My Scrambled Nest

An Almost-Empty Nest Journey of "Letting Go" With Laughter and Love, By Cathy Free

When my daughter graduated from high school in June, she also graduated from her piano studies — at least, for now. She’s simply too busy with college classes and her part-time job at a bookstore to devote her scarce free time to Chopin, Tchaikovsky and tedious scales.

A baby grand piano is meant to be used, and often. So when my family’s piano teacher and dear friend, Kira Merzhevskaya, called a few weeks ago with a wild and wonderful proposition, how could I resist?

“Katushka, there is something you need again in your life,” said Kira, using the Russian “Little Cathy” nickname she gave me after we met when she immigrated to Salt Lake City almost 30 years ago.

I knew immediately what was coming next:

“It’s time for you to once again study the piano,” she said. “Your piano must be played every day and you are now the perfect one to do it.”

I could think of 1,001 reasons why I shouldn’t do as she suggested (finding time to practice, for one), but Kira is not one to back down once she’s made up her mind. Now 85, she survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad as a child during World War II. And when she immigrated with her husband and two sons to Salt Lake City in 1990, she took a job as a night custodian so that she could save up to buy a used piano.

When I wrote a column about her and her family for The Salt Lake Tribune, Kira had been in Salt Lake City for less than a month. She didn’t speak any English and I didn’t know any Russian, but no matter. We soon became good friends and Kira convinced me to take up the piano again at age 28. I started with the Tchaikovsky Children’s Primer she’d brought with her from Russia and I kept going from there. When I became a first-time mom at age 36, though, it quickly became apparent that something had to give. I put my piano on studies on hold — for 22 years.

Instead, both of my children took lessons from Kira at age 5 and continued through the end of high school. Their time in front of the keys each week with their devoted (and gently strict) teacher colored their lives in beautiful ways that resonate to this day. I am convinced that piano lessons helped them to master math, chemistry and science, learn good study habits and develop an appreciation and love for classical music and lazy weekends riffing away at the blues.

With my daughter moving into her own apartment soon, Kira sensed that I would need the music to continue in my life, and she’s right. Rather than feel sad about the silence that will creep in when my daughter moves out, Kira has convinced me that it will be an uplifting experience to fill my living space with joyful noise — even if on some afternoons, it might just be me and the cat to hear it.

So onward I go, beginning next week. After a quick review of that children’s primer, I plan to ease into “The Nutcracker” in time for Christmas, and perhaps sneak in my favorite “Linus and Lucy” tune. Although Kira has always insisted that her students stick with the classics (Vivaldi, not Vince Guaraldi), she’ll hopefully remember that variety is the key to keeping her oldest — and most restless — student sane and happy.

Besides, a little bribery is in order if she wants me to appear at her recital this spring with a bunch of 6-year-old musical prodigies. 😉🎼🎶

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The young ‘uns headed back to school yesterday, and there’s one big problem: They’re not so young, anymore.

My son the chemistry whiz, now 21 and a college junior, has been on his own since his freshman year and has a part-time job “blowing stuff up” in the University of Utah chemistry lab to keep his fridge stocked with all of his addictions from Trader Joe’s. He’s taking a nuclear engineering class this year, which of course, terrifies moi. When I gave birth to my first child, it never occurred to me that he might one day become a rocket scientist. Yowza.

My 18-year-old daughter has decided to major in kinesiology (the study of movement), with the idea that she might (key word: MIGHT) want to become a physical or occupational therapist. Of course, I love that idea and have offered to be her guinea pig. I’ll subject myself to anything that keeps me moving and out of a dreaded nursing home.

My kiddo loved her first day of classes at the U (honors writing, fundamentals of biology and ancient myths and religion), and I love that she’s decided to hold off on getting an apartment until after the first of the year. One of the roughest days of my life was when my son’s room was emptied out two years ago. I still miss him terribly,  even though he always comes home to clean out the fridge every Sunday before dinner.

Because I know the day is approaching when I’ll likely only see my daughter on Sundays as well, I convinced my kids to go back-to-school shopping with me last week. I have not missed a school shopping excursion since my son picked out his first preschool clothes, backpack and shoes at age 2.

“News flash! I’m not a quitter,” I told him and his sister.

So 19 years after that first shopping trip, my son and daughter sighed and climbed wearily into my car on a Sunday afternoon, knowing that protesting was futile. At the shoe store, per family custom since kindergarten, they each selected two pairs (casual and dressy), then it was on to Old Navy for pants, shorts, shirts, skirts, socks and underwear. Once the trunk of my Beetle was loaded with bags, we continued another tradition: potstickers and ramen at a favorite noodle cafe.

I waited until their mouths were full before announcing my new edict: We would continue our yearly back-to-school shopping blitz until they were well into their 30s, even if we have to fuel the outing with a cocktail or two.

“Why wait?” quipped my son, and we all laughed so hard that our tea cups nearly slid off the table.

They might be grown, but I will continue to fulfill my duties as their mother. May the good times (in new shoes) roll on. ♥️

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Snowy Owl Woman, aka my mother, Joy, turned 79 this past weekend and it was quite the celebration. None of us expected that she’d see another birthday, let alone two, when she was sent into hospice in November 2017 by clueless hospital doctors who said she’d be gone within days from an infection of sepsis.

I trusted my instincts then and called “BS” on their diagnosis, and I trusted my instincts last weekend too, giving my mom a pink-and-white manicure topped with miniature “stick on” cupcakes, then bringing her an iced latte with a “splash” of something extra and a bag full of her favorite homemade molasses-ginger cookies.

What a time we’ve had these past 629 unexpected “extra” days! Although living in a care center isn’t ideal, my mother tells me “it’ll do.” She spends a lot of time reading and thinking between visits from me and my sister, who take turns dropping by six days a week.

On Sunday, my family and my sister’s family were joined at the care center by a favorite aunt and uncle, who stopped by to spend the afternoon with our mom. As we sat around her bed to catch up and laugh over old family stories, I couldn’t help flash on past birthday celebrations under the stars with a campfire blazing as my mom and her sister regaled us with hilarious stories about the Lamoreaux clan.

Briefly closing my eyes, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that we were back at my mom’s old digs, with grandkids squealing and racing in and out of her rustic sheep wagon while the rest of us hung out with our wine and coffee around the bonfire. When I opened my eyes and saw how happy my mother was on her birthday, it occurred to me that the setting didn’t actually matter. The important thing was that the love was still there.

My aunt, a true storyteller in grand Lamoreaux fashion, had us all in stitches over a story she’d heard at a funeral. Her deceased friend was actually lucky to live as long as he did, she said, because he once drove for hours with a propane stove burning in the back of his pickup, RIGHT NEXT TO THE GAS TANK. Knowing that his famous scalloped potatoes couldn’t be cooked at home in time for a Boy Scout dinner, he tossed everything in the back of his truck, set fire to the burners and away he went.

Of course, that tale led to a repeat of the famous family reunion story from the mid-1970s about my grandfather’s uncooked goose flying out of a large metal pan that was strapped to his car roof. The trussed-up bird (intended for our family dinner) landed with a splat on my mother’s windshield as she followed my grandpa’s car up the mountain, and we’ve been laughing about it ever since.

”I’ve always felt lucky to have such an unusual and independent family,” my mom said before we kissed her goodbye that afternoon. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Neither would we.

Here’s to your next unexpected year, mother dear. Long may our family “freak flag” wave. ♥️

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My 18-year-old daughter has returned alive from her second annual wilderness camping trip with her boyfriend after once again promising to text me her whereabouts (yeah, right) and ignoring my advice to STAY ON THE TRAIL. (Her excuse: “What trail? Where we go, there aren’t any.”)

I’m relieved to have her back safe, especially since we have only a few more precious weeks until she’s officially a college freshman. There are still concerts to attend together and pedicure appointments to make, and we’re working our way down a list of stupid movies we need to see. (“Annabelle Come Home,” anyone?)

Anyway, my adventurous kiddo’s three day mountain getaway got me thinking about my own camping trip with my high school boyfriend, when I was 17. Although I love the outdoors, I’ve never really enjoyed sleeping in it. My idea of “roughing it” is a cold shower and a black-and-white TV, although as a young reporter, I definitely would have taken my chances in the woods after checking into a desert dive one night and discovering three things:

1. I was the only guest.

2. The manager held an uncanny resemblance to the hillbilly banjo player in “Deliverance.”

3. The only items you could buy at the motel were military survival knives, displayed like the treasures of Tutankhamun inside the check-in counter’s glass case.

But back to my teenage camping trip. My boyfriend assured me that he would take care of everything, from food to shelter, and all I needed to do was throw my toothbrush, a couple of changes of clothes, a jacket and a pair of hiking boots into a duffle bag.

“But what about my hair supplies?” I asked. As the proud owner of a “Farrah” flip, it was a legitimate question.

“Hair supplies! Where we’re going, you won’t need any hair supplies. Just bring an elastic.”

Clearly, he didn’t get it. So with a deep sigh, I did as he suggested and brought along a few rubber bands and a big floppy hat. We drove for several hours into Utah’s Uinta Mountains, arriving at my boyfriend’s favorite “secret” spot just before dusk.

After he unloaded our duffle bags from the back of his pickup truck, he popped open a soda and found a large rock to sit on.

“Ummm, shouldn’t we put up the tent?” I asked.

“Tent? What tent? We don’t need a tent!” (Never mind that he’d said he would take care of “shelter.”)

“Who the $#@% goes camping without a tent?!” I told him. “We’re not freakin’ outlaws. I want a tent!”

“Nah, you don’t need a tent. I’ll keep you warm,” he said. “Besides, it’s more fun to sleep under the stars.”

“Well, OK, then, what about an air mattress? I’d like an air mattress.”

“Nope. I didn’t bring an air mattress.”

“No way! What about spiders? What about snakes? And what about a pillow? I suppose I should use a rock?”

“Well, sure, I guess that would work,” he said.

And on it went. He didn’t bring a cooler, he didn’t bring a camp stove. He didn’t even bring a knife, “Deliverance” type or otherwise. So we dipped beef jerky and Ritz crackers into a jar of peanut butter, climbed into our bags, looked at the stars for a while (OK, that part was cool), then went to sleep. Well, at least, he did. I was awake all night, certain that a pack of wolverines would come in search of our peanut butter. Immediately the next morning, I made my boyfriend drive me back to civilization to get an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s, then I disappeared into the restroom for 15 minutes to fluff out my flattened Farrah hair.

What a difference from my daughter’s experience. Her boyfriend set up a genuine tent, packed hot dogs, fruit and S’more ingredients into a cooler and even brought along a tablecloth, genuine silverware and an AIR MATTRESS. My daughter baked two dozen sugar cookies and decorated them with blue frosting and candy sprinkles, then fetched a few board games to play around the campfire.

“Hold on to him,” I told her after her boyfriend brought her home smelling of bonfire smoke. “A man who believes in tents and air mattresses is a keeper.” ♥️

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The word “drama” doesn’t exactly spring to mind when you think of a long-term care center for the elderly. But thanks to my mother Joy’s former roommate, Verna, Room No. 502 might as well have been an off-off Broadway theater for the past several weeks.

Recently, I shared a post on Facebook about how Verna complained on Mother’s Day that I visited too often, laughed too much and called out “bon jour!” more than her sensitive ears would allow. Everyone told me that I should tell her to stuff it.

So guess what? I finally did.

First, a little history. It took four tries, but my mom really lucked out when we moved her to her current care center a year and a half ago. Not only are the nurses attentive and kind with a sense of humor, my mother has a bright and spacious room with a view of the courtyard where we often sit to talk, read and watch the resident ducklings.

Because there is an extra bed in her room, every once in a while, a female “respite care” patient stays with my mom for five days, per Medicare rules allowing home-care families to take a little break. These temporary roommates have always been pleasant, even though many have dire health situations. Sadly, four of them passed away while sleeping in my mother’s room. My siblings and I believe that they were finally able to relax and take flight while staying with our  “Snowy Owl Woman.”

Although the situation isn’t perfect, my mother has always been fine with having a roommate now and then.

Then she met Verna.

At age 93, Verna is mobile and doesn’t appear to have any serious medical issues. Even so, her family wanted to move her permanently into a care center, and we quickly learned why. They’d simply had enough.

Because the nursing home was full and the empty bed in my mother’s room was the only one available, Verna was moved into Room 502 with the idea that she could be there for the duration. Her family even brought in Verna’s favorite  La-Z-Boy — a frayed chair that would put the ratty recliner on the sitcom “Frasier” to shame.

As soon as Verna put on her slippers and bathrobe and sat in that chair, she lit up her call light like a radio station contest hotline. Her grilled cheese wasn’t “melty” enough. Her overhead light was too harsh. Her comforter wasn’t warm enough. Her favorite shows on the big-screen television that she shared with my mom weren’t as “high-def” as they should be.

On and on it went. At first, during my thrice-weekly visits, I tried to be patient, thinking that perhaps Verna just needed a little time to settle in. But then I discovered the real issue: She didn’t appreciate me visiting my mother. Whenever I walked into the room, she complained.

“Another movie! Weren’t you just here?”

“Do you always have to talk when you visit?”

“Stop saying ‘bon jour’ when you come into the room. You’re in America, not France!”

The clincher came on Mother’s Day as my mom and I had a good time goofing off with photo apps. “Stop laughing! You two are always laughing. I need my peace!” Verna shouted.

Well. We all know how THAT went over. While my mother gave Verna a third-finger salute behind the room divider, I filled out an official complaint and demanded that if Verna couldn’t be moved to another planet, a room around the corner would suffice.

Finally, last Thursday, my request was granted. When I arrived to visit my mom (“Bon jour! Bon jour! Bon jour!” I sang as I waltzed into the room), two aides were packing up Verna’s things to move her in with an unfortunate woman in the 400 Hall.

“See what you did? I hope you’re happy!” Verna told me, shaking her finger.

I turned around and smiled. “You know what, Verna?” I said. “I’m not just happy. I’m thrilled! It’s no wonder that you’ve lived such a long life. You’re a real BITCH.”

As my mom applauded from her bed, Verna’s eyes widened and she pursed her lips.

“Takes one to know one!” she quipped.

Of course, I had to laugh. And when my mom started laughing and neither of us could stop, I thought that Verna would have a stroke right there. As a smirking nurse’s aide ushered her out, Verna couldn’t resist one more zinger: “You’ll live to be 103!” she shouted. “Count my words! I know it!”

My mother and I laughed for the rest of the afternoon. Who said that life in a care center is boring?

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My daughter is going to her last high school prom tonight and she’s handling it much better than I am. I’m almost tempted to put on a wig and sneak into the dance hall for some poignant pics, but I know that I’d be as welcome as a bill collector at a funeral if she saw me. So I’ve asked my husband to hide the car keys. A quick snapshot when my daughter’s boyfriend picks her up will have to do.

Last weekend was a mixture of joy and wistfulness as I accompanied Lily once last time to Dillard’s formalwear department to take photos of her posing in more than a dozen prom dresses as she narrowed them down. On our first excursion in the 9th grade, she accused me of treating her like Laura Ingalls Wilder (the author of “Little House on the Prairie”) when I told her that one of her choices, a low-cut, black cocktail dress, was “perhaps too revealing.”

I’ve since learned to keep my mouth shut. My daughter’s friends now drive themselves to the department store to pick out dresses sans mom, so I consider myself fortunate to still be included. I believe it’s a ritual that my kiddo came to look forward to as well, even though she still said, “Not gonna happen” to most of the fancy frocks that I handed her over the dressing room door last week.

This year, Lily ended up with a sleeveless, baby blue dress covered with peach and cream blossoms. It’s the very essence of spring, and it was fun to pick out earrings to match. (I’ll be sure to share a pic tonight.)

After our shopping spree, we headed to the performance hall at Day’s Murray Music on State Street (I took tap lessons there upstairs as a girl), for another last: Lily’s final piano recital with her teacher and our longtime family friend, Kira Merzhevskaya, still an extraordinary concert pianist at age 83.

After my daughter performed a Chopin waltz and Tchaikovsky’s “April,” there were hugs all around and more than a few tears, as we realized the next time we all gathered would be for Lily’s high school graduation. It was particularly emotional for Kira, who has patiently and lovingly taught Lily since she was 6.

“Katusha (Little Catherine),” she told me as Lily waltzed off with her boyfriend, “the piano in your home is going to be lonely. It’s time for you to take up lessons again.”

I kissed her on the cheek and smiled. I just might take her up on it. : )

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Pausing to wipe the dust from my eyes in a dirty storage unit jam-packed with memories and mementos last Saturday, I soon added a few tears to the mix when I was suddenly struck by a sad reality: After more than 78 years of learning, loving, writing and collecting, my mother’s history had come down to three hours.

That’s how much time my sister, Karen, and I had to salvage whatever was important to us when the manager of the storage company where we’d stashed our mom’s belongings after she moved into a care center finally decided she’d had enough of our alcoholic, meth-using brother. Whatever we couldn’t get before closing time, she said, would have to be hauled away to the city dump.

I thought about renting a truck and taking everything to another storage unit, but our mother didn’t want that. I’d planned to get together with my siblings later this spring to sort through everything anyway, in a careful and orderly fashion. Karen and I didn’t have that option last weekend, but we didn’t blame the storage manager. We understood her anger and frustration. If anyone could manage to get evicted from a pre-paid storage unit, it was my brother.

When I received a phone call from the manager, advising me to come and retrieve my mom’s belongings because my brother had broken the expensive lock on their mechanical gate after staying past closing hours and getting locked in — not once, but twice — I have to confess that I wasn’t surprised.

For more than 30 years, I have dealt with my younger brother’s appalling, addiction-fueled behavior, beginning with the time he “bought” my old VW Beetle with the promise to make payments (he didn’t — instead, he sold it and kept the cash) to the time he left a bunch of messages on my home phone threatening to kill me and my husband and blow up city hall (I called the police and he spent two months in jail), to the day just a few months ago when he showed up in a rage at our mother’s care center, high on meth, and came after me.

Although I thought he might actually try to kill me, I stood my ground then and I’m standing my ground now. So much so, in fact, that I’ve decided to write about it, damn the consequences. I know there are countless others who have experienced the same horror and heartache of having an addict in the family, and if I can let them know they’re not alone, it’s worth it to me. Besides, writing has always been my way of working things out. It’s my therapy.

It’s important to note that things weren’t always so bad with my brother. Even now, there are glimpses of the gentle, softhearted person who left a box of chocolate cherries on my doorstep last Christmas Eve when he couldn’t afford them, because our grandfather used to give us each our own box every Christmas. Or the brother who I spotted softly reading “One Writer’s Beginnings” to our mother one night, and the brother who purchased a $2 Goodwill copy of Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” and left it in her room at the care center for my husband last month, so that Russell would know he was thinking about him after his heart surgery.

“My favorite book — thanks for grading my English and being a companion and friend to ‘C,'” he wrote inside the front cover. “Peace, M.”

When I look at the book now on our end table, I want to smile and cry at the same time. I love my brother, but I don’t like him. I miss him, but I can’t bear to be around him when he is drunk or high. I want to help him, but he refuses to acknowledge that he has a serious problem — one that will eventually take his life.

When my mother (aka “Snowy Owl Woman”) suddenly lost her mobility and required a care center in late 2017, it was hard on everyone in my family. As I’ve written before, she nearly died from low potassium when she was sent into hospice with a wrong diagnosis of sepsis. But perhaps nobody struggled more than my brother, the third of we four siblings. My mother had taken him in several years before, knowing full well that he was an alcoholic with a drug problem who couldn’t hold down a regular job and had a long trail of evictions (at least 30) for not paying his rent.

They worked out a deal: he would run errands for her, fix things up around the house and take care of the yard, and she would let him live with her. It would have been fine, except for my brother’s addictions. As it turned out, they enabled each other. And when we had to move our mother’s belongings into storage and put the house up for sale (it cost more than $6,000 for a company to clean up the meth residue), my brother took up residence in the garage and refused to move out until finally, as my mother’s power of attorney, I had to deliver an eviction notice.

I’ll never forget that chilly early spring night, when my husband and I taped a notice to the front door of the house. Suddenly, the garage door opened and there stood my brother, illuminated in the driveway like Freddy Krueger. All he needed was a chainsaw to make my nightmare complete.

But then, something unexpected happened.

“Cathy — I’m sorry. I know that I deserve this. Don’t worry — I’ll be finding an apartment soon.” He hugged me and I burst into tears. “Please, please — get the help you need,” I told him for probably the 20th time. “I’ll go with you to detox and help you to get some counseling. We’ll all help you get through it. But you have to want to do it.”

“Yeah, I know,” he replied. “But I don’t think I need that. I’ll be OK. Don’t worry.” Then he changed the subject. “What a beautiful night — look at that starry sky,” he said as we all tilted our heads back to take it in. “Remember when we were kids and Mom taught us about the constellations? Those were fun times.”

I couldn’t help think of our childhood last Saturday as my sister and I looked through the pieces of our mother’s past, jammed into a 10-by-20 storage unit, along with my brother’s belongings. Evicted from his latest apartment the month before, he’d been spending his days at the storage unit between odd jobs, and his nights in the van I’d signed over to him, knowing that he’d need it. He’d sent me, my sister and my other brother a rambling text and a photo of a dark and snowy landscape a few days afterward, telling us that he was enjoying the night, looking at trees and drinking whiskey at a golf course. He’d parked the van behind a fire station near one of the apartments my mom had rented when we were kids.

“I love fire stations — this is where my life is at now,” he wrote. “I got my philosophies — you got yours. We all need to get together.”

He was lonely. We all knew that. After my mom’s health crisis, I tried to include him in my family’s traditions, making sure that he got Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner and a present or two. But his addictions had worsened. It became difficult to carry on a normal conversation with him about anything. That reality made it even more difficult for me and my sister as we opened one box after another in the storage unit last weekend to quickly sort through the things that meant the most to us and our mother.

Signs of my little brother were everywhere: cigarette butts littered the floor, his sleeping bag, books and CDs were piled in a jumble with the clothes and household items he planned to retrieve after we left; and a small American flag fluttered from a luminary vase that our mother had made from a coffee can. It was the same flag he’d displayed in the garage next to one of his favorite keepsakes — a painting of a young Abe Lincoln that had hung in his bedroom as a child.

It was difficult to put those memories aside as Karen and I worked on deadline to save what we could. We’d already stored our mother’s most important valuables in our homes during the move. But should we keep her collection of sage smudge sticks or toss them? (Karen took a few.) What about the Christmas snow globes that her six grandchildren loved to play with when they were little? (I couldn’t imagine them going to the landfill.) How about her favorite dishes and miniature porcelain boxes? (We each selected several.) We uncovered a few personal treasures as well: Karen came across a silver locket with her baby picture inside, and I found a drawing my son had done when he was 6 of his Grandpa Clint.

After posing for a selfie inside the storage unit, we loaded everything into our cars and fought back tears, knowing that we were leaving so much of our mother’s life — and ours — behind. But as our mom had said before our expedition: “They’re just things. They can be replaced. They don’t matter like memories do.”

So besides some beloved knickknacks, photos and scrapbooks, I drove away with my mother’s UFO book collection; a treasured set of illustrated dictionaries and poetry books that I’d enjoyed thumbing through as a girl; an antique brass bud vase that my mom had used for 60 years; a snowy owl needlepoint that she didn’t finish (I’m hoping she’ll take it up again); piles of mysteries that I know she’ll enjoy rereading; three mint-condition manual typewriters, including the one that my mother took with her into the woods in the 1980s to live in a tent and work on her first novel, and dozens of files filled with typed pages and notes for a second novel that I didn’t know she had written.

“What’s the book about, Mom?” I asked her that night when I visited to report on what we had rescued. My mother’s cheeks flushed, then she smiled.

“It’s about a woman who leaves her boring life in the suburbs to become a telephone sex worker in Las Vegas,” she deadpanned. We laughed and laughed.

Mother! Who knew?

Before I left her that night, she reached for my hand and told me there was something else that she wanted me to do.

“When I pass away,” she said, “I hope you will still include your little brother in your family gatherings and take him out to dinner now and then. I hate to think of him being alone.”

My eyes filled with tears. “It’s hard, Mom,” I replied, “but I’ll try. I promise that I will do what I can, if he’ll let me.”

I don’t like him, but I love him. He’s my brother. 

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By the time most of you read this, my husband, Russell, will be undergoing double bypass heart surgery today. We are both surprisingly calm, as are our children, Rory and Lily. Nobody in our family has had surgery before (unless you count childbirth without an epidural), so this is a first for all of us. We figure that since we’re starting with a BIGGIE, anything that pops up in the future (tonsillitis, anyone?) ought to be a cakewalk. 

My husband’s surgery is happening at the same hospital where my daughter made her entrance into the world 18 years ago, so there are many happy vibes there. And across the street is where we had a Greek breakfast at Nick’s Cafe after my obstetrician three floors up stripped my membrane to finally put me into labor with my son more than two decades ago. When Russell and I sat down and heard “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash playing on the radio in the cafe, we both burst into joyful tears. We’ve called it “Rory’s Song” ever since.

 As I look out at the snow falling outside my home office window on a fresh Sunday morning, it’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, Russell was running several miles on the treadmill and shoveling two feet of heavy snow off our sidewalks and driveway. It’s a miracle, really, that he went eight months without a heart attack after first noticing a sore throat that flared up after exercising. It was his only symptom. 

 My husband has always been a mellow, kindhearted and poetic guy — kind of like John Lennon, for those of you who tell me that he resembles the beloved Beatle. At our meeting with the surgeon on Friday, Russell flashed me “the look” when I pulled out my notebook and asked the surgeon a long list of questions, including what kind of music he liked to listen to during heart surgery. (Some people become quiet during times of stress, while others might cry or panic. But I’ve always put on my reporter’s hat to get me through.) 

 Dr. Jim Stringham, an affable man in his early 60s with white hair and a steady handshake (good qualities for heart surgeons and airline pilots, I’ve always thought), smiled and told me that he and his team like to listen to just about anything: classical, country, jazz, bluegrass, you name it.

 “What about Neil Young?” I asked. “Russell loves Neil Young. Can you put some of his classics on?”

As if I needed to ask.

You’ve got it,” said Dr. Stringham. “Neil Young it is.”

 So imagine this: After Russell is wheeled into the operating room this morning and introduced to the team of medical experts that will extend his life, he will close his eyes and drift off to Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” 

 I can’t think of a better new beginning for the next 20 years of his remarkable life. ♥️

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It must be my daughter’s year for strings. Not shoelace strings or apron strings or puppet strings, but B strings and G strings — the kind attached to a musical instrument.

First, when Lily turned 18 on New Year’s Eve, her boyfriend gifted her with a beautiful acoustic guitar. Already, she’s playing it like a young Judy Collins, accompanying some of her favorite bands on YouTube, singing and strumming like a pro. When I asked her if she wanted lessons, my daughter quickly said no.

“It’s like playing the cello, only without the bow and you hold it differently,” she said. “No lessons for me. I’ll teach myself.”

Then about a week after Lily’s birthday, the doorbell rang one night and her second stringed surprise arrived. Her friend, Jessica, stepped inside the doorway and held out a mint-condition cello.

“Happy late birthday — my mom and I want you to have this,” she told Lily. “We bought it when I was in the sixth grade and I only played it for one year. Since then, it’s just been sitting in our basement instead of being played and appreciated. It deserves someone like you.”

Lily and I stood for a moment in stunned silence. I’d given my son a double bass as a high school graduation gift, and now I was saving up to buy Lily a cello this spring to replace the one we’d been renting from her high school. But the instrument Jessica was offering wasn’t a factory-built, “standard issue” cello for students. It was the real deal, crafted by hand from maple wood and lustrously varnished. It shined under our dining room chandelier like the well-polished fender of a ’56 Chevy.

“Wow! Are you sure?” I asked Jessica. “We’d be happy to pay you something for it. Seriously.”

Jessica vigorously shook her head no. “My mom has heard Lily play and she insists that she have it. She won’t accept payment and that’s that.”

The cello was Lily’s, she said, no strings attached.

Literally.

“Because it sat unused for more than six years, the strings dried out,” said Jessica with a smile. “So you’ll have to buy new ones. Otherwise, it’s perfect.”

Lily and I both gave her a hug and wiped away happy tears. “We’ll always remember this moment,” I told Jessica. “It’s the most wonderful present ever.”

“I can’t wait to play it,” said Lily. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

After Jessica left, Lily wondered what she could do to thank her and her mother for such a generous gift. “How can I possibly repay them?” she asked.

“How about if you bake them something and write a nice ‘thank you’ card?” I suggested.

So that’s what she did. That night, Lily whipped up a batch of blueberry muffins and made two dozen little “thank you” flags with musical notes to stick in each one. The next day, she took them over to Jessica’s house and gave her mother a hug.

At a time of ugliness and uncertainty, how wonderful to see an act of pure selflessness and joy — a reminder that life is still full of kind and gracious people.

It’s said that these things happen in threes. At any moment, I’m half-expecting a harp to show up. 😉♥️🎶

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The unveiling of Melania Trump’s creepy blood-red Christmas trees at The White House this year has me thinking about my old next-door neighbor’s wacky decorating schemes in East Midvale, where I grew up.

Every year, “Mrs. K,” the mother of George, the Greek kid I had a crush on, flocked her Christmas tree a different color to contrast with her pristine white living room, which as far as I knew, hadn’t actually been used since her family moved in.

Whenever Mrs. K would hire me to read to her two daughters (they didn’t appreciate books as much as I did), she’d ask me to take my shoes off, then quickly usher me across a long, clear vinyl rug to the kitchen in the back of the house. My feet were never allowed to touch the wall-to-wall white shag carpet, and I doubted that her kids spent much time running their toes through the snowy drifts either.

Every Christmas, though, you could count on Mrs. K to add a little color to her blinding white-on-white decorating scheme. She’d send her husband to pick up the tree she’d had flocked at the Allied tree lot, then proudly trim it with tinsel, shiny baubles and blinking lights and put it on display in her front picture window. One year, she’d have a purple tree. Another year she’d have pink or blue. As I recall, there was even a bright red tree one year, similar to the trees Melania decided to really, really care about this holiday season.

Of course, I was jealous that George’s family always had a colorful tree.

“Why can’t we do that to OUR tree?” I’d ask my mother. “Why do we always have to get a plain green tree?”

“Because trees are green,” my mother would say. “When’s the last time you saw a blue tree in the wild?”

Finally, when I was 8, my mom relented with a sigh and decided that we could have a flocked tree. But it had to be white, she said,  so that it would look as though it was covered with snow, not pink bubble gum. After my dad strapped the street to the top of his station wagon and brought it home, he and my mom carefully removed the plastic, set it in a corner of our living room and told me and my siblings that we could go to town decorating.

Did we ever. By the end of the night, the tree was dripping from floor to ceiling with silver tinsel, red and green ornaments, sparkling white lights and shiny strands of beads. But there was one problem: we were dripping too, with glittering artificial snow.

We were flocked.

“Go wash off,” said our mom, “and I’ll get out the vacuum.” She kept it handy until after Christmas to suck up the trails of white that we’d leave every day all over the green shag carpet. “THIS,” said my mother, “is why trees are meant to be green.”

We never again had a flocked tree, and ironically, Mrs. K took my mom’s advice. The following year, we laughed when we saw the tree in her front picture window. It had been flocked a brilliant shade of avocado green. : )

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