The Water that Surrounds

This is my mom:

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She turns 70 today. This picture was taken back in the ’70s, and while many beautiful images have been captured of her over the years, this is one of my favorites, because it perfectly encapsulates her gentle, loving spirit. (Plus, she’s holding a kitten AND a puppy, so the cuteness level is unreal.)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve heard my peers speak with exasperation about how much they now look and sound like their mothers. But for me, those are my best moments. When I speak and hear my mother’s words, I know I’m on the right track. When I choose to face adversity with a calm, quiet dignity, I am channeling my mom. When I am at my most patient, thoughtful, and gracious, I look in the mirror and see her reflected.

DSC_0101Mom’s lesson on how to pose for pictures

If someone is woven into the very fabric of your being, how do you describe what she means to you? It’s like asking a fish to describe the water that surrounds it. My mom is in my voice, gestures, and actions. She’s there when I kick off my shoes the moment I enter the house, not due to a “no shoes in the house” rule, but to a general “no shoes in life” rule. She’s there whenever I catch myself standing in tree pose – her natural stance most of the time. She’s there when I make a little quip or silly face that causes kids to burst out laughing. She’s there when I’m able to soothe an anxious animal. She’s there when I send someone a cute card or little note just to lift their spirits.

(I’ve gotten dozens of these kinds of cards ⬆️ over the years, out of the blue. A sticky note with her signature smiley face is taped to my keyboard right now. By the time my wrist has rubbed the image away, I’m sure she’ll have sent another.)

But Mom isn’t only an incredibly creative and thoughtful card-sender and gift-giver (e.g., for our tiny beach wedding, she gave my husband and me flip-flops that left “Just Married” prints in the sand, and for my birthday this year, which is on 8/8, she sent an Anna’s 88 butterfly, which has 88 patterns on its wings). On a grander scale, she does an amazing job of accepting her kids and grandkids as we are, without guilt or pressure. She embraces our dreams, friends, interests, and choices without judgment. And the attachments that bloom from that kind of love are fierce and immeasurable.

20171124_150854This is what “I love my Grammy” looks like.

Mom’s role modeling is powerful, but delivered with a subtlety that makes her influence almost undetectable. I experienced this in the Grand Canyon, as we trekked up a steep trail to see Anasazi granaries on a brutally hot day. About halfway up, Mom sat on a rock and said, “I can’t do it.” I started to think, This doesn’t make sense; Mom would not say that, but my thoughts were cut short as she finished her sentence: “…without a break.” It occurred to me then that I couldn’t remember Mom ever specifically telling me never to give up, but her actions throughout my life had clearly sent that message. (Also, she made it to the top.)

Beyond all of that, my mom is hilarious. I once emailed her a photo I’d taken of a caterpillar eating a leaf and wrote that right after I’d snapped it, a gust of wind had whipped the leaf away. When I posted the picture online, she commented: All I can think of is the sad look on his little fuzzy face when the leaf blew away.  Years later, a friend posted a photo of me at a waterfall, and my expression was really angry for some reason. I commented Kelly glares at nature.  Mom replied: And nature cowers!

Currently, my parents are in Tanzania, celebrating their anniversary and Mom’s birthday with elephants, wildebeest, baboons, and zebras. Whenever they go on a trip, Mom sends her poor daughters horrible documents detailing what we’re supposed to do if they…ahem…”don’t come back.” We respond with the level of maturity one would expect from two women in their 40s: “I CAN’T SEE THIS MESSAGE LA LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!” The last time we replied to one of her “death emails” in this manner, Mom wrote back: “Ah, we’re in good hands!”

But the truth is I can’t think about a world that doesn’t include my parents. Such a thing would be, as the Sicilian oft repeated in The Princess Bride, inconceivable.

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So the plan for now is to remain like this:

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…and to treasure every moment, honor every milestone, and save every smiley face.

Happy birthday, Mom. You are so loved.

Dad Talks

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My parents celebrate their 50th anniversary today. When they got married in the summer of ’68, Dad was 25, and Mom was 3 days shy of her 20th birthday, which means this year brings other milestones as well: Dad’s 75th and Mom’s 70th. To honor their awesomeness, I’m going to write something about each of them. Dad was born first, so he gets Post of Honor #1.

Because I’ve been in the counseling field for almost 20 years, I tend to avoid things like talk radio, podcasts, and Ted Talks. The last thing I want to do outside of work is spend more time listening to people talking. But Dad’s talks are different. Like precious gems, they are both rare and valuable. The ones that stick out most in my memory are those that came during times of transition, usually right before a big move.

Dad Talk #1: On the night before I headed to college, Dad told me we needed to talk. He took me aside and said this: “At the place you’re going, there will be a lot of kids who are smarter than you and a lot who have more money than you. And I don’t want you to forget who you are.” His warning stuck with me, and each time my identity got derailed throughout the college years, his words helped me find the way back to myself.

Dad Talk #2: Six years later, when I made the decision to move from the East Coast to California, Dad sat me down for another talk. “All right, there’s something important I need you to know,” he began. Tears sprang to my eyes as I prepared for a heart-wrenching farewell speech, but what came next was this: “If you’re attacked by a mountain lion, you need to fight. You can’t play dead. It’s the same with black bears. Playing dead only works with grizzlies. Black bears and mountain lions will kill you, so you’ve got to fight.” I said, “Okay, Dad,” but what I thought was, If it comes down to hand-to-paw combat between me and a mountain lion, I will not win. I will be cat food. He did get a little more emotional after that. Once I’d agreed to fight off mountain lion attacks, he added, “I hope you don’t like it out there. But I know you’re going to love it.”

Dad Talk #3: Fast-forward fourteen years. When Dad caught wind of the fact that I was planning to move from Oregon to San Diego, I received a voicemail: “It’s your father. Call me.” Since his usual message was: “Kelly, call your mother,” I figured it was serious and called back right away. “Your sister tells me you’re thinking of moving back to California,” he said. Before I had a chance to respond, he continued, “Your nephew is moving to North Carolina, and he’ll need his aunt and uncle. It’s time for you to move back east. Your mother misses you.” The way I figure, if someone I love and respect gives me one stern directive every couple decades or so, I should probably follow it, so my husband and I packed up and moved across the country. That was five years ago. Now we have two little nephews, and it’s awesome to be a part of their lives.

Of course, Dad has taught me way more than what I gleaned from those three talks. He taught me to fish, shoot, play sports, face fears, be true to my word, appreciate the outdoors, keep an open mind, hold myself to a high standard, treat people with respect, and be an honest and genuine friend. He also taught me that vanity is stupid, which is an invaluable lesson. He once dreamt that he had a bald spot on the back of his head. Upon waking, he decided it was true, then retained the belief for an indeterminate period of time (weeks? months?) until he happened to mention his bald spot to Mom, who informed him that it didn’t exist. I just love the fact that he never checked.

DSC_0021.jpgSpeaking of hair, that hairy beast is ’90s me, fishing off the seawall with Dad

Many years ago, back in my mountain-lion-battling California days, I gave a training to a group of child advocates. At the end of the session, one of the trainees stayed behind to ask me some follow-up questions. He let me know he was a single dad raising two teenagers, and we chatted for a while about kids, families, and child rearing practices. Before he left, he asked if I was raised by both of my parents, and I told him I was. “Were you close to your dad?” he asked. I said I was and still am. “It shows,” he said with a smile. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Love you, Dad. Happy anniversary. ❤️