Friday, December 12, 2014

A Merry Little Christmas

My parents were the Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig of the family. Since before I can remember, they hosted a huge Christmas Eve party at their house. It was an open house so people came and went as the night went on.

They didn't have a lot of money back when I was young but saved all year to make Christmas "big" for everyone they loved. 

There are still home movies of family members coming in the door of my parents' small Cape with the unfinished second floor in Chelmsford. It was their first house and they were so proud to have a home to host family events.

A few years later they moved to a bigger home in Lowell that was perfect for the large events they loved so much. 

Dad was in charge of the bar and the coats. Mom handled the food and the entertainment. You couldn't walk into my parents' house without my dad saying, "What can I get ya to drink?". Even into their eighties, that was dad's greeting. 

Mom's signature greeting was a loud "HEY!" with arms dramatically thrown into the air to hug you before you even reached her. 

Hospitality was their gift.  

Mom loved a house full of people. Dad, although he was never the extrovert mom was, loved to be surrounded by family and friends as well. They glowed at parties. To them, helping others have fun was the best fun they could have.

While dad made the highballs and ribbed people about their favorite sports team or political candidate, mom worked the room. She would flit from person to person with a face lit up with love and joy. Her hazel eyes large and shining; her arms up for more hugs. And laughing. Always laughing.

The dining room table was filled with hot and cold appetizers and entrees that they didn't have to fuss over. There were desserts and coffee. And, my favorite as a kid, chocolate-covered cherries. 

Oh what a treat those were at Christmas - the only time we had them in the house. My mom had a fancy china dish for them with scalloped edges, little rosettes and gold accents. This only made the treat more special to me and my brother (and more tempting). "Don't eat all of those before company comes!", she would yell from the kitchen.

"Company" was always family and sometimes friends. Relatives from four generations would crowd into the house and squeeze onto the couch. Coming mostly from Irish-Americans, the stories would get sillier and increasingly boisterous as the highballs flowed. 

Even as a child I knew how lucky I was to have so many generations in one place. Every Christmas Eve, my brother and I would put on a Christmas show that we wrote for the event. Our stage was at the bottom of the stairs which wound up to our bedrooms that were bright with candles in the window with frost on their panes.

After one-too-many chocolate-covered cherries, my brother and I would be whisked off to bed by my mom. We would complain and whine because we wanted to stay up for the real fun that we knew was coming.

Once in bed, we would strain to hear all the goings on downstairs. With the candles still glowing in our darkened rooms and us all snuggled in our beds, we would hear our favorite Christmas songs played on the piano by my mom. All the adults, now stuffed with mom's Swedish meatballs and my grandmother's infamous chocolate cake with the candied cherries on top, would sing at the top of their lungs. Except for my grandfather. He would sing with his teacher face, concentrating on hitting every note. Singing was serious business for him.

We'd listen to the singing and the cheering and the laughing. Horrible attempts at harmony followed by more laughing. The Christmas songs would lead into For Me and My Gal, Five Foot Two, and all the other classics my mom would play because everyone knew the lyrics. 

All the while, my mother would laugh while trying to sing along. Forever distracted by others having fun. She had a great laugh. Right from her toes. Bending over the piano keys with her mouth open in a huge exhale before getting more air and laughing again. 

God, I loved listening to Christmas Eve from my magical room with the candle in the window. 

After everyone left (very late), my folks would stay up later to clean up and (I found out later) wrap our gifts. 

They'd go to bed just before my brother and I would wake them up early to see if Santa had come. We would race downstairs and wait for them. Our eyes darting from package to package. "He brought SO much!", we would say to each other. 

After a morning of opening the copious amounts of gifts my parents bought us, they would head to the kitchen and start preparing Christmas dinner. A few hours later, most of the Christmas Eve crowd would return for a full meal. 

Dad would ask, "What can I get ya to drink?" while taking coats. Mom would fly to the door with her arms in the air for a hug that looked like she hadn't just seen the returning relative 12 hours before. 

Christmas was big to my parents. And they loved it that way. Celebrating the great fortune that was manifest in the family that surrounded them was the real meaning of the holiday to them.


My husband and I put up our tree tonight. Our own traditions solidly around us: Ornaments collected during our 26 years of marriage, our favorite Christmas CDs playing on the stereo, candles in the windows of our own home. 

And when James Taylor sang to us to have a merry little Christmas my voice, which had been belting out the lyrics for several stanzas, caught in my throat when I got to "little Christmas". 

That's what it is now that mom and dad are gone. Little. No more singing around the piano, no house full of crazy Irish stories, no chocolate-covered cherries in the special china dish. 

I had to stop for a moment and find my joy again. Christmas will never be the same without my parents. They filled my Christmases with so much gratitude for my place in the family tree that I shared with them.

For a second I had a strong vision of them standing with their arms around each other in front of the last Christmas tree they shared together. They were smiling at me. Dad with his football-player shoulders and mom with her pretty little face looking at me with such love. 

I picked up another ornament and continued on with a lump in my throat. My husband stopped and looked at me. Knowing my thoughts. He looked at me with such love and understanding that I was able to continue.

It will be a little Christmas for me and for us. But my heart is full of gratitude for  the gift my parents gave me that is bigger and merrier than any I've ever received. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Prosecutor's Dance

I stayed up late Monday night when I heard that the grand jury decision would be announced in Ferguson. Since I was very young I've been interested in the law. In fact, when my grandmother asked me and my cousins, all standing around her at a collective age of 6, what we wanted to be when we grew up, she was surprised at my answer. There were the expected "nurse", "teacher", "cowboy" responses from my cousins. But I said, "lawyer." 

When I was in my twenties, I decided to pursue a career in law. Since I wasn't sure if I was really going to like it or be good at it, I started with a smaller step. I enrolled in Bentley College for what was then the only bar-certified paralegal certification program in the state.

I not only did well at it, I loved it. 

One of the courses I took was Criminal Law. Not many students in that program took the course since there really was very little demand for criminal law paralegals. But I was always fascinated with this area of law since I was young (thank you, Raymond Burr.)

What I learned in that class was more valuable to me than any other college course I've taken. I finally understood the criminal trial process. I no longer read the newspaper with questions about the difference between civil and criminal litigation, evidence gathering and discovery, and murder vs. manslaughter charges. 

When I watched Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch explain the grand jury decision, I understood all of the background processes.

My first thought was that this grand jury was out-of-process. What I learned from my instructor at Bentley (a criminal defense attorney and former assistant DA) was that the grand jury is made up of people off the street like you and me –  just like a trial jury. 

The difference in a grand jury is that these citizens are not tasked with delivering a verdict. Their job is to decide if a criminal case has enough "probably cause" or merit to be prosecuted by the state. 

Now how do you define "probably cause?" This is a gray area that most citizens are not schooled enough in the law to determine on their own when the case is very complicated. 

My instructor told us that the prosecuting attorney (in the Ferguson case, that would be McCulloch) always drives this process. He works with the grand jury to help them understand the evidence, the law surrounding how it was obtained, and then always (always) makes a recommendation to the jury for whether there is probable cause.

I remembered this story because I wondered then what the point was of a grand jury if the prosecuting attorney was making the call every time. My instructor agreed that this was really not the intention of a grand jury when the process was started, but that it had evolved over time.

So when I heard McCulloch insist time after time that he had nothing to do with the grand jury process and that he sent his "assistants" to deliver the evidence, I wondered again. But this time, I wondered why he did not make a recommendation as prosecutors always do.

It would make sense that if the prosecutor did not make a recommendation to prosecute that the group of citizens tasked with the decision to prosecute would be less inclined to do so. Was McCulloch's lack of involvement interpreted by the jury as a vote against prosecution? Especially given that he is the lead prosecutor? Would the jury surmise that the evidence was not strong enough to prosecute so McCulloch was therefore not pushing for it?

I wasn't on that jury. And having been on trial juries several times, I can tell you that what happens behind closed jury doors is quite intense and can't easily be guessed.

My thoughts on Ferguson are many. And they are all over the map as far as both Brown's and Wilson's culpability in a situation where I was not a witness. I always try to stay impartial until I've seen the evidence and heard the testimony.

But I can say that the grand jury process was not only not typical but very unusual. And process is so important in such a high-profile case. This was too much information for a group of citizens to weed through without someone with a legal, prosecutorial background. 

Was a subtle message sent to the jury by McCulloch's lack of involvement? I think so. And I also think that his hands-off approach was more about protecting his own political future than anything even close to justice. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reclaiming your future

When my friend Sally became a life coach years ago, she left a stressful job and started to figure out just where her gifts should take her. I envied her. As much as I like my job, it is stressful and demanding.

Lately I've noticed that I haven't been thinking much about my future beyond the next day's meetings. It happens to all of us. We have a job that we want to do well and help move our companies in a positive direction. In the high-tech world I survive in, that means 24x7 coverage for things that will inevitably go bump in the night. That leaves little time to focus on personal goals that don't involve just getting through the next deadline in one piece.

So I asked my friend Sally if she could be my life coach. I wasn't sure what to expect but she started by giving me some forms to fill out. I'm pretty quick to answer questions and move on to the next one. I do that at work all day. But the questions on the forms were not easy.

One of the hardest forms I had to fill out asked for 10 personal goals I wanted to accomplish for myself. I struggled to name three and couldn't think of another to save my life. 

These past few years for me have been mainly about care-taking for elderly and dying parents. Mom has been gone for 3 1/2 years and dad for one year. During that time, it took up most of my hours and energy to ensure they received the best care they could, to manage their funds, to sell their property, and to handle their estate. 

In the past year I've been focused on my jobs (both paid and volunteer) now that I don't have all those family obligations. Sort of getting back to my own obligations.

As I stared at the seven empty lines in the goals section on Sally's form, I thought about why it was so hard for me to fill in the blanks. Sadly I realized it's been years since I thought about what I wanted for me. It's been all about what I needed to do for others. 

Many people in my generation are faced with the same dilemma. We are working difficult or multiple jobs, making tuition payments, carting kids around to events, caring for our parents, and keeping our property up on the weekends. No time for our dreams or needs. 

I started to feel not just uneasy about my lack of personal goals but fearful about the quality of the three I had written. They all seem now to be so shallow and short-sighted. Not really goals at all but tasks that need to be done that I don't have time or energy to pursue.

This first meeting with Sally opened my eyes to the lack of care I take of my own life. It's great to do for others but what happens when you are no longer able to work or do or plan and instead are limited by age or health? There will be no goals then outside of the day-to-day requirements.

I'm selling myself short and ending this forward-thinking time in my life way too soon by only focusing on the day-to-day now. I still have time and, as I saw when losing my parents so closely together, it all goes so fast at the end. 

Before I left Sally's office today, she gave me some homework to help me focus on me for a change. One thing I had to do was give myself flowers - even if I just plucked some out of the dirt and stuck them in a vase on my desk. I did that on the way home and found that even a little gesture like that was enough to help me start looking at options around me. 

This will be a journey for me. I'm not sure where it will take me but I'm ready to begin seeing beyond my daily planner.


Monday, October 20, 2014

The Matter of Music

Did you ever get into a what-if discussion with friends about which sense you'd prefer to lose if you had to lose either your sight or your hearing? Everyone I've ever discussed that with always say that they'd rather lose their hearing. When I ask why, they say that if you lose your sight, you lose your independence and that's the worst of all losses.

I have always said that I would not want to live if I lost my hearing. Let me tell you why.

One of the greatest gifts of being human is being moved by music. In the world of quantum physics, string theorists propose that at the heart of every particle  are "strings" of matter that vibrate constantly. These vibrations create a cosmic symphony and could explain why music is so central to the human existence. We are each a walking symphony of matter.

There are as many anti-string theorists as string theorists. Einstein was one of the "anti" crowd. Einstein believed that everything could be measured. String theorists, however, have never been able to find a mathematical equation to explain and predict string behavior.

Now, you can say that because Einstein's theory of relativity proved Newton's long-held theory of gravity wrong, the evolution of physics is such that Einstein's theories could, at the very least, be enhanced by new theories.

I am not a physicist and would never claim to know enough about the subject to prove any theory wrong. But as my favorite science teacher told me when I was in high school, science starts as individual experience.

In 55 years, I have yet to meet a person who is not affected by some type of music. Oftentimes, when discussing music with others there is an emotional piece to the discussion. How music makes us feel is very primal. We are drawn to different types of music because of internal buttons that are pushed. No one can explain that feeling precisely but at a higher level we might use terms like inspired, joyous, agitated, "pumped up", and sad. 

Music soothes the dying, helps us celebrate moments like weddings and birthdays, leads us into battle both literally and figuratively, gets under our skin if its key is not in synch with our idea of harmony. Think of all the times that music has changed your mood, or your resolve, or your life.

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, according to Shakespeare. And words of love and encouragement can be music to our ears. How many times have you been out with friends (or even home alone) and heard a song that made you get up off your feet and dance around? Has a book or a painting ever had that effect on you? Probably not.

I don't know if string theory will ever be proven in my lifetime. Maybe if we get a fast enough or big enough particle accelerator it will. But, regardless, even if string theory doesn't prove why music is such an integral part of our being, I'd still never want to lose it in my life.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Shared History


We were sitting at a table in the corner so we were able to take in all of the restaurant from there. It's an old building - restored, improved, added onto. But the wood is original and it's all you see: floors, walls, ceilings, beams. 

The Mill on the Floss is an ancient place in the Berkshires. It used to be an inn at one point but now it's a French restaurant. It has a long history and the maitre'd explains some of it to the two couples at the next table.

When he gets to the 1940s, I smile. He describes the previous owners who bought it then and made it what it is today. 

"That's my aunt and uncle," I say softly to my husband. Hearing your family history as described by strangers to strangers is a unique experience. 

My grandmother's sister moved to NYC to get out of Lowell as soon as she could. She had no desire to be stuck in a mill city. In NYC, she met and married a rich older man who was taken with her smarts and her beauty.

My aunt then went to cooking school to follow a dream. When she graduated, my uncle bought her the Mill on the Floss and she became the chef. It was basic American fare but the locals loved it. The Mill is close to Williamstown and a short drive from NY and the artistic and educated filled the tables. 

My aunt told a story about how the Clarks (from the Clark Museum fame) used to come for the Thursday night roast beef special. They were millionaires but still wanted good ole home cooking at a good price. 

My aunt and uncle ran the Mill until the late 1970s. By then my aunt had hired a chef so she could focus on the business and the mingling. My uncle was the bartender and hand-shaker. Because they were both comfortable running in more elite circles, the Mill became a popular stop for well-bred NY and Berkshire diners. 

I look around the restaurant as we sit there and wonder at how little it has changed since I was a kid. The old plates in the corner cabinet could easily be my aunt's and the expensive oil paintings were likely bought by my uncle. 

My husband and I stopped in the kitchen before we left and said hello to the owner - the wife of my aunt's chef - and her daughter who is now head chef. We talked about who's gone, including her husband and my parents. My aunt, uncle and grandparents have been gone even longer. 

We talked about how their spirits still visit there. There are times when doors open for no reason and the owner says, "It's your aunt. She loved it here."

Driving back to the B&B in the dark, I thought about the family history I hold in my mind. I thought about the stories I know but more about the stories I don't know. There is no one left to fill in the blanks. I am now part of the oldest generation in my family.

Will my niece and nephew be interested in the old stories? Will they pass them on? Or will they die with me? I think about how I have very few stories of family members who died before I was born. How can I expect the next generation to be as interested in these stories as me?

Maybe it's best that way. The Mill owner has lived in and worked that place now longer than my aunt and uncle did. It's their story to tell now to their generations. And that's where my family's story will live on.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

When cancer is in all of us

When I went for my annual screening mammogram last week, I had to fill out a new online form with all sorts of questions. I was asked about my family history of cancer, age of menopause, HRT use, etc. When I got to the last question, I hesitated. 

"Have you had cancer?". The options were YES and NO. I thankfully was able to choose NO but thought there should be a better option than that. How about NOT YET?

Now don't get all freaked out on me about this. I'm not a fatalist, I'm not a hypochondriac and I don't harbor a death wish.

I did read a great book recently called The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee who wrote this during his internship at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. 

This book changed my perspective on cancer. The reason I even know about this book is because my PCP and I share favorite books with each other and this was one she had recently read. I thought it might be over my head but it was written so well that it really did read like a biography.

It's a huge book with tons of science and research but also has personal stories about the author's patients. 

I found as I read it that cancer is not this new epidemic as some of us think. It's been around and recorded since the early days of medicine (early as in, Hippocrates). There have been many treatment philosophies, some with more success than others.

With all the studies being published (eating bran prevents colon cancer - oh wait, no it doesn't) there have only been two cancer causing agents that have been absolutely proven: radiation and smoking. That's it. And even then, not all people who smoke get cancer. The rest of the studies cannot be reproduced in a manner that can confirm other hypotheses. 

So, how much of this can we really control? Not much, I read. Researchers have discovered that cancer cells are normal cells gone haywire. (I am really really oversimplifying for the sake of this short column.) We all have normal cells, right? So that means we all have potential cancer cells. In our bodies. Right now.

Besides radiation and smoking, researchers truly have no idea what causes these normal cells to suddenly flip a DNA switch and cause the out-of-control growth of cells. Cancer cells do what "normal" cells can't do like travel to other organs and fend off antibodies. And researchers have no idea why it happens or how to stop it. They can play with chemo agents, radiation (to a point), and conduct radical surgery to try to control it with mixed results. But they can't ever guarantee that it is completely erradicated. 

I read this book because I've always felt that knowing the enemy helps my chances of survival. I'm also a bit of a science geek and thought I could learn something about an amazing biological phenomenon. I was right on the latter but not the former.

This is surprisingly not depressing to me. Instead of worrying about "getting cancer" I have accepted that my body will always harbor the potential. It was a "We have met the enemy and he is us" moment for me when I finished this book.

The stats say that more people are living with cancer than ever before. Does that mean that cancer is on the rise? No, I think it means that science has found remedial solutions so that we don't die from cancer as quickly as our ancestors. 

Mukherjee concludes in his book that we will likely never be able to find an absolute cure for cancer or even come to a total understanding of why cancer cells occur.

Cancer is still a scary disease to have and, to me, an even scarier one to watch a loved one bear. But there is relief in acceptance. Not of the inevitability of cancer so much as the reality of biology.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The importance of humane

Sitting on the Board for the Lowell Humane Society is an honor I've held for 3 1/2 years. I feel that I do very little except attend meetings and help organize events. The real heroes are the staff in the shelter, the tireless volunteers, our donors, and the president of our Board.

There are a lot of folks who assume that LHS receives local and/or state funds to operate. Maybe it's because we provide a service to the community or maybe it's because having "Lowell" in our name makes us sound like a city organization.

In reality, all of our money comes from two places: individual donors and private grants. Given our 500k operating budget, it always humbles me to know that our little non-profit exists because of the kindness of others. 

The work done at LHS is not easy. Lots of happy-ending stories appear on social media with smiling pets and owners. The actual stories behind the stories are often filled with a lot of heartache for surrendering pet owners, compassion-fatigued staff, haunting visuals of abused animals, and mounting vet bills.

This is not to say that the staff and volunteers at any shelter or rescue group are crying into their pillows every night. The work is hard but its rewards are great. 

The people I've met through my association with LHS and also with a previous dog rescue group I helped lead for five years, have me shaking my head in amazement many times. These are people who give up fiscal and sometimes physical comforts so that animals can not just survive but flourish.

Staff members give up their own free time to come into work to help in a crunch. They take calls and attend meetings while on vacation and never complain. Donors go without so that animals are cared for.

Is the pay commensurate with the effort? I'd like to say it is but we know the reality of non-profits and any career that helps further the wellbeing of living beings in need. The fact that jobs that help the discarded and forgotten pays so much less than a high-tech worker is an inequity that I struggle with constantly. But that's a topic for another day.

Today I want to raise up the kindness of the human heart that recognizes animals make our lives better. Animals are worth our time, our money, and our energy.

And the people who make our lives better for it deserve as much support and applause as we can give them.

To donate to the Lowell Humane Society, visit our page at: http://www.lowellhumanesociety.org/index.php/donate/