Friday, November 27, 2015


I'm lying on an Aerobed in my brother's finished basement, listening to the sounds of my blissed out, over-fed, super-loved children's sleepy time breathing. Tomorrow we'll go home after a beautiful couple of days with my family. Bittersweet sleep.  

This room itself contains bits and pieces of my childhood holiday memories scattered all around: a needlepoint acrostic of all our names that my mom stitched in the early 80s (before my little sister was born) displayed next to my mom's portrait; a photo collage of snapshots from the early 90s -- in one I'm shown holding a Sports Illustrated with Christian Laettner in the cover; a framed photograph of our entire Stock-Mello family snapped on a Thanksgiving perhaps 20-25 years ago -- that may have been the last time all the aunts and uncles and cousins were together before mom's illness changed us all; a crazy quilt on the Aerobed sewn by my great-grandmother -- she made one for every one of her grandkids, and now we three Mello kids each have one, miraculously saved and intact some 50 years later. The weight of this quilt calms me instantly. The sight of it floods my heart with warmth. 

We played tag with the kids at the playground yesterday before dinner, giggling and chasing one another until we all had stitches in our sides (and had to stop to stretch our creaky legs and backs). My boys are so lucky to have this uncle and aunties and grandfather in their lives. 

It has occurred to me more than once this weekend how different this is from what most families know. There's no tension or forced togetherness at holidays. There's no need for booze just to get through the day (though a bottle of wine or two does make it more fun!). Nobody comes in at the last minute before dinner or bolts before dessert. We are here, together, hunkered down because we love to spend time together. It's a rare gift. As wacky and grumpy and snarky as we may be apart, we are amazing when we're together. My siblings and I have grown into fully complementary adults. Like this crazy quilt that's held up through decades. Or this needlepoint acrostic with our names woven together. Each of us equal parts serious and silly, with one providing balance for the others whenever necessary. We read each other well, knowing when levity is in order or when it's time to change a subject all together. 

We grew up in such a traditional family, with traditional values and traditional traditions. My father has never been one to stray comfortably from "this is how we've always done it." Yet remarkably, we all go with the flow now, and the only tradition that has really stuck is just being together. Such a blessing, really. 

Last night we sat around with guitars and a ukulele, humming and strumming and giggling over improv'ed thanksgiving songs. Hokey, goofy, warm. I glanced between my brother and sister at one point and thought "this is a perfect moment; stash it away." They both were smiling their matching brilliant white-toothed smile, eyes framed with a few barely visible lines that hint at years of joy and some periods of intense grief. I hope they felt it too, that perfect moment in our super sibling triangle. I want to always remember them this way, as the singing, smiling, tag-playing full-grown humans that my children adore. 

My mom admonished me long ago, "these are the people who will know you best and walk through life with you. Be good to each other." It's true. They are. And we are. 

That's a lot to be thankful for. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Those three little words

Zippy and I have been cooped up together for three days while he recovers from a pretty nasty upper respiratory yuck. We have snuggled through 24 hours of fever. We have watched approximately 37 hours of Spongebob and 29 hours of Paw Patrol. We have wiped at least 2 gallons of snot. It's been a hella couple days! 

As he started to regain energy this evening, he also started driving me bananas. Finally while I tried to clean up dishes and he insisted on spinning circles through the kitchen while shrieking some horrible toy commercial jingle, I told him he needed to go in the other room because I was losing patience. I spoke through clenched teeth the way my own mother did when we realized she was about to transform to Mrs. Hyde. He got the cues and retreated to the corner of the dining room. I breathed. Deeply. 

Three minutes later Zippy returned, coming up behind me as I loaded the dishwasher. "I told you I need a break!" I snapped. He quietly presented me with this and a big mushy kiss. "I really love you, mommy." And of course I choked back tears because if there's only one thing I know in all the whole big world, it's this: I ❤️ you Mom. 

This little boy pushes every one of my buttons, it's true. Most days I can barely keep up with him, physically and mentally. But at the end of every day, in the quiet space before we all fall asleep, there's nowhere better than huggled next to this boy, his wiry wiggly body finally relaxed, his long eyelashes sheltering those big green eyes (remember when they sparkled bluer than topaz?), and all my hopes and dreams and wishes for him floating in the air around us. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Happy Maine-iversary

Right about this time last year, we rolled into the rest stop at Kittery, just across the bridge that marks the Maine state line. One hour from our new home.

We'd been driving all day, with just a few stops here and there, and we all felt jittery and excited and anxious. You know, lwhen your legs feel all twitchy because they've been folded up all day and you've been drinking Cokes and sucking lollipops. The black sky sparkled with a zillion stars -- night seems darker here, maybe because there are fewer people and less light pollution -- and I leaned back to stretch my neck and back. I breathed deeply, yoga-style, while the kids ran and jumped and played around the Smokey the Bear statue. And that's when I smelled it: White pine and salt air. That magical combination that brings back every happy vacation memory from my childhood. Here we are, I realized, in the place I've treasured my whole life for its wide open spaces, rocky shorelines, wild blueberry hillsides. And we live here now. Maine.

Our first morning in Portland, checking out Back Cove
This was a far cry from how I started the day, mind you. As we left South Graylyn Crest, I bawled. I'm talking snot-bubbly, knee-buckly, air-sucky, squinchy-face weeping. I was terrified. 

Honey and Happy were in one car, Zippy and me in the van, both vehicles packed to the ceiling with the things that couldn't go in the moving truck, including two cats, four houseplants, one goldfish and a crayfish in deli containers on the front seat. The truck had pulled out the night before and we'd slept on the floor in our empty house. I drove past my friend's house, waved a last goodbye, and just couldn't pull myself back together. Even after a stop at Wawa for coffee and our last soft pretzels, I couldn't stop sniffling -- and I was so distracted a man came running at the car to rescue the giant coffee I'd left on the roof as we pulled away. (Then I cried even harder thinking of how I'd almost lost my coffee.)

We were leaving our families in New Jersey and Philadelphia. We were leaving our friends and our church in Delaware. We were leaving our jobs. We were leaving our schools. We were leaving our home of 8 years empty...yet unsold! And we were driving 500 miles to a city we'd only visited a couple times -- to a rental home we'd only seen in online photos.

What's more, we only had one income: Mine. Honey had quit his job in Delaware and had nothing lined up in Portland. We hadn't yet enrolled Zippy in preschool, so we didn't know where he would land, either. We figured we had enough money in the bank to get us through three months (without any emergencies, of course). And we had help with our rent from my new employer for three months.

And it was November. In Maine. Where it's dark by 4:30 in winter and snow starts to fall around Thanksgiving.

Portland Head Light. I'll never get tired of this vista.

Ho. Lee. Shit. Even as I write these words, I cannot believe we did this. Can you believe we did this?!

We leaped. Jumped with both feet right out into unknown everything. Come what may.

Yet here I sit, one year later, in our comfy little home listening to Zippy tell me about his field trip to a children's play. I started the day with a PTO meeting, then impromptu coffee with a new friend. Happy and Honey are at a Cub Scout meeting planning their next hiking adventure; tomorrow one of Happy's friends will come over to play after school. The boys walk hand in hand to school each morning, and everyone in the neighborhood knows they come as a set. Honey has an even better job than the one he left behind, working for one of the top companies in Portland. We do swimming lessons, art lessons, Scouts, Bible study group -- just like we always have. And I'm starting to recognize faces of people I know in the farmers market on Saturdays.

Portland is our home now. This quirky little city full of hipsters and lobsters and camera-toting tourists has felt right from the start, even as we tromped through mountains of snow last winter. I watch the sun come up over the cove as I make my way to the office every morning, and every evening I marvel at the pinky-purple sky as I come home. I breathe deeper here, savor moments more fully. My wardrobe consists of jeans, cardigans, yoga pants, and hiking boots. People around me move with less urgency, and I often sense that time off is more valued than time on. Nobody looks at me funny when I collect pine cones and fallen leaves in the park. They don't blink when I pull over to take a photo of a hot-air balloon on a weekday morning commute. Nobody giggles at my older kid's yen to play ukulele or my younger kid's penchant for spinning. We fit into this city's groove.
These wackos amaze me every day.

We're spending this weekend in Acadia National Park, the place where my family vacationed so often, the place responsible for my yearning to take this leap. It seems the appropriate spot to celebrate our first Maine-iversary, to say thank you to the One who provides all things. I'm looking back over this year with awe and wonder, amazed that my kids get to grow up with the pine-and-salt air in their nostrils. And I'm looking at each person in my family with new appreciation. We are brave. We are grateful. We are cozy. We know now we can do hard things.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Winter is coming

Golden leaves overhead filter sunlight onto my face; brown leaves underneath cushion my bottom from the chilly earth. I'm sitting under a tall oak tree, nibbling carrots from the farmers market across the park. A couple of squirrels run frantically nearby. One stopped just a moment ago to collect the nub of carrot stem I'd tossed aside. He looked at me with warning in his eyes, like "Why are you sitting there? Don't you know winter is coming?!"

The farmers market bustles this morning. Mobs of people wearing fall jackets and riding boots with necks wrapped in decorative scarves tasting apples and yogurt and mushrooms. The air feels crisp yet charged with a frantic energy. We're all stocking up for the winter, saving squashes and Brussels sprouts and jars of pickles, but also turning our faces into the sun at every turn. We need to store it up. Just like the squirrels. 

Winter doesn't fool around here so as October wanes we all scurry: Play more outdoors, spend time with your friends, preserve and store as many fresh fruits and veggies as you can, find your boots and snow pants and down coats. We know that as Thanksgiving inches closer, so does the snow and bitter wet wind. And the darkness; tonight we set our clocks back so tomorrow it will be dark around 4:00. (That's so hard for me.)

It's okay though. Seems to me a fair trade for summers and falls as glorious as these. We earn these beautiful clear-sky days over months of harshness. Mother Nature wants to be sure we deserve August in Maine!

My family approaches our one-year Maine-iversary and I feel particularly pensive and grateful this morning. This move may have been the bravest thing I've ever done, we've ever done, and it's changed us as individuals and as a family in large and noticeable ways. Mostly for the good, I think. We had to put every bit of faith in God and in one another to pull us through huge unknowns. And we've found out how to find joy in simple things and everyday moments. 

In coming weeks, I hope to write more about how we've grown and learned this past year. But for today I'm soaking in this fall air and basking in this sunshine. 

God is good, y'all. And Maine is, too. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

All I can do is soup

A friend is going through something pretty scary and terrible right now -- a health situation about which most of us would say "Oh, that's my nightmare" -- and I haven't been able to figure out how to help her. I mean, I pray for her and listen to her and cheer for her, and I try to run interference when others ask too many (or too few) questions about her condition. But I feel like there's not much I can physically do to help. When someone you love is sick, don't you want to just wrap your arms around them and will the sickness out of them? I do. I want to use the power of my love to pull the illness out, like that big guy in The Green Mile. Alas, I can't do that, not ever, but certainly not this time. This time it needs more than hugs.

The air today is crisp in all the ways you'd imagine fall in New England should be: chilly and breezy and sparkling with sunshine. The leaves on our trees are just about at their peak color, which means the air around them glows. There's something about the light in autumn, isn't there? It comes at a different angle or intensity and everything looks sharper, more vibrant and urgent.

This is the kind of day you want to breathe in, absorb, bottle. I walked around the West End around mid-day, noticing people with hands shoved deep into pockets, scarves wrapped around necks, walking just a bit more quickly than usual. Winter is coming. (This line is as foreboding here as it is in  Westeros, let me tell you; the biggest difference, so far, is we don't have White Walkers to contend with.) It's already snowing in Caribou, ME, and Stowe, VT. And as I burrow deeper into my coat collar, I am thinking of my friend, impressed with how she is adapting to her new normal. Every day must challenge and frustrate and embolden her, yet she's taking it as it comes. Mostly I am thinking about her freshly bald head, imagining how unusual this cold air must feel on head-skin that's always been covered by a blanket of hair.

I suppose winter takes on a whole other level of foreboding when you're dealing with radiation treatments and the uncertainty of your prognosis. I don't know how to help my dear friend, but as I walk through town today it strikes me: Soup. I can cook soup! I can't cure cancer, but I can provide nourishment and warmth and a delicious respite from take-out food. I can pour all my wishes and love for her into a pan, simmer it a while, and meditate on how blessed I am to know her.

When I get home and start gathering my ingredients, I realize most of what I'll use to make the soup has connection to our mutual friends: Potatoes from one friend's family farm. Carrots from our friend who bought too many at the farmers market. Kale that I picked out with another friend, laughing about the way Zippy eats raw kale out of the fridge like a bunny. As I scrub the potatoes, I pray over them. As I peel the carrots, I sing. And of course as I chop the onions I cry (but this doesn't count as special because it happens every time).

I'm putting together  a Portuguese kale soup that my father's mother used to make for us (a recipe that Dad and I have simplified over time because who really has time to make homemade stock and boil dried beans?). As I brown the linguica, I think of my Vovo and aunts and cousins, invoking their blessings and love, too. I taste the salty cured sausage and transport to the warmth and laughter of my father's kitchen as he prepares linguica at every family gathering; it's hard to come by linguica in New Jersey so Dad hoards pounds of it in his freezer. He saves it only for special occasions, but I can find it every time I go to the market in New England.

Finally, I pour a little extra red wine in the soup and inhale as the alcohol cooks off. One of our favorite things to do together, my friend and me, is try new restaurants and enjoy good wine and food. And we laugh, oh we laugh.

I love to cook but don't do it often enough. Not like this, anyway. True cooking is an act of love that my family generally takes for granted. They turn up their noses at most of the new dishes I offer, so I tend to get into a rut, preparing only the stuff I know they'll eat gladly. Cooking Trader Joe's mahi mahi burgers or stir-fried chicken is not fulfilling, though. It fills our bellies but not our hearts. This soup is really the only tangible thing I can do for my friend this week. I can't take away her tumor, but I can peel and cube and sautee and stir, measuring carefully but tweaking here and there to add richness and complexity. I hope this soup warms my friend's belly and makes her smile. More than anything, I hope it fills her with the love and healing I've poured into it ... along with the extra wine.