A Back Door Friend

My mother had a sweet, funny neighbor named Theresa who’d regularly cross the yard and enter our house through the back door calling “Ro!” in a singsong voice. They’d sit at the kitchen table and talk, whisper, and laugh for hours over several cups of coffee and a few cigarettes. Occasionally, I’d see Theresa pound her fist and drop her head on the table in a fit of giggles. I’d get a snack and leave, hoping to have a rich friendship like theirs someday.

When I became their age, my neighbor Ellen might be outside first waiting for me in her driveway across the street. For 22 years we regularly walked a three-mile loop around the neighborhood. In every season we hoofed it side by side, bundled in winter gear, carrying an umbrella, or wearing shorts, a favorite t-shirt, and baseball cap.

As a self-appointed beautification committee, we decided which house needed painting or a new roof and whose plantings looked lovely. We consulted each other on our own home improvement projects. What color should she paint her front door? Which curtain rods looked better in my master bedroom?

Topics of conversation marked life phases: careers, growing children, the school system, menopause, retirement, and caring for aging parents.

I saw Ellen teary-eyed when her son left for college, shared her joy planning his wedding, and gushed over photos of her adorable granddaughter. Ellen cheered for my two daughters, too. She rejoiced in all their accomplishments, attending graduations and visiting first apartments. She particularly delighted in their fashions. She’d jog over when spotting them emerge from the car or leave the house all dressed up and give her signature “Darling!”

When my elder daughter’s delicate high school years coincided with my mother’s failing health and my stress level rose to an all-time high, Ellen was there. My daughter would cross the street and soon I’d see the light on in Ellen’s living room. Ellen, a retired high school principal, patiently listened to and counseled her. I never resented this. Rather, I was grateful to have Ellen part of my village, helping my daughter cope through rough waters.

She became a second mother. One tender time that stays with me occurred after my mother died. Ellen helped both teenagers pack for the funeral while I was away in New Jersey planning it. A week later she hosted my family for Thanksgiving dinner when I was still numb. Recently, Ellen comforted me while I sobbed on her couch during my father’s final days.

Besides stories about our children and parents, we related tales about our fun-loving and sometimes annoying husbands and siblings. She’d make a witty remark and I’d stop in my tracks, bend over in laughter, and slap my thighs.

After three miles, we’d go for coffee, taking turns driving to a local café. There, sweaty and exuberant, we’d gab for another hour.

Back home, I’d see Ellen adorn her front door with seasonal wreaths, a Halloween witch, and winter skater boy. Whenever on vacation, we’d collect each other’s mail and newspapers and retrieve box deliveries.

I knew Ellen was home when I saw the outline of her Toyota through the windows on the side of the garage. Then I’d frequently go over with a batch of soup, cookies, or leftovers. Ellen didn’t cook much. In her youth, she swam competitively and played tennis. I grew up with a dust rag in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other.

Last year Ellen told me she was moving. She and her husband wanted one-story living and were done with lawn care. It pained me to see the “Sold” sign on their front lawn.

I miss waving to my good friend. I miss seeing her car pull in and out of the driveway. Mostly, I miss our walks and hearing her call my name when coming through the back door to chat.

My College Reunion

On the second page of my college yearbook, a classmate stands in front of the Villanova University sign with his arms raised. The caption reads, “We Are the Champions!” In 1979, Freddie Mercury belted out the anthem in defiant confidence as my friends and I danced and celebrated our final days on campus.

We didn’t know what was in store for us as we headed out in different directions from the revered campus. We didn’t know we’d become champions and leaders in business, education, healthcare, government, and the law. We built careers on our high-quality education and promised to lead lives on faith-based ideals.

At our recent 40-year reunion, one friend put it simply: “We still have the same personalities as we did when we were in college.”

Thank you Villanova for paving the way to lifelong learning and lifelong friendships.

Hopeful graduates in 1979
Reuniting at Villanova 40 years later

IGNITE CHANGE. GO NOVA.

A Sea of Poetry

My mother gave my daughters The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis when they were in their early teen years. She sought to inspire them with beautiful words that would lift their spirit.

Choose a collection of poetry that will enlighten you during National Poetry Month because April is the season of new beginnings.

Sea Joy

by Jacqueline Bouvier (1939)

When I go down by the sandy shore
I can think of nothing I want more
Than to live by the booming blue sea
As the seagulls flutter round about me

I can run about–when the tide is out
With the wind and the sand and the sea all about
And the seagulls are swirling and diving for fish
Oh–to live by the sea is my only wish.

 

Photo: Chatham, MA

Every Family Has A Story: Lively Book Club Meeting

I could feel the camaraderie among the women who invited me to their book club meeting last week to discuss Jimmy and Me, A Sister’s Memoir.

Their warm reception for my personal story made me feel deep gratitude. Before I sat down, some said they felt they already knew me.

One woman surprised me when she said she was familiar with the arcane therapeutic exercise known as patterning described in chapter two. Another said she frequently related to the loss of childhood I experienced because she lost her mother at age 10 and had to care for six younger siblings. Several women nostalgically remarked about the 1960-70s culture referenced in the book.

We shared laughs and many head nods of familiarity about our family members. These caring, intelligent women reminded me why I wrote the book: because every family has a story. You will find a way to relate, too.

Invite me to your book club. Contact me to arrange a date and I’ll attend personally or via FaceTime.

Top 10 Books of 2018

Historical fiction, literary fiction, and nonfiction are still the books I enjoy most.

If you liked All the Light We Cannot See (one of my all-time favorites), you will like:

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure (now another all-time favorite)
and
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. The author of The Nightingale delivers another compelling story with a strong female protagonist.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. A gripping family saga about China/Korea relations in the early 1900s.

Published a long time ago, Pat Conroy’s
The Prince of Tides
and
The Water Is Wide
Having visited the low country of South Carolina made these stories vivid.

Educated by Tara Westover. Any memoir about a woman overcoming odds gets my vote.

Eunice by Eileen McNamara. I met the author at a local library where she signed my copy about this pioneering Kennedy.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Quirky and fun with a twist at the end.

Morningstar by Ann Hood. I related to this easy read about classic books that influenced the novelist.

What was your favorite book this year?