Becoming My Mother

I wrote this piece a few years ago, but it is still one of my favorite essays about one of my favorite people.

If you ever visit Burlington, Vermont, you'll find lots to see and do.  Walk along the sparkling water of Lake Champlain and visit the vibrant downtown. If you're a shopper, you'll find no shortage of options.  My favorite place to shop in the Burlington area is on Dorset Street. It's not the University Mall with its conglomeration of chain stores. Across the street from the mall, in a small plaza, is a thrift store called Replays.  For the six years I lived in the Green Mountain state, that was my go-to place for collecting unique pieces. Some of my best finds included a v-neck Banana Republic shift that is still my favorite little black dress, a charcoal gray blazer that could have been tailored especially for me, and a yellow fleece that became my security blanket for long winters. Once, though, Replays provided a serendipitous retail therapy experience that left me with a surprising realization.

One autumn, just a few months after my daughter was born, my mother came to visit. My mom just happens to be the queen of thrift store shopping and gladly accompanied me on a visit to Replays. We split up as we browsed through the store and I met her near the dressing rooms.  She went into one to try on a skirt, and re-emerged a few minutes later wearing a navy wool A-line piece that looked vaguely familiar.

“So what do you think?” she asked, spinning around.

I walked a little closer for a better look and then burst into giggles.

“What's so funny?” she asked.

“Well, it's a nice skirt, but it can get kind of itchy. I just donated that a few weeks ago,” I replied.

“You're kidding! That's like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said.

I wondered what that said about my own fashion choices as my mother, almost 30 years my senior, was collecting a piece of my former wardrobe. I stood beside her and looked in the full-length mirror.  I smiled at the reflection of three generations--my mother and I, with my daughter sleeping against my chest in a sling. I was struck by how alike my mother and I are in appearance: the same brown hair and similar oval faces, mine smooth, and hers showing the evidence of time with fine lines. The same petite frame and pear-shaped body. I thought about all the fashion lessons I'd learned from her over the years: that skirts and sundresses will always look better on our body type than shorts in summertime, that classic pieces are always better than fads, and the how-tos of finding high quality clothes at bargain prices. I thought briefly of that phrase becoming my mother.  But I realized that perhaps becoming more like my mother wouldn't be a terrible thing.

Since my daughter was born I've been able to fully appreciate all the sacrifices my mother made to raise four children.  She has always offered support, encouragement, and shown me unconditional love. Through the skinned knees of childhood, drama of adolescence, and the joys and disappointments of adulthood, she has been my biggest cheerleader. She chose to be a stay-at-home mom while my brothers and I were young, which meant pinching pennies for several years.  She started her teaching career later in life and has become a phenomenal educator, creating a classroom environment that shows the same dedication to her students that she has always shown her own children. I have learned so much from her both personally and professionally.

As I looked in the mirror that day I made a promise to my daughter to try to be as good a mother to her as my own has been.  I realized then that becoming my mother wasn't something to dread, but something to aspire to.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom, and thanks for everything.


My Child Shamed Me Into Giving To a Homeless Man...and It Was a Humbling Experience

A few months ago, I had an essay published on Motherly. It was a shortened version; the full essay is below.

A man stood by the side of the road, thin and ragged, holding a battered cardboard sign. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, willing the light to turn green. He was close enough that if my car window had been rolled down, I could have reached out a hand and touched him. But the windows were shut, a solid barrier between us.

“Mommy, what is that guy doing? What does his sign say?” my daughter asked from the backseat. She was in kindergarten, just beginning to read.

I cast a side-eyed glance at him. “His sign says Homeless and Hungry,” I told her. “He’s asking for money”.

“Well, aren’t you going to help him?” she asked. “He’s hungry!”

I rarely carry cash, so it wasn’t a lie when I mumbled, “I don’t actually have any dollar bills with me right now”. I felt a pang of guilt, though. To my daughter, it was obvious that we should come to the aid of a hungry man who needed help. Had I lost sight of my own humanity, zooming past this man without a second glance?

Next time, I resolved, I would stop and give something.

The following day I stashed a few one dollar bills in the console of my car and designated it “the homeless fund.”

About a week later, on the way home from school, we came upon another man panhandling. Homeless Vet, his sign said. I gave him a couple of dollars through my car window. He was gracious, and the interaction only lasted a moment. As I drove on, I realized I was feeling something I hadn’t expected: happiness. I remembered then what I had learned in my early twenties as an Americorps volunteer, that giving makes you feel good.

This continued for a few months. My daughter would announce “There’s someone with a sign!” and I would scrounge for loose change or bills. But I wondered if we could do more. The people we gave to were often stationed near the interstate exit closest to our house, not far from a McDonald’s. What about gift cards instead of cash?

My daughter and I talked about other small things someone who lives on the street might like. “A bottle of water,” she suggested. “A snack.”

I went online and found several ideas for care kits. We went shopping and packed a few large ziploc bags with chapstick, tissues, bottled water, granola bars, $5 McDonald’s gift cards, and pairs of socks. I stashed them in my glove compartment to have on hand, and my daughter and I began putting together a handful of bags each month.

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Since then we have given away many of these care packages. The recipients have been men and women, young and old. Some are disheveled and some are well-groomed. The messages on their signs vary: Far From Home, Hungry, Anything Helps, Vietnam Vet, God Bless. Every time we give a bag away, though, we are met with thanks.

~

Then, last summer, I found that it was my turn to do the thanking. My daughter and I were at our local nature center and I had forgotten to pack sandwiches for lunch. A small hot dog stand was our only option, so I started to order. Then I noticed the “cash only” sign.

“Oh...wait. You don’t take credit or debit cards?” I asked.

“We only take cash,” the man running the stand replied.

“Never mind,” I said, embarrassed and flustered. “I don’t actually have any cash with me.”

Immediately my daughter began whining. “Mom-my, what are we going to eat? I’m starving!”

The vendor looked at her and then at me. “Wait here,” he said and began preparing two hot dogs.

“But I don’t have any way to pay you,” I protested.

“It’s ok,” he replied. “I’m giving them to you. I want to do this. Let me do one nice thing today.”

My voice caught as I thanked him, humbled to experience this level of kindness from a stranger. I felt a combination of discomfort with my situation combined with gratitude. For a moment, I realized what it must feel like to be on the other end of our care package project.

I’ll never know the impact of our project. “Most of those people probably throw it all away,” my husband has told me. “They’re just looking for money to buy drugs.”

Maybe that does happen sometimes. But so what? I’m not a Catholic, but I am a fan of Pope Francis. “Give without worry,” he said in an interview last year about giving to the homeless. Because giving to someone in need is always right.”

It’s been three years since my daughter and I began giving away our care packages. If she hadn’t shamed me into trying to help a hungry man, I would still be avoiding eye contact with people on the street who ask for assistance. Instead, I remember how I felt that day at the hot dog stand. I also think about the vendor’s words: Let me do one nice thing today.

The care packages are a simple project. But in a way, they’re anything but simple. The project has given me the chance to model kindness and compassion to my child. It’s created an opportunity for us to work together. And it’s allowed us to experience the joy that comes from doing something good.





When does a person become a writer?

In January, I finally gave myself permission to change my Twitter bio from 'aspiring writer' to 'writer'. I did this on the day I received my first check for a piece of writing. The amount wasn't much, but it felt validating to take that check to the bank. Was that the day I became a writer?

After some contemplation, I've realized that I must have become a writer long before that. Maybe it was in 2012 on the day I published my very first blog post. Maybe it was a year later when I attended a writer's conference and made an unsuccessful attempt to pitch my first manuscript to an agent. If I think back even further, I remember when I was in fifth grade and discovered that I liked crafting and sharing stories. Maybe a person becomes a writer when writing brings joy.

Of course, I still have days when writing does not bring joy. Sometimes it feels like the hardest thing in the world, and trying to find the right words makes me want to tear my hair out, strand by strand. Sometimes I sit down at my computer and feel like everything I write is garbage. But every once in a while I manage to write a piece that I really like. 

As I continue on my writing journey, this website is one more small step along the way.