Universal Weirdos

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This is the second chapter of my short memoir, “Chasing Normal.” It details the acute period of grief right after my mom died. I posted the first installment earlier.

I felt surrounded by the grave. The last time I had been to my grandparents’ Florida home, I had accompanied my mother. Back then, I was a carefree teenager. A lot had changed. My grandmother had courageously fought mouth cancer, enduring a significant part of her palette being removed. She did not survive. I could not have conceived at the time that her firstborn, my mother, would follow just two years later from lung cancer. It was strange being in that home with two crucial people missing.

The home was completely different. My grandmother’s soft, feminine touch was nowhere to be found. Instead, every available space had been covered in a swashbuckling nautical theme. My grandfather had hung paintings of ships and seascapes, sadly erasing almost every trace of his deceased wife. It was unsettling, but not completely surprising. While hey had eked out forty-nine years of marriage, I suspect it was not always the happiest of unions. They used to bicker—a lot. His hearing was going, so she would raise her voice. “John!” was often punctuated with heavy sighs and exasperated eye-rolls. It never erupted into a full-blown argument, but there was always an undercurrent of seething.

I liked my maternal grandma. Although, I sometimes sensed that there was a time limit or expiration date on our welcome. Past that window of time, we grandkids were interlopers. It was understandable; She had raised seven children, almost single-handedly. As a typical husband of the 1940s and ’50s, my grandfather dutifully provided for his family. He was away a lot while serving in the Navy, and later, as a U.S. postal worker, who moonlit as a musician. She had finally retired from the business of child-rearing. This was in contrast to my dad’s mom, my Italian Grandma Pippa. She couldn’t get enough of my brothers and me, as if her happiness depended on breathing the same air as ours. As different as they were, both were as good as gold and surprisingly linked through their deaths. Grandma Pip had died about one year after my maternal grandma, and precisely one year before my mom. Three years, three deaths. The matriarchs of my family were dropping like flies.

I struggled to stay focused as my grandfather went on and on about his new decorations. The style conveyed his frustrated wanderlust. I could appreciate the theme as we still had not set eyes on the beach, not even from a moving car. Thus far, trip highlights included: a rousing senior citizen mixer, nearly stepping on a palmetto bug the size of my foot, and spotting a couple geckos darting across the back porch, but still no surf and sun. My soul ached for a breather.

He described in painstaking detail each painting and tchotchke, slowly leading us to the guest room. What was once a serene bedroom retreat, now doubled as storage space for his selection of keyboards. We got an earful of the ins and outs of each one.

Why we hadn’t just politely taken our leave and hit the trail… who knows? It was the first time we didn’t have our maternal cruise director to help us navigate the intricacies of family etiquette. She would have effortlessly untangled us and offered some pointers. Instead, we managed by not managing. I look back on that time as a second adolescence. With severe awkwardness and reluctance, I was maturing on-the-fly, but it sure wasn’t pretty. I fell asleep wondering why I had even taken this trip. Then I remembered that the emptiness waited for me at home too.

The next morning the neighbors started showing up. Bing-Bong! My grandfather was thrilled. We now had two standing invitations for dinner and drinks among the Palm Coast senior elite. In grief, time seems to stand still. Any diversion is usually a welcome event, but this was just too much.

Bob was a big guy with a mustache and thick, dark-rimmed glasses. I don’t remember his wife’s name. Maybe Carol, Nancy, Patty? When I think of her, Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company comes to mind, with the flowery muumuu and large hoop earrings. It wasn’t so much how they dressed, but an unshakeable feeling that they were just a little creepy. Bob and “whats-her-name” were typical Floridian retirees, transplants from the midwest who came to escape the cold. They embraced the senior living lifestyle: picture loud tropical shirts, brightly colored pedal pushers, and palm tree earrings. They also really liked their cocktails. They offered us “mar-toonies” with the requisite wink and chortle. Har-har. My brother and I didn’t drink. We were of age, but not interested. I got the sense they found us very odd. They were right. We took part in dinner conversation, inwardly plotting an escape.

By the next day, we had had our fill of life in the retirement community. We would hit the beach and then a nearby amusement park. 

The beach was a balm to my wounds. Water has always had a calming effect on me unless I’m swimming in it or boating on it. Actually, I usually find it quite terrifying. I’m not a strong swimmer, and then, of course, there’s the whole Jaws thing. But to sit quietly and watch the repetitive waves rolling in from a secure seat of soft sand… the pain of my mom’s death eased, and temporarily faded to the background. As my pores thirstily soaked up the sun’s warmth, I stared straight ahead. I had a fleeting, faint memory of who I used to be, just weeks before.

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It was hotter than Hades as we silently strolled around Orlando’s Universal Studios, passing through throngs of tourists. I’ve never liked being in big crowds, but in some ways, I enjoyed the anonymity. It felt as if my brother and I were strangers as well. We had grown so far apart over the preceding years. And yet we were forever linked by the circumstances of my mom’s untimely death. I wanted to talk about all the hurt that was threatening to burst forth, but I sensed he wasn’t game.

Neither of us is into rollercoasters. My parents preferred historical sites or museums to Cedar Point for family vacations. How delightfully pretentious! I don’t know why we landed on Universal Studios; It probably cost a lot less than Disney World. In our muddled state, we weren’t expecting to have fun at either place, but it offered a change of scenery and deliverance from the overly-eager neighbors.

We silently stood in a few interminable lines, but as we approached the entrance, my brother would infuriatingly back out. He had to use the bathroom or needed a drink. Huh. I knew he didn’t like roller coasters—neither did I, but these were more like kiddie rides surrounded by elaborate movie sets. When I called him on it, he said he wasn’t sure he could handle it. We were standing just outside the entrance for the Back to the Future ride at a complete impasse about how to proceed when a group of young kids came strolling by. I flagged them down and asked if it was a scary ride. They didn’t even disguise their condescending laughter. “Nope. Piece o’ cake!” They could’ve easily added, “Ya weirdos!” at the end of that statement since they had already implied it.

“They’re like, what?—eight year-olds? You can do this,” I urged. I did not drive all the way to Florida to just turn around after a whole lot of standing in line. And what was waiting for us back at my grandfather’s? A “mar-tooni” and more prying eyes. He reluctantly got back in line. As we snaked our way towards the entrance, I followed my brother’s gaze to the sign posted above the waiting area. It read: Do NOT ride this if you have back/neck pain, a back/neck injury, suffer anxiety, claustrophobia, have heart palpitations, or are in advanced stages of pregnancy. Oh boy… here we go. He flicked his finger to the sign as if to emphasize the grave warning. My brother has never been one to read legalese lightly. His analytical nature, coupled with a law degree cause him to lean into words until he gets personally acquainted with each frightening possibility. I had to stop this crazy train from leaving the station. “What’s the problem?” I challenged. I was not backing out and I certainly was not going to get on the stupid ride alone. What kind of loser goes on an amusement park ride by herself? His gaze went back to the sign. He let out a long sigh. “Right now I have every one of those conditions… except for pregnancy.”

“You sure? About the pregnancy?” I asked with raised eyebrows.

The laughter erupted organically. It felt wonderful. Cool rain on the muggiest of days. Refreshment. I hadn’t laughed that hard in 100 years.

In between gasps for air, I managed to convince him to give it a try. A good sport, he acquiesced. The ride, as I suspected was rather unexceptional. It was a piece of cake. The visual effects were stunning, though. At one point, the ride took us into the mouth of a giant dinosaur. I looked at my brother so we could marvel at the experience together. His eyes were clamped shut and his head was tilted towards the ceiling as if praying. His prayer probably went something like this, “Please let this all be over, Lord.” A very good prayer as they go. I had uttered it myself countless times over the past few weeks. Back to the Future was the last ride we attempted. We had a hard enough time dealing with the painful past.

1st Photo by Cami Talpone on Unsplash

2nd Photo by Zack Minor on Unsplash

Chasing Normal

I’m working on a short story about a series of random events that happened shortly after my mother died. Her death is a theme that makes its way into much of my writing. This is the first edit of my first installment. 

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Armed with a Cucumber and Cheap Ham

In the days and weeks that followed my mom’s sudden death, I was feeling anything but normal. Yet circumstances and the people surrounding me seemed to be marching onward. It was all strangely just as before… Oh, but it wasn’t.

We buried my formerly vibrant mother. I headed back to college to complete the last days of my senior year. Finals. Not sure how I managed. It could have been the result of a handful of professors who took pity, although I don’t know if anyone actually knew. Or maybe I was on a mission and the distraction offered a sort of respite from the darkness, allowing me to become hyper-focused on my studies. My mom had happily anticipated my graduation after all. Whether it was attaining that noble goal, or a blind eye from the administration, or a combination, I will never know precisely how I passed—with an impressive 3.5 G.P.A., I might add.

Graduation followed without my biggest fan present. Troubled and searching for her in the faces of all those happy onlookers, I reached for the diploma. My dad and brother were there, albeit late. There had been a panicked minute or two where I thought no one from my family would witness my proudest achievement to date. When they rushed in, visibly harried, I let out the breath I had been holding. They were emotionally lost and grieving as well. But I couldn’t help thinking that she would’ve been on time.

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Anatomy of a Catholic Snob

I’m not gonna lie, Pope Francis scares the living daylights out of me. Can I get an AMEN from the rest of you faithful pew warmers who consider yourselves orthodox Catholics? I certainly don’t take issue with his beautiful message of mercy. And he may even be right about the Our Father translation, but some of the things he says, or more importantly refuses to say… alarming, right? Try as I may, my response to the Holy Father is rarely measured. Justified or not, the pope is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my struggle to resist falling into a prideful superiority complex. I’ve judged many of my brothers and sisters in Christ and found them not up-to-snuff.  That’s due to my predilection for Catholic snobbery. What is a Catholic snob? Here are a few simple questions that will help you spot the signs and find out where you land on the Catholic snobbery scale: Do you regularly turn up your nose at other Catholics and Christians? Is your personal piety beyond reproach? Are you constantly flaunting your superior Catholic cred? You may be a Catholic Snob. Continue reading to discern whether your nose is in the air and you just don’t care! 

You may be a Catholic snob if…

1. You have no funny bone.

In order to really appreciate our human condition as well as our Catholic faith, it’s important to be able to laugh, especially at ourselves. Laughing at our own foibles with a sincere and contrite heart is a small step towards sainthood. St. Francis de Sales remarked, “Humor is the foundation of reconciliation.” St. Padre Pio is credited with saying, “Serve the Lord with laughter.” However, the Catholic Snob finds very little funny. They can be severe and make many harsh judgments about others and themselves. If they are found laughing, often it is because they’ve met someone who prefers the guitar Mass to Gregorian chant.

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A Face for Radio

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I was on Relevant Radio’s Morning Air show recently. If you haven’t heard of Relevant, it’s a wonderful Catholic radio network that broadcasts all over the country. You can download the Relevant app and listen LIVE in case you don’t get it in your neck of the woods. I’m still trying to figure out why they’re interested in talking to me. I’m no theologian, nor a psychologist. I’m just a wife and mom who loves her Catholic faith. Nonetheless, I’m so honored to be able to talk about what the Holy Spirit has put on my heart.

My interview was set to begin at 6:30am Denver time, 8:30 on the East coast. So I said my prayers, injected some black coffee into my veins, fired up the old laptop, and quietly tiptoed to our basement. It was my hope to not wake up the rest of the house. I prefer to have serious talks about the faith when my kids aren’t screaming and horseplaying in the background. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I lose serious credibility when I can be heard shouting, “You kids are killing me! STOP doing cartwheels off the coffee table NOW!!!” As I sat nestled on our downstairs couch in the beautiful silence of our basement playroom, my phone decided it wasn’t going to cooperate. Mere moments before I was slated to be on, as I was attentively listening to the interview preceding mine,  my phone reception started breaking up. This is a sample of what I heard:

Next, we’ll be talki—KSSHHHHHTTT—She’ll tell us abou—KRRRRRRRRSSSSHHHT—and join us fo—SSSSHHHHPLEK!

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Shedding Light on Classical Education

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I worked in media for years before becoming a mom. As a writer/producer, I learned the importance of simplicity and brevity in crafting a message. In film school,  I was trained in the art of delivering the mythical elevator pitch—a famous director bumps their grocery cart into yours while perusing the organic fruits section—you better be ready to summarize your idea in a concise, persuasive manner before they finish selecting their non-GMO, pesticide-free dragon fruit. Otherwise, your amazing script idea is DOA. (In case you’re wondering, the opportunity to wow Martin Scorsese never actually materialized. I’ve also never laid eyes on a unicorn.) With experience, I’ve gotten better at pitching ideas to people. Often, I hit the mark, other times—not so much.

Ever since my kids started their Catholic Classical school I have assumed the role of unofficial spokesperson. I may not be on the payroll, but my love for Classical education inclines me to share with everyone I encounter, much to the annoyance of friends and family. For those willing to listen to how amazing my kids’ school is, the natural follow-up question is, “So, what is classical education?”  Easy enough, right?

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9 Things I Wish I Could Go Back in Time to Tell My Young Self About the Faith

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“Pssst… Hey kid, c’ mere. Wanna hear a secret?”

This greeting should send chills down the spine of any parent, right? Under normal circumstances I’d agree, but what if it involved… say, a little time travel? And instead of a complete stranger, it was middle-aged me approaching a gawky, 12-year-old, pimply-faced version of myself?

You’re thinking I’ve been sampling the legalized weed that is regrettably ubiquitous in my home state of Colorado.

In truth, I occasionally like to reimagine what my life might look like if I could have a heart-to-heart with that 12-year-old kid I used to be. What if I could share with her all that I’ve learned about the beauty and genius of the Catholic Church? What if I could shake her and tell her to take a plunge into the depth of her faith?

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Happy Mother’s Day: Lessons My Mom Never Taught Me

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I think about my mom almost daily since her death 26 years ago. While it’s been too long since I’ve heard her laugh, she has left me with a bounty of wisdom that sustains me. In fact, there are simply too many lessons to enumerate. She was a Catholic school teacher by profession, so it was in her nature to instruct and impart knowledge. But there were also things she most certainly did not pass down. There are some worldly teachings she decidedly left by the wayside. And for that, I am even more grateful and bolstered.

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