Shelly

(This is the third essay in a three-part series)

A commentary on this series:

I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).

I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time. I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.

I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.

Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion. Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.

*          *          *

I write this not as a description of her death, but of her life. Far too much emphasis is placed on how one dies, rather than on how one lives. Often, upon finding out about the death of an individual, we feel guilt. This thought only lingers for a second, because our attention is turned to another, seemingly more pressing question: “How did they die?”

When a family member falls ill, the caregiver of that family member will receive hundreds of calls: friends and long lost relatives calling for updates. They want to know what is going on, but they want to know what is going on from a safe distance. They don’t want to come to the burning house, but they will gladly watch from their cars down the road. I lived in a burning home for six years, not fully understanding why it was on fire and why this fire could not be put out. After the house had burnt down, I was left trying to pick up the pieces of what the disease had torched. I barely knew my mom. It has been seven years to the day since my mother has died, and six years before that which she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, (which I understand now is the most fatal and terminal of all brain cancers). At the time of diagnosis I was ten years old, meaning that at best I had a conscious life with my mother for about six years: six years of life with her, six years of life while she was sick, and now seven years of life after her death. These intervals outline and provide distinctions for my own life with makers signifying before, during and after her illness.

Once, my dad told me that he doesn’t necessarily think that the soul goes anywhere when someone dies but is rather remembered and carried on by the people that have been touched by that person. That being said, the majority of the time that I knew my mother she was fighting a disease which had the capability to change her personality and how she acted psychosocially. Do I have enough memories of her to remember? Did I have enough time with her when she wasn’t sick to hold on to her?

A professor of social work once explained to a class I was in, that when a child dies, a parent loses their future, and when a parent dies, the child loses their past. I have spent the past six years trying to piece together that past; trying to figure out who my mother was; trying to learn about her life before she had me and before she had cancer, in an attempt to better know myself. I have sifted through pictures and old letters, and I have listened to family members tell stories to create an idea of my mother, which, although it may not be entirely accurate (as their descriptions have been adorned with details that my mind has created) I nevertheless hold on to when I need a mother; one that is stronger than the memory of her illness. The slow progression of the loss of my mother is a story which deserves attention and analysis as well, but that is for another time. I’ve spent too much time looking at people’s faces after I tell them that she is dead; too many unanswerable questions about where she has gone have been asked. This will not be another person facing and questioning her death, but rather it will be about her life.

*          *          *

An excerpt from my eulogy for my mother at her funeral:

We were driving to summer school and listening to 92.9 (because it used to be the oldies station) and we were listening to the song that went ‘I don’t know much about history, I don’t know much trigonometry, don’t know much about science books, don’t know much about the French I took. But I do know that one and one is two and if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this could be.” And you were singing to it, and you never sang, and you still don’t sing. That was when I last remember you happy. Maybe Stacy or Dad or someone else remembers a different time, but that is the one time that stands out in my mind when you were happy. And I look through all the photographs when you were holding me, and feeding me when I was little, and you were smiling so big and its like you are the happiest person in the world. And that is the mom that I will remember.

*          *          *

Although I am sure that these stories about my parent’s relationship were told to me at different times growing up, when I heard them in my dad’s eulogy at my mother’s funeral was when they really made an impact on me. He had written down notes on index cards, but he didn’t write out every detail, for the memories were salient enough that a script was unnecessary. When writing these stories down, I realized that certain dates, times and even certain situations might be slightly incorrect. I had to talk to my dad to get extra clarification for parts that I was uncertain about or remembered incorrectly. Even with the additional details he has given me, I will never know what the location of these scenes looked like, what they were each wearing and what their first and most visceral impressions of each other were. I have come to terms with the fact that I will not be able to fully understand everything that has happened before I knew my mother, but I have also learned that this is something that every child must accept (regardless if their mother is alive or not) because some experiences can not be recreated even in the most descriptive prose. Despite this fact, I will try to do so.

Joel still likes to joke that Shelly stalked him. In 1989, Joel had just taken a residency position at University of Pittsburgh as an anesthesiologist at Montefiore Hospital.  On Thanksgiving day, Shelly was also at the hospital because her grandfather had fallen and broken a hip. This was the first day that Shelly and Joel met. This interaction amounted to nothing at the time, but would down the road. A year passed before the spring of 1990 when Shelly was driving home from the gym when she saw Joel pull into a liquor store. She parked her car, walked into the state liquor store and began casually perusing the aisles while waiting to look astonished that Joel was at the same store. Shelly had been at the gym before stopping at the store and didn’t have any money on her to buy anything, so she simply had to pretend to be buying something. After “running” into each other again, the two exchanged numbers and went on a date. In Joel’s opinion, the date had gone poorly, and he had no intention of calling her for a second one. What he didn’t realize was that he could not get rid of Shelly that easily. Since she also worked at the same hospital as a nurse, she looked up his number and called him when he was in the lounge at the hospital, demanding to know why he didn’t call her again. They soon started dating.

One night when they were out, the two ran into a family that Shelly knew. Shelly commented on how she had been his nurse when their now teenage son was delivered in his hospital. After the family left and said goodbye, Joel started doing math in his head.

“Wait a second,” he said. “If you were the nurse for that boy when he was born, how old are you?” It had never occurred to him that he could have been dating a much older woman.

Shelly just laughed and said: “Does it matter?”

As it turns out, she was six and a half years older than him.

Months continued to pass, and Joel began to realize that it was make or break time. If they didn’t break up soon, then they were on a trajectory towards something very serious (i.e. marriage). Joel was young and didn’t know exactly what he wanted yet. So one day while driving to a movie, Joel turned to Shelly and said: “Have you ever met someone that everything they do really annoys you?”

“Are you talking about me?” Shelly responded.

“Um well yeah…”

Without skipping a beat, Shelly responded: “You’re full of shit. Keep driving.”

This wasn’t the beginning of Shelly’s strong will helping her get her way. Members of her family jokingly warned him about this particular attribute. Women on her side of the family were known to be “pieces of work.”  Her strong opinions and lack of a filter someone allowed her to voice her mind often and loudly.

When she would go to a restaurant and didn’t like the food, she wouldn’t hesitate to let the waiter know. Each time my father would beg her not to say anything. He tried to get her to compromise and told her that it wasn’t necessary to make a fuss, but without fail when the waiter would come over and ask how their food was, she would respond with: “You know what? It’s pretty crummy actually,” and she would send it back.

Frequently at family events or dinners, the phrase “Shelly would have something to say about this,” is muttered. She would have said what everyone was thinking, whether or not it was appropriate. If a certain part of the family wasn’t invited to a wedding, or if someone was in need of an intervention, everyone knew that if my mom had been there, she would have either changed something or at the very least shared her thoughts.

*          *          *

Mom was deeply invested in her family and relationships. When she was sixteen, her father died from colon cancer. It was a quick progression, and he died within six months. He was buried in the family cemetery in Pittsburgh, which is where she is buried as well. When it was still a topic of discussion where my mother would end up after she died, I was adamant about her ending up with her father and the rest of her family. Caring so much about her family, she undoubtedly would have wanted to rest there, and I felt very strongly about this as well. My mother was very fond of her father. His name was Hymen, for whom I am named after (they took the “H” in Hy and used it for Holly). I don’t know much about Hy besides that he was left-handed (like me), though they made him write with his right hand in school, that he changed his name to Mark when he had to fight in the Korean war, and that he was also really good at the butterfly stroke in swimming.

Each day after her father died, my mom would walk home from school and find my grandmother in an arm chair, crying. She would then leave and walk to the convenience store to buy lemon wafers, then walk around town in attempts to avoid her hysterical mother. Within a year of this, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to move to Hawaii, where her dad’s twin brother lived and worked at the University of Honolulu. She completed her senior year at Kalani High School. I remember as a child looking at old pictures of her with friends on the beach from this time, wearing bracelets and necklaces made from sea shells. In her yearbook, she was the only white student — everyone else was Hawaiian or Asian. Her dark curly hair and freckled nose stood out even in the black and white photos of the yearbook.

In retrospect, having lost a parent at the same age as she did, I understand the need to pick up and move. I, however, didn’t do it until a year after her when I moved to Philadelphia, which, although wasn’t quite Pittsburgh, still put me closer to my family and my mother. We both felt an urge to leave our immediate family and move toward extended family, who were closer to our dearly departed. Some individuals who have lost a loved one feel the opposite – they want to hold on to their home as they remember it before. I felt this with my childhood home, but also felt the overpowering urge to go far away and get closer to people who knew my mother better. Even if it wasn’t in the same city, Philadelphia was closer to Pittsburgh.

Perhaps it was her lack of a father in the formative years of being a twenty-something young woman, but my mother felt the need to go back to Pittsburgh after a year in Hawaii. At that time she became particularly close with her mother’s father, Papa. During this period, she got her nursing degree and continued to be close with her older relatives and role models. She would visit relatives and call them frequently, while most of the younger cousins her age moved away to go to school or start a family. She remained firm in wanting to stay and take care of her loved ones. Hawaii had been what she had needed at the time of her father’s death, but as she matured she realized the necessity of being close to the ones she loved – especially the aging generation that she knew her time with was limited.

Very early on in their relationship, my mom asked if my dad would want to meet her grandpa. It seemed like kind of a strange request, so my dad’s response was: “Does he smell?” She laughed and told him that no, Papa didn’t smell. Of course, my dad ended up falling in love with Papa. He would visit him with my mother and help take care of him until they moved from Pittsburgh to Colorado Springs in 1992.  Considering it was Papa’s broken hip which had brought them together in the first place, this was especially fitting.

Even when she lived far away, whether it was Hawaii in high school or Colorado after she got married, my mom’s cousins admired how she would make it a point to call them or write to them on a regular basis. Her dedication to remain connected to those she loved was unparalleled. I have vivid memories from my childhood of her sitting at her desk, doodling spirals on sticky notes as she chatted on the phone for hours. Sometimes while she was on the phone, she would skim through catalogs, dog-earing pages that she liked. They were rarely magazines about celebrities or news, but rather contained pages of children’s sweaters, bedding and women’s clothing.

This soon stemmed into an obsession with catalog shopping (the precursor to online shopping), which she became a pro at when she was on bed rest with me and then my sister two years later. During this time period, she would lay in bed ordering boxes upon boxes of different items, often sending the contents back (much like the food in restaurants).

*          *          *

If there was one thing that I have heard repetitively, it is that my mother wanted kids more than anything. I often like to joke that when she met my dad, she was determined to be with him because she knew that her biological clock was ticking and that she needed someone to have kids with. When she was pregnant with me, she asked her physician if she could go on a trip to see her uncle in Hawaii. Her doctor said that yes, she had plenty of time before her due date. Unfortunately, she went into labor on the plane there. Luckily, her water didn’t break, and she was rushed to the hospital. She was able to fly back to Colorado with no complications, but with strict orders to be on bed rest. Even on bed rest, she had me a month early, on December 7th, and had to stay in the hospital until Christmas (which is my dad’s birthday). Having been a nurse at the hospital herself, my mother insisted on me having the best care. When she would wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she would call the hospital to make sure I was okay. Each time the nurse would assure her that I was okay and if anything was wrong they would call her. Additionally, my mother decided to bottle feed so that other people could feed me, especially while I was an infant in the hospital. This plan backfired when I refused to take a bottle from any hand that wasn’t hers. Even as an infant, I knew who my mother was and rejected everyone else.

My dad often jokes that mothers who have children when they are older become the overbearing helicopter mothers. My friend’s parents still remind me of times at soccer games when I was in grade school, and she would make sure that I was wearing three different jackets if it was under 60 degrees, or when she would run on the field during time-outs and aggressively lather sunscreen on my face as I complained about how ‘embarrassing’ it was. On each first day of school from Kindergarten through High school, she would buy me a corsage from the florist and pin it on my outfit before I went to school. Every morning she would meticulously braid my hair, put it in ponytails with decorative barrettes and match the hair ties to my outfit colors.

As I grew up, it became more and more apparent that I was a miniature version of her. My mom’s sister used to say that she was worried I would hit her because I was so much like my mother, perhaps bringing her back to their days of sibling rivalry and petty fights. Pictures of my mother and myself as children are almost identical, especially with our long brown hair. When my mom officially cut her hair short, she kept the ponytail (a relic that we still have in our basement today.) As long as I could remember (and even many years before I even considered the thought), she had short hair, but before that she was known for her long hair. Her cousin Phyllis remembers how my grandma used to shampoo my mom’s hair in a large wash basin in the basement in order to get all the shampoo out of her waist-length hair. Phyllis even remembers the smell of my mom’s hair “being a mixture of Dove soap and channel perfume.”

*          *          *

I will be the first to admit that things weren’t always perfect in our family, especially during her illness and after her death. There was one time after my mother died that my dad told me that the reason we couldn’t get along was because “I was a clone of my mother.” Whether this was intended as a compliment or as an insult, I took it as the biggest compliment I have ever received.

Despite problems throughout their marriage, I do not have a doubt that my parents loved one another. One of my mom’s closest friends was her first cousin, Janie, who was close with my parents while they were dating. (My dad even thought that him and Janie were close enough that he could come into the delivery room when she was giving birth to her first son. Janie did not share this sentiment, and he still claims that her head turned around 360 degrees, exorcist style, screaming at him to leave the room.) Janie remembers talking to my dad during a rough patch in my parent’s engagement when he had briefly called it off.

“She’s my best friend,” he told Janie.

When times have been rough with my dad, she has always reminded me of this time. She tells me that nothing is perfect, but that regardless, my parents loved each other. I also think that this is the reason as I have gotten older and become not only more of my own person but also more like my mom, I have been able to become better friends with my dad – reminiscent of when he met my mother 20 plus years ago.

When I was younger, I don’t think I emulated my mother as much as I do now. With time I have grown into my mother. In some ways, this is my attempt to memorialize her and keep her alive – to continue her legacy. Sure, some of my choices and preferences that are similar to hers are quite intentional. I went to nursing school as a way to explore the career that she was so passionate about. I will wear jewelry that was hers so I can look at my hands and think of her, and sometimes I sign her name on receipts to feel my hands outlining her name. Some things I simply love because she did, but some of it is unintentional and comes organically. Many of these things would have occurred independently of if she was still alive or not. I’ll comment on things I enjoy, and often my dad will respond, “You know who else loved that? Your mother.”

I have become engrained in my opinions, much like her. In her twenties, my mother too had a persistent, firm grip of what she liked and what she did not like, as anyone who knew her could tell you. Her decisions were her own – and own them she did. Many of my close, and some not so close, friends have started to say things like, “that is such a Holly thing to do.” This, I get from my mother. As I get older, family members accidentally call me “Shelly” due to our similar mannerisms and expressions. I never skip a beat when people do this. In fact, I love it when I hear her name.

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You Can’t Go Home Again

(This is the second essay in a three-part series)

A commentary on this series:

I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).

I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time. I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.

I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.

Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion. Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.

*          *          *

For months after we got rid of the landline, I would lie in my bed late at night with my cell phone and dial the old number: 7195994266. The number had been engrained in my mind, not out of necessity but rather out of habit. My mom used to write it on a sticky note and put it in my backpack in case I needed to call home when I was at a friend’s house or school. Eventually, I didn’t need the sticky note.

I would listen to the dial tone. Telephones are supposed to be there to connect you to people who are not with you at the moment. I was supposed to be able to dial this phone number and home would be on the other line. This phone was supposed to be anchored in this home. If I were to call it, my mother or my father were supposed to be there to pick it up.

Each time that I would call this number, I would listen to these rings and click the phone off before anyone could answer. I would repeat this pattern a few times, each time listening to an additional ring, waiting until I would get too nervous that someone had already claimed the old number before hanging up.

Then the last time I called, I waited too long. One ring too many, and someone answered.

“Hello?” the man who picked up the phone questioned the silence.

What was I expecting? My mom had died a few months before canceling the telephone service. Even if we still had that same number, she wasn’t going to pick up. I knew that, yet I still hoped that maybe she would be on the other line.

“Hello, is anybody there?” The voice questioned again.

No response. I exhaled into the phone.

“Whoever this is, can you please stop calling this number late at night?”

Click. I hung up. That was the last time that I ever called my home phone number. It was no longer mine.

*          *          *

I watched my parents build the house. I was five, and my sister was three. To get to the plot of land they had chosen on Dante Way, my parents had to walk up past where the road ended because we were the first house to be built at the top of the hill.

Sometimes, after kindergarten, my mom would pick me up and drive to the interior decorator’s office. Her name was Joan, and she would send my mom home with tile samples and swatches for window treatments. Even before moving to Colorado, my mother agonized over the smallest design details. For example, she had her grandmother’s couches reupholstered so that they were the right color scheme to match her ideal decor. Nothing was going to be good enough until she had it her way, and that is why the house on Dante Way was my mom’s house. She sat with designers for hours picking the exact shade of cherry wood to finish the kitchen floor with (which, incidentally, would turn out to be a horrible decision seeing as cherry is a very soft wood and not suited for kitchens, children, or dogs for that matter.) She wanted the living room to match the reupholstered furniture. Each detail that she put in was refined, and more than often seemed slightly ridiculous to my father. She insisted that the wall separating the living room and the kitchen should be curved, which was difficult for the builders to accomplish because she also wanted the dust boards to be made from individual panels of real wood. She hated when cabinets in the kitchen didn’t reach to the ceiling because “it just collects dust up there” so her kitchen had cabinets so tall that she couldn’t even reach the top shelf without the help of my dad and a chair, though they were aesthetically pleasing. Instead of plain, one color accent walls, she wanted marble-looking walls with varying teals, golds, and grays. When the walls were being painted, I helped brainstorm how to execute my mom’s vision and suggested painting a scene from the Wizard of Oz on the wall with a rainbow. The painters laughed, and my mom promptly turned down that idea, opting for a more tasteful option. However, she did professionally frame the artwork that I drew in preschool and hung it around the house. The frame was about 100 times more expensive than the artwork that it displayed. The house was hers inside and outside. She picked everything; she signed off on everything; she gave her blessing.

Her requirement of perfection probably stemmed from a desire to emulate her ideal vision of home. Home was not in Colorado for her; she didn’t want to leave Pittsburgh again as she had so many years ago, even before she had met my dad. However, when my dad got a job in Colorado, she begrudgingly packed up her apartment and journeyed out west. Her refusal to leave Pittsburgh and uproot herself is ironic, considering that as a teenager she had decided to do just that. After her father’s death, she would walk home from high school everyday to find her sobbing mother at home. My mom would then leave her house, walk to the convenience store to buy lemon wafers, and spend the rest of her afternoon walking around waiting until she could go home. Eventually, she couldn’t handle her mother crying anymore and decided to move to Honolulu, Hawaii, where her father’s brother lived.

*          *          *

For me, after her death, things at home seemed to stay the same for awhile. We never got rid of our answering machine that my mom had recorded: “Hi you’ve reached the Kellners. We aren’t available to take your call but leave us a message, and we will get back to you as soon as we can. BEEP” I remember we never realized that this was something we had to change, and in fact I rather liked it. The months after she had died I would call the home phone just to listen to her voice on the end of the other line. To me, the answering machine was anchored to the foundation and ideals on which that house was built, and maybe because her voice was on the machine, she would be there when I got home.

For a while, her clothes still hung in her closet. Much like her voice on the answering machine, she remained. This lasted until my dad made my sister and I spend four hours sifting through sweaters, t-shirts, and Bermuda shorts, deciding what to keep and what to give away. Just like her death, she was there one second and gone the next. Empty. Half of her closet disappeared like a time lapse in a movie. We were allowed to keep what we could keep in our closets or what would fit us. Everything else had to be placed in large black plastic bags to be taken to Good Will so that someone could pay two dollars and fifty cents for her knitted sweaters or the long red dress suit she had bought for a wedding. Someone else would slip on her black sandals and wear them out to run errands, never knowing that they had purchased a dead woman’s pair of shoes. Someone would disregard the initials she scribbled on the inside tag of an old t-shirt and have no idea that they were there so that the nursing home she lived in could return them to her. No one would know that.

Our cleaning out of her clothes seemed as if it had come out of nowhere. The house had stayed the same, the pictures remained up, even the answering machine remained for awhile. The fact that these details in the house (the design of the cabinets, the decorations, the fabric on the window treatments) hadn’t changed at all made the emptying of her closet seem wrong. That was when I realized that it wasn’t her house anymore.

Looking back now, I understand my father’s urgency in the removal of her clothes. It probably wasn’t as abrupt as I had imagined at the time. I realize he had probably been thinking about it for weeks, maybe even months. I found comfort in living in my mother’s house, but I didn’t realize that maybe he didn’t. Her six-year-long fight with cancer changed who my mother was and slowly destroyed her over a drawn out period. As a child, I didn’t fully understand the severity of her illness and therefore didn’t say goodbye until she left our house for the nursing home two months before her death. However, my dad understood that my mother shouldn’t have lived as long as she should have. He understood words like “prognosis” and therefore he began saying goodbye shortly after she was diagnosed. He started grieving long before my sister and I did, and so even though his grieving seemed rushed in my eyes, it really had been going on for many years. Grief changes you, and everyone reacts to it in a different way. Although it is one disease process, it manifests itself very differently in each person. It can bring one daughter to cling to remnants of a home, while another flees 4662 miles. It can bring one spouse to stay in the house sobbing in an armchair, while another tries to find a way to allow room for the new.

Although it was realistically a few weeks after we got rid of her clothes before my dad’s sickeningly spunky thirty-year-old girlfriend moved in the house, it seemed like it happened overnight. Another precipitous and hurried change. Within the blink of an eye, the void in my mom’s closet refilled with a slew of clothing from popular stores and “trendy” boutiques. She (along with her clothes and tastes) didn’t fit the motif of our home. She attempted to cover up my mother’s designs by placing seasonally themed decorations around the house: wrapping ribbons around the stairs for Christmas and putting “decorative” bunnies on the porch for Easter. My mother would have denounced these decorations as tacky and distasteful. I was beside myself when his girlfriend hired the same painter who had painted the intricate walls for my mother twelve years ago to come in and paint over her bedroom in baby blue.

What none of us realized at the time was that removing my mother’s items wouldn’t remove her from home. That house would always be hers, regardless of my insistence on staying, my father’s hopes to move on, and his girlfriend’s attempts to disguise the house as her own.

*          *          *

A year after I had left for college, my dad told me that he was going to be selling the house. I struggled with this. All my friends had homes to go to when they came back for the summer; all of their childhood memories would be in the same place, and the posters on the wall wouldn’t have been moved. When I came home, everything was in boxes and my dad had hired a realtor to make the house “sellable.” This meant taking down pictures of our family, which he explained would allow the buyer to picture themselves in the house, and covering the vibrant yellow walls in my room with an indifferent matte eggshell.

The whole process seemed to have happened overnight, leaving me the little time to process. All of a sudden my father announced we would be moving, and the house was sold within a week of the realtor being hired. It’s what every person is trying to sell a house dreams of  – a quick and easy selling process. However, I secretly wanted it to go on for longer. The seemingly precipitous nature of the house sale was most likely due to my inability and unacceptance to leave. I had accepted that she had died. I understood that, but I still hadn’t let go of her home yet. I had already lost my mother, and I didn’t understand the reasoning behind letting go of physical reminders of her. I didn’t want to let him leave my mother and her house to a family who knew nothing of the minute considerations that went into every painted wall and detail in that home.

After we had moved to the rental house, while we waited for the new house to be built, I struggled to find somewhere to call home. My mom was where home was, and that house was where she was. I had anticipated grieving her death, I had grieved her death, and now I had to grieve the loss of the home which in so many ways embodied her. With both of them now gone, I felt as if I couldn’t go home, let alone find a new one. Traveling scared me, and packing caused me anxiety. I was reluctant to travel for fear that without having myself rooted in one place, I would be like a balloon being released from a child’s grasp; floating away aimlessly and never come back. I wanted somewhere to be anchored, somewhere that I could always go back to, but I couldn’t find that. Apartments in college aren’t home, and rental homes in the city you were born in aren’t home either. I had always imagined that even as I changed, my home would remain the same.

Like my mother did when she moved to Hawaii, I searched for home when I moved to college. As a young adult, I traveled across the country and felt for roots, but also like her I would realize after a few years that home hadn’t gone anywhere. She went back to Pittsburgh, and I went back to Colorado: these places were home. It took my father moving into a new home alone (without my mother or his now ex- girlfriend) for me to accept that he now had his own house, independent of my mom, and that was okay. His house was new, modern and very different than our previous house on Dante Way. It wasn’t my mom: there were no accent walls with gold and teal, no framed pictures of drawings that I made as a child and no patterned drapery, but it was my dad: sharp modern lines, LED lighting and reclaimed wood. Now, as I look back, I realize home wasn’t any of these individual aspects. These were mere adornments which decorated the idea of what I thought was home.

I have been able to take pieces of my mother, which she had taken from her old homes, which are especially cherished because they move from place to place. My favorite is my grandfather’s dark, reddish brown leather stool which I imagine at some point had a chair that matched it. It has little wheels on the bottom that squeak every time you try to move it, and the leather on top is ripped and torn so badly that you can see the yellow stuffing inside. Unlike the old furniture that my mother had reupholstered, she never had the stool fixed. It wasn’t in her nature to leave something broken and falling apart, but I think she wanted to keep it in it’s original form as best as she could. She didn’t want to change any part of her relationship with her dad, and that stool, the physical manifestation of her relationship with her dad and her relationship with her childhood home, didn’t need to change either.

Throughout the years I have learned that houses change, but home exists on a continuum. This continuum exists as long as memories are moved from house to house. The home doesn’t change entirely, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t disappear, but it evolves, and because of that, you can go home again.

Over Thought Everything I Can Think of into Symbol…

For a few weeks now I have settled into a kind of generalized anxiety. Even though it can be suppressed on most days, it still is nagging me like an itchy tag in the back of a shirt. Without a doubt, this uneasiness is a product of my terrible habit of overthinking almost any and everything I can think of.

I am my own worst critic and as I have gotten older I have learned that every situation cannot be looked at through one lens, but rather many. Allowing myself to look from multiple angles has been beneficial in considering how others are feeling, justifying mine or other’s actions, and understanding the bigger picture. However, this has precipitated massive overthought and meticulous analyzing. It creates a boundless loop of “well, maybe it is my fault…” or “I can understand why so-and-so did or felt like this…” When I get into this state, I can’t snap out of it and I need someone to bring me back to reality.

I struggle particularly with situations in which another person and myself have different opinions on a matter. Typically, I try to pick the path of least resistance and upset as little people as I can with my decisions. I want to be well liked and if I know that my decisions are in accordance with that of the majority, I fear nothing. When I decide to make a conscious decision for myself and by myself, that is when the broken feedback loop starts. Did I make that decision because I just being selfish and stupid? Was that a bad decision? What if something else had happened?

I recently was listening to the talk show “Invisiblia” on NPR. The episode was called “The Secret History of Thoughts,” which had originally aired in 2015. Co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller discussed three different schools of thought regarding how our thoughts affect our lives and how we can approach them to solve problems. Throughout history, there have been three distinct phases of thought in which different professionals believed that there were particular ways to analyze thought to solve problems and create a more clear, happy and healthy mind.

The first phase is that thoughts have meaning. This Freudian theory believes that ones’ thoughts are very intimately related to who he/she is. Jonathan Shedler, a psychologist in Colorado, stated on the podcast: “There can be a tremendous value-profound value- in understanding where they [your thoughts] come from.”

The second phase doesn’t ask the patient to follow his or her thought, but rather to challenge the thought by asking: “Is there any truth in these thoughts that I am having?” In essence, you contradict the thought you are having to evaluate if there is any part of it rooted in reality. As Spiegel sums up, this phases’ belief was that ‘maybe people shouldn’t always take their thoughts so seriously, particularly a certain subset of their thoughts.”

The third phase’s premise is that you are taking your thoughts too seriously and that it is necessary to ignore them. Therapist Miranda Morris states “We’re going to work not on getting rid of it, but on changing your relationship with it.”

After listening to the podcast, I realized that I can pull different strategies from each phase to help combat my over analyzing antics. For example, I can use the second phase to help me work through self-deprecating thoughts like thinking I am a horrible person because of an isolated incident or that I am not loved. I need to walk myself through steps in which I evaluate if a particular thought is actually true, or if I am just being overly hard on myself. I have to ask myself: “Are there other instances to justify this thought or am I just overreacting?” This can help determine if I need change or fix something in my life to eradicate the thought or can I move to the next phase and ignore the pesky thought. Going through steps like this still allows me to look at situations at different angles, but it prevents me from the tiresome back-and-forth that plagues my everyday musings.

I also need to accept that choices in life aren’t always going to be binary: black and white or right and wrong. Often times, there are millions of different ways that a situation can pan out. Each decision we make is tainted by our own personal opinions, experiences,  and views on a particular situation. From where I sit, I am at the center and everyone else that is in my life falls somewhere around me; whereas exact opposite is true for someone else. I am not the protagonist of their story and they are not the protagonist of mine.

It is important to weigh other’s opinions and preferences but at the end of the day, you have to make sure that you are the protagonist in your own life and not a supporting character in your own story.

Even though I have taken the time to consider how to prevent my overthinking, I realize that at some point I simply have come to terms with the fact that no matter how much I fixate on an event, decision, or experience, I cannot change the past.  If I have hurt someone, by all means, it is necessary for me to apologize sincerely and use the experience to help me be a better person and make more educated decisions in the future, but obsessing over it isn’t going to help anyone.

The first time I realized this was four years ago when I had come home for the summer after freshman year of college. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend at the time, and even though I was the one who ended it, I was having major regrets about the decision. I was talking to my cousin, telling the story over and over again and going through different hypotheticals. Eventually, she stopped me and said: “Whether or not it was the right decision, or you wish you could undo it, you can’t, so there is no sense is continuing to over think it. It happened, and the only thing you can do now is to move forward.” Although this seemed harsh at the time, it was exactly what I needed to hear to give myself permission to be okay with my decision. Even though that was many years ago, I have to continue to remind myself of the lesson: no matter how much I analyze past actions, I can’t change them. Looking back on previous experiences and exchanges is valuable and important, but having them consume my present isn’t healthy.

In the past week or so, I haven’t stopped overthinking entirely, but I have been able to stop myself from getting into a downward spiral of negative thoughts. Slowly but surely I am learning to be confident in my decisions and approaching thought as something that I have the ability to control and handle. At the end of the day, my thoughts should be helping me be better, and not working against me.

Link to the transcript from Invisibilia:  http://www.npr.org/2015/01/09/375928124/dark-thoughts

Hey, Wassup, Hello

Having a place to archive my thoughts –specifically those in which I put in writing — has been something that I have wanted to do for years, but unfortunately never did. It wasn’t that I lacked not the initiative to start one or the organization to maintain one, but rather the confidence to put myself out there. The thought of having my writings archived in one place that I would share to the internet ( and therefore the world), scared me. What if someone who I didn’t like would make fun of me for it? What if people judged me for “trying to be a blogger?” These thoughts, although mostly irrational, made it impossible for me to feel confident enough in my own personal musings to create something of this kind. I am hoping between the conjunction of this blog with my new website (which I designed all by myself on Adobe Muse which I am SUPER proud of myself because I am far from a computer tech person) will be a way for me not only to share my thoughts but also collaborate with other like minded individuals as I attempt to  improve my writing in and improve myself.The thought of having my writings archived in one place that I would share with the internet (and therefore the world), scared me.

What if someone who I didn’t like made fun of me for it? What if people judged me for “trying to be a blogger?” What if my ideas aren’t important enough?

All of these thoughts (although mostly irrational) made it impossible to share many of my personal musings in a public arena. Although these thoughts are still present, they are no longer at the forefront of my mind and I am excited to finally take the plunge to write more openly and honestly. My hopes are that through my blog and website I will be able to chronicle and share my future ruminations, emotions, opinions and adventures!

Can’t wait to write more!