What feels like home to you?

We moved into the only house we’ve ever owned in May of 1998. Noah was 11 months old.

When I walked into this house, I immediately could imagine where the Christmas tree would go. With almost zero knowledge of what raising a family and nurturing a marriage would look like, I immediately felt like I would do it in these walls. In this 1880s Victorian farmhouse that sometimes feels like camping in the winter and always needs a handyman on speed dial.

This is the only home my 24YO knows and the only home my 21YO has ever had.

But I think that longevity is irrelevant to my thoughts today. Because the feeling of home can be created anywhere. And the feeling of “not home,” the same. Home is not the building. Home is the invitation. Home is the love. Home is the history, which can be moved from building to building with the toss of your grandmother’s quilt, baby and graduation pictures, and the yellow teapot you use when it’s cold.

If I were to guess, I would say I’ve been in the house I call my childhood home a dozen times since my mom died in the summer of 2016. My parents bought the house in 1976 and the muted, sometimes peeling Bicentennial wallpaper in the kitchen and dining room marks that.

Here are a few photos from my parents’ house: In the front yard just before our oldest moved to New York for college, my mom’s surprised face as Dad took her photo in the laundry room, my parents sitting in front of the fireplace (where all “formal” family photos are taken), all the cousins doing the same, and Mom with Noah in the Bicentennial kitchen with her wig during chemo. This is the home I remember. I loved going there.

My sister was six months old and I was 8 when we moved there. I started the fourth grade there, having left my best friend since kindergarten an hour away across Dallas. When I remember my years there, it is the comforting and loving space everyone deserves home to be.

It still felt like home on that Thursday morning I went the day after Mom died, too early for the amount of sleep I’d gotten. Dad and I sat in the always-too-dark living room (the front porch dad mostly finished kept the room warmer in the winter but dark year round), trying to decide where to bury Mom. We hadn’t had much time to think about it since her breast cancer came back three weeks ago in her liver. Three weeks isn’t enough time to learn, accept, and plan the death of your wife of almost 50 years or your mom of 49. But we did it at home.

It felt like home when my sister and I went a couple of months later to go through Mom’s things, Dad deciding it was time. We poked fun at her practical style as we layed all of her things on their bed. Piles to keep, piles to give away. I kept some brown pajama bottoms with white flowers, a North Dakota-warm pair of socks, a pair of earrings I’d given her, and a brown crocheted shawl with big white flowers I think Dad’s mom made her. Just three years before, Mom and I had gone through the same process — full of giggles and memories — at her mom’s trailer on the other side of town. I left Grandma’s house with another pair of earrings and a couple of tank tops I planned to sleep in at my home.

That day going through Mom’s things may have been the last time that house at the end of Robnett Road felt like home to me. It didn’t in 2018 when my sister got married there the day we dropped off our so-not-ready 18-year-old for college his first time around. My dad never invites us over anymore, yet we’re “welcome any time.” He doesn’t know how to “family” without Mom.

I was there yesterday, though. I intentionally stopped by to pick him up before we had lunch in town. The cats own the kitchen table where we used to have family meals. Right next to the table, a treadmill with cobwebs and dust further announce this is no place for family to gather anymore. I understand why Dad is the way he is. But I miss my childhood home.

My MIL making chocolate pies with
Noah & Sawyer at Thanksgiving

My 21YO left for college last Friday after spending a month at home. He’s in that weird time where he calls our house “home” and his college apartment “home.” I catch myself when I almost do it, editing myself to say “your apartment” or “New Orleans.” I’m not ready for home to be anywhere else for him. I do the same with my 24YO sometimes, calling his nearby apartment just that instead of “home.”

My MIL’s home of 50 years, the home my husband grew up in, is less than 10 minutes away from my Dad’s house. I always felt at home there. The invitation. The unlocked door. The favorite foods and Dr Peppers in the pantry. His brother and family next door would stop by when they saw our car parked in the drive. My husband and I dated in high school so my memories of the space span longer than our 25-year marriage.

It’s been almost a year since my MIL moved into a Dallas apartment to be closer to us, in the midst of the pandemic and having just finished a year of chemo for breast cancer. My husband lived with her during that time in that little white house he grew up in. While they still haven’t sold it 10 months later, packing up and moving was difficult for both of them. And while I missed my husband during those months of social distancing as we all protected her from our germs, what a gift that they spent those last months together in that house. Their home.

Here’s the miracle of home, though: Home is centered on the people who welcome you in. My MIL has created it that her little apartment. I thought it was just me, but my husband feels it, too. Every important vibe she created in that little white house has been recreated in a 900-square-foot apartment.

Home is the feeling. Yes, the stuff helps. Yes, the food brings it all together. But the fact that she really wants us there and loves us makes this space home.

The home of one of my best friends burned down last summer. I asked her if their condo in a hip area of Dallas felt like home when her boys were home for Christmas. “Absolutely,” she said. They did their normal traditions and they’ve done plenty of Christmases away from their house but with each other. The four of them in one place is home.

As my kids come and go — as “adult” kids do — I hope I have created that for them. I think I have. I want this home to be a soft place for them to land on a normal Tuesday or a chaotic Sunday. Because THIS is the way you stay connected as kids grow up.

Our home since 1998.

When I had babies, it was never jolting for us to travel or spend the night at my MIL’s house because they slept with us. They were home because we were their home. I think they can grow all the way up and have their adult lives and still feel that way about us on a very deep level.

Some homes have it. Some do not. There is no magic to the ingredients that create it, although love is among them. The invitation is fundamental. Fun family traditions and food seal the deal to me. Maybe “home” is really a verb. And maybe it’s the secret sauce to those families we all want to be — all up in each other’s business in the most loving and messy and healthy (usually) way.

Coming up on our 24th year in this house, I was right about it. But really, I was right about me. The house just gave me the canvas.

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What to keep and what to let go this Christmas

Off and on since we got our vaccines in the spring, I have wondered about COVID keeps — things I enjoyed about our weird year. I’ve wondered what I want to bring back (which is so many things) and what I want to let go (which is surprisingly also so many things).

The no-guilt permission to say no to anything. KEEP.

The cellular-level happiness at receiving a hug. KEEP.

The virtual cheese classes. KEEP.

This month has me thinking about this more than usual.

Last year, we celebrated Christmas and my MIL’s birthday, which is Christmas Eve, on the warmest and most sunny day of Christmas week, which happened to be Tuesday, Dec. 22. She had just finished months of chemo, surgery, and radiation for breast cancer.

Her hair was growing back a stunning shade of gray. We gathered on her porch to surprise her. She assumed we wouldn’t be able to celebrate at all because of COVID. But I knew warm December days were likely in Texas, so we made a plan based on the seven-day forecast and it all came together.

We wrapped gifts. Brought Sprinkles cupcakes. What usually gets scheduled a month before and takes a day or so of cleaning and cooking and shopping to pull together happened with a few texts and some sunshine.

On Christmas Eve, we gathered in my sister’s driveway. She had a fire pit, and we exchanged gifts in big bins to be opened in the safety of our own germ pool later. I hugged my nephew and his girlfriend for the first time in months because they’d had COVID over Thanksgiving. My oldest son didn’t go as I recall, Clyde was bubbled up with his mom (as he had been for the entire nine months), so Sawyer and I showed up with a trunk full of gifts. On the way home, we ordered Chili’s takeout.

On Christmas Day, we masked up and risked being together in the same room with Clyde and his mom. This is where the line between safety and happiness went gray. It was too cold for my MIL to be outside, so we had breakfast casserole and a fire in our living room. Later, we drove to see my Dad and opened presents with him on his back porch. He was annoyed because COVID was fake but he played along.

That night, I made a fancy dinner for the boys at home. How could it ever happen that it would be just the three of us for Christmas dinner? I loved every minute of it. Mushroom risotto, sautéed spinach, and beef tenderloin. We used the fancy glasses we’d bought in Venice just before COVID started. The boys declared it the best meal I’d ever made. And they watched a Mavs game together on the outside TV we bought them for Christmas, because outside life was the most important thing in 2020.

As I look back at the photos, it was a pretty perfect Christmas. Yes, Clyde had been social distancing from our family for far too long. Yes, although we knew vaccines were coming soon, we didn’t know how long it would be until we could get them. Yes, it was all very weird.

This year, things generally are falling into place as they always have. My niece is hosting Christmas Eve instead of me, so that’s different. My whole family may not be available on Christmas Day, but my dad and I hope some nieces and my nephew are. We have two new babies joining us this year. Things are flexible a year later … but not driveway-Chili’s-check-the-forecast-to-pick-a-date flexible.

Is there a happy space between 2019 and the years before it and 2020?

I love our traditions. I love to cook delicious food, put all my favorite Christmas decorations out, and buy the perfect gifts. But that Chili’s take-out burger with Sawyer was damn good.

I don’t have the answers today. But I’m looking for them. Maybe that’s what we do in 2021, as we get closer to normal. We look for the way forward, informed by what we’ve all been through.

Slimmed down, what made last year so special? Tricked up as usual, what makes a normal Christmas so special?

That’s what I’ll be thinking about this year, with the intention to keep some of what was good about the once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) experience of 2020. Maybe it was just all a limited-time offer. But maybe we can keep just a bit of it forever.

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Was Thanksgiving 2020 just a year ago?

When I look back at photos from last November, it almost looks like a movie I watched. One I know I’ve seen but I can’t remember the details (my husband will tell you this is a common occurrence). Then someone says one little thing that brings it all rushing back.

That little thing was my 24YO, reminiscing about how he smoked his first turkey last year.

YES! Thanksgiving 2020! I not only watched that movie. I starred in it.

My husband had been in quarantine with his mom for four months at this point. She was finishing up radiation after going through chemo and a lumpectomy for breast cancer. I was living here with my then 20YO, my 23YO, and the latter’s 22YO girlfriend.

I remember COVID numbers were high. There was talk of vaccines being available in December. We were in the thick of pandemic life and had decided to make a lovely outdoor space so we could safely see Clyde, his mom, and the rest of our family and friends.

I remember how seeing friends in the wild or in a planned, outdoor setting brought huge emotions.

I remember being thankful for warm Texas winters for the first time ever.

I remember Noah deciding to smoke that turkey if I’d wake up early with him to prep it.

I remember some things were as they always were, like my lemon meringue pies. They were my grandfather’s favorite so Mom always made them for holidays. They are also my Dad’s favorite so I do the same.

I remember almost being overwhelmed by all the details of organizing Thanksgiving mostly by myself, yet determined we could do it and keep three germ bubbles together yet separate. I was lacking my wingman. And as lovely as my three 20somethings could be, they were not my wingman.

I remember thinking through details like serving spoons and germs, ordering the bamboo plates and fall napkins from Amazon (I remember ALL THE AMAZON), creating three dining areas in our backyard to house each germ bubble.

I remember trying not to lose my shit when some family members weren’t taking the pandemic seriously and when my dad complained we weren’t “together” enough as I was bringing food to his table.

I remember organizing photos for Clyde’s family when we recreated the entire scene (this time with Tex-Mex takeout instead of a full homemade feast because I do have some loose idea of my limits) a few days later.

I remember the whole outdoor prep — new chairs, new outdoor heaters, a new bench, all the firewood, the three eating areas — being worth it when my MIL sat by our fire pit for hours that night and laughed with her grandkids.

I remember when I stayed up until 1 am and spent a small fortune buying those damn heaters a few weeks earlier.

I remember wondering if this would be the last Thanksgiving my MIL would be with us. She was so frail during her treatment. And breast cancer had already taken one mom away from me.

I remember pushing through every bit of all of this because I wanted us to all be together. Well, and what else did we have to do?

Yesterday, I went to the grocery store to buy all the food — a small miracle in and of itself that I didn’t do last year — for our two Thanksgiving meals and my college son’s visit home.

Today, said college son will fly in from New Orleans (because, unlike last year, kids are at college) and can see all his hometown friends without argument of who has antibodies and who doesn’t.

Tomorrow, he and I will make chocolates pies with my MIL, who is doing wonderfully and now lives eight minutes from us. She says we are making three pies: one for my husband’s family gathering, one for my family gathering, and one for her youngest grandson, because he loves pie and she’s missed him since August.

On Thursday, we will all be together on Thanksgiving with only the usual holiday fuss.

With pies. With our antibodies. Side by side at one table.

I hope I remember how ordinarily special all of it is.

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The empty chairs at Thanksgiving

The last time my mom was with us for Thanksgiving, in 2015, these things were true:

• Noah was home for the first time since starting college in Brooklyn. (Now he’s a 24-year-old college graduate with his own business.)

• Sawyer wasn’t old enough to drive. (Now he’s 21 and going to college in New Orleans.)

• Pandemics were historical events.

• Obama was president and Hillary Clinton was going to be our next president.

• Gay marriage was newly legally throughout the country.

• Star Wars was in theaters for the first time in 30 years.

• The Seahawks failed to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch and lost the Super Bowl.

All of these things feel like so very long ago. Some of that is age. At 54, days and years hit differently than they did in our 20s and when we had young kids. Some of that is the pandemic, when time simultaneously stood still and now seems like somebody else’s life.

Like having Mom around.

It would feel like the most natural thing in the world for her to call and menu plan with me for Thanksgiving right now. She had a dry marker board on the side of her refrigerator where all such important lists went. She’d have her list, my list, my sister’s list. I’d be in charge of the lemon meringue pie because it’s Dad’s favorite and she takes shortcuts with the crust I don’t approve of. I say “takes” instead of “took” because my brain sometimes plays tense tricks with me when I think about her.

Not the best picture but the only one I got of Mom’s last Thanksgiving.
Where is Dad and why does Clyde look so grumpy?

A few days after she died, Sawyer said: “The family organization took a hit.”

His 16-year-old self immediately got the heart of what would take me a while to figure out: Mom was the glue. And our family would never be the same without her laid back but persistent faith and assumption of our stickiness.

Six years after that Thanksgiving, I am fairly settled into the idea that our family will never be the same. That’s a ridiculous thing to say. Of course our family will never be the same. What I mean is we can’t move on without her. As people, yes. As a family, no. We are a shell, and a soft shell at that, of what we were before as a unit. I’ve tried to fight it but the inertia isn’t on my side.

I assume every empty chair — newly vacated by those families whose losses are impossible to process even without the holidays piling on the grief and those for whom this is as routine as knowing green beans will be on the table in some fashion — changes a family.

I have no answers for how to maneuver life with the empty chair, during the holidays or on a Tuesday afternoon in June. I have no example to offer.

I have these things:

• Be with the people you want to be with and who want to be with you.

• Talk about the person who should be in that chair. Their absent years do not diminish their present years.

One day, maybe you’ll keep the “before” ways you want (like the pies). And one day, when it feels right, maybe you’ll let go of the “after” ways that don’t fit anymore for whatever reason. Like the pie crust Mom never gets right, there are no shortcuts. The chair will be filled. The verbs will become past tense. These are effortless realities.

The work is keeping that person around in whatever way you can. For me, that’s all that even attempts to fill Mom’s empty space.

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I’m sorry with a side of tacos

I’ve had many battles with my kids in our 24 and 21 years together. Two stand out, probably because there is photographic evidence.

In the fall of 2010, we went to Austin to see Clyde’s alma mater (the Texas Longhorns) play my alma mater (the Baylor Bears). I’d been a huge football fan when I was a kid, reengaged during my years at Baylor, then had neither the time nor the interest when the kids were young. But they were Longhorn fans from the time their wee little hands could do a proper hook ’em.

My ability to go from “did Baylor play today?” to super fan is now legendary at our house. And it started on this October day in Austin.

I was there because my husband and boys wanted to be there. And I love a good fall football game. Then Baylor started winning. And the muscle memory kicked in. Oh yes, I remember loving football! I remember collecting the pencils for all the professional teams in middle school! I remember watching the Dallas Cowboy games every Sunday with my mom. I remember crying and MAKING A POSTER MEMORIAL when Roger Staubach retired.

RGIII? You don’t say? Which number is he, I asked my uber fan sons. I went from learning the name of Baylor’s future Heisman winner to being that obnoxious fan who talks smack to the other side in real time and close proximity. And the other side was my family. Specifically, 10-year-old Sawyer.

Baylor hadn’t won in Austin since 1991. I didn’t remember that at the time, but I went in with zero expectation of our winning. I had no idea we were good. It all turned around pretty quickly in the second half of the game and we won 30-22. I hooted and hollered in the faces of my three Longhorn fans the entire way.

Left: Sawyer as the game started, full of hope and football love.
Right: Sawyer hating me, RGIII, and the Baylor Bears.

While I thought I had a PhD in this sweet boy, I’d missed how much this game — EVERY game — meant to him. Eleven years later, he’s still like this, but this was the first time I saw this face. Anger. Disappointment. Disgust. Life Will Never Be The Same. Also I Hate You Mom.

OK so maybe this was just a one-sided fight. But I remember realizing at some point as we walked down the bleachers and he wouldn’t look at me that I had to make it right. I remember Clyde’s bafflement at my bafflement.

I gave him space. I hugged him when he’d had enough of it. And I told him I was sorry for relishing in his team’s loss. Baylor and UT would play again. Both sides would win again. But I — and they — would always be respectful. Smack can be talked a different day. Nobody wants to see that face again.

A few years before this, in the fall of 2006, we were going across town to have family photos made. My recollection of the details of this day are fuzzier, both because it was further back in time and Google can’t help me fill in the missing pieces.

I remember it was a school day. It was rush hour. I had the boys and was meeting Clyde and the photographer at a park.

Never trust Christmas card photo smiles.

Don’t we look happy? Sawyer is 6 here, Noah is 9. We are color coordinated. The lighting is perfect. I’m sure the Christmas card was lovely.

Rewind 30 minutes from this shot: I kicked Noah out of our car in rush hour in the middle of Dallas (in my defense, he was being an asshole and it was a slow-moving cross-town street). I don’t know what he was doing but he was fresh off a day of school, likely hadn’t had enough downtime or food or both, and I likely wasn’t at my best trying to get these photos checked off. I’m also sure he had comments about what he was wearing. And the words just flew out of my mouth: “Get. Out!” It felt so satisfying, I would do it again another time or two before he got his driver’s license, but this was the first.

You should’ve seen their faces. Neither had any idea this was a possibility. I could tell by the traffic and timing of red light down the street that we’d be moving more slowly than Noah could walk, so it wasn’t like CPS needed to get involved. And within a few minutes, he got back in the car and we sat in silence.

When we got the park, he ratted me out within seconds of seeing Clyde. He announced he was NOT sitting or standing anywhere near me for ANY photo. Sweet Clyde smiled and remained calm until we could sort it all out after the photos. God bless the not-stay-at-home spouses who walk into the household war fresh off a day at the office with zero intel and hold it together.

And then at some point, after I gave him some space, I hugged him and said I was sorry for kicking him out of the car. And we talked about what he’d done wrong and what I’d done wrong. And we were fine.

This family photo makes me laugh every time I see it. Noah on one side, me on the other. It’s a reminder of how appearances tell you nothing about family dynamics and that the four of us have recovered from every battle.

We’ve had much bigger fights than these two. Much more serious. Much more dramatic. Sometimes I have worried how we’d come back to each other. But “how” is my first thought when my anger subsides even a little.

I recently had a fight with one of the boys that lasted a few days. Nothing was right with the world while I was mad at him and he was mad at me. As usual with fighting, the “alwayses” and the “nevers” flew freely around my brain and mouth. I knew they wouldn’t last, but I wasn’t sure how they would end.

They ended after we’d each had some space, when he brought me tacos for lunch, got us each a glass of water, and told me about his day. Then, just before he was heading out, he said he was sorry. And I hugged him and said I was sorry.

As it is and always will be. With tacos. Which I think is a genius addition.

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Halloween is cancelled this year

My husband and I are traveling to California this week. He’s coming back Saturday, the Eve of All Hallows’ Eve, but I’m staying until Monday to visit a friend. Our neighborhood is lively with trick-or-treaters so I asked him a couple of weeks ago if he wanted me to do the usual porch decor and candy.

“Are you going to do Halloween?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

Of course, that’s fine. It’s fine. We’ve been doing Halloween for 23 years in a row, not including our childhood and college years. We’re empty nesters now. Why shouldn’t year 24 be different?

And yet.

Halloween in downtown Waxahachie with the cousins, 2008.

Halloween was the craziest of holidays when the kids were little. Crazier in some ways than Christmas Day or any birthday. A few reasons:

• Texas “fall” makes it impossible to pick a weather-appropriate costume before you see the day’s forecast, which isn’t how Halloween costumes are chosen you may realize.

• While I am not super into Halloween per se, I am into anything that makes my kids happy. And Halloween made them the happiest. We did some sort of Halloween ding-dong-dash that involved adorable treats and leaving a ghost-shaped note on friends’ doors. Oh the giggles as the boys dashed away as fast as they could and watched their friends discover what we’d left. We planned for weeks, buying plastic Halloween goblets and stuffed ghosts. While most kids on the list were evergreens, sometimes a new friend would be added. Every now and then, I come across the printed instructions for this game and they never make it into the “throw away pile.”

• But the main reason was that my hometown of Waxahachie starts trick-or-treating downtown in the afternoon (if Halloween falls on a weekday; if not, the Friday before). My parents and sister and her kids always took part in this small town tradition, so we started joining them Noah’s first Halloween. He was four months old. He was maybe a pumpkin that year? He definitely was Cat In The Hat when he was 1 or 2. Once he started pre-school, I’d pick him up early and trek the 40 miles with baby and then toddler Sawyer, meeting up with my parents, sometimes Clyde’s mom, always my niece and nephew. We’d drop by to see Dad’s best motorcycle riding buddy, who had an insurance shop just off the downtown square. On warmer Halloweens, we’d stop at the ice cream shop. I’d sometimes run into old high school friends who still lived in town or were doing the same with their closely out-of-town kids. We’d stop by my grandmother’s house, who made each of her great grandkids a Halloween sack of their own. Then I would strap my sugared-up too hot or too cold babies into their car seats for the 40-minute drive back to Dallas.

Sawyer as a sumo wrestler, 2010.
His friend Ben is a package of gum.

[Enter the part of the story that likely leads to Clyde’s Halloween neutrality.]

We’d get home about 6 pm, meeting Clyde after work, and order a pizza. Always a pizza. If it was just the four of us, we’d eat it on the red, white, and blue quilt, aka the “pizza blanket” we used for living room pizza picnics. Often friends would come over because, again, our neighborhood is Halloween mecca. As the kids got older, they could handle this six- to eight-hour Halloween extravaganza. But there were days. Days they just didn’t.

It was maybe Noah’s second Halloween that, by the time we were headed home from the town square and the insurance friend and the grandparents and cousins and great-grandmother that Noah started running a fever. He was cranky and limp and done.

Clyde was so disappointed. I get it. I was running ragged for those 6-8 hours. It was the fun ragged times of early motherhood. I mean, it wasn’t all fun. But it was a lot of fun. Like so many days, I had the brunt of all the bullshit that comes with parenting. Those days were not all magical and no, I did not enjoy every minute. Little ones often are unintentional assholes. But when there’s endless candy and costumes and grandparents, they are the cutest. I was there for most the shit (literal and otherwise), yet that means I was there for most of the memories. Honestly, I was doing some of my best parenting in those candy- and fake-fur lined trenches.

He saw the photos. He heard the stories. He even took half a day off work every now and then to join us. But he doesn’t remember like it was this morning how it felt to pick up two little boys from school early — two little boys who felt like they’d won the lottery because they got to leave school to go eat candy with their cousins and be loved on by people who think they are the best humans. THEN come home and get candy from strangers with their friends.

That 30something mom knew it was special, even as some days the best part of it was strapping those babies in their car seats and the deep sigh that came when I knew they’d fallen asleep. At 50something, she knows you never see the last small town Halloween coming, the last Halloween ding-dong-dash, the last time your grandmother will make the little bags, the last time Mom would ask what the kids were dressing up as this year.

So it’s not that skipping THIS Halloween is such a big deal. It’s the memories that come flooding in like the flashback sequence at a soap opera wedding. No sappy music or soft focus comes with the flashback but you get the idea.

The cousins again in Waxahachie, circa 2003. This Halloween is remembered by the 90something temps
and Noah’s furry wolf costume.

I strangely have no pull toward the trunk-or-treat at our church. I have no idea if my friend will have Halloween plans but would be perfectly happy with pizza and wine by her Orange County pool. So why do I care that Clyde will be at our house, porch light and living room lights off, neighborhood kids walking right by our house?

Because I do miss how we did Halloween. For 23 years.

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Continuing Education: Lessons in minding your business from Tabitha Brown

I was having a discussion with my husband recently when it occurred to me, he’s missed a lot.

Background: My mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks before Dallas went on COVID lockdown. Within a few months, she was in treatment and — faced with a pandemic and three 20somethings living at home — he moved in with her. We had two pandemic pods: Clyde and his mom; me with our two boys and a bonus girlfriend.

Tabitha Brown was in Dallas two weeks ago. My friend Jill and I stood in line for SEVEN HOURS to see her.

During that nine months, a lot of shit went down. I’m sure we were all in our head a lot more than usual. I was also in my IG feed a lot more than usual. And here’s what I realized during that conversation with my husband a few weeks ago: I learned a million things from amazing people I know only through my IG feed. I feel like I got PhDs in boundaries, feminism, Black women, parenting. All of this while we all earned our doctorates in virology, of course!

To process all of this, I’ve decided to take it one at a time, starting with Tabitha Brown. I actually was an early adapter to Tabitha’s magic. A vegan friend of mine shared Tabitha’s infamous Whole Foods video and I was hooked. Her words, her authenticity, her passion for that sandwich … I was all in. I also got the sandwich shortly thereafter. This omnivore is a huge fan. Tabitha on this video, sitting in her car in the Whole Foods parking lot: “Honey, I’m looking around and stuff look different, that’s how good it is. My life is changing right before my eyes. Good God this thing is good.”

Please watch the video now. I’ll wait.

Now, let me set this stage for Lessons Learned from Tab: I am not a vegan. I have no intention of giving up meat and dairy (although I do support ranchers who do our bodies, their animals, and our earth right). Yet I hang on her every word.

More than that, my friend Jill and I almost died trying to see her two weeks ago. On the last night of her nationwide book tour, she came to a small bookstore in Dallas. Jill and I — along with thousands of Tab’s closest friends — crawled through an asphalt parking lot in Texas (and let me tell you, fall has not quite arrived here!) until we got a hug and a minute with Dr. Brown, as I shall now call her. By the end, Jill and I were almost literally crawling, and the next day it felt like we’d run at least a half-marathon. Is “almost died” an exaggeration? I’m 54. Let me life and die as I will.

Here’s the best life advice I’ve learned from Dr. Brown since I started following her a few years ago and, especially, in the past 18 months:

Let me use it in a sentence, spelling bee style:

“I’m going to add some avocado to this sandwich … and I can because that’s my business.”

“I’m going to work in my pajamas today … and I can because that’s my business.”

“I’m going to have wine with dinner on a Tuesday … because that’s my business.”

“I’m going to go stay home with my husband on a Saturday night and watch Friends reruns … because that’s my business.”

“That’s my business” gives me permission to do whatever I want without any concern for what anybody else has to say or think about it. Now, I didn’t need much permission to get down Tab’s road. But many people do. And now I have succinct words for it. And those words are empowering.

Here’s the other side of this life lesson. If what I do is MY business, what YOU do is YOUR business.

WHA????

You might want to read that sentence again. I might need to read it every damn day!

Being human comes with so much judgment. I literally said to my husband one day when I had babies: “I don’t think I could ever be friends with someone who doesn’t breastfeed.”

Tabitha Brown’s new book is just out, sitting on my nightstand, waiting to teach me!

Where was Tab when I was 30? Because 30something Dawn needed to Calm The Fuck Down. Now, I still will preach about the benefits of breastfeeding, but by the time my kids were in grade school, I can assure you it was no longer a dealbreaker. I walk around in life meeting women and have zero thought to how they fed their babies. Zero!

How many other things are there in life like that — things that would be smoothed over by a bit of “that’s my business?”

It’s your business to … FILL IN THE BLANK. Dr. Brown has put words to the fact that we can do this all damn day. And so can everyone around you.

Now, I still have judgment. Things like putting ketchup on perfectly good fries before you taste them, refusing to take the subway when visiting New York City, and voting for Donald Trump are your business … but I will talk about your choices if you do them.

Why? BECAUSE THAT’S MY BUSINESS. 🙂

I have said this to my husband so many times since he moved back in. He didn’t take Dr. Tabitha Brown’s It’s My Business 101 like I did, so he doesn’t always get it. But I’m spreading the word every day, Dr. Brown. Preach on!

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5 things about college kids coming home

This is my sixth year of kids coming and going from out-of-state colleges. We are NOT the people whose kids come home at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and summer break. I mean yes, of course, they are home those times. But with Southwest miles on our side, we bring our kids home all the damn time. It’s how we do college, perhaps stemming from the fact that my husband and I both went to college within close driving distance of our hometown.

Some of their visits are super short — Friday night to Sunday. Our youngest was home this past weekend for 44 hours, a tight schedule for someone whose presence is requested by his parents, his brother, his grandma, multiple friends, and, of course, his dog. He can sleep at Thanksgiving.

Percentage-wise, I think the time spent, emotions, and truths of this 44-hour visit mirror any visit of any length. This is what I have learned about said visits since our oldest son first came home Thanksgiving of 2015.

1. I prepare for myself … and pretend I’m preparing for him.

At 3:30 pm last Friday, my husband called to say he was getting off work early (because traffic gets so bad here during Texas-OU weekend that bankers go home). He was heading to his mom’s to do a few things.

Me: “Can you come by first because we need to hang a few things.”

Clyde: “Now?”

Me: “Yes.”

Clyde: “In Sawyer’s room?”

Me: “No in your office. And also in the bathroom.”

It is nonsensical but I have deadlines and lists and just before something happens, the flurry of deadlines and lists get done. So it makes perfect sense to me that at 3:30 on Friday, I would need to hang pictures we’ve had since August before Sawyer’s flight lands at 10 pm. Oh, also a new shower curtain. URGENT.

Sawyer also had new linens and, of course, his room is has been organized and tidied up since he left it post-Hurricane Ida (I intentionally use the passive voice so as not to accept that yes, I did clean his room). The house looked fantastic.

Sawyer’s flight was late. We picked him up at the airport, he walked in the door, dropped his duffle bag in the entryway, fully embraced his dog, a friend picked him up, and he slept at his brother’s apartment. He spent 3 minutes the next morning in his lovely room and slept there the last night. He never stepped into Clyde’s office and likely didn’t notice the new shower curtain or bathroom art.

I wanted things organized because I want him to feel loved and I want to focus on him (and not the unhung art and ugly shower curtain of the past). Preparing for his arrival is how I show love. I don’t think that’s how he feels love, though, so I include hugs, grace, and his favorite pork buns with the new linens.

2. You are not their priority. But then, for a minute, you are.

I saw Sawyer on the 20-minute drive home on Friday (a friend picked him up within 10 minutes), during a 10-minute drive to the Texas-OU game on Saturday, during a 30-minute dinner on Sunday, and the 20-minute drive back to the airport after that dinner.

And for a one-hour trip Sawyer suggested to the Farmers Market Sunday morning.

He woke up in time for it after a late night. I was up and ready, and if he’d slept through it, all would be forgiven. But he didn’t.

Now, this was a 44-hour trip. But I would say this generally is how it goes. There is family time. If magic happens, there is one-on-one time with Clyde or me, there is grandparent time, there is brother time. And there is what he is mostly here for: Friend time.

I read once that the creators of Friends ended it when they did because the characters were moving on with their own families. The period “when friends are family” was coming to an end.

I lived that time. You lived that time. And now Sawyer and Noah are living that time. It is our job to be respectful of that.

And to smile and take pumpkin patch selfies when we are in their focus, for however long it lasts.

3. It our job to show delight, not guilt.

This is simple. Yet time with our adult kids can bring out my inner Jewish/Catholic mom guilt. And I am Methodist so there is no place for that.

Read #2.

4. It is still normal life.

You have work. You have responsibilities. You have non-offspring plans. And that’s all OK.

This trip was centered around the Texas-OU game because, again, Texas football. So fun was had. Memories were made. Not with me because I don’t do crowds and heat so I went to see Tabitha Brown with a friend. And that’s OK.

Every moment doesn’t have to be precious. Even at Thanksgiving. Even at Christmas. Even on summer vacation. This is just life. They still need to pick up their underwear off the bathroom floor. You can still handle your deadlines (again, see #2). I might want to spend four hours making Sawyer’s favorite dinner … or we might stop at the corner taco stand because they don’t have good tacos in New Orleans — AND HE WILL BE JUST AS HAPPY.

5. They will leave. And they will come back.

Whether it’s 44 hours or four weeks (Lord help us with that endless winter break), they will pull out of the driveway or you will drop them off at the airport.

Maybe you’ll tear up. Maybe you won’t. Maybe they were a pain in the ass while they were home. Maybe you were. Maybe it WAS precious. But as soon as they walk away, you miss them. You might not want them back immediately … but you miss them (add that to the list of crazy things that are the reality of parenting FOREVER).

And here’s the truth: You want them to want to leave. You want them to be happy to be home, too. And then you want them to be happy to walk back toward their current and future life.

And then next time, all of this will happen again. The coming and the going is the never-ending circle of parenting “adults.” Be delighted in it.

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My son and MIL: the cutest couple I know

Noah has been living with my mother-in-law the past couple of months. He broke up with his girlfriend, spent a few nights here, a few nights at his old place, a night here and there on a friend’s couch, and eventually settled in at the land of biscuits and gravy with laundry service and hugs. I don’t blame him one bit.

I would’ve never imagined a scenario where they’d be living together at 24 and 78. But 2020 taught us to laugh at the idea of unimagined scenarios.

Bee and tiny Noah, summer of 1997.

Background:

• Beverly (“Bee” to her grandkids) was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks before we went on lockdown in March 2020. She lived in our hometown of Waxahachie, 30 minutes south of Dallas, in a house my father-in-law may as well have built 50 years ago. His fingerprints were on every stone, in every professional and amateurish detail of the little white house outside of town

• Eventually, Clyde moved in with her last summer. We had three 20somethings living here (our boys and Noah’s girlfriend) and we couldn’t expose her to COVID. So we all socially distanced for nine months.

• Even before cancer and COVID, it seemed Beverly was getting lonely living alone and might need some extra help. After nine months of constant companionship, we knew it was time. So this March — shoutout to Moderna for making this possible — she moved into an apartment eight minutes from us, and Clyde moved home.

More background:

• Clyde and I got married in April of 1996. His dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer that August, and I was pregnant with Noah by October. His dad passed away in January of 1997, on the first day I felt Noah move. Noah was born on June 22. If you aren’t doing the math, that’s 14 months. It was the most dramatic year any of us experienced, although 2020 did its best to uncrown it.

• Kenneth was 55. Beverly, 54. The same ages Clyde and I are now. I’m just going to let that sentence disturb me for a while.

• Beverly fell apart in every way you would imagine. Gracefully, of course, but everything about her life — and the life she expected to live — changed.

Noah and Beverly, through the years.

In ways that wouldn’t have happened if Kenneth had been here, we wrapped Beverly up into our life. And our life at that point was all about the summer arrival of Baby Noah. She came to his sonogram. She stayed with us after we brought him home from the hospital for as long as we needed her. She rocked and rocked and rocked Noah for as long as he needed her.

Noah was her first grandson. The mom of two boys, her muscle memory of how this would go was strong and, I think, comforting. When Sawyer was born almost three years later, she was as tickled as we were that brothers would be running up and down our stairs for the next couple of decades (and into the third, they still are!). And, of course, she stayed with Noah while we were at the hospital the night Sawyer was born. Starting perhaps that night, she has been there for all of Noah’s biggest life moments.

I think Noah saved Beverly. She is a strong woman, stronger than I think she knew. But Noah gave her a reason to get out of bed (or her recliner, which she took to sleeping in after Kenneth died). His arrival was a reason to put one foot in front of the other toward her future, a future she had never planned. Death then birth. Gutted then overflowing. Depressed then hopeful. Furious about the unfairness of it all then filled with the miracle of the same.

I watched Beverly fall in love with the idea of Noah — and then fall in love with Noah. And through that love, I think she found her way to her life after Kenneth.

People bond during strange times as these. Pandemics. Cancer. Mission trips. Death. Hurricanes. Summer camp. Boot camp. Beverly loves all her grandkids: our two boys and our two nieces. She is the grandmother every child in this world deserves. Every one of them. And Noah, Sawyer, Kayla, and Kimberly won the Powerball lottery when they got her. It is no slight to the other three when I say that the bond between Beverly and Noah is one born of timing and grief. It’s different. It’s adorable.

From graduation to visiting Noah at college in Brooklyn to the summer of wigs and chemo.

Noah and his girlfriend had been dating 4 1/2 years when they broke up this summer. The adulting required when dismantling a college love and all that came with it — including an apartment — was just as messy as those of us who have been through it know it to be. And Noah was as out of sorts as anyone grieving such a love. Most things about his life — and the life he expected to live — changed.

This time, Beverly saved Noah. Saved is dramatic, of course. But there is no way around a breakup but through it. And she gave him the perfect space to do that. His own room after moving out of his apartment and long being tired of living with us after the pandemic trapped him here post-graduation. My doing his laundry and cooking his meals isn’t a good dynamic (and I’m honestly not here for it). Her doing it is the privilege of a grandma.

The day we moved Beverly into her apartment. I love the way she looks at him.

There will never be another person in this world who is as happy to see Noah walk through a door as Beverly. I say that knowing how much I love him, how much Clyde loves him, how much his future life partner and kids will love him. He needed that this summer. And he got it several times a day. Plus breakfast before he went to work, clean laundry, and a partner to binge watch Grace and Frankie. Noah is a personal trainer so he also works her out a couple of times a week. He does it because he wants her to be healthy for as long as she can be; she does it because he wants her to.

Noah suggested they do 2 sets of 5; Bee countered with 2 sets of 1.

At dinner last week — Noah and Beverly on one side of the table, my husband and me on the other — I had that gut-to-heart-to-throat-to-eyes-almost-tearing-up watching the two of them, the cutest couple I know. We should all be so adored.

The sandwich generation is marketed to us like a leftover olive loaf sandwich from your Friday lunchbox that isn’t found until Monday. There is none of that being served here and I am truly honored to be part of it, watching these two people I love, love each other. We’re just all saving each other the best we can, aren’t we? Noah and Beverly have been beautiful examples of that all his 24 years.

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Half birthdays and other WTFN celebrations

Yesterday was Sawyer’s half birthday. 21.5. He got texts from us and a giant s’more “pizza” from the Chocolate Pizza company delivered to his apartment in New Orleans.

The origins of the half-birthday celebrations in our home are straightforward: When Noah started the first grade at a local Montessori school, birthdays were a big deal. Imagine mostly white, upper-middle-class moms who did not work outside the home in all our early-2000s well-intended, assuming all was right with the world glory! If your birthday fell during a holiday, no problem! We’ll celebrate the kid’s half birthday.


Sawyer getting the rare whole homemade pie — half birthday treats usually are cut in half and from the store — on his 10th birthday.

Except Noah’s birthday is June 22 so his half birthday is December 22. And who was I to deprive my baby of a school birthday celebration? Such indulgences amuse me now — as if a huge-ass friend celebration and an extended family celebration weren’t enough! — but I remember the visceral need to make everything good for my boys when they were young.

And so, half birthdays became a thing.

They are the WTFN celebration that made it for the long haul. We once had a party to celebrate our German shepherd’s birthday (there is zero evidence I bought a dog bone cookie cutter, made human and canine cookies, and organized a game where kids drank out of dog bowls).

I did low-key cakes for lots of awesome things my kid did as they got older — and more likely to roll their eyes at any sign of enthusiasm from us.

Noah turns 18.5!

Solid SAT score? CAKE! Swim team captain? CAKE! Tennis captain? CAKE! Broke the Dallas ISD record held since 1968 in the 50 free? CAKE! Picked a college? CAKE! OK, sometimes it was a pie. But it always had writing on it and the people working the bakery at our Whole Foods were always amused.

I learned from the dog party (again, there is NO EVIDENCE so let me live my life): celebrations can be simple. Let me say it again: S.I.M.P.L.E. Kids want to be seen, loved, celebrated … but the older they get, they less time you have to squeeze that in. Be brief. Be low-key. Involve food.

For half birthdays, we just do half of some sweet treat. If a friend is involved, it’s because he was already here. I grab a few candles from the junk drawer, cut one in half, and toss half a store-bought dessert on a plate. We sing Happy Half Birthday (same tune, squeeze in “half”), they roll their eyes a bit, smile a lot, and we eat. And it’s done. The college version of this, obviously, is sending a dessert to them with a HHBD text.

I’ve had two popular responses to my WTFN celebratory ways through the years:

  1. I should’ve done this for my kids.
  2. Why are you so extra?

Oh No. 2, it’s who I am, (almost 🐾) no regrets! On No. 1, I say we all have gifts. I never took my kids to Disney, never did Elf on the Shelf, never make their own legit birthday cakes. We can’t do all the things.

A cake for breaking a Dallas ISD swim record and a key lime pie for making tennis captain.

And because we can’t do all the things, I decided after Noah’s 21st birthday that half birthdays were ending once they turned 21. What are we going to do this when they’re 40.5? But in 2020, we brought the half birthday back because COVID lockdown was sucking the life out of us and we needed sugar and candles and songs and ANYTHING fun and frivolous.

How long will they last? The jury is still out. The pandemic did nothing but egg on my innate desire to celebrate any time and any thing and any person we want to.

Because WTFN?

Noah turns 14.5, Sawyer turns 20.5, Noah turns 20.5, Sawyer turns 15.5.

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