Mastering midlife friendship

“Despite social media, between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans believe there is more loneliness in todays society than there used to be, and feel they have fewer meaningful relationships than they did five years ago.” — Shasta Nelson, Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness. 

DSCN8647 (1)In “Rebooting the Buddy System” — this month in Michigan Prime — I discuss the benefits of rebuilding our social circles in midlife and beyond.

What began as my usual 575-word monthly column ultimately morphed into a full-length feature based on interviews with friendship experts and responses from dozens of readers in the target audience. Look for Prime in your March 6 (Sunday) Detroit Free Press. Click here and flip to page 5 to read the piece online.

Photo: My neighbor pals at a holiday gathering, December 2015. I’m in the back row, far right (red hair).

Remembering my mother

It has been one long year since my mother died. On the first anniversary of her death, September 13, I am reposting the eulogy I wrote for her. In loving memory of Carlesta (Geisel) Gullion, the following was read at her memorial service on September 16, 2014.

CarlaheadshotWhen you’re deep in the trenches of caring for a parent who is battling advanced dementia, it gets harder with each passing year to remember the heart, the core, of the person he or she used to be.

The mother who drove you to the pediatrician becomes a child who requires an ongoing series of medical appointments and countless trips to the hospital. The father who once provided wisdom and advice can no longer make decisions about his own finances or even choose a brand of toothpaste. The mother who once cooked and hosted holiday dinners can barely hold a fork to her own mouth.

So, you find yourself at war with your own conscience, fighting sadness, anger, pity, denial, fatigue, and frustration. And then you feel guilty for feeling all of those feelings — because you remember that your mom or dad would never in a million years want to send you on this part of the journey.

Of course, nobody is ever truly prepared for The Phone Call — the final phone call that carries the mixed blessing. The phone call that announces Mom or Dad is finally at peace or “at home” in a better place. Like everyone else who loses a parent and goes about the somber business of making funeral arrangements, I used the time between that phone call and this funeral to reflect on earlier memories of my mother.

Baby 4

And for the first time in a while, I forgot about my mother’s debilitating illnesses and remembered instead the beautiful heart and generous soul of Carlesta Gullion — the person my mother was before she lost herself and her memories to vascular dementia.

All at once, my feelings of sadness, guilt, and frustration gave way to a much larger emotion that has guided and comforted me throughout these past few days. That emotion is gratitude.

Looking through sepia-toned photographs of my mother as a young girl, I remembered many of the stories she shared with me about her difficult childhood.

Carlesta’s father had abandoned her own mother before she was born, and later on, her mother and stepfather both struggled with alcoholism. But there were happy times too, and Mom shared those stories just as freely. She wanted me to hear about her maternal grandparents, who took care of her during the Great Depression while her mother worked. In her teens, Carlesta reconciled with her father — and even grew close to her new stepmother.

Mom also loved to tell me about her loyal collie dog, Sonny, and the carefree times they spent playing in her grandparent’s English Tudor house by a river in Indianapolis, her hometown. And she often shared stories of her beloved Irish grandfather — a watercolor artist and a great character whose creative talents she inherited.

Recalling the early challenges she had as a kid, I can’t help but feel incredibly grateful for the happy childhood my mother gave me. She was determined to create the stable home and family that she always wanted, and I have always been proud of her for accomplishing that.

MomXmasAmong my earliest happy childhood memories are the times I sat next to Carlesta on the living room couch, or in bed, with a picture book propped in my lap. We’d read aloud and laugh through the sing-song stories of Dr. Seuss, who was a distant (Geisel) cousin of Mom’s. Thanks to my mother, I learned to read before I entered kindergarten, and literature became a guiding light throughout my youth.

I’m grateful that she chose to marry Bill Gullion, who was the dearest and most reliable father any child could hope for. My dad was born to a sturdy pair of Scottish immigrants, and they were the anchors of my mother’s new family in Detroit.

I like to think that the fine example set by my parent’s marriage — which lasted 42 happy years until my father died — has been a loving influence in my marriage to Doug La Ferle, the love of my life, and my rock. Carlesta often told me she couldn’t have asked for a finer son-in-law than Doug. She was proud of Doug’s talents as an architect and artist, and she regarded him as her own son.

Likewise, Doug helped me care for her as if she were his own mother. During Carlesta’s long illness and its many complications, there were countless times in the hospital and in the nursing home when Doug gave her the comfort and reassurance she needed after I had lost patience as her caregiver. Surely there is a special place in the heart of heaven for spouses like Doug.

As an only child, my mother also had a close relationship with her sister-in-law, Chris Gullion, and the two of them took turns hosting many holiday dinners over the years.

Baby1Having come from such a small family, my mother frequently reminded me that good friends are a family one chooses. When I was growing up, she often advised me to choose my friends carefully. Teaching by example, Carlesta maintained many of her longtime friendships, some dating back to high school. She was also a member of a stock club, PEO, and the Starr House Guild.

I am deeply grateful for all the times my mother helped me become a mother after my son Nate was born. Carlesta loved her grandson more than the world, and I don’t think she ever refused when I asked her to babysit him. Just as she had done for me, my mother created many happy memories for Nate, and she couldn’t have been more proud of all his accomplishments.

Such was her love for her only grandchild, in fact, that she became a Notre Dame football fan while he was a student at the University of Notre Dame. Mom wasn’t remotely interested in sports before then — so this was a testimony of their relationship. Going through Carlesta’s papers recently, I found dozens of cards and letters from Nate, which she had lovingly saved, in just about every drawer in the house.

My mother worked as a freelance color artist for several photography studios — including Bill Williams in Royal Oak — throughout my childhood and teen years. She was among the first work-at-home moms in the late 1950s and 1960s, setting up a home studio in our family room.

-35Later on, when I began my own career as a freelancer writer, I had my mother to thank for teaching me how to strike a balance between work and family. What a role model I had! I remember coming home from school as a kid and finding my mother at work at her easel, leaning over her photographs and mixing her oil paints. She always had time to listen as I shared the highlights or low points of my days at school. I am forever grateful for that too.

As I type these thoughts, it occurs to me that what defined my mother more than anything was her reverence for home.

Though it’s a very a small word with just four letters, “home” meant everything to Carlesta. Home was a refuge and a sanctuary. To her, the word encompassed the people inside its walls — family and friends — as well as its gardens and furnishings. Inspired by our family’s many road trips to historic Williamsburg, Virginia, and New England, she collected antiques and decorated every room in the house with treasures from our trips.

With her gift for hospitality, she entertained with style and care. She brought beauty to everything she crafted, whether it was a birthday party for a large group or a planter on the front porch. Making a home was an art form.

Once dementia had incapacitated her, moving Mom out of her beloved Royal Oak condo and into a nursing home was, by far, the hardest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to do.

All said and done, of all the gifts my mother has given me — including the gift of life itself –I am most grateful for that abiding love of home.

This occurred to me not long after I learned that she had died. At the time, Doug and I were on the last day of our vacation. As soon as we got the call (at 5:45 on Saturday morning) we packed everything as quickly as we could and headed down the dark highway back to Royal Oak. It was the longest drive I’ve ever taken, though I don’t think the reality of my mother’s passing had really taken hold in my mind.

But finally, as we turned down Vinsetta Boulevard and our own house came into view like a mother with arms opened wide, the tears came and I felt embraced by something I can only describe as boundless gratitude for my home, my family, and this community — the roots of which my mother had planted inside me years ago.

My father, who passed away in 1992, had always found comfort in the Bible passage (John 14:2), “My father’s house has many dwelling places.” It was read at his own mother’s funeral. When Dad died, I asked a pastor to read that verse in the eulogy I wrote for him.

And so, with a full and thankful heart, I hope my parents have found their place together in the house with many dwelling places, and that they are, finally, at peace and at home.

After this eulogy was read by pastor John Miller, my son Nate La Ferle read my favorite poem by Celtic poet David Whyte, “The House of Belonging.”  

Carlesta Gullion’s obituary is posted here.

My last photo with Dad

This short piece was first published in The Daily Tribune on Father’s Day, 2002, in my old “Life Lines” column. It’s reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home

249570_10150280937670242_5875146_nIt’s my favorite photograph of Dad and me — one of those priceless family icons I’d rescue if the house caught fire.

Taken on Father’s Day in 1992, it reveals the totally uncomplicated relationship we’d enjoyed right up to the moment the shutter clicked. I use the word uncomplicated because I cant think of a more lyrical way to describe my father or the way he lived.

Even when pop psychologists urged us to scrutinize our parents and find them suspect, I saw my dad as a sweet, patient man whose agenda was rarely hidden. He was the kind of guy who appreciated most people just as they were, and I think that’s what we all loved best about him.

But let me explain the photograph.

Dad and I were standing on my back porch, having just finished the surprise dinner I’d hosted for him and my father-in-law. Dad wore a pale blue-gray windbreaker and an outdated pair of glasses that somehow looked right on him. My hair was orange, thanks to a failed experiment with a drugstore highlighting kit. The late afternoon sun shimmered through the maples in our yard, and my mother was anxious to finish the film left in her camera.

Dad and I hugged tightly for the shot.

He was sixty-five and grinning — despite the grim diagnosis of degenerative heart disease he’d been given a few months earlier. At thirty-seven, I was newly unemployed and unsure of my career path. The travel magazine I edited for nearly six years had folded abruptly, dropping me off at midlife without a new map. Still, summer had arrived and we were optimistic. Dad’s diabetes was under control, or as he put it, he’d been “feeling pretty darned good lately.”

Better yet, the ball games were in full swing. It wasn’t shaping up to be a stellar season for the Tigers, but Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker were giving it their best. While I never shared my dad’s religious devotion to baseball, I still can’t hear the crack of a bat against a ball without remembering the old transistor radio he kept tuned to his games.

But theres something else about the photo. Looking at it today, youd never imagine the two of us had a major-league concern beyond what we’d be eating for dessert that evening. Nor would you guess that this 35mm print chronicled one of our last days together.

The inevitable phone call came two weeks later on a Monday morning: “Your dad collapsed in the driveway. The ambulance is coming.”

So this week I’m very grateful for that luminous Father’s Day afternoon ten years ago — grateful I hadn’t waited another day to throw my dad a surprise party. I usually postpone my good intentions, adding them to a long list of things I plan to do later. Later, when theres more time…

“Today is the only time we can possibly live,” wrote Dale Carnegie, whose work my father read often and admired. I see now that Carnegie’s philosophy is gleefully captured in my father’s grin, which my mother wisely captured on film.

Selling my mother’s house

DSCN6604In this month’s Michigan PRIME, I talk about selling my late mother’s beloved home and the difficult process of sorting through a parent’s belongings for an estate sale. It’s an emotional  rite of passage that many of us face after our last parent dies.

Look for the print edition in the April 6 edition of the Sunday Free Press, or click here to read the column online (on page 4).

A fragile season

FragileSpring is just a few weeks away, yet the barren landscape outside my office window looks more like the moon than southeast Michigan. Mounds of brittle, gray snow flank the curb, and the sidewalk shimmers with black ice. Only diehard neighbors stick to their evening jogging routines. Spring is just a mirage.

On the liturgical calendar, it is the Lenten season. According to T.S. Eliots poem, “Ash Wednesday,” it is the time between “dying and birth.” It is not the ideal time to face a changing identity, pending menopause, a stalled career, or a recently emptied nest. It is the time of year when, despite my better judgment, my cheerful disposition is easily frayed.

Lately my writing life seems like a long wait in line at the post office. And its not that Im seriously blocked. Just lonely.

For the past five months, my only child has been happily settled in his cramped dormitory room at a university in another state. Im still adjusting to the hollow echo of his oddly clean and empty bedroom, looking for remnants of my old self — my mothering self — in the bits and pieces he left behind. The family calendar in our kitchen has some vacant spaces, too, and is no longer buried under neon-color sticky notes announcing band concerts, Quiz Bowl meets, school conferences, and carpool schedules. Ive become what our high school mothers club refers to as one of the “Alumni Moms.”

Empty nesting is harder on mothers who work at home — mothers who stare into a computer monitor until the garden thaws in mid-April and children migrate home from college. This age-old ritual, cavalierly termed “letting go” by most parenting experts, is the final frontier for those of us who’ve made child rearing a major focus of our adult lives.

Heeding the advice of a friend who happens to be a local pastor, Ive learned that community service is the best antidote for what we Midwesterners describe as acute cabin fever.

“You need to leave your comfort zone. Use your gifts in the community,” urged the pastor. In other words, do unto others and get over yourself. Which is how I ended up working a busy afternoon shift at a warming shelter for the homeless.

Answering a need during the cruel winter months, a small church in my neighborhood opens its kitchen and dining room to approximately 50 homeless men and women at a time. Job counselors and social workers volunteer their expertise to those who struggle with substance abuse or unemployment (or both). Parishioners are recruited to serve meals, scrub sticky tables, pour pots of black coffee, and perform simple clerical tasks for the under-staffed warming center.

The visiting homeless are required to wear nametags. Before starting my first shift, I was advised to call each person by name and to refer to the group as “guests.”

I have worked with the homeless in other circumstances. But I am always a bit shy at first. These people – the guests — have formed their own community, complete with its own set of rules and rhythms. Many of them know each other after weeks or months of sharing sandwiches and unrolling sleeping bags in the same church basements and overnight shelters. I am an outsider in their midst; a white journalist from planet Suburbia. I feel inept and alien when confronted by so much horrific need, yet I have come to serve, and in a small way, to mother.

My first assignment was to ladle out steaming heaps of boiled ham and potatoes to each hungry guest who had lined up at the serving table.

That day, there were close to fifty, mostly men. Most were eager to talk and visibly grateful for a free meal. I was taken aback, initially, at the way each guest wanted me to spoon his portion onto a plate and hand it to him. Not a single person would take the plates I had already filled and set on the table in the interest of moving the line more quickly.

Nearby, in a cluttered corner that served as makeshift office space for the center, another volunteer was keeping company with a guest whose nametag read “Marian.” Aloof and unkempt, Marian flashed angry, intelligent brown eyes and wore a burgundy wool cap over her brow. Playing a game of Scrabble on the office computer, she didnt mix with the other guests, nor did she want to converse with my fellow volunteer. Her body language wasnt hard to translate: Keep out. Dont touch. My heart is not open for business or charity. She didnt look up when we asked if she wanted a hot lunch or dessert. Fixed on the computer screen, she mumbled something about a candy bar she had eaten earlier, and declined our offer.

One by one, all the guests except Marian were served, and I was told by the center organizer that it was time to clear the tables for dessert. I began my assignment quickly, grateful once again for the focus required of even the simplest domestic routines.

Then, suddenly, a voice.

“Excuse me, excuse me?”

I barely heard her over the metallic clatter of roasting pans and serving utensils. It was Marian, the Scrabble player. Without turning from the screen, Marian repeated her question, more audibly this time, to anyone within earshot: “How do you spell fragile?”

Slowly, carefully, my fellow volunteer voiced the letters aloud and repeated them: F-R-A-G-I-L-E.

Fragile.

Returning to the kitchen with an armload of dishes, I reconsidered the word and what it meant. I recalled how carelessly Id been using the adjective to define or describe the strange terrain of my new empty nest. And how, in a single instant, its meaning, its very etymology, had changed forever. — Cindy La Ferle, March 2005

This essay was first published in the online magazine, Literary Mama, and is included in the print anthology, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined (copyright 2006; Seal Press).