  It was just my stepmom and me.  Our blended family was new and more like a salad than soup. Still getting to know each other but so different in so many ways. The other kids were living with their respective other parents.  My stepmom was looking through the classifieds and came upon an advertisement for an Art Deco china hutch. It was listed for $100 which was not a small amount of money in 1979.  I had no idea what Art Deco was at the time, but I knew it must be a valuable style of furniture by her enthusiastic reaction.  She immediately picked up the phone and called the seller. Having confirmed that the hutch was in fact Art Deco, she grabbed her purse and keys and off we went to see it.  I held the well-worn map of metro Atlanta as we wound our way out of the city onto country roads.  We arrived at a typical two-story home where an elderly man was working in his garage. He greeted us, in the deferential way Southern men do, and led us to the basement.  He removed some lumber he had piled on the hutch for storage, revealing the rich, dark wood with curving, stacked corners.  Suspicious, she asked him why he was selling the hutch. He said that his wife was away visiting family and he had decided it was high-time to clean out the basement.   “That old thing” had just been collecting dust for decades.  I was all of 14 years old at the time and even I knew “That old thing” was a precious piece of history. My stepmom opened the drawers one by one. I couldn’t tell if she was considering its provenance or how mad his wife was going to be when she came home to find it gone.  With a look of resolve, she turned to him and said, “We’ll take it.” She had already written the check and handed it to him. Though he beamed, we knew that we were the real victors in this exchange. It was the next sentence out of his mouth that changed me forever.  He said, “Well, you bring the men folk back to pick it up and I will help them.”  Yes, he said “menfolk”.  I was about to take a step toward the car, when my stepmom stopped me cold with her response. She said, “Thanks, but we will take it now.  Cathy, get the other end.”  She said it in a tone that I had never heard her use before.  A tone that said, “Do it now and don’t ask questions.”  A tone that said, “Don’t you dare try to stop us.”  She walked up the stairs to open the backend of the station wagon, while I waited in uncomfortable silence with the man.  He was truly at a loss for words. He didn’t try to change her mind, but clearly, he was faced with a completely foreign experience.  He looked like he was trying to figure out if he should offer to help or run for cover.  I am quite sure “Yankee women, yeesh!”  ran through his mind a couple times. When she returned, she looked at me and said, “Lift”.  And so, we did.  We lifted that hutch and carried it up the stairs to the car.  It was so heavy, and the edges dug painfully into the palms of my hands, but I knew that I had to keep my mouth shut.  I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I knew somehow the three of us were changing in that moment in an enduring way.  He followed us up the stairs and looked a bit ashamed as we wrestle the beast into the car.  When all was said and done, she turned to him and smiled. She thanked him and shook his hand.  To his credit, he shook her hand. He looked a little stunned doing it, though.

I have learned a lot from my stepmom over the years. She is one of the strongest women I know.  On that day, I learned that the limits of my personal strength were so much greater than I had ever imagined.  I learned that sometimes people need an object lesson in their ignorance, but there is no reason to rub it in their face.  Actions speak louder than words and experience is the best teacher.   I learned that I might not be able to change other people’s long held beliefs, but I don’t have to be a victim to them either. I learned that people may try to set limits for me, but I don’t have to accept those limits.  I learned I was stronger than I thought.

This photograph, Walling Off the Past, was taken on my recent trip to Savannah, GA at the Colonial Park Cemetery. As construction of homes increased in Savannah, homes were built on graveyards. The headstones were moved to a wall surrounding the Colonial Park Cemetery.  This was my first trip to Savannah in 35 years.  I chose this photograph for this post because it symbolized to me that the world changes.  Sometimes we cling to the past and keep it right in the front of our minds.  Sometimes we move the past to a place where it is out of sight, but we know we are still carrying it around with us.

Colonial Cemetery Savannah GA
Walling Off the Past
(1/50 sec., f/8, 400 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Wedded Bliss (and the not so blissful parts that make it truly a blessing….)

Next week, my husband and I will be celebrating 29 years of marriage. As our anniversary rolls around, I find myself thinking back to the year of our wedding.  He proposed to me the weekend I graduated from college.  We were supposed to be apart for the next school year as I moved to Seattle to get my teaching certification.  Fortunately for me with a simple twist of fate, he ended up in Seattle working as well.  So, we have never really been apart for the last 34 years.

Our wedding story is one of my favorite memories. We were married at Our Lady of Sorrow.  That should have given us a clue as to how the year would unfold.  I was going to Seattle U at the time and working graveyard admitting in an emergency room.  Going to school, working and planning a wedding was stressful.  Fortunately, my sisters and stepmom were there to help.  I remember one day I was particularly overwhelmed. My younger sister took me aside and wisely said, “This day is going to happen one time. It is going to come and then it is going be gone.  It’s not going to be perfect. But it is going to be ruined if you worry constantly and forget to enjoy the moment.”  It was great advice and I took it to heart.  The first challenge was dealing with the Church’s mandatory counseling requirement.  We had a difficult time scheduling it with school and work.  Luckily my priest took mercy on us and agreed to meet with us privately.  The first time we showed up at the rectory, we were met by my priest who introduced himself to my husband and then said, “So, you are one of those P religions right? Protestant. Presbyterian.” I am grateful he didn’t add “Pagan”. It just got better from there.  We sat uncomfortably at a small table in the sitting room.  Absentmindedly, the priest looked at his notes and looked up at us and then back down. His words seemed to be stuck in his mouth somewhere. He would start to speak and then swallow the words half-formed. His eyes moved up and to the right like he was testing each phrase out. Finally, he announced, “I’m not really sure why they have me do this.  I’m celibate, you know.  What do I know about marriage?”  We were at a loss for words.  I was mortified when the laughed I was choking back escaped in a rush.  In an odd way, it relaxed us all. He truly did not know what marriage was like. But my husband and I had been together for 5 years.  We had weathered the daily challenges of sharing your life with another person. Some were the mundane things that moved through your life like a tide rolling in and out, heavy and on schedule, like cooking or grocery shopping. Some things were punctuated and jarring like accidents or the illness of parents.  We had spent many nights in the wilderness, alone together. There wasn’t much we hadn’t talked about by then. So I quickly realized this test was not for us.  We had, after all, passed it already. We knew what we were getting into.  We were in love and not in the theoretical sense.  It did not take long for the priest to realize that as well. And so, we slipped into this brief period of meeting where he got to know us as we were.

With all the preparations for the wedding complete, the day finally arrived.  We were getting ready at my father’s home where he had a nursery. The Japanese Maples he grew were a beautiful backdrop for family pictures.  It was a very hot day in July. After much begging, my oldest sister consented to take us all up to get cold drinks.  We got in the car where I immediately attempted to roll down the window.  That is when I got my second-best piece of advice.  I was mid-crank, when my sister told me to roll it back up. I whined, “It is so hot!”  Without missing a beat, she replied, “It hurts to be beautiful. Roll up the window.”  She wasn’t wrong.  It did hurt, but I felt like a princess.  After a tortuous hour of photographs, which our black cat repeatedly photobombed, we were off to the church. I was so glad to be sequestered in the cool basement with my dad.  We sat there in comfortable silence for several minutes.  Suddenly my dad sat bolt upright in his chair and said, “I think I am going to be sick.”  He ran out of the basement before I could utter even one word. When the time came, I opened the box holding my bouquet. Taking it in hand, I walked tentatively up the stairs unsure if I my dad would be waiting for me.  As I turned the corner, I was relieved to find him standing there.  He took one look at me and said, “What is that?” It was at that moment that I discovered that the smell of gardenias made my father physically ill. This would have been good information about 6 months earlier. But there we stood, so I did what he taught me to do and told him to “Buck up because I am getting married.”  And I did. Twenty-nine years later, I can still feel the smile on my face, the tears in my eyes and the swell of my heart that I had as I looked into my husband’s eyes and said, “I do”.

Despite the oppressive heat, mischievous black cat, gardenia aversion, quirky priest and ominous ‘Our Lady of Sorrow’, that day was perfect to me. When I think back on the last 34 years, there have been far more perfect days than not.  Thirty-four years. It is hard to believe so much time has passed – so much shared history lived. We’ve shared 68 birthdays between us. We have held each other as grandparents, parents, and friends have passed.  We celebrated milestones and weathered disappointments hand in hand. We have picked up the slack and given each other grace.  We held hands when our child was born. We have argued and made up.  We have laughed until we cried. We have done all the mundane yet stressful work of living and raising a family.  Coming through the not-so-perfect days together is bliss itself.  Marriage isn’t always easy. In my experience, it’s not endless days of wine and roses.  It is knowing someone knows you better than anyone else and loves you for everything you are – everything.  It is knowing that person has your back – always. It is knowing that love shared, in the end, will always dwarf the stress, fear, grief, and pain inevitable in this life.  It is knowing that you are linked together and part of a greater chain connecting you to your greater family, your children and your community of friends.  All of that is wedded bliss, truly.

wedding

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Magic of Motherhood – Part One

Being a mom is a humbling experience.  I have learned more from my daughter in the last 18 years than I learned in any classroom. And I have spent 28 years of my life in a classroom learning, just saying.  But I don’t think I ever felt more ignorant, incompetent or unprepared as I did that first night home from the hospital with my baby in my arms.  Clearly the library of books on childrearing and child development I read in preparation for that day were completely ineffective and possibly inaccurate. I would have composed a stern letter of my grievances to each and every author with a request for a refund, but I was too exhausted to compose a coherent thought let alone a series of sentences.  Sometime during that night, I remembered the moment I found out she existed. I was not prepared for just how much I could love someone I had never seen before.  But love her, I did, and deeply from the moment she was little more than a cluster of cells and a thought.  I loved her in a way that made me think those stories of mothers lifting a car or stepping in front a charging animal to save their children were definitely not old wives tales. I could feel a mother bear growing heavy and fierce beneath my skin from that very moment. I knew with absolute and primal certainty that I would protect her at all cost.  I also wasn’t prepared for the sheer magic of it all, which was surprising since I am a biology major who was constantly in awe of the diversity of life on this planet and in wonder of the miraculous cycles of life.  But that moment when I was so maniacally hungry for cashews and red meat that no one was safe around me, I was struck speechless by the thought that I was probably making an arm that day.  I made an arm! Actually two, and two legs and two feet and a head (and well, every other body part).  I did the most incredible thing with literally no skills, knowledge or preparation, nothing but His blessing. That was so humbling.

As she grew, she simultaneously slowed me down and sped up time.  I spent hours just reveling in her discoveries of all those common things we take for granted in the fast-paced adult world.  Every new taste, sight, sound and smell stole her attention.  Before she had words, she told whole stories with her sea-blue eyes. She would scrunch her brows together and purse her lips and I could tell she was digging her heels in.  I secretly rejoiced in her willfulness as I knew with certainty she would be her own woman someday.  Her father called it her “principal face” and he would tickle her cheeks until she gave up the ghost.  She marveled at flower buds and puddles and mirrors and rocks alike. Where ever we went, she would come home with all of her pockets full of rocks. When I would show any frustration at my constant rock disposal duties, she would remind me of the most important thing: “Pretty!”.  And she was right. They were, but I no longer even noticed them.  When she found her words, she ran around asking “What’s that smell like?”  -not always at the most appropriate moments. But that was the beauty of it too.  It was all new to her and she made it all new to me. She was a tumbleweed of wild, unapologetic abandon.   I hadn’t contemplated a flower probably ever but there I sat in the garden as she smelled every blossom and kissed every statue. I looked forward to seeing her eyes grow wide and her laughter ring out as I knew it signaled that she just found something that set the gears in her head to clicking as they made connections and revealed the world to her.    She taught me that you are never to old for moments of wonder and amazement.  She taught me that it doesn’t take much to find that wonder and amazement.

Some of her words made me cringe and rethink my life.  One morning she donned a pair of my black heels (which so did not go with her pink pants and pastel sweater) and headed for the front door with her diaper bag fully packed.  I asked, “Are you running away from home already? You haven’t even been grounded yet.”  She replied, “It’s my beefcase. I got a meeting.”  Yikes.  She taught me to be careful how I spent my time because time was passing all too quickly.

Or when she started opening her arguments with the word “technically” and I knew she wasn’t going to fall for “because I’m the Mama.”  Technically is not a word you want to hear from a 4-year-old, especially if it is being used correctly.  It’s only going to get harder from there.  She taught me that someone is always listening. She taught me that your children can inherit more than your hair color and nose.

As the child of a principal, she spent a lot of time with me in the gym or on a football field.  I didn’t realize just how much until after our first trip to the zoo.  As we wheeled through the park, she shrieked with glee at each new animal.  She would repeat their names with great intensity: monkey, lemur, rhinocerous, giraffe, gazelle.  Try as she might, she couldn’t pronounce elephant. It came out eff-a- lant.  It was too cute so I stopped correcting her (until she got to kindergarten).  I won’t tell you how she said frog! Suffice it to say we had to quickly teach her the word “toad”.   She was so excited when we got to the cougar enclosure. She shouted “cooo-guh” over and over.  When we got home, I pulled out the video camera and asked her about our trip.  She talked about every animal except the cougar. I couldn’t understand why.  I had to pry her away from the cougar.  Finally, I said, “You forgot one. What about the cougar.”  She said, “Mama, cooguhs are not at the zoo. Cooguhs are in the gym.”  The mascot for my high school was the Cougars.  I realized just how literal little kids are. The world was so big.  There was a lot to make sense of. She reminded me that there are a lot of different ways to see the world. Two people can see the same thing, and both be right.

Being a mom is like riding one of those roller coaster that climbs for what seems like miles.  You feel the excitement building in your stomach, squeezing by your heart and getting stuck in your throat just before you reach the top. Then you realize you are going to be dropping fast and its completely beyond your control.  Just when you hit the bottom a curve comes out of nowhere and suddenly you are upside down.  It’s scary and thrilling. Your heart soars and plunges. You swear you are never doing that again. Until she smiles at you, and puts her tiny hand in yours, and says, “Let’s go, mama.”

These are some of my favorite baby pictures.
Pictures (clockwise from top left):

Her first night in the hospital sleeping on my heart.
Her first basketball game. She dressed up!
Cuddling at home.
Marveling that her arms were as big as my thumbs.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Warm Welcome and A Wiggling Butt

If you visit our house, you will get a warm welcome from the four-legged creatures and, of course, the two-legged ones.  Buttercup, our two-year-old Boxer (or The Toddler as we affectionately call her), monitors the door vigilantly.  One must be prepared, after all, as friends can appear without notice.  As soon as she hears someone approach, she trots to the door and waits to determine who has come to call (“on her” is implied- I mean why else would someone come to the door?)  This seems very important to her.  Unless you are her friend Lucas who she mauls with love on arrival, she looks everyone over very intently and then heads for the living room to pick out just the right toy for the person and occasion.  As a Boxer, her tail is docked so she has to put in extra effort to let you know that you are getting the wag.  It’s not unusual for her head and behind to connect in her frenzied wagging.  Her body takes on the shape of a comma making it difficult to travel in a straight line so she generally meanders sideways sometimes bumping into walls, sometimes going full circle.  Though we have tried to train her well, if she really likes you or you show any inclination for permissive parenting, she will jump on you and give you a big kiss.

Her warm greeting, with accompanying wiggling butt, are not reserved solely for visitors.  She greets her whole family this way.   Being welcomed home by Buttercup  is a great way to end your day. She doesn’t want to talk about it or “process” anything. She is just so glad you are alive and that you came home – again!  She acts like you’ve been gone forever, and she missed you so much. Buttercup lives in the moment and knows what is important.  Right now, right here, you are with her.  What could be better?  The potential is immense.  You might rub her ears. You might play fetch with her. You might snuggle her.  There might be a treat hidden somewhere on your person. Who cares about the minor disagreement you had this morning over the “missing” sock or refusing to come inside for breakfast?  Who cares if you tried to wedge yourself under the new fence yesterday?   That is in the past. Right now, she has a ball (or lamb or squirrel or beaver or octopus) and she has you.  She knows a hug heals. She knows play and laughter are  good medicine. She knows what is happening right now is what matters right now.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we took a cue from our canine (or feline) family members and greeted each other with a little more enthusiasm?  You don’t have to bring a toy (unless you want to – no judgment) but what if we brought unadulterated joy at seeing each other?  What if we let things go a little more easily? What is we tuned out rehashing the past and worrying about the future long enough to enjoy each other’s company?  I think it’s time we figured out the human equivalent of wagging our tails and let people know, unequivocally, that we are so glad they are here.

Here’s what I came home to today. Aren’t I lucky?
(The blog picture is Buttercup breaking into a photoshoot with my daughter. She hates to be left out.)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth About Lying

My dad had a second story apartment in the Casa Del Rey overlooking Broadway.  I would visit him on the weekends and we would walk up the street to the corner QFC to buy food for dinner.  He was on the road every week it seemed, so he didn’t keep much on hand.  It was so different from our suburban neighborhood in north Seattle.  People filled the streets on Saturday night, spilling off the sidewalk and crossing in between the slow-moving cars.  No one seemed to mind the chaos.  The colors and sounds and smells billowed thick from the bars and restaurants.  Men with gravity-defying hair wore headbands of soft leather ornately beaded.  Bright silks and faded denim flashed through the crowd. Bell-bottomed women glided footless across the cement.  No linen shifts, pumps or bouffant hair constrained their movements.  Loud conversations and acoustic guitars grabbed my attention.  My head swung right and left though I held tight to his hand and march quickly forward two steps to every one of his.  When we got back to the apartment, I would lie in the bay window, chin in my palms watching the strange world go by.  He would cook dinner and ask about my school.  His favorite was a broiled steak with fresh steamed spinach leaves.  He dripped lemon juice on the spinach and topped it off with butter.  He would always have warm, sourdough rolls.  After dinner, we would talk.  He had a weakness for ice cream, so we would often venture out for a scoop in a waffle cone.

Being at my dad’s house was so different than my mom’s.  My mom’s house was a house of women and girls.  There was really no trace of masculinity left in the place.  Even when my grandfather visited, he seemed a bit out of place, an interloper among the panty hose and Dippity Doo.  I was particularly interested in my dad’s bathroom which was where he dropped his shaving kit when he got home from a trip. I don’t remember him ever really unpacking the contents. It just sat there perched on the side of the sink- dark scuffed leather, unzipped and gaping open.  I could see his toothbrush and toothpaste, his dental floss and razor, and, best of all, his shaving cream.  Girls did not have shaving cream back then.  It was a mystery.  I had seen my dad shave before, his face covered in the thick, white waves.  He would crane his neck as he drug the razor upward toward his chin.   I wondered if it was like whipped cream or meringue somehow, as those were the only things I had to compare it to.  The can was tipped on its side and the cap long lost.  A tiny bit of gel seeped from the nozzle.  I could see it was green.  I shut the bathroom door knowing he would never walk in on me and I took out the can. It was metal with words in shiny black and green.  I touched the top of the nozzle and jumped as it erupted into my little hand. It was so pretty- white with ribbons of green and blue.  It expanded there in my hands.  I was worried at first that it might not stop but it did.  I could not resist doing it again.  I wanted to put some on my cheek to see what it would feel like, but I thought that might only be for boys.    I certainly did not want to become one of those.  But it was strangely satisfying to push the top and spray it on the edges of the sink. I ran my fingers through it making curvy lines and coaxed it into waves.  I pushed again, and nothing happened. I knew right then that I was in big trouble.  I started to run water in the sink, but the foam got bigger.  I put some in my hands and dropped it in the trash.  It took some doing and not a small amount of prayers before I got the mess cleaned up (I figured God would not want me to get in trouble when He created everything which included this very tempting shaving cream).

My dad, I should mention, was not gullible. He used to tell me he had been around the block.  I didn’t know what that meant exactly but I thought it must be like school because he knew a lot.  After my protracted trip to the bathroom, I put on my most innocent look and held my breath.  He coincidentally needed to use the bathroom right after me at which time he discovered that all of his shaving cream had disappeared.  I knew I was caught.  He sat me on the couch and asked me what happened to his shaving cream.  I quickly told him that I did not know.  He looked me in the eye and in a quiet voice said, “Cathy, there is going to come a day, not too many years from now, when you are going to want me to trust you. You are going to want me to trust you to drive a car or go on a date or go off with your friends alone to the movies.  I have to be able to trust you. That trust is built in times like this.”  My lip was quivering by then. Tears stung my eyes.  I knew I had disappointed him.  I knew I had lied.  And I sure didn’t want to go on a date, but I had been in a car and knew I wanted one of those.  My dad sounded so serious.  “You and I are the only ones in this apartment. Tell me the truth,” he said.  And I confessed, sobbing.  He held me tight and told me everything was going to be all right.  He told me that lying to people and to yourself could get to be a habit. It is hard for people who lie to keep all those lies straight.  He wanted me to become someone with integrity (which he made me look up in the biggest dictionary I had ever seen.)  The last thing he said was to always remember, “The truth will set you free.”  He was right.  It was a small sin using up all of his shaving cream and lying about it.  It probably wouldn’t have propelled me into a life of crime.  But it was the most stressful 15 minutes of my short life to that point.  It was a painful lesson at the time but no doubt he saved from far more painful ones.  It wasn’t the last mistake I made by a long shot. But he was right then. And he would be right now.  The truth really will set you free.

I picked this photograph for this post because it really feels like freedom to me.

Skagit River with boulders and trees
The Skagit Wild
(1/160 sec., f/5.6, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Never Pass Up A Birthday Party

I was invited to a birthday party yesterday.  I never pass up a birthday party.  I would not have missed this one for the world.  The grandmother of the little Sweet Pea, who was turning one, is an old friend of mine. Although I have to say that she and I might have different time scales for old friends. Her roots are deep, and she was surrounded by people she has known most of her life.  I have been more of a nomad throughout my life.  She is a vivacious, generous woman who made a life and filled it with the love and laughter of four generations.  It is clear she is passing that tradition down.

I arrived uncharacteristically late and the party was in full swing when my daughter and I pulled up.  The house was packed and yet I knew by her welcome that there would always be room for one more.  She walked us through the house introducing us to a sea of sisters, aunts, uncle, grandparents, friends and classmates. The backyard was filled with young parents deftly wrangling toddlers with one hand while catching up with old friends.  Babies crawled or teetered on new legs.  A small pup followed one curly-haired child around looking ready to lick his face clean or snatch a falling chip.  Dads were patiently tossing balls to children who clasped their hands together catching nothing but air yet shrieking with glee nonetheless. Many of the young adults had been students of mine.  It was so amazing to see them all.  I used to think the best part of being a high school teacher or principal was getting to watch kids grow into adults. They entered high school as gangly, tentative freshmen unsure of their gifts and strengths.  They left adults.  They might not have had it all figured out by graduation, but they were on their way.  I could see what was possible.  Decades of experience told me everyone grows up.  I was wrong- not that everyone grows up.  I was right about that. I was wrong about the best thing – it’s not watching them grow up and graduate.  The best part is seeing them with a family of their own.   A young dad rocking his baby with that look of awe and pride.  A young mom staying close but letting her child take those first tentative steps away from her- ready to sweep that child up in a hug, dust her off and set her on her way to try again knowing she will be always be there.  A young couple exhausted from late night feedings but so in love with each other and the family they are building.  Hearing about their jobs, their old dreams and all of the new ones. Those are all the best things.  That and seeing them here in this house with friends they have had for a lifetime.  Grandparents close- the ones they were born to and the ones who took them in.  Aunties they have picked up along the way. Doting uncles vying to give the favorite toy.

Don’t get me wrong, education is absolutely important.  Everyone needs a good education.  Having a job or career that fits your life is important. But a life is so much more than that. And what is important in life is so much more than that.  Knowing you are part of a family – biological or created – who know you well and open their hearts to you.  Raising children in a community that will love and support them. Giving your children the roots and the wings that they will need to grow into strong adults.  Creating a place where they can try and fail knowing you will be there cheering them on as they try again.  Celebrating every single birthday together- especially the first one.

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Sweet Pea
(1/60 sec., f/4.5, 100 ISO, 100 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

You’re Never Too Old for a Little Joy

I found myself sifting through old Easter pictures this week.  It’s not surprising really. I often find myself looking back when holidays roll around. This is one of my favorite Easter pictures.  I keep a copy on my desk.  My daughter was three in this picture and the youngest of a herd of kids at my sister’s house for the holiday.  My sister always put on amazing holiday feasts and welcomed family and friends to her home.  On this particular Easter, she filled a rainbow of plastic eggs with chocolates and hid them all around her yard. They filled six baskets in the end.  With a little help from her older cousins, my daughter had a full basket to herself.  She chased the older kids around and they were so sweet to help her find the eggs.  In the end, she was completely bushed.  She crouched down in the middle of the driveway holding her chubby little cheeks up in both hands and waited for the day to end.

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No More Candy:  Easter 2003
(1/500 sec., f/9, 100 ISO, 20.3 mm)

As I sorted through the pictures though, I was reminded of what an adventure it is to have a three-year-old. They are so unguarded. They just feel. And they let you know in so many ways what they are feeling. That day, she went through every possible mood and I captured them all. What was astounding though was that every change in mood was punctuated with joy. She giggled and laughed. She chased the other kids and ran with glee when they chased her.  She bubbled when her cousin let her play with her dolls. She glowed when they took her hand.  When one found an egg, he made it seem like a big glorious discovery and she squealed.  When she ate, she chomped away like it was the best thing she ever ate. She did everything with joy. Oh sure, she cried that day. She scowled that day.  I was pretty sure she might even get sick that day. But in between were priceless moments of unadulterated joy.

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Joyful
(1/250 sec., f/10, 100 ISO, 24 mm)

I think sometimes, as adults, we forget to revel in the joy of the moment. I don’t mean the big moments- like births and weddings and birthdays.  Those are definitely joyful.  I mean connecting with joyful moments as often as we can.  (You know you are doing this enough, by the way, if your teenager finds you just a little embarrassing.)  Sometimes you have to work joy into your life.  Sometimes it just appears.  Every spring when I take the top off my Jeep, no matter how cold it is, I go for a long drive with the music up loud and get an ice cream cone.  It’s might seem silly. But I love that feeling of wind in my hair and a soundtrack made just for me.  It makes me feel young and free- even if it is only for 50 miles.  It is extra joyful when my daughter joins me.  I like getting up in early in the morning, cranking up the tunes and working out- pure joy.  I am filled with joy when my teenager comes in at the end of the day to tell me all about her’s- yup simple joy.  I love getting up at the crack of dawn with my husband and driving into the mountains. Uninterrupted, easy conversation with the man I have loved for 34 years- pure joy.  Sitting by the firepit with friends and family.  Tackling a really complicated job.  Spending a couple of hours catching up with my friends. Creating something beautiful.  Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy.  Sometimes as adults, we get bogged down in all of our responsibilities, plans, and schedules.  We forget to be present. That is when we miss the joy.  There are ups and downs certainly.  In fact, 2018 has been a struggle so far in our house. But the truth is that in between all of those little challenges, we have had a lot of joy. I am glad I did not miss it. I hope you will stop and feel the joy.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Grandpa’s House

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things was spending the night at my grandparents’ house. They lived in a small house on Queen Anne Hill. Though back then, from my tiny eyes, it was an enormous mansion.  It was so different from our cookie-cutter suburban rambler in north Seattle.  When we visited, we would have to drive around until we found a place to park on the street.  If we got a spot right in front, my mom would say, “God wanted us to visit.”  I wasn’t convinced God was directly in charge of parking, but I kept that to myself because I was pretty sure He always wanted us to visit them.  They had a tiny, steeply sloped front yard that my Grandpa mowed with a rotary cutter.  I loved the sound of the blades slicing past each other as they neatly trimmed the yard. Even on the hottest day, he would be out there in a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt rolled up to reveal forearms made thick and sinewy from decades of throwing fish.  Wide concrete steps led to a porch with a thick rail that I loved to perch on while watching the city street.  The house was a rich brown and covered in shingle siding.  It was old, and I was fascinated by the door knobs, light switches and outlets.   Right inside the front door there was a shiny cabinet that housed his record player.  On Sunday nights after dinner, he would listen to the news. Back then, it was filled with grainy, black and white images of the Vietnam war.  I did not understand what was happening at the time, but I knew I wasn’t to talk until the stern voice of Walter Cronkite faded away. As soon as it was over, Grandpa would lift the lid on the cabinet and turn on the record player.  We had to wait for him to gently drop the needle on the well-worn groves of Never on a Sunday.  To the scratchy tune and my laughter, he would dance me around the room, arms raised high overhead, knees bouncing upward, feet crossing over and back. I wanted to hold onto those moments so much as a child.  He had a big heart.  I felt so connected to him. He was the rare adult that got me. He could tell when I was sad or scared and seemed to always know just the right thing to do. That was especially true when my parents divorced with spectacular animosity.  I remember feeling like he held me closer through those years.  I didn’t act out.  I wanted everything and everyone to be OK.  I grasped with tiny fingers any chance to make things peaceful.  I think he knew that. He was especially gentle with me. I remember one night after we were all in bed, I heard a moaning sound through the heat vent.  I lay completely still in the dark before moving silently to the center of the bed because, of course, monsters couldn’t reach the center of the bed.  When the moaning came again, I leapt out of bed and woke him up.  I remember he reached for his glasses and I was momentarily shocked that he didn’t sleep with them on.  He patiently sat up and listened. He gave me a big hug and put me back in bed.  He told me not to worry. And I didn’t, because I knew I could count on him.  He left the house from the back door and I could hear him in the basement.  I had been in the basement to help grandma with the wash before. It was dark, cold and scary. I knew for sure he was a hero if he could go down there in the dark in the middle of the night.  A little while passed before he came back in.  He told me everything was fine. He took me by the hand and led me to the basement.  On the floor was an apple box full of kittens.  The mama was watching us from the windowsill. He told me that the babies had just been born and the sound I heard was the mama.  I probably would have believed him if he had just told me that everything was fine and sent me back to bed. I was glad he took the time to show me.

My grandpa lived a simple life. He loved big and loud and true.  He hugged with gusto and danced with abandon. He was the solid part of my quicksand life. I learned so much from him: Sometimes a hug is all you need. Dance when you can and do it like no one is watching.  Ouzo cures many ills.  Listening is more important than speaking.  Action speaks louder than words. Be patient and kind to children because they might not know much but they feel everything.

29a Jimmy Paris 1957

My Grandpa Jimmy Paris (Dimitri Heramanos Paraskevoulakos)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

My Heart

My daughter is a junior this year. She is our only child. The good Lord blessed us with only one child but, in so doing, He blessed us every single day after.  In just over a year, she will leave us to go off to college and start this new adventure. The part of her life where she becomes an adult independent of us.  Every day I fight the primal urge to cover her in bubble wrap leaving holes only so that she can breathe.  I want to protect her from the world. I want her to have a life without ever feeling pain or loss.  But of course, this is not possible.  She has, in fact, experienced pain and loss already.   And the truth is that you cannot know great love and not know great loss.  You cannot have great happiness and not have great grief.  You cannot appreciate your successes without experiencing some failures. Some days, I feel like Nemo’s dad: protective, fearful and powerless.  I also know Dory was right when she told him, “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” (https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/04/23/9-dory-quotes-deeper-than-the-drop-off/)  And yes, I am aware that I just used a Disney animated film as a literary reference.  What can I say? There was at least a decade when animated films were my only cultural outlet.  At any rate, Dory is right.  As a parent, I have done my absolute best, first to keep this tiny human alive and then help her grow into a capable adult. I believe to my core that it is my responsibility to help her to become a strong, independent adult.  I know that this means walking that fine line of letting her make her own mistakes and dust herself off and wrapping her in a bear hug while wiping her tears.  I am aware, as every parent is I’m sure, that I have fallen short at times. Despite this, she has become a strong, smart, compassionate, talented young woman.  I also know these are tumultuous times to be a teenager.  Whatever your politics, I think we can agree there is much strife in the world.  It can be a scary, unpredictable place. I want her to find her voice, her place in the world.  I want her to live her convictions.  Meanwhile, every day she is bombarded with media, popular and social.  The world is literally at her fingertips.  She has never known a time when the knowledge that is power was not hers for the searching.  It is so much for a young heart and mind to navigate.  When I look at her and her friends, I am so hopeful about the future.  It is in the hands of courageous, creative, compassionate people. But I will hold my breath and pray, because one of those is my baby. A single voice in a powerful chorus.  A fragile human testing the frontline of change.

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My Heart
(1/30 sec., f/4.2, 560 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Rub Some Dirt On It

Let me just say at the outset, I know that this story is going to reveal with lights and sirens the unhealthy relationship I have (or had) with my Jeep, Angus.  Yes, I named it. Don’t judge.  We were together for 10 years.  A couple of weeks ago, I wrecked Angus.  It was the one and only snowy workday morning of the winter.  I think snow is the most beautiful type of weather. Snow makes my heart happy. If I know it is going to snow overnight, I hop out of bed extra early in the morning to look out the window hoping for a thick blanket of white powder.   I am cheerful when I get the ‘two hours late’ phone tree call.  When I was teaching, I even made my freshman science students do a snow dance whenever the forecast called for snow.  I convinced them that I had learned the snow dance in Alaska.  (Freshman are gullible and generally willing to do silly things.)

I left my house a little later than normal hoping some of the ice and snow would clear. School was two hours late and my daughter was snuggled up to our two boxers.  She didn’t wake up to say goodbye.  The boxers had the decency to make eye contact but made no effort to move from their revered and toasty spots.  Just as I was leaving, my husband texted me to tell me to avoid the Lowell Rd.  It is a windy road cut in a hillside along the valley and my preferred method of getting to work. He knows how much I love to drive on country roads.  I have put a few icy miles under my wheels.  I went to university in Fairbanks, so I know how to get out of a spin.  I had a lot of practice.  Until this fateful day though, I had never been in an accident.   I was driving well under the speed limit, gearing down as I approached the stop lights.  I gave everyone lots of room.  When I came to a small dip in the road, I hit a massive patch of ice.  You always hear that your life passes before your eyes in these moment.  Time definitely slowed down drawing out those terrifying seconds.  My first thought as my rear axle whipped around behind me was “This is gonna leave a mark.”  I grabbed the gearshift so hard one of my fingernails popped right off my pinky finger. It all happened in slow motion. My glasses flew off my face and hit the windshield. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my coffee cup exiting its holder in the console and splashing across the passenger door.  As I traveled across the other lane of traffic, I briefly made eye contact with the wide-eyed driver of an oncoming car. Fortunately, I slid right in front of him. I hopped the curb taking out a fence and landing on a power pole.  I sat there for a moment at a loss of what to do. The glass on the passenger side was shattered and through the gaping hole I could see a little snow-covered lake.  It looked serene and I was so grateful I was not submerged in it.  The 911 operator was very patient with me.  Once she determined I was not hurt, she said “No one is coming for you.  There are just too many injury accidents.”  That should have been my first clue as to just how lucky I was.  I wasn’t hurt.  Not a scratch. I did not hurt anyone else.  But I was rip roaring mad.  I put Angus in 4 low, pulled us off the fence and headed home.  I was standing teary-eyed in the driveway staring at the crushed hard top and dented quarter panel when the wrecker came to tow him away.  Even though my insurance company was unbelievably helpful, I still felt like I wanted to throw a temper tantrum worthy of a nap-deprived three-year-old.  “I don’t want a rental car! I want my Jeep back. Don’t tow Angus away!”  Eventually I got a grip.  That lasted just until a man whose title is “Total Loss Evaluator” called.  (What kind of title is that! Why don’t they just call him the Automotive Grim Reaper?!)  In my defense, everyone kept telling me the Angus could be rebuilt.  It never occurred to me he was never coming home again.  I’m not proud to say it, but it is the truth:  I moped. I whined. I complained. I hate buying cars. Angus was everything I wanted in a Jeep.  I didn’t want to deal with finding a new one.

In the midst of this crisis, my life went on – another clue as to how lucky I was.  I was visiting a school (which I had driven to with great annoyance in the three-bedroom SUV I rented) when I noticed a staff member carrying a very large wheeled back pack, certainly too large for a child to carry. I asked her what it was for as she stacked it among 15 others of the same style.  She told me that the backpacks were filled with food by the staff and a local church for children to take home for their families who had no food on the weekends.  The students were bringing them back that day so that they could be refilled for the next Friday.  It instantly brought tears to my eyes to think of children going a weekend without food. But of course, they do. Not just in my home town but all over this country.  The staff member shared that the children were so thankful every week and that they had a much greater need than they could fill each week.  I felt so ashamed to have made such a production about a Jeep.   I wasn’t hurt. I did not hurt anyone else. I had insurance.  I could afford to buy a new Jeep.  While I was standing in my driveway in the snow staring at my totaled Jeep, there was a child waiting to pick up a backpack of food for his or her family.  My dad would have told me to ‘rub some dirt on it, suck it up and do the right thing’. He would have been right.  I should have spent my outrage on something that really mattered like kids who have real needs they have no control over.  There are so many needs in our communities. None of us can do everything. But each of us can do something.  I bet your local school has a program like this one.

 

The photograph below was taken in 2011 in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.  When I visited, there was a group of the grandchilden (though hardly children – quite old themselves in 2011) of the men executed for their part in the Easter Rising. Just being in this place, I felt the full force of the sadness and suffering these walls held.

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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland
1/200 sec., f/5.6, 100 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth Will Set You Free

I was two months into my first year in a new school when I found myself hunched over a lunch table in the staff room praying for an earthquake. Not a big earthquake. Loss of life and limb was not necessary. I didn’t even want property damage. I just wanted everyone to get stuck in first period under their desks waiting for the ‘all clear’ until it was time for third period. So, there I was: palms cradling my forehead, deep groan of dread building in my throat, listening to the clock tap out the minutes to my doom. I dreaded second period. They were mean. They were never prepared. They never ooh’d or aah‘d when I lit something on fire or made things bubble over a beaker. On lab day, they acted like they were being forced to act out a Shakespearian drama through interpretive dance. And they were mean. I had never had a class like this. I loved science and every day I wanted students to love science. My classroom management skills were good for a relatively new teacher. I only had one awful day student teaching and I blame that on my ill-chosen outfit: pastel checked sweater and cream skirt. (That color combination is responsible for prison riots. You cannot blame teenagers for losing it.) So pretty much every day for two months, I sat in the teacher’s lounge and prayed for temporary illness, fire drills, mild earthquakes and locust. They never came. At 8:20 every morning, I trudged to my classroom chanting in my head “You are the teacher. They are teenagers. You can do this.” But on this particular Monday, I could take no more. I realized I needed help. The other teachers tried to help. They gave me advice. They told me their “second period” horror stories. I am pretty sure the Shop teacher even had a few covert come-to-the-mountain talks on my behalf. All to no avail. I knew I had to figure it out. I also knew that just beyond the staff room, a mere 20 feet away, sat the very man I needed to talk to. I swallowed my pride and prayed it would sit firmly on top of my breakfast. Just the idea of talking to the principal made me nauseous. I was only in the principal’s office one time as a student. As I sat across from him, that moment flashed back in my head. Believe me, the principal’s office is just as scary at 26 as it is at 16. The principal was a lanky man with straight, jet black hair that looked perpetually two weeks overdue for a cut. He reminded me of a cowboy in an old western. Everywhere he went, he seemed to mosey along like he had all the time in the world. I sat across from him and explained my problem. I asked if he would come to my class and observe. I told him that I had tried everything, and I just needed him to tell me what was going wrong in this class. It was a risk, as a new teacher, to even ask. (Less risky than the earthquake I was praying for, I guess.) But I really didn’t think I could take another day.

He came to my class the next day probably sensing I had one foot out the door and, since I was coaching three sports, fearing he would have to replace me in the middle of the year. He came in after the bell. I was worried that my students would all be on their best behavior with him there. It turned out that I had nothing to fear. They gave him quite a show. He took it all in. At the end of the class, he asked to see me after school. Now, that got ooh’s and aah’s. The rest of the day dragged on as I faced the possibility that asking for his help might just have ended my career. When the final bell rang, I headed for the office where he was waiting. His office felt a lot smaller than it had the day before. I scooted my chair closer to the door as I sat down anticipating the need for a rapid escape. I opened with, “So that is pretty much how they are every day.” With fingers tented, he tapped his chin, took a breath and said, “I can see why you are concerned.” I charged into the breach and asked, “So could you tell what the problem was?” He pronounced, “yes.” I had just a millisecond of hope before he continued. “It’s you.” All of the air went out of my lungs and I am pretty sure my heart stopped beating. I know for a fact I was staring at him in utter shock and disbelief when I squeaked out “me?”
He didn’t make me wait, which was good because I was already rewriting my resume and considering becoming an ornithologist (birds being clearly nicer than teenagers). He said, “Catherine, you do not teach that class like you teach your other classes. It is obvious to me and it is obvious to them. You walk in and expect them to misbehave. You don’t plan interesting activities because you don’t trust them to act appropriately. The problem is you. If you taught these students like you teach the rest of the day, they would act like all of the rest of your students.” As any smart, new teacher would do, I thanked him for his sage advice and taking the time to help me. Then I stormed out to my Jeep and used the 52-mile drive home to question everything from his parentage to his education degree. At about mile 30, I remembered that I had asked him into my classroom to assess the situation and give me his advice. Pretty stupid move if I wasn’t going to take that advice. So, I did 22 miles of soul searching and realized he was right. The situation was completely in my control. They were teenagers. I was the adult. My job was to teach them even if they were expertly applying the principles of aversive therapy on me. The fact is, even a porcupine has a soft belly. I needed to turn the tables on them- expect them to want to learn and participate in class. And deal with it like an adult when they did not. I had to teach as if they were already my favorite class. It was a lot of work. Harder than any other class I taught that year. It took months to turn it around. In the end, they were my favorite class that year.

I cannot say that I was grateful to have such a direct and honest principal at the time. But I am grateful for having learned the lesson. The cold, hard truth is tough to take sometimes. But as my dad used to tell me (often), the truth will set you free. It saved me in this case. Our perceptions drive our actions and influence all of our relationships. Perceptions are a reflection how we see ourselves in others. They grow out of our experiences and feelings and, because of that, they are flexible. Perceptions are less like granite and more like clouds. The fact is we can change how we see things. When we change how we see something, there is something in us that changes as well. I had to take responsibility for my behavior. I had to ask myself, “would they be different, if I thought they were?” In the end, it made it possible to see them as they really always were- just a bunch of normal teenagers trying to figure out life.

I chose the photograph below because it was another lesson in changing my perception. I came across this grave marker in the Annagh burial ground in Ireland. I dismissed it quickly as not worth a photograph. I was taking pictures of all of the graves in search of ancestors. In the burial ground, other graves were marked with large ornate crosses adorned with Celtic knots. As I was walking through, a local man stopped and told me that it was a Famine grave -probably an infant child not yet baptized who could not be buried in the cemetery proper. It changed my whole perception of how worthy of a photograph this weathered stone was.

DSC_0397-1Famine Grave
(1/200 sec., f/7.1, 100 ISO, 55mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Things Right

When I was a new teacher, I applied for a job in a small town in northwest Washington. I remember driving into town wearing my most professional skirt suit, firmly ensconced in my big old pickup truck. It was a beautiful drive from my house 52 miles away on country roads they brazenly labeled highways. As I drove up to the small office where I was to have my interview, I instantly knew this town was where I was meant to be. I can’t explain it really. I just had this sense of peace and clarity that I was in a place that fit (See my post A Life That Fits). I was young – about half my current age. Though I felt like a grown up, my youth must have been obvious as I stood teetering on high heels, tightly clutching the briefcase my dad had custom made for my graduation by the saddle maker in our hometown. I can’t imagine what I even held in that briefcase beyond a copy of my resume and maybe a legal pad. The superintendent’s assistant was kind and must have sensed my apprehension because she tried to put me at ease by talking about the high school where I was hoping to work. The time came for me to walk the short distance down a narrow cream-colored hall to meet the superintendent and principal. They were gruff men but that did not deter me for I had a lot of experience working with and for the sensitivity impaired. I don’t recall much about the interview except the last question. The principal, who reminded me of a cowboy from a B western, leaned in with forearms to the table and said, “What have you ever done that would prepare you to be a high school teacher?” At first, I thought that I must have completely failed in answering the last hour’s worth of questions. Clearly, he had heard nothing I said about my education, training or experience. But then I realized that he simply wondered if I could pull this off. And then it came to me and I replied, “I worked graveyard admitting in the emergency room. Nothing rattles me.” It was a bold statement, but I knew any chance I had of getting this job lived or died on my response in that moment and I wanted that job. He looked me in the eye beneath his jet-black bangs, took one breath and stated, “You’re hired.” I was relieved and terrified in equal measure. Above all emotions, I was determined to show him that he had chosen well.

I started in the fall and worked hard to prove myself. The principal was terse, but I liked him well enough. I was coaching three sports and trying to survive my first year in a new school. I often drove home late at night after a bumpy ride on a crowded, sweat-scented school bus from schools as far away as the Canadian border only to leave again before dawn to head back to work. Needless to say, it was stressful especially when winter came, and the days were short, the roads were icy, and the basketball team was losing. I loved the kids though. And teaching was everything I thought it would be. I reveled in watching the light bulbs go off. Science was always magical to me and I wanted so much to ignite that sense of wonder in my students. I had one student who seemed on a good day unimpressed and on a bad day downright contentious. I tried to engage him but slowly he worked his aversive therapy on me and, I am not proud to say, I stopped giving him the attention he was after. Of course, at the time, I did not realize this was happening. I was too inexperienced, and self-preservation was my focus. One day as he was waiting near my desk to talk to me, he started to play with the faucet at the table where I often demonstrated labs. I saw him from the corner of my eye and in my haste, with many students lined up for help, I told him quite directly to stop playing with the faucet. I looked over again and he looked me directly in the eyes. I small smirk washed over his face and, in one swift motion, he broke the neck of the faucet. A geyser erupted, and I ran to the water shut off valve. In probably not my best teacher voice (probably closer to a crazy-neighbor-lady-who-is-sick-of-dogs-pooping-on-her-lawn voice), I sent him to the office. I was furious. He broke my faucet! With malicious intent. With a smile on his face! I had enough.

My recommendation to the office was for swift and severe consequences, so I was taken aback when he opened my classroom door at the end of the day. I was about to send him packing when the principal appeared in the doorway behind him. The student stood silently looking at the floor, hands shoved deeply in his pockets. In that moment, he seemed younger than his 15 years and, in some ways, even fragile. A couple of awkward moments passed as I wondered what I was supposed to say. I felt like the words bouncing around my head were clearly wrong, but I am human, and I was still pretty upset that he vandalized my faucet. Finally, the principal cleared his throat in a low and measured growl. The student looked at him like he was being sent to the gallows and slowly turned to face me. In the smallest voice, he apologized for breaking my faucet. He didn’t offer a reason for his actions. Instead he walked toward the faucet, principal in tow. As he moved, I could see that the principal was carrying a tool box. Without saying a word to me, he set the toolbox down on the weather linoleum floor and took out a wrench. As he handed the wrench to the young man, he explained in patient detail exactly how to fix the faucet. As they worked, I listened. He did not lecture the boy on responsibility or condemn him for his actions. Nor did he engage me in the lesson. But I realized that I was a part of it. He could have fixed the faucet anytime, but he chose a time he knew I would be in my room grading papers after school. He was teaching the boy to make things right. And he was teaching me to forgive a young man who had not learned that lesson yet. When they finished, they packed away the tools. I thanked the young man for fixing my faucet. The smallest of smiles washed across his face. I wished I had thanked my principal for the lesson that day. Apologies are great. We should apologize when we harm others. More importantly, we should make things right. We should take action that shows real accountability beyond words and restores our relationships.

I chose this series of pictures because they are a great example of making things right. These two have been like sisters from the moment the younger entered the world. As sisters can, they sometimes step on each other’s last nerve. On this particular day, we were traveling across the Sound for the weekend. We had been stuck in ferry traffic for hours and the younger was getting restless. The older was losing patience. As they sat on the ferry, the younger made things right by making her friend laugh at her antics. She made a hat out of her napkin and wore it until the giggles took over.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Don’t Cry Over a Chipped Tooth

My daughter missed her dentist appointment this week.  In general, she is a very responsible teenager. I only bring it up because every time I hear the word dentist, I can’t help but run my tongue over the edge of my top right front tooth.  You see, I have a chip in my top right front tooth.  It is not a large chip. You wouldn’t notice it unless you knew it was there. I think it gives my smile a little je ne sais quoi– like Lauren Bacall but without the glamour. It is sharp and jagged just like the memory of how I got it.  Every time I go to the dentist, they offer to fix it for me. They don’t understand; it can’t be fixed.  And frankly, I don’t want it to be fixed. You see it is like a living reminder to me that there are consequences for not being nice to people.  In a way, it is a kind of penance I suppose. Although my transgression hardly deserves 42 years of penance. Still it is the little sins, the little scars we hold onto the longest.

I am one of four daughters and I was (am?) the tomboy of the family.  I was the kid who was always climbing on top of something, falling off something, getting covered in mud, making a fort- you get the point. I was the sole reason bandages and Bactine were purchased in our home. I was once kicked out of ballet class because I could not control my urge to Grande Jeté right into the line of tutu wearing girlie girls.  Sad day for my mother who was definitely a girlie girl. Happy day for my sisters who were tired of being knocked over like dominoes.  My mom wanted me to be a little more ballerina and a little less Tarzan. I wanted to be Tarzan. I won. I Grand Jeté’d myself right into the woods and built a fort.

On the fateful day my tooth was chipped, I must say I cannot remember what set me off. I imagine it was a conflict between what I wanted to play and what my older sister wanted to play because the target of my rage that day was her extensive collection of Barbie Dolls clad in evening wear that would rival anything you might see on the red carpet.  Now in family lore, it is said that I played with Barbie Dolls.  I do not believe this. There is no photographic evidence at any rate.  I expressed my anger by enthusiastically removing the heads of all of her Barbies. I popped them right off. I was probably smiling when I did it. I was really mad, and I knew that would make her really mad.  It, in fact, did. So, she grabbed the closest weapon, a full bottle of Sweet Honesty perfume, and hurled it across the room while screaming like a Banshee.  It connected with my face just on the tip of my right front tooth.  I knew right then I crossed a line.  But I was seven and though the magnitude of my actions were clear, I did not understand right away just what I had done.   I was angry. I wanted her to know how angry I was. Somehow in my seven-year-old brain, removing the heads from her Barbies was the right amount of wrong to express my anger. But I was wrong about that. As soon as that bottle of perfume hit my mouth, I knew it. I drove her to physical violence with my beheading.

So, my chipped right front tooth is never going to be fixed. I am never going to cover it up so that I can’t see it. I am never going to fill it in so that I cannot feel that jagged, sharp edge. I doubt my Barbie beheading would have turned into a life of criminal activity. But it very well could have turned into something worse – a life lacking compassion or empathy. I also doubt my behavior scarred my sister, though I should probably ask before I make that assertion.  It doesn’t seem to have scarred our relationship and I am grateful for that.  So I will accept my chipped tooth as part of my whole- the part that makes mistakes, atones for wrongs, learns and moves on (but keeps the chip lest I forget).

286a Angie and Catherine Shea 1967

1967: Five short years before the dreaded tooth chipping.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Don’t Miss the Joy in Grief

I was sitting at Finaghty’s Irish Pub the night before we were to celebrate the life of my father. I was with my husband and daughter and surrounded by my sisters, most of their families and my stepmom. Family had been arriving from out of town and were still trickling in.  We are not a demure clan.  At all. We are story tellers. We are bear huggers. We are belly laughers. We are family. When I arrived with my youngest sister, I was greeted with the most amazing hug by a niece I had not seen in a while. And as each person arrived there was more. My brother in law is a great hugger so there was a bit of a line up for that one. It’s hard to describe what it means to be part of this boisterous family.  I imagine we are a bit overwhelming to newcomers trying to follow the four conversations happening at once – picture the floor of the stock market. I picture a new boyfriend or girlfriend trying to find an opening like a squirrel trying to cross a four-lane highway in rush hour.  It would be daunting but totally worth it when you get to the other side.  As everyone was catching up, someone asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m OK.”  I had this moment of guilt wash over me.  I shouldn’t be feeling OK.  I just lost my dad. But I realized that in that very moment I was absolutely OK. If my dad had been there, he would have been better than just OK. He would have been elated. He loved it when everyone was home for dinner. And I do mean everyone. The more the better. Every seat in the house taken. Every room swollen with laughter.  Everyone in each other’s space- figuratively and actually. So, I let the guilt go.  I enjoyed the night surrounded by people I love.  I soaked up the laughter. It heals your heart. Listening to my brother in law and daughter tease each other about spilled orange juice and dented bumpers stitched my heart right up. Sharing stories about past holidays, youthful indiscretions and those little things that we thought were the biggest things at the time- that is the medicine. So right then, I was better than OK.

It occurred to me that really this is why we all come together to mark the passing of someone we love. We come to share our grief and mourn the loss but in so doing there are moments of joy and laughter that heal us.  It reminds of our shared history.  How we are woven together through this person that we loved. At the time when we most feel like we could unravel from the sharp pain of loss, we know we will be ok.  While there is a tear in the fabric, it won’t unravel.    Every generation at the table can look around and see the people who will be there to stitch up the tear when the time comes. I think that the rituals that we have are so important.  I come from a Catholic and a Greek Orthodox tradition which have similar rituals to mark our passing.  It might seem morose, but I have never dreaded them. It is the time in between that I feel adrift. When everyone comes together, I feel like I am wrapped up in this big blanket.

I remember I was splashing in the tub on the day of my great grandmother’s funeral when my parents came in to say they were leaving.   I asked where they were going.  I suppose my parents were trying to shield us from the pain of loss or maybe they were trying to preserve our innocence the way parents do. They said that they were going to say goodbye to Big Grandma (as we called this tiny woman).  All I can remember is being really sad that I didn’t get to go say goodbye.  It must have made a deep impression as I still remember that moment nearly five decades later.  I remembered it when my grandmother died not long after my daughter was born.  When I went to lead the rosary, my sister held her tight and rocked her (she has a gift for rocking babies). During the mass, I held her to my chest. I listened to her tiny breaths, feeling them on my neck, and it eased the grief.  Afterward, when everyone was gathered, she made the rounds from aunts to sisters to cousins to sweet old ladies I did not know. She was part of the joy that balanced the grief that day. With every giggle she stitched together hearts.

As we go through the next few days, celebrating the life of a man we loved and mourning the sharp pain of losing him, there will be moments of joy. And we should savor every one of the moments. We will see people we haven’t seen in years and those years will not diminish our love for them. There will be joy in catching up. There will be joy in remembering. There will be joy just knowing we are part of a family and community. We should not miss one minute of that joy.

I chose this photograph because because it embodies joy to me.  I caught this eagle soaring over the Skagit River on a cold, clear winter morning just soaring- joyfully!

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Soaring
(1/1600 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 450 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Looking at Life Through the Keyhole

Over the course of this week, as we prepare to celebrate my dad’s life, we have all been poring over pictures.  And I remember so much of what I forgot.  And I see things I didn’t know but they are so obvious to me now.  We know our family members because we have these long relationships with them.  We see some of them every day. We eat with them. We live under the same roof.  We work with them. We love. We fight. We heal.  And we form this picture of who they are as people. But it’s not complete- even if they are our spouse or our parent.  The truth is we see people like we are looking at them through a keyhole.  We see that focused bit of who they are right now, but we can’t see the whole picture.  Oh sure, it adds up and we think we have the whole picture. But really a person is like a jigsaw puzzle and, no matter how hard you try, you are never going to find all the pieces and where they fit together.  There are always going to be things we don’t see, or misunderstand, or are absolutely sure about and absolutely wrong about at the same time.

I should have known he was once a goofy little boy who probably annoyed his sisters regularly- you can see it in their eyes as they lined up for a fancy picture in their Sunday best.  I wish I had asked more questions about his childhood. He was a tough guy but he also had a soft side. I found several pictures of him through the decades crouched in a child’s chair, daintily holding a tea cup while playing tea party with his daughter, and later his granddaughter and great niece.  (Although I have to say there is zero chance there was actual or imaginary tea in those cups. Coffee. Black. I guarantee it.) He loved his babies and grandbabies.  He never missed a chance to hold one or toss one on his shoulders. As my youngest sister reminded me this week, the view was the best from there. I wish I had asked more questions about my childhood.    Why did he love dogs?  And what was the deal with Basset Hounds? Who taught him to fish?  How was it that he could just talk to anyone (seriously, he could carry on a rousing conversation with a rock)?  I know a lot. Don’t get me wrong. We talked.  But I wish I had asked more questions, assumed less, relied less on my keyhole vision.  Found the missing puzzle pieces.  Maybe that is always the way. We think we have time. We think we know.  We think we have talked about everything we needed to talk about.

Here is my challenge to you: pull out that old album, scrapbook, or box of pictures.  Look at them. Really look at them. Think about this person you have known forever and who they are in total. If you are lucky and they are still with you, call them up and ask them about the time that…  Ask them who is in that picture.  Quit looking through the keyhole and open the door.   My experience is that people love to remember and we should not forget.  But someday they won’t be here to tell us.

More than three decades apart, my dad had mad tea party skills.

386a David and Angie Shea

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Lean In

I was sitting on a plastic couch in a hospital waiting room sobbing in that heart wrenching way you do when you are racked with grief. I had just finished making those difficult phone calls to friends and family, when one of my sisters sat down beside me. She put her arm around me as I wept. She gave me a squeeze and said, “Hey. Come on. Lean in.”  And I did. And it felt so good at that moment, when I felt utterly alone despite being surrounded by family. I leaned in. It felt so good to share the burden. It did not stop my heart from breaking or the tears from falling.  But that simple touch, knowing she shared that grief with me and in some way (that defies algebra) adding her grief to mine, actually lessened it.  That simple phrase, “Lean in”, just stayed with me all night. I realized I need to learn to lean in more. I realized I don’t lean in enough and I wondered why.  It’s a problem. I live in a country built on fierce independence. Where we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Where we get back in the saddle. Where we rub some dirt on it.  Where we get up, brush ourselves off, and do it again. That ethic is in every line of my family and it runs deep. We come from strong people who crossed oceans with almost nothing in our hands and absolute determination, blind courage and deep faith in our hearts. Somehow, I don’t think leaning in was a strategy they used much, and it certainly wasn’t a strategy they passed down our line.  “Get up”, “move forward”, “never let them see you sweat”? Yes.  “Lean in”? Not so much.  Don’t get me wrong, that fierce spirit has served me very well. That is not going to change.   I even remind my daughter often “Shea Girls are fierce!”.  But there is a time to lean in. There is a time to accept support and help. There is a time to share the burden.  So, I am going to lean in when I need to.  I am even going to lean in without being told to.  Thanks to my little sister for reminding me to lean in.

This photo (though it is short one Shea Girl) really spoke to me for this post. I am the one on my dad’s lap.  My “Lean In” sister is smiling in the background (she was a really giggly, joyful little girl), trying to get to us.  My dad is reaching out to my oldest sister.  Every one leaning in with love.

285a David Angie Patty Catherine Shea 1967

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

It’s the Little Things

I think at the end of a life, it is the little things you remember most. The seemingly inconsequential moments become indelibly written on our minds and hearts.  Oh sure, every relationship has big moments.  There are marriages and births, graduations and new homes.  And every relationship has good times and challenging ones – even tragic moments.  But I think we are hard-wired, fortunately, to remember the good things and we are blessed to be designed to hold the little things closest in our hearts.  As my dad’s life has come to an end, I am flooded with these little things. They catch me off guard, my heart clenches, my breathe catches, and I am transported back in time. Sometimes I am moved to laughter and other times to tears but always I can feel these moments like they happened yesterday.  Like the other night, I was playing cards with my husband and daughter. As we are Irish and bilingual in sarcasm, the game was hilarious (This is a relief as our chief concern when we were pregnant was that our child wouldn’t have a sense of humor- turns out she has two dominant humor genes).  Will the Circle Be Unbroken came on the stereo and tears flooded my eyes.  It was like I was a child again.  My dad loved bluegrass music and this was his favorite album.  Soldier’s Joy came on with Earl Scruggs picking on the banjo.  I instantly remembered the time he took me to hear Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs play in Seattle. My love of Bluegrass music, especially the banjo and the fiddle, started that day. The chords plucked out in rapid succession, clear and loud, pounding in time with my heartbeat.  I could feel it propelling my feet and filling my heart. My dad gave me such a love for music of all kinds. To this day, traditional Irish music and Scottish pipe and drum bands move me to tears of joy.  He loved the words as well and I remember he kept the lyrics to John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads thumbtacked to his bookshelf.  I remember the time he took me to see Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge and they sang Me and Bobby McGee. My favorite line was But I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday. I didn’t get it back then, but I do right now.

I remember all the things we made.  He liked to make things. He lived in a house he built with his own hands. He ate at a table hewn from wood he dragged across the country twice before he figured out what it was going to be.  He sat on a chair perched on feet he carved himself.   My daughter rocked on a horse he carved and sat at a desk he built.  But it’s the little things he made that I remember most. I remember one time we went all the way to Pike Place Market to buy a chunk of blue cheese, so we could make blue cheese dressing from scratch. I remember the time he found a recipe for mint chocolate pudding in the New York Times and together we melted Junior Mints to mix in. He taught me to cook. He taught me that I could learn to do anything.

I remember Sunday mornings, he would let me work on the New York Times Crossword with him as long as I found one across for every one down that I figured out.  I remember him reading “Child by Tiger” and “Chicago” to me and asking what I thought.  I remember our camping trip in Montana where we hiked into Flathead Lake to fish. It was such an adventure. He taught me to shoot a gun and cast a fly on that trip.  I remember going with him to Patrick’s Flyfishing shop in Seattle and watching him pick out feathers and thread. I was fascinated listening to him and the other men talk about what the fish were biting on.   Later I would watch him tie flies and he would tell me about the exotic places and animals that the pieces came from.  Then he would tell me stories about his own dad fishing.

I remember the time I found his shaving cream next to his bathroom sink and tentatively pressed the cap. Living in a house full of girls, shaving cream was new and exotic.  The foam came out with ribbons of blue and green and it was so fun that I kept doing it until I used up the whole can.  Of course, I lied about it fearing I would be in big trouble. But it was just him and me, so clearly he had me. I remember he told me that the day would come when I would want him to trust me and that trust was built on days like this.  I confessed (I always confessed).

In the end, our memories are made in the tiny, very real moments two people share. They define and shape our lives.  The little things are the big things in our relationships.  Blue Cheese Dressing and crossword puzzles were so much more than that. They were the moments when we talked and laughed, we learned about each other. They were the moments when I asked the big questions and got the honest answers- whether I liked it or not.  They were the moments when I learned where I came from and developed the dreams for my own life.

I chose these pictures of my father and each of his “Shea Girls” for this post. It seems like I have a million pictures of the man but none of these are mine of course. It seemed fitting to remember him holding each of us in his heart as we are holding him in our hearts now.

386a David and Angie SheaDavid and Catherine Shea372a David and Patty Shea 1967

dad with daughter 1970

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Like Looking in the Mirror

A couple of years ago, all of my sisters descended upon the eldest’s home in the sweltering heat of mid-July in Arizona.  We came to sort through boxes of pictures my mother had kept. Though I offered to collect and digitize them for all of us, I am grateful for my eldest sister’s wisdom in insisting we get together to go through them.  I’m not really sure what prompted my interest in the pictures, but I imagine it had something to do with our father becoming ill.  The possibility he might pass loomed and I felt like the tether tenuously holding our collective history might snap from that loss.  I know for me, as I get older, I have this need to know about the past and not just mine but that of my parents and their parents.  Somehow knowing our family history gives me a deeper understanding of my own life. I have always been interested in our family history, but I have spent most of my time exploring my dad’s family history.  This was the first time I really had a chance to explore my mother’s history.

It had been some time since we were all together in the same place at the same time.  We spent a couple of days laughing, playing cards and floating in the pool working up to sorting through our history. I expected to find the pictures of our childhood and maybe even pictures of our mother’s childhood.  I did not expect to find so many pictures of our grandfather’s family in Greece.  I came upon the picture below and I instantly felt like I was looking at myself in 30 years.  Her eyes, her nose, the line of her mouth, all mine.  I saw that expression often in the mirror.  My sister had the writing on back of the picture, which was in Greek, translated and it said, “To my beloved siblings and nephews, Christine Georgakopoulou”.  She must have been my grandfather’s aunt given her age in the picture.  My grandfather’s last name was Paraskevoulakos.  Apart from my youngest sister and my daughter, I never really thought I looked like anyone in my family until that moment.  I certainly didn’t think I looked like my parents. But looking at Christina Georgakopoulou gave me this sense of belonging to something far greater than the present.  This old, scratched, creased picture made me feel like there was a thread, tiny but steel-strong, that ran through me to my grandfather and all of his family.  My grandfather crossed an ocean in 1912 alone at the age of 18.  My own daughter is nearly 18 and I cannot imagine putting her on a ship to another country where she could not speak or read the language.  He landed in Chicago and then traveled to Seattle. I complain when I can’t get a direct flight. He crossed a country, I assume by rail, and couldn’t even read the signs in the railway depots.  I know that he found a community of Greek immigrants at St. Demetrios Church in Seattle, so he wasn’t alone. Still, I know it could not have been easy.  He was strong and courageous and as I looked through the pictures of his family members in Greece, I found that same strength in their eyes.  I see it in Christina Georgakopoulou’s eyes and those are my eyes.  I see it in my sisters’ eyes.  I see it in my child’s eyes.

I think we pass on much more than our looks through the generations. We pass down the fabric of our spirit.  I am so grateful for that weekend in the sweltering sun to have discovered a connection to my family history. I am even more grateful to have deepened the connection to my present by sharing those moments with my sisters.

6a Christina Georgakopoulou

Christina Georgakopoulou

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

 

Picture Books

Before the digital age of photography, we printed our pictures and mounted them in albums. We had wedding albums, graduation albums, christening albums and vacation albums. We made scrapbooks chronicling every detail of our child’s life (I only got to age three and it took nine albums, so I entered a 12-step scrapbook recovery program to kick that habit). If you were not careful, you would be invited to dinner at a friend’s home just after they returned from their recent trip through the Panama Canal, and held hostage until you looked at every single shot they took (That one’s not so great because Bert’s head is in the way, but you get the idea- the Panama Canal is so much bigger in person! Don’t you think?). People bought slide projectors and transferred their photographs to slides. Sets of slides were kept in carousels in proper order. I always hated carrying the slide carousel for fear I would once again trip and hundreds of tiny slides would fly across the room. It was a huge production to get them all back in their tiny slots in the right order and not upside down or backwards. With the advent of the slide projector, a new challenge arose- staying awake! With albums, your host had to leave the lights on which made it harder to fall asleep or at least more embarrassing when you did. But with the slide projector, the lights went off and, if you positioned your body just right, you could sleep through the whole thing. Of course, when the lights came on and you were startled from your slumber, you might inappropriately shout “just stunning, so lovely” after a slide show of your Aunt Lena’s funeral.

A great benefit of this era was that people generally passed on their photographs. Generations of pictures would accumulate. The photographs held the collective story of the family. Even when holes existed in the actual story, the photographs often gave us the clues. Since we pass on more than our DNA, they also, in important ways, hold the clues to our own personal story. I have been fortunate to be the recipient of family photographs from several branches of our family tree going back to the early 1900s. A few years ago, I inherited my maternal great aunt’s collection. I always liked her. She struck me as gutsy and strong. Born in 1920 on a small farm in what is now Issaquah Washington, she struck out on her own in her mid-20’s to live in New York city. I once asked her what it was like to move across the country in the 1940s all alone. She said it was her greatest adventure and I knew then that I had inherited some of her spirit. She told me that the world was a very different place back then and so, though she was an adult, she had to get her father’s permission to move that far away to take a job with Bell Telephone. She had to have roommates because it was not acceptable for an unmarried woman to live alone. Her job was to increase the efficiency of the operators. It was a relatively new job and few women held management positions. I cannot imagine the courage it would have taken to do this in the 40s long, long before technology made the world such a small and convenient place. I am sure letters and postcards carried news to family and friends arriving days or weeks later. Traveling home would have been costly, arduous and infrequent. But as I looked through her pictures, I saw a woman unafraid of the challenge. She is always smiling or laughing. Her photographs tell the story of a life well-lived. Throughout the years, she documented her adventures as she traversed the states camping, hiking and golfing with friends. She dressed up and went to parties. She dressed down and went to the pool. She fell in love but never married. Until her dying day, she lived with joy and courage.

Though I do not look like her, I feel I inherited her spirit. The beauty of family photos, especially those passed down for generations, is that you discover the deep roots of those special parts of yourself. I come from a long line of a strong women. I may not look like them all, but the pictures tell the real story.

Aunt Bert Circa 1940

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Growing A Family

Last night I went to my favorite Christmas party.  I have been attending this party for 26 years, though it has been going on for much longer than that.  In those years, I have missed it twice: once when my daughter was only three weeks old and once when that same daughter got sick (on me) on the way to the party.  I love this party and not just because every single person brings their A game when it comes to the delicious dishes they bring.  I come because the couple who host really understand what it means to welcome people into their family. You walk up to their door and light and joy billow out like there is just too much to contain it all inside.  From the moment you walk in, you are swept up into these deep, warm hugs from everyone.  They are not the “hello-glad-you-are-here-leave-your-coat-on-the-bed” side hugs.  They are the full on “I-have-missed-you-and-I-can’t-wait-to-catch-up” bear hugs.

The house is decorated inside and out. Lights twinkle in the yard but the real magic is inside.  An enormous Christmas tree stands in the living room bursting with ornaments and ribbon.  Homemade candies and cookies are never more than an arm’s reach away.  Pictures line the walls and not just their family pictures.  These pictures tell the story of every family present.  My heart sings when I walk around and remember the silly, giggling girls and squirming boys who sat on Santa’s lap -yes Santa comes to this party every year!  It is so amazing to watch them all grow up.  And even more amazing that they are still all here.  These same little girls and boys are now bringing their boyfriends or girlfriends and some even their own families to the party.  And that is a testament to how they feel about this family and this party.  One was even snowed in at her university and couldn’t get a flight home so her dad drove all of the way across the state and back so she wouldn’t miss the party.  That’s love right there on so many levels.  This is definitely a family party.  From babies to grandparents, you feel at home.  You feel like family.  There is something for everyone.  The little ones are usually captivated by the Christmas village.  Every open surface is covered with the Christmas village. Actually village does not do it justice.  It is more like a Christmas metropolis- a quaint metropolis, but a metropolis none the less. Skiers and sledders dot the snow covered hills.  A train snakes in and out of the tunnels past fire-heated houses and snow-capped businesses.  Shoppers drag home their packages and trees.   Dogs bark and frolic with skaters.  Carolers sing festooned in their fur-lined mittens and muffs.

Over the course of the night, generations of party goers sit together and share.  We share the milestones of the year. We share our hobbies, interests and plans. We share our celebrations and challenges.  We share what is happening with children and grandchildren. We share a glass of wine, an amazing meal, and love for a special couple who really understand what it means to welcome people into their family. I am one of those they picked up along the way and welcomed, with my own family, into this extended family.  I am so grateful for that.  I have been blessed to meet such wonderful people who have had a hand in shaping my life.  I’ve learned a lot from them all over the years, not the least of which is this:   Love is the one thing you can give and give and give and it does not run out.  In fact, it grows exponentially by giving it away.  In so doing, you are growing your family.

I selected the photograph below because it embodies the love and joy of this party.  Grandma is laughing with her granddaughters and my daughter.  They were all being so silly.  This was taken in 2004 and they were all at the party this year too- a little less squirmy but no less joyful!

DSC01743Giggling Girls
(1/30 sec., f/2.7, 7mm, 64 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Living in the Shadow of the Mountain

I have lived in the shadow of the Cascades for most of my life. Slogging through traffic on a clear day, I am struck by the deep blues of the sky framing Mount Baker in the distance.  Shadows across the white peak shimmering in glacial blue.  Snow dusting the foothills and highlighting the rocky crags. The impossibly deep green of pines stubborn and proud.  Strange as it sounds, I feel protected in this pocket of volcanoes.  Sentinels of great strength and beauty, it is easy to forget how dangerous they can be.  The range controls our moods. When the wet air slaps its face, the peaks toss it back to earth with booming thunder.  It is awesome. It is frightening. It is unpredictable and unyielding.  When we are socked in for days, I hate that range especially now that my joints creak and ache singing out the evidence of my well-spent youth.  But rain never bothered me as a kid. I would lace up my waffle-stompers, button up my 501’s, put a down vest over my Henley and off I would go. I loved the woods.  Even in a downpour, the forests of the Pacific Northwest protect you under the dense evergreen canopy.  I can still feel the spongy earth strewn with rotten wood; the fiddle head of ferns brushing my jeans; the fat drops of water sliding off a leaf onto my cheek; the electric smell of rain. Tromping through the forest with my dog in the shadow of the mountain was home.   Living in the shadow of the mountain, it would be easy to yield to its will.  You could stay indoors by a fire, warm and dry. Wait it out. Hope it will pass soon. But you would miss so much. It’s better to soldier through.  Take cover when you have to, but be there when the rain stops and the drops evaporate.  Be there when the steam-filled air filters the sunbeams.  Be there when the skies clear and the mountain comes out. Truly live in the shadow of the mountain.

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Shadow of the Mountain
(1/1000 sec.,  f/5.6, 250 mm, 200 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

A Gift

On the walls in my office hang three signed limited edition Judi Rideout prints, one signed limited edition Jon Van Zyle print and an original watercolor by an artist who shares my last name.  Guess which one I love the most. If you guessed the water color on construction paper, double matted in peach and black, you are right. That five year old budding artist was so proud of her creation and even a dozen years later, I know she takes pride in the fact that it hangs on my wall. It’s special and not just because I love the artist but because I know the amount of thought and effort she put into it. She told me all about it in that animated way only a five year old can speak- so fast that the words pelt you. I reveled in every detail of the story. Artists are like that whether they are 5 or 85. Ask them about their work and they light up. They live their inspiration and when they speak it gives such a depth to their work. It helps you to connect with it. A piece that drew you in initially, now has you mesmerized.

Every year, I take a trip with my sisters.  Along the way, we have to stop and take a picture with the World’s Largest Frying Pan or the motel shaped like a dog or Carhenge – you get the idea. It’s silly but it gets us laughing and out of the car. While we are out posing in front of the World’s Largest Wine Bottle (which, by the way, is not filled with wine- disappointing!), we invariably find a shop to explore.  We gravitate to places you probably aren’t going to find through Google that carry things made by hand. In Arizona, we stopped at a roadside pottery shop that had the most beautiful garden art. I bought handsewn worry dolls for a friend.   Incidentally it also had a handmade “Warning: It’s Scorpion Season” sign which helped me to really focus on the fine details of the pottery.  In San Diego, we found hand embroidered shirts and watched aritsans hammer metal into jewelry.  I like the idea of finding the ‘just perfect’ gift that few other people – maybe even no one else- will have.

I also like the added benefit of supporting artists and artisans. It is difficult to make a living as an artist.  Even the most naturally talented artists and artisans take years to develop their craft and find their unique style.  If I have a choice between handmade and mass produced, I choose handmade.  I visited the Schack Art Center in Everett recently.  It was incredible to watch Nancy Callan and the other glass blowers as they patiently drew out the shapes and colors. What an amazing place to view art of so many mediums! They have a great shop where you can purchase original works. These places are everywhere! Whether it is your local museum, art center, or street fair, stop and see what artists and artisans are creating. Look around your local restaurant or hair salon. Businesses are supporting artists work and it’s on display. Before you buy the World’s Greatest Mom mug, remember how happy she was to get your mis-shapened but utterly gorgeous sculpture of a puppy. Support an artist and give her that just perfect, one of a kind, handmade gift. She’ll love it and so will the artists.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

It Really is the Thought That Counts

When I was a little girl, my father gave me a copy of Marguerite Henry’s All About Horses.  He worked for a publishing company and loved books so it wasn’t unusual for me to get one for my birthday or Christmas.  I loved this book. In fact, it is sitting on my own daughter’s bookshelf to this day. This book was special to me because I loved horses and it really was ‘all about horses’- the evolution of horses, types of horses, breeding horses, training horses, colors of horses…. back then I wanted to know everything about them and I had THE book!  This book was so captivating with its photographs of soldiers on horses, barrel racing, wild horses and fox hunts.  Even at the ripe old age of ten, I marked the important sections. I must have really valued this book, because I affixed a library check out form to the front cover and apparently checked it out to one Michelle Sweeney. Good thing she returned it. I have records.  I remember this book fondly forty years later. I kept it all these years. It crossed the United States at least 4 times. The best thing about this gift is that he picked out something he knew I would love because he knew I loved horses. It was more than just a book. It was a gift that said he knew me and wanted me to have something I would treasure. He gave it some thought or maybe he just came across it. Either way he must have thought I would love that book.

We give a lot of gifts out of social convention or obligation. Those are important certainly. But the gifts  that are truly meaningful are the ones we give to honor the people we know and love by showing them just that. We know and love them.  It is not the size of the gift or the cost of the gift.  It is the fact that someone thought of you and knew you well enough to know this gift would be truly treasured.  My husband is this kind of gift giver.  He always gives the perfect gift.  He just somehow knows exactly what I need.    I must confess, however, that I have not always been the best gift giver.  I have even been guilty over the years of giving gift cards.  Sure, I rationalized at the time that I was giving the perfect gift. After all my niece or nephew could go buy whatever they wanted.  But I don’t think an Old Navy card is quite going to give my niece that same warm feeling 40 years from now that I have from a simple book.

As a working mom, I have often found myself over the years in a state of complete panic when I realized that the three months between Labor Day and Thanksgiving had disappeared and I had not even begun to shop for Christmas presents.  I know some of you have shared this terrifying experience when you realize you are once again not going to be writing that Christmas letter to catch everyone up on your family’s activities. You are not going to have time to knit matching sweaters for that perfect family Christmas card picture in a snowy, star-lit meadow.  You are not going to bake 10 kinds of cookies for the neighbors and the mailman and the garbage collector.  It is just not going to happen.  Maybe it is time for me to give some things up that are nice but really fall short of meaningful.  My goal this year is to give the gifts that say “I know and love you”.

I selected the image below because this stand of birch trees reminds me of the special times my husband and I camped across Alaska. I had been looking for a painting for our home for some time but this weekend I found this stand to photograph. I think this is a great gift to us as a reminder of a very special time in our lives together.

DSC_7010cslogoThe Stand
(1/30 sec., f/7.1, 500ISO, 170 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Love in Black and White

I think this is my very favorite picture and that is saying a lot given the sheer volume of my collection. I didn’t take this picture but when I look at it I truly wish I had met the man who did. When I look at it, I wish I could give him one of those fierce, deep hugs and thank him for this photograph; thank him for every time I have looked at this photograph and was wrapped in the memory of the fierce deep hugs my grandfather gave me. This photograph was taken the year he died and I graduated from high school. Though it is old and faded, it brings back memories so rich and real that I can feel and hear and taste and smell them still. I can feel the weight of his big heavy hands patting me solidly on the back. I can feel my face sleepy and warm resting on his chest. A feeling so sweet I put up with the scratchy wool of his button down. I can hear him chanting “a-mana-mana-mana” as he bounced me on his lap releasing giggles and glee. I can smell the leg of lamb roasting in the kitchen and Orzo simmering on the stove on Sunday afternoon. I can hear the soundtrack to Never on a Sunday turning under the needle of the stereo. I can feel my grandfather taking my tiny hand in his and dancing me around the room in a way only exuberant Greek men can- knees high, feet deftly crossing over and back, hands clapping. In this photograph, I see the most beautiful man I’ve ever known. Though the wages of time line his face, he seems no less a lion to me- strong and powerful with no need to act upon it. The slight upward turn of his mouth belies a mix of kindness and mischief. I see the man who called me the Skippy kid because I wouldn’t eat egg salad. And gave me a sip of Ouzo when I wouldn’t stop crying (Ouzo is the cure for a lot of things.)

A photograph can never replace the person. I would certainly prefer to have him here in three dimensions. But he is in my heart. And there is something about this photograph that makes it possible for me to clear away the cobwebs, dig through the boxes and find those long lost moments of joy and love, even of sadness and pain, that bring him back to me in fleeting moments when I need him most. I keep this photograph on my desk and have for as long as I remember. I tell my child stories about him so he will be in her heart too and she will know how powerful love is. A portrait is so common now. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to take a portrait that captures the true spirit of a person. A picture capable of bringing them to the top of your mind and heart. To this photographer, whoever you are, thank you for a gift I cherish every day. May we all give this gift to someone.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.