A Nudge From Above to Give Again

Thanks to all the toy collections around town and the Facebook power of Elizabeth Gilbert; I was moved to help raise money to aid the refugees through her organization, The Compassion Collective. Suddenly, I stopped feeling sorry for myself....this third Christmas without my husband. Here's why.

He surprised us every Christmas with thoughtful, unexpected gifts...perfectly suited to our needs or desires. But like many men, he was hard to buy for. He didn't want anything; quietly tolerating the usual new shirt, book, and kitchen gadgets each year. His Christmas Morning magic was watching the rest of us open and exclaim over our presents! I never realized how much pleasure he got sharing and giving until I clicked submit and realized how often he'd done this.

 He always did it and did it well! He gave to friends who were raising money by riding, running or triathloning for leukemia, heart disease and diabetes research. He donated annually to Western Michigan University, the Salvation Army and Empty Stocking Fund, and to local police, firemen and school fundraisers.

One of his favorite things this time of year was Toys for Tots. He'd watch for coupons and comb clearance racks for decent toys and games...."not junk." He'd buy bags full at the after-Christmas sales for the following year. He loved showing me what he'd picked out for boys, for girls, for various ages. A few times I raided these bags needing a last minute something for the grandkids.

Now I'm taking over his joy in helping others....his generosity and care in making a difference for  those less fortunate. I haven't got his passion yet, but I know he'd be proud that I stepped up and contributed to the most pressing world need right now...helping the refugees.
We were both history majors with a strong sense of family. His dad was an immigrant welcomed to a new country as soon as he stepped foot on Ellis Island; my dad was hidden by French townspeople for 70 days during WWII. Whenever I'd complain about hurting our budget, he'd say "it's what we do, Joan....give back, pay forward."

And there-in lies my peace. Paying forward what someone, somewhere did for our families once upon a time....do onto others. Miss you, sweetheart. Thank you for reminding me to carry on. 

Thanks for the Memories

April, 1965. It was my 21st Birthday and I couldn't wait to join my college newspaper pals at the bar just off campus. Our editor bowed out, saying he'd rather see the basketball game.....but he'd take a rain check. Fast forward a few weeks and yes! he invited me for a drink at the Colony Room attached to Wayside Lanes. Here they served drinks on white table cloths; not the usual grab-your-own-beer in the bowling alley.
Thus was our first date....leading to marriage the following summer. But this is about Wayside. 

Re-imagined, renovated and enlarged through the years, Wayside West closed it's doors forever October 25, 2015.
Wayside has been a Kalamazoo icon; run by the same family for over 50 years.  Sure, there are negative comments and naysayers that say good riddance. But rather than focus on the whys; most folks over the age of 45 recall it with fond memories and nostalgia. At least that was the scene as the countdown began last Sunday. Still within walking distance of Western Michigan University, there wasn't a young college kid anywhere. Only couples my age, groups of guys my son's age. All were telling their story.

In the late 70's/early 80's, Wayside became all shiny, flashy neon....billing itself as a Dance Club with live bands, Barcaloungers, a pool room, video games and eventually; big screen TVs.
We hired babysitters, met our pals and danced the night away. It was a younger crowd...but we all kept going anyway.
We moved away a couple times, but visits back to see family and friends included lunch, dinner or a drink at Wayside.

By the 90's, it lost it's dance magic, but morphed into a sports bar with TV's everywhere and smaller, intimate sitting areas for singles. Great food was always a given through the years. Hot sub sandwiches, pizza, French dip and more recently, smaller portioned appetizers to share.
It became the lunch time hangout for area fire and police officers; earning Wayside the nickname, Station 8. This was a place where they knew your name. The long time owners and wait staff became family. Both our kids were in college by now and yep....they hung out here too! Everyone called it 'their place.' All you had to say was "I'll be in town, let's meet!" No need to say where. 

As the years went by, society became trend conscious and breweries and ale houses quickly rose, Wayside reinvented itself once again with 64 Taps on the marquee.  There were daily specials on tap and crowds continued to gather for big game weekends; but the venue was not only aging, it had become too big for today's population who prefer cozy pub crawls and brewery visits.

Retired but still coming back to Kalamazoo several times a year, we'd make a point to eat here. Drink....not so much. Even in the middle of the day, middle of winter, there'd still be familiar faces.When my husband passed away a few years ago, we held a service here in town. Afterward, we honored him by going to Wayside with our extended family. So many of us; we took over the top floor!

My son and his family moved back to Kalamazoo this summer, and I followed soon after. Since he and his wife had their first date here also, Wayside became our go-to celebration place. We cheered our arrivals when we got to town!  We celebrated each of us getting a job! When they closed on their new house, we were here. When I finally settled in my new home....off to Wayside. And then suddenly....with only 24 hours notice to both the public and staff....the doors were closing for good! Sold to a developer who will likely raze the building and lease space in a new one.

Sad time for us older folks.....how can a building cause grief? How can there be so many memories in one place? We'll always have these memories...they're in our hearts. 
But it was a painful weekend as we paid our respects both days. I had a Margarita at 2:00 in the afternoon and chomped down pizza as I shared stories with the fellow next to me at the bar. He said. "so sad, I've been coming here for 42 years!" to which I replied, "I've been coming for 50!  " Well, you're older than I am" he said as we laughed through our tears. My son was right there with me, reminiscing and telling me tales from his days on campus I'd never heard before! My daughter sent texts remembering her Wayside happy hours; pleased that we were here to say goodbye.

It felt good to be a part of the closing. It was comforting....having that last drink. Hearing other people share their memories and funny stories. There was a connection, a feeling that we'd been part of something wonderful. We truly had....Cheers!


Stuck in Transition

Diving off the high board. That's the metaphor my pals use to encourage me to take bigger and bigger steps; to feel confident and capable as a single seventy-something starting anew.
I'm doing well....diving in, leaps of faith, the occasional hop, skip and a jump!

Here's my list so far:
Survived sudden widowhood
Learned to live alone without the lights on all night
Asked questions, researched; figured out how to make my own decisions
Became a farm to table advocate (easy way out as I've never cooked)
Ventured into dating...sorta
Planned and visited NYC with my granddaughter, a dude ranch with my grandson
Spent the past few Christmas Eves with my kids....reversing family tradition
Grew as a writer
Sold my house
Relocated back to my home state

Now....I'm stuck in transition. Here I am back in Michigan's lake country staying with friends, relatives and sometimes, at my favorite Best Western. I've got my Honda Pilot and khaki bag filled with everything I need and my furnishings in storage and I've become a wanderer!
It takes time to find the right place to settle. It takes time and money to make it happen. It takes time and new brain activity to grasp financial planning, rental agreements, different state laws....all good to know. I can't decide. I don't spend a dime. I ask, listen and learn.....but I just don't want to dive or jump in right now.

I've felt so strong and ready to move forward. I needed something new and different. Everything has fallen into place beautifully. My son's family moved back here also; they're happily employed with a darling house and two teens ready to start a new school. I've reconnected with old friends, have part-time work in the schools and am finally debt free! My fitness level has increased with nature trails, bike paths and kayaking nearby. Every time I drive through town, I'm reminded that so much of who I am is based on coming from here!

Am I getting too comfortable living with trial-sized everything? Counting the number of folks who still ask me to come stay? It seems half the time I'm clueless and half the time I'm taking a stand against responsibility. I was dependent on my husband for so many years; learning to do for myself and become confident gave me great peace and faith. I've gotten myself this far.....maybe it's just a Time Out. Maybe patience and grace take it from here.

My days feel open and content. I meet pals for lunch, catch up on shows, ride bikes with my granddaughters and....like now, write again. I want to settle with my comfy chair and scrapbooks; a place for my own hair dryer and bed and clothes hanging in a closet. I learned to be proactive, to go for it and make things happen. But now, it seems I'm waiting for something to grab me as I drive through condo and townhouse communities. Enter patience...I'm okay with this time out. I'm okay living like a gypsy girl skipping here and there... listening for that place to call my name.

Familiarity Means Comfort When Traveling

I like familiarity and dependable places when I travel....which I've done a lot of over the years for business and pleasure. I visit California and Michigan frequently; so I'm happy to know front desk staff whom I can call and just say "I'm coming" when I need to book a room. They have my information, reward numbers, credit card and preferences...and honor my loyalty with low rates and room choices.

There's more....the Ventura Airport Shuttle at LAX has delivered me safely for ten years and I'm delighted when I have the same drivers time after time. James refers to the women aboard as M'lady and usually prefers the Pacific Coast Highway route over the freeways. The Budget Rental Car facility at Detroit Metro Airport also has regular shuttle drivers who ask about a family member or if I want a red SUV again. Imagine....big city airports, thousand of people coming and going daily and shuttle drivers recalling your background!  If you're a people person....this is what you do; dedicated workers who enjoy their jobs.

I visit Ventura's Pierpont Beach area, staying 3-4 times a year at the Marriott Beach Resort Hotel.
Most of the staff have been in place for a decade; same housekeepers, restaurant servers and managers. My favorite thing about this hotel? We could ride our bikes right into the hotel and into our room! I can ride for miles along the promenade to connecting parks and beaches; or go in the opposite direction to eat and browse at the harbor shops. There's an outdoor pool where our granddaughters and I can order drinks and snacks, a larger-than-usual workout room and the full-service Pacifico Restaurant and Lounge. We've memorized menu favorites over the years, and often one of our server 'friends' knows just what we'd like. If it's the same chef at breakfast time; he sees me coming....'aha' the woman who likes a plain omelet, well done with no salt!

In Detroit, I rent a car and head across the state to my hometown..."Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!" Here's where we went to college, married, found our first jobs and had both our kids...it's home. For as far back as I can remember, we've loved the Best Western Inn and Suites on the west side of town. Roomy space for bringing along a few grandkids; each room has a pull-out sofa in addition to two queens or a king. Some rooms  have a closed-door bedroom for privacy or early-to-bedders and a front room that holds the television, sofa and small kitchen area. This location is currently undergoing room renovations and upgrades; I peeked into a few and was impressed; the workmen have gone down to bare bones and are completely redoing each one.

I consider the staff here good friends. My usual housekeeper is Sue, always sweet and efficient. Numerous times she's tracked me down to return items I left behind; one time an armload of hanging clothes! Luckily I was still in the comfy lobby waiting for a ride. Another time it was my paperback book; and last month, she turned in my old worn pajama bottoms to lost-and-found. I retrieved them the next day a bit embarrassed; but I looooove these flowered, baggy sleepers.

The front desk folks are the best. Manager Steve and Assistant Manager Debra are warm and approachable...you can tell they enjoy this place too! Debra has heard my life story, met my husband and kids and enjoys reading my blog. Steve does what we principals call walkabouts...checking the TV volume, business center, stairwells, pool area and nooks and crannies throughout the building.  He stops and engages with everyone large, small and furry and readily offers solutions for any concerns. The friendly ladies who prepare breakfast in the mornings keep it well stocked and attractive. I bypass the hot meals for freshly cut fruit and yogurt....but indulge in half and half for my coffee and an occasional sweet roll sometimes! This is my home away from home; this feels like family.

These are just two of the favorites places I recommend to folks every chance I get. There's also the Fairfield Inn in Livonia, Michigan.....near Laurel Park Mall where I can meet girlfriends.  All the years I've stayed there...sometimes just once a year...I always love visiting with Sharon; the one in charge of breakfast! She's been there through numerous renovations and managements! How comforting to come down for coffee and see her familiar face.

There have been great stays at larger hotels around the country; The Row Hotel in NYC's theater district, the Loews Hotel (formerly the Graves 601) across from the ballpark in Minneapolis, the Hyatt Regency along the river in downtown Chicago.....even the Holiday Inn in the Rocks section of Sydney, Australia. These were one-time visits but memorable experiences that left good impressions.

If you're attending business workshops or conferences, you'll stay at a designated place that's usually pretty cool! But on your own, research the vast variety, read the small print and seek suggestions from friends. I also call and talk to the concierge or front desk manager before I decide. These folks have local knowledge about safety, walkability and current events that may interest you. My stay in New York last fall began with a hug from a new friend....the handsome concierge who recalled chatting with me!
 I have to say it feels really good when traveling to arrive at your destination where someone offers welcoming arms and are genuinely glad to see you again. Thank you dear friends.

Why I Got Rid of My Husband's Things

After I made the decision to sell the house; I began looking at everything as a keeper or a give-away.
Most of my things will be sold or donated and when I'm relocated, I'll get whatever I need for a new beginning. But three things that mostly belonged to my husband are now gone...and here's why.

Even though he's deceased, I still ask his opinion and sure enough, he always guides me in making good choices. His favorite things are all in loving new places making someone else happy! This morning it was....

Our Cat:

Burney now lives with my sister. I took him down the road to her large, rambling house in a wooded lot. He's been an indoor cat ...but she'll let him roam outside as soon as he's comfortable with her and his aging canine cousin.
 I've never been a pet person. I learned to care about cats from my husband.....almost 50 married years with them in our lives. After our last one passed away, he decided one more cat was needed. He and Burney became best buds, but this black-and-white ball of fur quickly became mine as we both grieved in this lonely house. I'm thankful he snuggled with me on cold winter nights and entertained the kids by swiping and swaping toys, but now he'll have a much livelier life playing with a Golden Retriever and getting constant attention from my cat loving sister. Best of all, the grandkids can see both their favorite pets in one visit.

After a successful garage sale last month, I looked around and thought, how can I make this space hold two cars again? Make it more appealing for potential buyers?

The Workbench:

My son-in-law's parents recently moved from their home a few states away to our neck of the woods here in the south. One thing his father still needed? A workbench! This 18 year old make-it/fix-it/store-it spot was my husband's go-to place for everything. Paint stained and nicked from wayward saws, it was often cluttered with groceries, balls and just-in-case junk until it was cleared and cleaned again. The cupboards held seasonal things and the pegboard made it handy to grab tools while reaching across my big SUV. We stored our Holiday decoration containers underneath; but in it's new home.....the homemade workbench now has spiffy new shelves to hold garage treasures. My kids are certain their Dad is smiling down on his old friend getting a new lease on life!

The Family Painting:

First to go was this original oil painting from the early 1900's. It hung on the wall of the lake house where he grew up; painted by an ancestor and already decades old when we married. We had several pieces of Oliver Chaffee and his wife, Ada Gilmore's work. The only one that mattered was this nautical scene of the coastal town in Collioure, France. It was perfect for our years living on inland lakes, then near the beach on the Atlantic.
 Hanging alongside our big screened TV, I found myself staring at it one night instead of the shows I watched to take my mind off money worries. Do the kids and I still want it? Was there a buyer or museum that would appreciate this valuable piece of art? Researching potential interest, I found it was either the famed Provincetown art colony or our hometown in Michigan...also Ada's hometown! I'm delighted it's now in good hands and I can visit it when I'm settled back home.

Do you sense the timing? The positive outcomes? How my husband's help from above made everything work out for the best? I'm becoming stronger and more confident I know, but still....it's good to know he has my back from afar.

Selling and Saying Goodbye

The sign went up today.
Eighteen years of life well-lived is for sale.
An empty-nest ranch on a quiet cul-de-sac grabbed us at the first drive-by.
Within the first year, our daughter graduated college and came to stay awhile.
A few months later, our son and his family moved in with our first grandchild.
Loving and living and laughing; we made it work.

In the blink of an eye, along came another baby girl and another son through marriage!
Our kids found their own homes; and it was just us again....
To build a garden wall, plant flower beds, design and construct a deck
Full time jobs didn't keep us from babysitting, having sleepovers and spoiling our granddaughters.
Swim, bike ride, carnivals, fairs and Disneyworld...all through the eyes of children again.
We were having the time of our lives.

Missteps and health hiccups finally caught up with us, but again we made it work.
Working from home in his wheelchair, then a walker and finally a cane....
Grandpa orchestrated and oversaw the house renovation project.
Wood floors, new appliances, added windows, French doors, Berber carpet.
As his health and mobility improved, we did a switcheroo....
He took over the household chores and I the yard work.
Great fun with our grandson running around most days!

Just when we thought it couldn't be a more wonderful life,
The twins came along! Retirement quickly followed and now....
It truly was a Grandma and Grandpa house with double the stuff and double the fun!
Sandboxes and slides, swim gear and skateboards filled the garage.
Portable cribs in the kid's room, games and books in the den and lap trays for those
Breakfast in Bed mornings with grandpa's famous pancakes.

All five grandkids had pals in the neighborhood.
The twins lost their fear of dogs from the gentle shelties who lived next door.
The man across the street lent a hand for trimming too-high hedges.
Every Halloween, there we were; sitting out front. In costumes. With gin and tonics.
Catching up with neighbors while we passed out goodies was the highlight of fall.
Our yard-decorated front, back and side; had the most witches, scarecrows and ghosts
Thanks to Grandpa's bargain shopping!

Same at Christmas time. Oh, how many freezing Decembers we took turns on the ladder,
Putting up colored lights and hanging wreaths;
Blinking Santas and snowmen, polar bears and a family of ducks. The after-holiday-clearance
Stuff was all right here in our beautiful yard. "The more the merrier the holiday," he'd say.
And inside was no different.
Over the years we acquired quite a collection of musical decorations;
Imagine them all playing at once!

From the time they were little, the kiddos planted garden flowers and veggies every year.
We called them our Gardenyardigans. Carrots and strawberries were a favorite.
And the flowers; learning to cut and gather throughout the spring and summer is such joy.
We helped them hunt for bug and leaf specimens; and watched as they ran and shrieked
Catching fireflies on a warm June night.
With the stone wall and the oversized deck, there isn't much lawn to play on.....but there's a hill!
Great for coming down in winter snow; slippery fun running down into the summer sprinkler.

No Christmas decorations this past year. No sitting outside at Halloween.
The kids are busy with sports and clubs now and have all become great swimmers.
Sleepovers are in the big bed now, and it's donuts for breakfast, not pancakes.
It's become a Grandma-only house; not the same. Just not the same without him.
Both the inside and the outdoors have lost something;
The other side of shared work, accomplishment, pride, enjoyment and love for this house.
A brand new place 18 years ago that became a lived-in home filled with happiness.

Soon, the time to say goodbye will be here.
Time for this ranch to welcome another family to live and laugh.
 If I could wrap my arms around this house;
I'd thank it for letting us become grandparents, letting us grow old together,
And eventually, for giving me the strength in it's soul to grow peace in mine;
Giving us both hope for a new future.

Our Family Tree

The Measure Wall 


Starting a New Beginning

Norman Vincent Peale wrote about dealing with life's troubles. In an old piece I came across, he suggests we may unknowingly like our trouble..."a convenient alibi for failings and shortcomings." In my case, I blamed my writer's block on grief and melancholy...I'd done enough sad themes about becoming a widow and poor me!  But what really held me back was my fear of sharing that I was happy again. I was trying to begin a new life. "The spirit of man enables him to surmount his sorrows," Peale stated, telling me it was okay.

I focus on moving forward; learning to live on my own while keeping my husband’s light burning. I still deal with grief and loneliness at times. I feel the pain all over again when friends lose a spouse. The heaviness holds me down sometimes and it wears me out trying to push it away. But I am grateful for each day that I'm here and healthy. I can make decisions now. I can laugh and have fun and enjoy things even though I lost a part of myself. Underneath the sadness is hope, and hope begets curiosity and strength.

 It's strange feeling content and steady, but lost and wobbly at the same time. Does it ever go away? Should it? I like this kind of vulnerability. It keeps me balanced: two steps forward selling my house, traveling, thinking about another man; and then one step back with memories and tears and longing for my husband's touch. It works in perfect rhythm most days, until I trip and step back too many times. Just like on Dancing with the Stars....I have to stop whining and try again the choreography of life’s never-ending starts.

All my life I had beginnings, but the path was laid before me pretty much. College, dorm life and degrees came with plans and I conquered them all. Marriage was the best beginning because it came with a partner! Together we figured it out through 47 years of living, raising kids, cross country moves, new jobs, homes....loving and learning and laughing all the way. We welcomed grandparenting with open arms; left alone with the first newborn, we stared at each other in awe. How did we get here? Are we ready, willing and able? We learned to tag team and face this new beginning hand-in-hand; another granddaughter, then a grandson!  By the time the twins arrived, we were having the time of our lives! We loved each other even more....not because we'd been so beautifully rewarded for raising two kids, but because we'd reached old age while we were still young and fun and on board with a fast-changing world.

There was even a plan for death. Funeral arrangements and wills and bundles of red tape are all explained in solemn binders. People magically appeared to take my hand and guide my way. But then it's over. It's done. And days and weeks turned into months and seasons and I floated along automatically; not quite here, but functioning. Time went by, but I was still at the beginning.

There are no rules for widowhood. No right or wrong for dining or traveling or living alone; no plan for finding friendship, companionship. Yes, there are websites and what we used to call mixers, but that’s not my style. Seventy, senior and single seeks comfortable and understanding--another wounded soul on this same journey wondering what the hell do we do now.  

Our grandkids miss Grandpa too, so I'm his cheerleader now!  I'm the go-to grandparent for fun and games, sleepovers, skating, shopping. I hope they realize how much I need them too, how they've saved my soul and given me the courage to begin from scratch.  
Should I stay or should I go was the big question. I wanted a fresh place, a new environment and an old village if you will. I'm blessed to have many villages and tribes of pals who welcomed me with open arms. I knew staying there was not for me...I wanted to go and do and be! My fab five are growing up now. They had some heavy lifting, figuratively and literally, in helping me prepare to sell. Not one of them said “don’t go, grandma, we’ll miss you"...they couldn't wait to visit wherever I landed.
It took a while to be sure of my decision to move. It came with a sense of peacefulness. "Peace means you are ready and doing the right thing," my oldest granddaughter assured me. Each closet or shelf or drawer I opened was a peek into the past. The old woven basket I've kept filled with old photos was absolutely my life in a box!’Finding a place to relocate was not easy either. It felt like being blind and wide-eyed at the same time as I considered different states, different communities.  

 Besides peace and strength, I had faith in God’s plan and faith in myself. You too, will realize someday that you are stronger and ready for change, big or small. You’ll learn it's okay to laugh while sadness floats inside; to tuck the past safely in your pocket, forget about 'right' rules and look ahead to something new. “It’s hard to start again this far along” as the song written by Mary Gauthier goes. “Brick by brick, the letting go, as you walk away from everything you know.”  I can tell you this….beginnings also bring anticipation. Every new start I've made helped build the chapters of my life and now I've started another.

It's That ValenTime

He gave me flowers, candy and sometimes jewelry most years. His last year he brought me coffee in bed with this card and mini-Valentine cupcakes! A few months later, he got Easter cupcakes for my spring Birthday....all sale specials I'm sure! This is always a tough one for me and many dear friends who have lost their spouses after a lifetime together. My heart goes out to them as I feel what they feel and think what they think when awakening each morning and when they turn off the lights at night. Empty chairs and an empty table, empty bed.....empty house. 

No one to exclaim "what the hell" about the candidate circus or share my latest accomplishment in Zumba. No one who asks how your appointment went or pick up the pen you just dropped or grab you a napkin. Two months after he died, another widow told me it gets both harder and easier. After seven months, I wrote about becoming a widow on my blog; feeling all strong and knowy about the widow part......but including a disclaimer that I no longer had an editor in residence. The first year anniversary went okay as friends and family invited me for lunches and dinners and the grandkids telling Grandpa stories. I can do this, I thought....thinking I'd passed some kind of test or magic number or milestone. It seemed I'd reached the 'gets easier' phase. And then came the fall/winter holiday times. I put on a smiley face and decorated with my grandchildren, but there's no fun in it alone; 'cause they eventually go home. And you're on your lonesome own again. So yeah....that is one of the  'harder' times for sure.

 I'm a positive thinker, practice gratefulness, thank the sun for shining and turn the oldies' station loud to get myself turned forward....and it works most of the time. But it's NOT true that time heals.....it's been almost six years and I miss him more than ever! 
The thing about LOVE is that someone has to go first and someone has to stay behind. The thing about FOREVER is that it really does keep going in our hearts....filling up with memories of all our togetherness. He knows this and gives me what I need.....like this morning; I woke up thinking "I'm better than I think I am!" I'm better than I think in lots of ways. His Valentine gift for me this year! So, dear lonely friends, please feel my hugs and my prayers for you. There are signs and messages surrounding you always that bring strength and comfort. Embrace the sadness and hard times, but please know that easier times WILL follow. Show your kids and grandkids sorrow... and show them happy!
 May everyone find some happy here and there this Valentine weekend.