Mothering myself

Mother is a verb, not a noun.”  ~ English Proverb

Its going to take several days to recover from last weeks domestic flurry – a self-inflicted storm of floor washing, napkin ironing, furniture polishing, and grocery shopping. As most women would, I blamed it initially on the Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that I would be hosting out-of-town guests.

But the truth is, my out-of-town guests were my son and his wife – dear ones whove seen our home in its most chaotic state and are not particularly fussy.

As it happened, I wasnt even scheduled to cook the big Thanksgiving meal this year. I knew wed be taking my mother (whose vascular dementia is monitored at a nearby assisted-living residence) to dinner at a local restaurant. A culinary no-brainer.

And as for kitchen duty, my only obligation was to provide breakfast, lunch, or light snacks for our small family of four throughout the weekend.

So why all the fuss? Was it simply my old holiday anxiety rearing its annual, festive head? Or was I trying to impress my new daughter-in-law, who was spending the nights with our son in the guest room?

None of the above.

It wasnt until my son pointed out that I was getting a tad neurotic about freshening the bathroom towels every half hour that I realized my housekeeping-on-steroids was another symptom of grief and mother loss.

Before I explain, bear with me while I spin through a Dickensian-style flashback of winter holidays past … Back when my mother was a busy commercial artist and homemaker who loved to entertain guests … Back before heart disease and dementia rendered her helpless and confused.

Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

Back then, my mother would put me to work alongside her at the kitchen counter. Under her artistic direction, I baked cookies, rolled appetizers, and speared tiny cornichons with cellophane-ruffled toothpicks.  Together we dusted and rearranged all the living room furniture. Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

It didnt matter if the visiting folks were my grandparents or my fathers coworkers; Mom and I channeled Betty Crocker, Julia Child or Martha Stewart.  If the holiday guests were also spending the night (or more), Mom would throw the schedule into overdrive and put me on laundry duty. Cranking up the washing machine, shed order me to gather every towel and washrag in the linen closet that “needed freshening up.” Yes, even the clean ones.

I’ll admit there were moments when I felt like Cinderella in her scullery maid phase. Even so, those domestic chores trumpeted the arrival of the holiday season. And now, they’re an inextricable part of the memories and traditions my mother crafted for our family — even when the world was crumbling around us.

In December of 1992, five months after my fathers sudden death from a heart attack, I didnt want to think about Christmas. The very idea of hanging mistletoe, or clearing the dining room table for a “festive” meal, seemed like a violation of our familys raw grief.  It was my mother who convinced me otherwise, reminding me that Dad loved Christmas — and that he would have wanted us to celebrate for the sake of my little boy, who was barely seven at the time.

I believe, in retrospect, that sprucing things up for the holidays that year kept my mother from feeling totally engulfed by her loss. Cleaning, decorating, and cooking helped fill the unspeakable void while she made Christmas for the rest of us. Over the past five years, dementia has devoured that resourceful mother of mine, but only in recent months have I found the courage, and the words, to admit how much I miss the nurturing that only a mother can give.

And I know, now, that all the ridiculous furniture polishing and towel washing — my flurry of domestic fuss last week — was a way of mothering myself. Following Mom’s old example, I was cleaning for comfort and trying to recreate a lost sense of order. A memory of holidays long past.  â€“ Cindy La Ferle  

–Original collage detail above: “Gathering In,” by Cindy La Ferle–


Feasting by candlelight

It was the weirdest thing. A pair of brass candlesticks Id kept on top of the curio cabinet had suddenly disappeared. It was the night before Thanksgiving, and up until then, I was operating under the delusion that everything on my to-do list was checked off or in good order.

My dining room table was polished and carefully set with cloth napkins and my Grandmothers Haviland china.

But after putting the final touch on my harvest-themed centerpiece, I noticed the two candlesticks were missing. They werent the ones Id planned to use — but their absence was a real mystery. Doug swore he hadnt seen them, and our son Nate was out with friends that evening.

Ill never know what possessed me to go outside and look through Nates car, but I did. There, in a small box on the front seat, were the kidnapped candlesticks plus a pair of partially burned black candles leftover from Halloween.

Why on earth would a high school senior have these items stashed in his car? I could hardly wait for the detailed explanation.

Well, the candlestick thief returned home shortly thereafter, followed by a noisy troop of teenagers. All were in good spirits and looking forward to their long holiday weekend. To my surprise, the topic of the evening was the traditional Thanksgiving meal they had shared that same afternoon in the high school cafeteria. The feast had been their own idea, in fact, with no prompting from teachers or school administrators. Few parents knew theyd planned it.

One student brought a large roasted turkey; others brought side dishes, tablecloths, and trimmings. Nates contribution to the feast was – you guessed it — the pair of candlesticks with the half-burned Halloween candles, which hed grabbed in his usual rush out the door that morning.

“Why didnt you tell me?” I grilled him. “I would have given you some new candles.”  I reminded him, too, that he shouldnt remove things from our dining room without asking. To his credit, Nate apologized, and then informed me that hed grabbed the “ugliest, most hideous pair of candlesticks” he could find, to avoid upsetting me.

Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.” – Plato

Hideous candlesticks aside, teenagers never cease to amaze and delight me. Just when you wonder if theyd even care about ceremonial things like candlelight and holiday dinners, they turn the tables on you.

That Thanksgiving feast in the cafeteria was one of the last Nate and his friends (a.k.a. “The Crew”) would celebrate as the extended family theyd become. Like all families, biological or adopted, they were sharing a ritual as ancient as recorded history. Feasting together provides comfort and forges lifelong memories.

It also occurred to me that my candlestick thief is one lucky young man, especially since hes an only child, to have grown up with other youngsters whod bother to create a holiday meal together. Last week, in fact, another parent told me that the kids enjoyed it so much that they hoped to do something equally festive for Christmas and Easter.

“Family ritual is pretty much anything we do together deliberately, as long as its juiced up with some flourish that lifts it above humdrum routine,” notes Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions (Running Press). As Cox points out, anthropologists have yet to discover a human culture that didnt practice rituals. Rituals impart a sense of identity and help us navigate change. Even the simplest routines we practice when our children are very young, in fact, will help them feel grounded and secure.

So its definitely worth the trouble – using your Grandmas silver, setting a nice table, and recreating holiday menus that have special meaning to your family. While you’re at it, dress up for the occasion and memorize a toast. And always be sure to keep extra candlesticks on hand. — Cindy La Ferle

First published in The Daily Tribune (Dec. 2003) and Ideals’ Thanksgiving anthology, “Feasting by Candlelight” (above) is included in Writing Home, a collection of my home and family stories. The book is available nationally on Amazon in print and Kindle editions, with holiday season proceeds benefitting organizations serving the homeless in my community. 

How to find your voice

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of finding or developing a “voice.” As William Zinsser points out, it’s as simple (or as difficult) as this: Your voice is who you are.

Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Which makes it hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s in our own hearts.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations;
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo by Cindy La Ferle; taken at the Grand Rapids Museum during ArtPrize 2011. —

Looking for Walden

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.” — Henry David Thoreau

Thanks to the digital tools of modern technology, I now have a mind-boggling array of options — the whole world — at my fingertips.

Without leaving the desk chair in my home office, I can converse online with colleagues I’ve never met in Cleveland, Melbourne, London or Los Angeles. With iPhone in hand, I can promote my own work on half a dozen social networks, from Facebook to Pinterest. I can order kitchen gadgets, books, pet supplies, designer handbags, fruit baskets, skincare products and cowboy boots from countless online catalogs.

Every day I have more choices than I can reasonably consider.  And so, like many over-connected Americans, I carry the burden of complexity — a burden so overwhelming that there are times when I imagine trading places with Henry David Thoreau.

It’s only fitting that I rediscovered Thoreau the week I purged my home office with a dust rag and a vacuum cleaner. The autumn mornings felt ripe for pitching and sorting, for creating blank space where none existed before.  Walden, Thoreau’s famous treatise on simple living, was jammed behind a pile of unread paperbacks on an overcrowded shelf.

Like other writers with good intentions, I’ve admired Thoreau but hadn’t read Walden since it appeared many years ago on a required reading list at my state university. I’d retained only a few pithy quotes, and recalled only sketchy details of Thoreau’s Spartan cabin in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. But suddenly, here was the book, whispering to me across the centuries —Simplify, simplify!”– and begging me to take another look.

Glancing through the pages, I realized Thoreau’s words had been wasted on me when I first read them. At the time I was a college student living in a cramped dormitory, eager to graduate and buy enough furniture to fill a spacious suburban apartment.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” Thoreau warned in the chapter titled “Economy.”  Only an overworked adult — one who is drowning in the debris of modern life and pressed by the weight of too many commitments — could truly appreciate Thoreau’s genius, I mused as I kept reading.

Yet it also occurred to me that things were vastly different for Thoreau. The “comforts of life” in the 1840s were not exactly cushy by today’s standards. His notion of luxury might have been taking tea in his mother’s bone china saucers. So what had he given up to commune with nature?

Even before he moved to Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn’t accumulated three television sets or a closetful of designer clothes. He didn’t own several pairs of expensive athletic shoes for all those philosophical walks he took. He didn’t wonder where he’d store his blender or Tupperware while he roughed it in the woods. His cot in the cabin couldn’t have been lumpier than the straw-filled mattresses in most mid-19th-century homes. And Thoreau never had to trade a personal computer for a pencil.

With all due respect, I wonder, how tough was Thoreau’s sabbatical with simplicity? Is it true that he occasionally walked from Walden Pond back to Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife had a home-cooked supper waiting for him?

As Andrew Delbanco notes in his wise book, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), reading Thoreau can make us feel “accused of hoarding comforts.”  We might even try to find holes in Thoreau’s impassioned pitch for the simple life. And yet Thoreau is, as Delbanco says, “an irresistible writer; to read him is to feel wrenched away from the customary world and delivered into a place we fear as much as we need.”

How true. Just as Thoreau did, I’d like to weed out, pare down, live deliberately, be a resident philosopher. (Would the family miss me?) A life devoid of clutter sounds positively blissful, especially when there are no empty spaces on my calendar.

But making choices is so much more difficult in a culture fueled by sheer busyness and commercialism. There are few places, few wooded Waldens, where one can escape the incessant bombardment of to-do lists or product advertising.

Visiting the “real” Walden Pond in Concord not long ago, I was amazed and disappointed to find the place overrun. Locals were strewn on its small beach. You couldn’t walk the path around the pond without rubbing shoulders with other curious sightseers; there wasn’t a spot left for soulful, solitary reflection.

If nothing else, my rendezvous with Thoreau got me thinking. What — and how much — do I really need? What price have I paid for technology and convenience? In which landfill will all my stuff end up?

And how would I fare if I were delivered into a place I fear as much as I need, as Delbanco put it? Could I survive in a one-room cabin with barely more than chair, a wooden table, a bowlful of raw vegetables, and my laptop? Honestly, I wish I could. — Cindy La Ferle

–A slightly different version of this post was published in The Christian Science Monitor. The original piece is reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home and in McDougal Littell’s American Literature textbook.–

Stress-free Holiday Parties?

A smiling face is half the meal” – Latvian proverb

Now that November’s here, shelter magazines are already featuring stories on holiday entertaining. Here’s a favorite essay from Writing Home — reprinted with the hope that it will set the tone for a more relaxed holiday season at your house ….   

The Secret of Stress-free Dinner Parties

My friend Pam knows the real secret of successful entertaining, and I wish I could be more like her.

Pam doesnt spend weeks obsessing over what she’ll serve for dinner, nor does she turn her life inside-out when a carload of company arrives from Cincinnati for the weekend.  And its not that she doesnt care. Pam and her husband, Steve, genuinely enjoy hosting friends and family, which partly explains how they make it look so effortless.

I like to remember the winter evening my husband and I were invited to their home for an impromptu dinner with another couple.

“Wear something comfy, and dont expect anything fancy,” Pam warned us. “Were just having a casual meal before the holiday rush.”  But that didnt mean beer and pizza on paper plates. This was a real celebration of friendship.

Pam had dressed her table with a navy blue cloth and a simple homemade centerpiece of apples, tangerines, and pears. Around the fruit she lit a few votive candles. Before lifting a fork or a wine glass, Pam asked that we all join hands and give thanks for our years of friendship and the chance to slow down long enough to eat a meal together.

As promised, for dinner she served comfort food, including roast pork, a vegetable casserole, and spicy baked apples for dessert. The whole evening, in fact, was cozy and relaxed and nourishing — and Pam insisted she enjoyed it all as much as we did.

“We wouldn’t entertain as often if we felt we had to make a big deal out of it,” she told me.

I’m still trying to break the habit of making “a big deal” out of hosting company. The folks we typically entertain, after all, don’t expect a major production. But like many women I know, I was brainwashed into thinking that making dinner for company is synonymous with staging a photo shoot for a shelter magazine. I worry that my guests will scrutinize my housekeeping and discover my inner slob. And while I love to cook, I still worry that anything I serve, whether its meatloaf or Lobster Newberg, wont turn out like the photos in the cookbook.

Of course, my feelings of culinary insecurity always rise like bread dough at holiday time.

Come fall, even before Ive folded up the Halloween ghosts, Im already fretting about Christmas decorations and turkey recipes. By mid-November, everything on my to-do list starts leaping around in my head like a chorus of nervous elves. And by the time the holidays are over, Im thanking heaven that they are OVER.

But it doesnt have to be like this. Fussy entertaining puts everyone on edge and creates just as much pressure for guests as it does for the host. The quickest way back to sanity is to remind ourselves that most people are easily pleased with home cooking and real conversation. We dont have to own Waterford crystal or serve meals worthy of a four-star chef. And the ones who truly enjoy our company aren’t judging us by our napkin rings.

Sharing an evening with good friends is a gift in itself when the occasion is heartfelt, the presentation simple. Pam and Steve figured this out a long time ago, and that’s why it’s always such a pleasure to gather at their table. — Cindy La Ferle