Saturday, May 9, 2015

The House That Built Me

A few months ago, my traveling sister and her daughter were on the road and stopped at our childhood home in Ohio where our parents lived from 1966 to 2007. The current owners let my sister and niece in and chatted with them. Maureen captured the conversation.

"We are re-doing the basement," said the owner. "Come downstairs, I have to show you something." They had pulled off the paneling to reveal painted flowers on the plywood. He pried the piece of flowered plywood off the side of the basement stairs, "you should have this, a piece of Arundel." A text of the picture of the flowers arrived in my phone as Maureen tried to find the artist. Without skipping a beat, I texted back to claim it. The artwork was mine from that flowery time in the 1970s.

My sister and niece thanked the owners as they left, and he said, "so many people tell me, 'you live in the McCarthy house!', and proceed to tell me what a great guy - and a character - Jack McCarthy was."

It makes me pause and reflect on what makes a house become a “McCarthy House” -  what does it take for any house to earn the name of its former resident and maintain that name years later? And even though I have wonderful memories of life inside that house, it is how the owners lived their life outside of that house that brought it fame. Clearly, my dad was one of a kind. He worked, he coached, he taught, he organized adventures, he danced, he sang, he joked, he made friends easily, he read, he made killer whiskey sours, he shared his intellect without ego, he ran outstanding all-night-parties for his high school seniors, he told stories (then told them again), he beat everyone at Trivial Pursuit (and every other game I can think of) while making it outrageously entertaining for everyone, he adapted to change, he showed up, and he loved all of us, especially my mom.

They were a quietly astounding pair – met in their high school years, went to college far apart, married a year or two after separate grad schools, raised four girls, intertwined with their communities on countless levels, gave their time and talents to people and organizations that needed them, inspired us to do well and do good and always had time to listen like you were the only one in the room. And as I watched my mom gracefully slip off her wedding band and place it on the urn that holds his ashes, before it was placed in its niche, I remembered for the umpteenth time that most people never have what they had. And that I am the person I am because I lived it with them.

So of course the house didn’t build me. They did. But the house carries the spirit of the people who make it a home. And that home continues to be my “home”, my compass, my “where I’m from” even though I haven’t lived there for almost 30 years. My mom referenced an adage she had heard that a house becomes a home when it hosts the trifecta: a birth, a wedding, and a death. Our home hosted one birth, 2 living room weddings and was a home long before my dad passed away in it.

So I send a thank you to Mom for letting me paint on our walls and for loving the guy who made our house legendary.

And, a little music to round out the post: Miranda Lambert's, The House That Built Me

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lessons Learned and Reminders in 2014

What 30-year-old friendship looks like (with moonshine!)
The formative years are, well, formative: I had the good fortune to reconnect with my college friends, in person, for a girls’ weekend this year and the concentrated togetherness was a pure gift. What sums it up is how deep those bonds of friendship remain after all of these years. The same is true for my special group of high school friends. And as I watch my children in their formative years, I see how that bond is minted. Everything is so raw and exposed in our teens and twenties. Emotions are deeper and experiences, all of which are new, seem to be etched with a sharper point.  Even the music we listened to stays with us 30 years later; lyrics to songs from those years are crystal clear whereas my internet passwords are forgotten in weeks. The deep friendships we made then come back in a rush when we gather in a room or restaurant and find ourselves figuratively sprawled out in the dorm triple, laughing and remembering. But real life is all around us and, even though my friends and I live long distances apart, their joys are my joys and their losses are my own. With them, the highs are higher and the lows are more manageable.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: This reminder has been making itself known to me for many years. But this year was particularly convincing as adults in positions to evaluate my boys (i.e., school counselors) offered their opinions on my boys’ personalities. Not only do they get my cowlicks, fair skin, perfectionism (intermittently dispersed), demanding self-criticism (also not equally distributed), clicking jaw (1 out of 3), and under-weight status (with a vengeance), but now I’ve sat and listened to evaluations that sound like my own self-analysis. Hopefully all of the good stuff will outweigh the stuff I wish I could have kept out of the gene pool!

You can teach an old dog new tricks: I found myself presented with a challenge at work that was squarely outside of my comfort zone – to create animated videos for a marketing campaign to generate leads. I tried to pass the hot potato back to our graphic designer, but she was swamped. Under the eyes of a new boss, I realized it was sink or swim. So I dove in and what began as 3 little videos turned into 6 after my reputation spread. Now it is up to 7 and growing. New software learned and new right hemisphere brain functionality discovered and my little videos supported the campaign and have ended up on the new corporate website unveiled this week. As an observer, I also “watched” from afar as my aunt in DC (who is in no way an “old dog”, but she made a brave change in her life) made the huge move from her house of 40 years to a condo that is more conducive to her and my uncle’s lifestyle. Those passageways through dark hallways imprinted in memory after so many early mornings and late night checks on the kids, that familiar route to the grocery store and Metro stop, that same parking spot, the comforting sounds of each hinge squeak and floorboard creak, the urban identity embraced and emboldened in a changing world, the smells and living embedded in memory, all lovingly handed off to a new young family with the hope that it will be for them the comfort zone, the family hub, and shelter in storms that it was for my extended family.

Laughter is the best medicine: Sometimes it is just a table cloth covering a cracked and damaged table. Other times the laughter actually caulks and mends the cracks. Sometimes the covering is good enough, for the moment. Laughter is a godsend in the teen-raising world, helping to not take myself or the minor troubles that arise too seriously. Recognizing the minor from the major troubles is another whole story. If laughter were as quick as suppressed grief, I’d be in much better shape to counter the stubbornly strong and unpredictable hold that grief has on me, pulling the tablecloth off way too often for my liking. But I work toward the constant goal of living in the moment and face life with a smile. At the end of the day, laughter is a survival skill. And I was groomed all my life to love to laugh. So if it is all that is left. Then maybe laughter is enough.