The Last, Loveliest Smile

Mums NST

It looks like rain outside, but there is no rain in the forecast. I could really use a beautifully rainy day today.  It is going to rain on Sunday…it will be cool and rainy and I think the perfect day to let a pot of chili simmer on the stove and watch football together.

I have a couple of errands to run today, and then I think I’ll spend some time in the garden. My poor, poor garden. Yesterday I realized there were about 100 tiny little cherry tomatoes ready to pick that I didn’t even know had grown.  I even picked a few strawberries.  Next year I promise to do better…

On my list today —  Chrysanthemums.  I think it’s time. Kate is going to be happy…she is very happy that autumn has arrived.  I don’t know why.  I asked her.  She doesn’t know why.  I’m glad she’s happy.

Yesterday I was outside for a few hours working in the garden. There was a breeze that blew through the hickory and oak trees in our yard, scattering hundreds of acorns and nuts with each gentle gust. It sounded like hail. Poppy just loved that.  She flew around the yard picking up acorns and hickory nuts and flinging them around, then chasing after them and zipping to the other end of the yard all by herself. She stopped to bark at the deer behind the fence (who were not scared of her), or to watch the geese overhead, flying in their uneven V. Their flight call mingled with the rustling of leaves in the breeze. I stopped to watch them for a moment, before they disappeared behind the trees. The sun was warm on my face.

Acorns NSTOne year David had a brilliant idea to pay the kids to pick up the acorns.  $5 per bucket or something like that.  He was broke after about an hour.  Henry mentioned the bucket idea to me earlier in the week. I told him to go ask his father.

This year it took a long while for me to be ready for autumn.  I don’t know why.  I have always loved the season, I could list a thousand reasons why, but I guess this year my heart clung tightly to summer and it’s late dinners, it’s schedule-less delight, it’s sleepy-headed, lazy mornings. It’s hard to walk away from such a beautiful place as summer, with it’s sunshine and wildflowers and it’s beaches, seashells, ice cream and bare feet.

But as the days have cooled, the pumpkins and chrysanthemums have begun popping up on doorsteps around town…acorns are falling and leaves will be changing colors soon. Boots and sweaters and wool blankets have been pulled out, and I’ve even begun dreaming of cocoa and mulled wine by a warm fire in the evenings.

And my sentiment toward leaving summer behind is changing.  Autumn is, afterall, “the year’s last, loveliest smile…”

–John Howard Bryant, “Indian Summer”

Wool Blanket NST

The Last, Loveliest Smile

What I Do Remember

I can’t remember every detail of every child…every first word spoken…every first step…every favorite food…

They ask. They want to know. They want to know the little details of their lives…the little things they did when they were too young to remember. But I don’t remember, either.

I don’t remember Henry’s first word. Partly because we were so confused about his speech. It would seem to develop, and then it would disappear, and we wondered if it was ever really there at all.

I don’t remember Ella’s first word either. Kate said “Coco.” William said “quack quack.”

I don’t remember anyone’s first steps except Ella’s. Mostly I remember how all five of us were watching her; how all of us were together in one little corner of our house.

I remember that Kate would eat anything. Except broccoli. I don’t remember what anyone else liked. I do remember that William would throw his plate when he was done eating.

It bothers me. It bothers me that some of those memories are missing. I have them written down somewhere, I’m sure. In a baby book or on a slip of paper or an old calendar somewhere. But I can’t remember them. I can’t call to mind what it was they were wearing, or where we were or how they sounded.

But I do remember other things.

I remember the first time Henry said “horse” and the first time he heard a bird sing.

I remember how quiet and thoughtful Kate was, always, and how she sucked her thumb when she was uncertain. I remember how the smell of her was intoxicating.

I remember the first time William smiled after his stroke, and how many eggs he ate when they finally cleared him for food.

I remember how Henry and I would curl up together in his toddler bed at night…how he would stretch out and how round his belly was. I remember his profile…that cute button nose and his soft cheeks. And how there was always music playing even though he couldn’t hear it…I refused to stop playing his music. I remember how he would twirl his hair around his finger.

I remember rocking Kate at night, in her tiny little room in our old house. Looking out across the square at the Christmas lights and singing Silent Night to her while she slept. How warm and perfect she felt cradled in my arms.

I remember what William used to say to us, every single night before bed. I love you night-night sit in the chair up here the one by the door I love you night night in one long, run-on sentence.

I remember the day we told the kids about Ella, and how we were going to have a new baby in the house, and how they all screamed and jumped around and how I felt so overwhelmed with joy that I cried. I remember how that baby girl used to strip down to her undies every single day and fall asleep on the couch. And how her favorite word was “no” for a little longer than I appreciated.

I used to dream about what our children would be like…what our life would be like. My dreams were like a fantasy — there was never as much heartache in my dreams.

Nor was there near as much beauty, nor splendor in my dreams, as there is now in my memories.

What I Do Remember

Bad Words

I was working in the garden spreading some old dirt around. There were large roots in it that I thought looked like guts.

“Guts” I said.  “Hey Ella, I’m going to say a bad word.”

“What word?” 

“Guts.  Guts guts guts.”  (This line is from the movie Ramona and Beezus, which Ella was very familiar with at the time.  In the movie, everyone laughs because guts is not a bad word. Which is why it is funny in the first place.)

“Hey Mom, I’m going to say a bad word.”

“What word, Ella?”


“What the?  Ella, don’t say that word.  That’s not funny — that is a bad word.”

I wrote that a few years ago, when Ella was five.  I never published it.  I don’t know why. Maybe I was embarrassed that my five year old princess had a sailor’s mouth. Good thing she was awfully cute…

Ella at the Barn NST

Bad Words

You are still in there.

A letter came home with you — an assignment. I was supposed to write about you.

I set that letter down and I knew I would not do it.  Not because I didn’t have time.  Not because the dates on the letter were mixed up and I was confused about when it was actually due, though I used that as an excuse to delay.

I knew I wouldn’t write about you because I don’t know what to say anymore. I don’t know what I can say anymore.  It used to be that I could write all kinds of sugar-sweet thoughts about you…about your raspy voice, or your feathery blonde hair, or that little brown patch in your eye. Or how I loved to breathe in the scent of your crown, or hold your hand. Back then I could write achingly long pieces about little you, buddy, and how gentle and tender you were.

But you are a young man now, and my writing about those things would embarrass you. And the truth is, while I know that little boy is still in there, I don’t see him much anymore. Little things, little rituals, little reminders of that little boy that I have clung to all these years have almost all disappeared. You have changed so much over the past few months. How do I explain you to strangers, when I am struggling to keep up with you, myself? What can I say, to them, about you?

If I could tell them about you, I would tell them that the other day, I stood in the kitchen looking at you and I realized that you have grown. Again. I don’t look straight into your eyes anymore, I have to look up.  So we measured you. Nearly three inches of growth in the last seven months.  It is hard to keep you fed. It is hard to keep you satisfied.

I would tell them that it is hard to keep you happy.  But that I remind you, keeping you happy is not my job. You want a new phone. You want a PS4. You want new shoes. You want to go places and you want to do things. You want money. You want so much. But I want you to learn how good it feels to work hard and save for something. I want you to understand that you have to make choices. Once in a while I see it in you. But fairly often I am left searching for ways to harness your intensity into something productive. Fairly often, I wonder what I need to do better.

I would tell them that you are often the first one to volunteer when I ask for help. That when I ask you to do something, you rarely complain.  That you are neat and organized. That you thrive on rewards. That you crave independence. I would be sure that they knew that even though sometimes you may appear a bit zesty, you are still just a kid trying to figure out his place.

They should know that you are a determined individual. When you are excited about something, you will work for it. When you have an idea, you will pursue it immediately, unfettered by logistics or any other type of constraint. While I love the intensity, and I totally get it because you get that from me, we are trying to teach you about patience, and planning, and proper execution. Those words are not exactly in your wheelhouse just yet.

I suppose I would also tell them that you don’t spend a heck of a lot of energy worrying about your grades. Every once in a while you seem motivated. But you usually do very well without trying all that hard, and I’m not sure that is a good thing. You remember things easily…statistics and names and how many times we’ve had chicken for dinner in the last week. You sell candy from your locker at school. You love basketball. You spend hours on Sundays tracking your fantasy football teams. Or playing xbox.  Or yelling at the xbox. You cannot stand to lose. You love having your friends come over. You love eating all the chips in the house. You love soda. You love sugar. You love teasing your little sister. And yet every once in a while, you will say something really nice to her. You will help her with something. Yesterday, I heard you and Henry in the bedroom. The valves on his baritone were stuck. I heard you help him. I heard you teach him. Those moments don’t get by me unnoticed. Your teachers should surely know about those moments.

This morning, I watched you fixing your hair.  Now that your hair has grown out, you fix it up with gel and a comb and the whole dealio.  And you don’t dress like a slob.  Your appearance is important to you, usually. I stood and looked at you, the young man in front of me, as you spoke. The things about you that I know by heart were still there…how the sunlight softens your long eyelashes; the way the light bounces off your hair; the perfect bridge of your nose, splashed with freckles. And your beautiful eyes, the blue-grey of them and that brown patch that you hate. I love that brown patch.

And I saw the little you.  You are still in there. Your teachers should know that, too.

You are still in there.

When Everyone Leaves

Well this morning was not my best morning ever.  I was frustrated by all the people.  I just needed a little extra quiet this morning, or something, and I didn’t get it.  Imagine that…no quiet in a house full of people…huh.  There was a little countdown in my head. A little clock ticking down the seconds until the whistling would stop, and the shoe squeaking and the pounding of hardwoods and the talking talking talking. And the buzzy energy.  It was palpable. Every morning, it’s palpable.  I will miss this someday.

Then everyone left and I stood there looking around at the quiet. Poppy looked at me like she expected me to say something important, but I just sat down to eat my oatmeal.  Then I walked around turning off all the lights.  David likes all the lights on.  All. The. Lights. Except in the evening when you actually need all the lights on.  Then he only likes some of the lights on.

And then I straightened out all the pillows that Poppy has smashed and I smacked all the dog hair off them.  I love her but she is extremely hairy. I stood there looking out the window at the front garden which I have completely let go this summer.  It is just plain sad. When I look at it I feel blech.

I sit here now, and behind me Poppy is smashing down my fancy beaded pillow again.  It was fluffy for about ten minutes.  I knew when I bought them she would probably ruin them. I knew it and I bought them anyway.


She is asleep now. That is all I can hear, just her slow, deep breathing.

When Everyone Leaves

The Ending of Summer

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
–Henry James

Oh Henry, you slay me.  I do love summer, and we have but a month of it left.  I’m not quite sure where the time all went…but my heart is a bit heavy over the fact that summer’s end is near.

Kate will be in high school this fall.  Maybe that’s part of the sorrow in it, I don’t know. On the surface, the whole high school thing doesn’t bother me.  But just below the surface, where the beating of my heart is hidden from view but clearly palpable, I guess I know that my time with her here is fading.  I have four short years left, and one day soon I will turn around and realize it is all over.  All those little things about her will be gone — confined to her bedroom or taken away with her completely; I will look around and there will be nothing but her photographs to remind me.

No more bottles of nail polish scattered around.  No more dirty old bag full of horse hair and muddy riding boots in the kitchen.  No more viola in the hallway…and no music behind her bedroom door.  No more love notes, or doodles or sketches to surprise me. I won’t be able to hear her laugh or watch her silly new dance moves or see her smile.  I won’t be able to look over at her and see her sitting there, long legs unfolded gracefully before her as she reads. And we won’t talk at bedtime anymore, the way we do now.

Most nights, I imagine, I will go to sleep wondering if her day was a good one, or if some creep has broken her precious heart. I will wonder if she’s eating healthy and if she got her juice in the morning (and I will worry for her roommate if not…). And I will wonder if she is tucked in each night…is she safe and is she happy and is she really doing alright? I will just have to trust that she is, and that if not, she will tell me.

I’m not sure how to do that. I’m not sure how a mother trusts and lets her child go…

I do think this is where the sorrow comes from. The ending of another summer is really just an inching closer to the day my heart breaks a little…the day it goes walking off on its own.

Kate 14 NST

The Ending of Summer

This Place Right Here

The other night, Poppy was out there barking again.  Ever since the bear came sauntering through the neighborhood I’ve been nervous about at what exactly it is she’s barking. Usually it’s the groundhog eating my strawberries. And daisies. And Echinacea. And Parsley. And Black-Eyed Susans. The funny thing is, Poppy cornered that poor little groundhog against the fence the other day and didn’t know what to do next.

Anyway…  I went out to see what all the noise was about. Boy are the spiders active at night. I looked at the windows that really need cleaning. And the tree that just died this spring and needs to be brought down. Three of them, actually, need to be brought down. But in order to do that, our chainsaw needs to be fixed. And we still need to fix the water pipe that leads to the front hose. Honestly, there are so many projects around here…cracked tiles in the bathroom, and windows with popped seals and water stains on ceilings that could really use repainting.

I love this house in spite of all of it.

And also in spite of the fact that right now this house is a complete mess.

The matching sock I couldn’t find last night is on the coffee table (I don’t know why or how it got there). There are empty popcorn bowls and water bottles and three Rubik’s Cubes scattered around. The old man stuffed a box of basketball jerseys for summer league under the chair in the family room. The popcorn pot still sits on the stove from last night. There are legos and bottles of nailpolish on the island.  And Jellycat.  And four pool towels hanging on chairs and the stair posts.

The dishwasher is full of clean dishes that need to be put away.  The counters are full of clean pots and cutting boards and serving bowls. The sink is full of dirty dishes that didn’t fit in the dishwasher.

The mess will be cleaned up shortly.

And tomorrow morning I will probably be looking at a very similar scene.

In our first house everything was perfectly placed, everything clean and neat. No clutter. I looked around one day and realized what was wrong with that house. It looked sterile…not at all like a home. That was before the babies came. Sterile is no longer a word I would use to describe our environment.

I look around now, at this home we live in, and this is what a home feels like to me. Some days I really, really cannot stand the remains of the day, the messes all over the place, to be sure. But the things I see now — the popcorn bowls and pool towels, the jerseys and toys and nail polish and dishes — these are the things that remain after a day well spent.

Someone asked me the other night, half in jest, if we would be moving out to P’ville soon the way so many of our friends have.


Nothing against P’ville, but I like this place right here.


This Place Right Here