Moving-the practical bits

We moved into our apartment in Washington, DC one year ago today. It was a good year-a honeymoon year-like most of our first years in a new place. The enjoyment and exploration was outweighed by the hassles of moving and any pangs of adjustment.

I’ve moved roughly twelve times in my adult life, living in nine states, the District of Columbia and abroad. In our family, there is dispute on proper accounting methods: moves versus homes, whether and how to count moves within a city or temporary apartments or the summer secondment in London. But no matter how they are counted, I like both moving and making a home. These are two separate tasks. They impact each other, but require separate skills to accomplish.

Moving is the practical bits, the hands-on work with boxes, tape and lists upon lists. It’s messy at times, but it is the quicker and simpler task. I’ve learned a few lessons on how best to move and get settled in a timely fashion. For eight of the moves, we had packers and movers, two or three guys who do the packing and heavy lifting. It helped eliminate hours of packing, but there was significant prep work. I created a staging area-a counter or corner of the house where I put our important papers, jewelry, and other belongings that will go with me when I drove or flew to our new home. And I clear out anything going to the trash or goodwill before the movers arrived. I had a set standard to determine if a possession was going to get junked. When I moved to DC, it was if we hadn’t used something since we moved back to the US (six years and three moves) then it went. Invariably there were a few items that were overlooked, over-emphasized, or didn’t fit in the new space that I toss out after the move during the unpacking.

I appreciated my movers dearly, offering to buy lunch and a supply of drinks. (Mountain Dew was the drink of choice decades ago, then Gatorade and now water) These men touched all our possessions, including the china my beloved immigrant granny brought back to the US on her first trip home to Scotland after being gone for decades. And rather than request extra care, I show it to them and tell them its story. In all our moves, not a piece was broken.

When I’ve done the packing myself, I spend the money on proper supplies-boxes, packing paper and moving tape. Used boxes don’t always hold up and newspaper ink can wreak havoc on dishware, creating more work. I label several sides of every box, especially if it is a box for the top of a load. And just like when I have movers, upon arriving at our new home, I scout out a staging area/room, a space to put the boxes in each room, not where furniture would go, and do the unpacking myself. I learned in my first corporate move that movers simply unwrap items and place them on any available flat surface. In a matter of minutes every counter in the kitchen was covered and I was overwhelmed. Thank goodness I stopped them when only three of ten boxes were unpacked.

When the kids were at home, the first order of business was to set up their rooms. Before the move, I would determine what was going into their room and where. Once the truck was unloaded, I would insist their beds were the first assembled and immediately made them. Knowing you can go to bed, whether for the night, a nap, or with a book to escape the mayhem, gives a sense of order and reassurance especially necessary for little kids. The kids enjoyed setting up their rooms again, getting to touch everything had a little bit of a Christmas morning feeling to it. They noticed and appreciated things again. I never minded if they got lost in play, it was the start of making the house our home. Generally, I had the toys and books, back on their shelves and the room set up minus the pictures on the wall by the end of the first day. I didn’t worry about our room so much, except for getting our bed made; we, too, need a place to escape in comfort at the end of the long day of moving.

Within two weeks, I had all the boxes unpacked, everything put in its place and Dan hung the pictures. I’m not trying to make moving sound easy, it was work, but it is specific, doable work. At some point, I would have a ‘raging at the wind’ moment, swearing like a sailor for a minute or so, but then it was over and I was back to the task at hand. There were a few broken items, furniture that didn’t fit as well as hoped, and the frustration of redundant work. Occasionally I wanted to pull my hair out because I had yet another cable technician in yet another home working on TV and internet setup. And there was the year I had to teach a first grader three different addresses because we moved during the school year and spent Christmas in temporary housing. After a few weeks or a few months, in a temporary apartment, we always were ready for move-in day. And once the move was over, the real work began-making a home.

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Sophomore Slump

I got off the phone this morning with my oldest. We often chat on her drive to the hospital where she is a chief pediatric resident, and something she said about bad years turning out to be good years made me think back to her college years. “These are the best four years of your life”-that’s the continual refrain college students hear.

We hoped that would be true when we took her to Notre Dame. Freshman year, she handled the academics, navigated the campus social scene, and survived a roommate who brought two truckloads of belongings filling their room before MK arrived. The summer after her freshman year our family moved to Belgium. It wasn’t long after I went back to campus with her in August, that I knew something was amiss. There was malaise and irritability in her voice when she called; I even read it in the texts she sent. Her grades dipped. Her motivation waned.

I wondered whether she was in a sophomore slump. The newness of college was gone, her coursework sophomore year intensified, and she began to doubt her pre-professional liberal arts major. She and her buddies referred to the building that they took their exams in as “where med school dreams go to die”. Sophomore year courses cull the herd. This frightening and very real effect made her question whether she had the grades or the desire to continue onto to the next level. She feared her career path was askew. And her worries were compounded by the sadness that she wasn’t living our family’s new life in Europe and her high school hometown life was gone. My initial reaction wasn’t very empathic. She was at Notre Dame and these were the best years of her life, right? I expected her to buck up, toughen up, and grow up. A tall order for a nineteen-year-old kid whose family was a six-hour time difference, 4000+ miles, and an ocean away.

After a few weeks, I realized she was not snapping out it. I woke up to the dual difficulties of her academic struggles and homesickness. It was hard to see her hurting. I tried to react without over-reacting. She came home three times that year, but in hindsight we should have gone to campus during football season, that was a period she felt especially left behind.

We urged her to make it a year for self-examination, calculated action, and dig into her studies. That added pressure to a tense time, but she determined what classes held her interest, gave her enjoyment, and where she excelled. By the end of October break, she determined that she wanted to study French again and go abroad to France during her junior year. With help from old friends she made the decision on her dual major. MK had gone home with their daughter for Thanksgiving break and when discussing options of liberal arts majors to pair with pre-med, my old friend who had known MK and her love of books since she was three, simply wondered aloud why English wouldn’t be her first choice. The fog cleared, the path was opened, and MK was an English pre-professional studies major.

Her sophomore slump was endured more than conquered. She squandered time but didn’t lose her footing with too much aimlessness or drinking excessively. But like the many who experience malaise, there was a fair share of isolation and lethargy. Few students on campus talked about sophomore slump. Maybe they feared it was contagious. MK was disappointed that we had moved to Europe after and not during her high school years. She didn’t want to leave ND, but she didn’t feel that she was part of this family adventure. We went on outings and trips during her breaks and her siblings made it clear that they preferred when we were all together, but it was tough being a continent away.

Back on campus, with some encouragement she evaluated whether her social undertakings were in her best interest and dumped activities that were a burden or waste of time. We advised her to utilize campus resources, talk to her academic advisor and professors. Ask for help and accept it. She took some advice, but it was the combination of looking forward to a summer internship and getting accepted for studying abroad second semester junior year that pushed her out of her sophomore slump. She went back to campus junior year refreshed and focused. She thrived and strived through that year and the following one, finishing strong.

In the end, that year was much like the bear hunt ditty we sang when she was little, “you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it”. And thank goodness, she didn’t have to do it alone. MK learned to make career-impacting decisions and navigate times of angst. And I learned that listening and compassionate parenting never ends.





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Gratitude-November letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

November is shades of brown-tree branches without their leaves, farm fields devoid of crops, and art project turkeys made from brown paper bags. Even pie, whether it be apple, pumpkin or pecan, is a shade of brown and the onslaught of winter feels close at hand. But November also has Thanksgiving: the holiday whose name defines its mission.

This is the holiday that celebrates gratitude. Thanksgiving calls on Americans to stop their constant motion, to sit down at their table at mid-day and join together to give thanks for what is good in their lives. I love a teachable moment and Thanksgiving makes a holiday of it. Teaching children gratitude helps them recognize what they have rather than what they want, and learn to express thankfulness for it. At our Kalamazoo home in 1999 we celebrated Thanksgiving just the five of us. That was the year we expanded our Thanksgiving prayer beyond a traditional grace to include individually expressing what we were thankful for during the past year. With gusto, the kids identified and acknowledged what was good in their life. Sharing aloud gave their dad and I a glimpse into their thinking and an opportunity to validate their gratitude. It is a practice that we continue whenever we host Thanksgiving regardless of the number of people seated at the table.

I am humbled by this most American of holidays, especially since returning from living in Belgium. I picture Americans of all walks of life, from sea to shining sea, gathered around tables eating turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie for the particular purpose of showing thanks and gratitude. Rather than visions of fancy tables laden with food, I imagine alterations to the traditional approach. Whether it’s Peking turkey, grandma’s lasagna or apple empanadas on the menu, I like to consider how each ethnic group puts its thumbprint on the holiday. And I remember, family is a word that, especially on Thanksgiving, morphs beyond family of origin to blended family, urban family, or even ‘adopted for Thanksgiving’ family. It is the day when there is always room for one more at the table.

Over the years, we have shared Thanksgiving dinner with extended family which included the requisite happily unsupervised kids’ table, dined at a country club with grandpa, welcomed family friends to a ‘family of choice’ Thanksgiving, gathered with multiple American families in Waterloo after a half of day of school, and celebrated just the five of us several times including in an apartment in New York City our last year in Belgium when we couldn’t bear to spend another Thanksgiving apart. I haven’t clung to the venue or the menu, just to my people. I advise you to do the same.

There were times when I wished my kids had an annual Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving with multiple generations and all their cousins sharing the table, but that is a painting, not real life, and definitely not my life. All but one grandparent died in the early years of our marriage, our extended family struggled with planning and committing for events, and we moved away from Ohio where most everyone lives. An all-inclusive family Thanksgiving was not in the cards. Instead we claimed this holiday weekend to spend and celebrate as we chose. And we don’t let American consumerism crack our Thanksgiving weekend, try as it might. There is no shopping on Black Friday and no Christmas activities; instead we stay focused on the three Fs-food, family and football.

We created traditions, but allowed them to change as our family grew in age, taste and interests. When the kids were little I made cut-out cookies, which they decorated on Wednesday evening as a holiday kick-off. On Thanksgiving Day, we still like to watch the Macy’s Parade munching on pumpkin muffins and love a post-dinner hike before dessert, or shall I say before pie, lots of pie. Friday is an outdoor day, maybe the last of the leaf raking or exploring our new area and Saturday is reserved for the final Notre Dame football game and leftovers. Sunday is now a travel day.

Our Thanksgiving menu is traditional including loads of side dishes. The sides enlarged by choice and by error; including the year Patrick mistakenly opened cans of cream corn only to discover he liked it. Now it is a must have on the table alongside kernel corn and sometimes cornbread. We dress nicely but without fuss for the meal. We start with a champagne toast, linger at the table for hours telling stories before our hike and cap off the day with watching a family favorite movie, such as The Princess Bride, where we shout out the lines. A marvelously relaxing and enjoyable day even when I have spent the 24 hours prior to it, cooking and baking. And why? Because this holiday without presents offers my favorite gift: time together.

Thanksgiving this year will find us in Buffalo, where Mary Kate and John will host their first holiday. After Meg and I run the annual Buffalo Niagara Turkey Trot, I’ll play sous chef to her executive chef. Although I love being the mom-in-charge, I am happy to hand over the reins, watch her lead and pleased that she wants our family to be together around her table. And, if asked what I am grateful for-it will be that my gang is finally together this year. (and, of course, for The Cousins!)

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie




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Keeping Order

Happiness is rows of neatly folded towels, shirts hung in the colors of the spectrum (ROY G BIV), and books precisely aligned on shelves. I love order and the well-organized life it creates. The order in my home helps me to live deliberately, with purpose, and hopefully conveys my belief to cling to people, not to things.

I am a bit of a minimalist, but not in its current use as a lifestyle of very expensive items displayed painstakingly in a world of white on white. I’m not stark, just uncluttered. My minimalism started early. Growing up the youngest in a house with ten people, until middle school, two drawers and ½ of a closet held my clothes and worldly possessions. I liked my belongings tidy, not only to keep them in good shape, but to be aware of anyone ‘borrowing’ a favorite item.

As a college freshman, I lived in a single. It was the first room of my own and, even when I tossed my clothes on the floor or didn’t clean for a few weeks, the closet and drawers were neatly organized. Order was instinctive, but after a couple of years, I found I had accumulated a lot of stuff-mementos from events, worn out clothes, vases from flowers received, notebooks from classes, every gift given-and when I went to store my belongings for the summer, there was more than would fit into the boxes. I couldn’t keep everything, I had to glean my possessions. I examined them in a way I never had, looking beyond keeping them for the sake of familiarity and habit, but for usefulness and enjoyment. On that afternoon in early-May two insights for keeping order were learned: 1) There is no obligation to keep a gift I didn’t want, rather remember the kindness, and let go of the gift and the guilt. 2) Everything can’t be special-if you have numerous similar items, they can’t all be special-keep no more than three. I choose three because of the Trinity and teasingly say, “if it’s good enough for God, it’s definitely good enough for me”.

In my penny-pinching twenties, my husband and I had an assortment of hand-me down furniture and household items. I soon realized these items didn’t fit our needs. Though well-intentioned, these freebies were often accepted without thought of practicality and began to weigh me down. They created unwanted cluttered that made it a struggle to determine my style and preferences. It was when we owned our first home that I embraced, “Less is More”. I found less stuff helped keep order in a house with both of us working and two small children. There was less to take care of, less to clean, less to manage, less to pay for, and less distraction. And then there was ‘the more’: more space in the house for the kids to play, to spread out their trains, blocks and dollies, more time to read aloud or to cook, more focus on being with one another, and even a bit more money to save. I could straighten up quickly and was no longer frustrated trying to shove yet another seasonal towel into a kitchen drawer or another ninja turtle t-shirt into a bureau.

The order I created-toys neatly on shelves, kitchen items arranged carefully in cabinets, and clothes hung up by type and color-would serve us well with small children, especially when we learned one of our kids had poor working memory. Strengthening that memory and learning life skills was easier when there was a place for everything and everything is in its place. Many a night, I did a 20-minute clean-up to get everything back in place, but there was no daily drama of searching for lunches, shoes, or backpacks when each item was found in its place. And now, in my fifties, I am grateful for the order; I’m not in constant search of my keys or phone.

To keep the house uncluttered after the purging of the unnecessary and unwanted items, I had to focus on not filling the space again. This was hard with kids given that their clothes, interests, and activities changed as they grew older. Luckily, they only occasionally complained they didn’t have all the stuff that their friends had, or weren’t allowed to keep every trinket ever received, or that they didn’t get souvenirs on every outing. Instead, they had lots of experiences, including going to the theater, sporting events, and living abroad. I fought the consumer culture-the purchaser mentality and impulse buying pushed by marketers-the result was a tidier house, kids who learned the outing was the treat, and more money in their college fund.

Keeping a neat home was a priority, but I didn’t do it alone nor make it a drudge. I turned tidying up into game. Whether it was setting the timer for five minutes of clean up with the stereo blasting their favorite new song or everyone choosing a different room and racing to be finished first, or trying to pick up five things with one hand, there was a way to put some fun into cleaning. And when it was time for a clearing out of clothes or toys, on average twice a year, we did it together. Mostly the kids sat on their beds while I held up items to go into one of three piles: keep, give away, or toss out. An item that was loved but outgrown or beyond repair could be kept as an old friend but no more than three. We didn’t tackle everything, so as not to overwhelm ourselves, choosing to go through toys or clothes, but not both. We love books, they rarely left the house but would migrate from room to room based on reading level. And I had a ‘staging area’, usually in my bedroom, a place to put items that needed repaired or stuff we were unsure about stayed there until some time passed and we found them useful or not. When the kids were undecided about an item, I would ask them to consider the item’s intended purpose, current purpose, and possible purpose. With a little contemplation, they could sort out the item’s future without difficulty. And I was keen about finishing the task; a project 90% completed is discouraging. I chanted, “Be a finisher” more than my kids might care to remember as we lugged the last bags into the car and drove off to Goodwill.

With four moves in the last seven years, mostly into smaller spaces, I’ve discovered I have few special occasion items. There is no saving for later. I use the good stuff. The Edinburgh crystal wine glasses I bought on my first trip my granny’s homeland are used whenever I open a bottle of wine. And I don’t have collections; my ‘only three things are special’ rule limits that possibility along with my dislike for spending money on the similar things. I feel the same way about having multiple electronic devices, they suck money and then time in maintaining them. I want to own my possessions, not have them own me, whether it be my time, my money or my energy.

For the last three years, orderly, simple living is all the rage with Marie Kondo and her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I read the book and agreed with much of it, but I found it a bit too stringent-even for me-pushing people to get rid of rarely used items, finished books, and nostalgia. I like to pull out our large champagne tub for festive occasions, reread books, and every couple of years’ comb through a box from my school days in the cool basement on a hot summer afternoon. These occasionally used items continue to enhance my life. And now that my kids are grown, I’ve discovered that passing on a family favorite possession to them is wonderful. I get to see their delight and they get to take a little bit of our home into the one they are creating.


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Friends-for-now, Lifers, and Foxhole Friends

Lately on my daily walk with Stella, our nine-year-old Cairn Terrier, I’ve thought about the many friends that we’ve walked with over the years. With twelve moves in my adult life, including four in the last seven years, I am keenly aware of the difference between an acquaintance, a colleague, a neighbor, and a friend. Friendliness and sociability with people who I see routinely is meaningful-we all need human contact-but not many of those relationships rise to a level of friendship. Beyond shared interests, friendship takes time, effort, and includes a bond of affection for one another. No matter what Facebook says, a friend is not made with the click of a mouse.

In moving every two, four, or six years, I learned not every friendship made, lasts. Nor could I take my friends with me when we moved, at least not physically. The moves taught me to consider the depth of my friendships, to differentiate between friends-for-now, lifers, and foxhole friends.

“Friends-for-now” are friends of convenience. These were handy friendships with a jumping off point of shared experience; they held camaraderie and kindness. They were the people with whom I shared the same orbit, like fellow alumni I met for happy hours, or the school parking lot moms with whom I waited at dismissal, or the library volunteers, or the fellow parents cheering on the sidelines. Sometimes we became close friends, and a couple of times they were the surprise friendship that stuck after we moved. But generally, once we moved and “the now” was gone, what remained was pleasant memories and a few years of exchanging of Christmas cards.

Then there are the lifers, a term my kids coined. This is good pal-a teammate, classmate or neighbor-whose friendship grew over the years and when we moved, the friendship held and continued to grow. The advances of technology, including free long-distance calling, email, texting, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Facetime made keeping-up easier. These friendships survived and thrived regardless of the distance, moves, and years because of the effort we made to see each other. And once together, we haven’t missed a beat, whether it’s was weeks, months or years since our last visit.

And there are the foxhole friends, a term used by the husband of our first foxhole friends-I use it, sparingly. I like it better then best friend, which sounds too singular and all encompassing, as if one close friendship is best over others. A foxhole friend is a friend in the trenches of life-watching each other’s kids in an emergency, listening to the honest worries that we hesitantly speak aloud, or reveling in an accomplishment of our own or our kids because we know the hard work behind it. These friends are my first calls or texts in life’s worst and best times.

At fifty-six, while I’m pleased to have a host of lifers, these dear friends are scattered about the country and the globe. The kids are gone and the easy access to shared experiences with fellow parents are gone with them. The days of meeting people volunteering at school or cheering for teams is over. I’m on my own now looking for friends in a new city. I follow the advice I’ve given repeatedly to my kids for finding friends-for-now: get involved, try something new, be friendly. But I’m also keeping the further advice I gave the kids when hoping a friend-for-now would be a lifer: choose wisely, look for shared values, and make sure they are good people. And whether they would agree, I believe that my closest friends are smarter, nicer and kinder than me and I like that, because they challenge me, teach me, and help me be a better person.

One final note, I am not on Facebook. I need less, not more distraction. Rather, I text, email and yes, still talk on the phone with friends. And then I drive or get on a plane to be with them and always welcome them into my home.

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Apples, Pumpkins and Autumn Leaves-October letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

Apples, pumpkins and autumn leaves are just a few of my favorite October things. Or maybe, to be precise, it’s apple pie, roasted pumpkin seeds and jumping into piles of leaves that make October my favorite month. And of course, your birthday!

As summer gives way to fall, October produces cool, clear nights great for sleeping, and warm, sunny afternoons great for being outdoors. These are the happy days! When I look back on my favorite times with my children, October comes to mind. I wish the same for you.

In Ohio when the kids were little, a close pal and I piled our children into one mini-van and headed off for an apple picking farm about an hour away. There were seventeen apple varieties, some, which the farmer said, dated back to Johnny Appleseed plantings. John Chapman had gone through Fairfield County, south of Columbus, in the early 1800s. History, apples and friendship came together on those warm afternoons. It was blissful to visit an obscure farm down a windy road with no other visitors. And we ate as we picked, comparing and contrasting the flavors, and brought home bushels of apples. We were a merry band. These were the years I learned to make applesauce, apple brown betty and apple pie. Yum!

When we moved to Michigan, October was the month of leaves. There was no better way to teach Meg her colors then on a walk collecting leaves that had turned red, orange, yellow and brown, and hold them up against October’s brilliant blue sky. After four years, we had learned the names of the trees and could identify them by their leaves. Oh, and when they came down, we raked and raked them into piles which the kids jumped in before we pushed them to the gutter for collection. During our first October, I wondered, as the leaves lay week after week in the street, turning our wide two-lane road into one, where was the weekly pickup by a truck with a vacuum. Then in the last week of October, plows arrived on our street to move the leaves. Into monstrously large piles they went, at each intersection and in the nearby cul-de-sacs, before the leaves were lifted into dump trucks and taken away. The neighborhood kids gathered to watch as the plows created mountains of leaves as tall as the one-story house on our block. Once the plow was out of sight and with a quick glance at me for permission, they sprinted to the piles to climb and dive and jump as they had never before. Happiness is a mountain of leaves that five kids can climb simultaneously.  

Our New Jersey years brought an older kid’s life with homework and school sports, along with an earlier sunset. My concern that our outdoor October days might be over was needless worry. The nature walks and other mom-led adventures morphed into street hockey and an evening ritual of night games. At dusk, the neighborhood kids would divide into teams and then there was a romp through the backyards playing manhunt. With a door and a few windows were open I could hear them well, it was as if I was hiding in the bushes with them. Those moments taught me to let them choose, to let them explore, to let them lead.  

I loved all those outdoor times, but lurking at the end of each October was Halloween. I am not a Halloween person. Of course, I enjoy a Baby Ruth candy bar after trick-or-tricking as much as anyone (when else do you see them), but I’ve no interest in re-decorating my home, no desire to budget annually for hay bales, nor do I wish to own multiple orange bins full of Halloween costumes and paraphilia. I like a few classic decorations that add to a room, not take over it. I cannot sew beyond replacing buttons and I lack all creativity once the words, “Halloween costume” are uttered. I panic. I cringe. I want to hide until November 1st arrives. This was a great disappointment to my children, especially Meg, who wanted to decorate everything, who wanted distinctive, original and eye-catching homemade costumes and who hoped we would host the Halloween party-of-the-century, every year.  

It took time, but over the years, Meg, her siblings and I found ways to compromise. I begged and borrowed costumes from friends and family who sewed; I even put together a few memorable costumes with the help of some old clothes and a good pair of scissors. The kids lowered their expectations and came up with simple costume ideas. I, in turn, came to appreciate the benefits of costumes and wearing them repeatedly. Costumes allow kids to have an alter ego, to try their hand at role-playing, and to expand their imagination. I stopped feeling the pressure of sewing great masterpieces and over time found clothing, hats, and accessories that filled a large box for dress-up. I gladly helped at school parties and cheered at Halloween parades. Each year I agreed to purchase one Halloween decorative item and two weeks before Halloween, I helped Meg decorate as she saw fit, including hanging streamers and every Halloween art project ever made. For freshness, I insisted that our pumpkins were carved the day before Halloween. I did them free hand based on the kids’ drawings. Mostly your Uncle Dan took the kids out trick-or-treating, while I stayed home to hand out candy and bake pumpkin seeds. It was nice to be waiting for them, so that, like the candy in their pillowcases, the stories of the evening could spill out. 

You may notice that I skipped all the scary stuff. I did so because it skipped my kids entirely. The Mannix family was not one for ghost stories, haunted houses, or scary movies. Instead, I will leave you with my favorite Halloween image. It is your Uncle Dan at Meg’s pre-school sitting on a small stool teaching eleven four-year-olds the Halloween song he learned in pre-school:   

                                    Halloween has come at last, 

                                   Witches, goblins, big black cats, 

                                    People yell and people shout,


Much love each and every day,  

Aunt Aggie

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It’s Not Common Sense If You’ve Never Done It Before

Dearest Jane,

My friend, on our last walk, I recognized your exasperation with your son, a twenty-four-old college graduate with a real job, but who forgot to purchase renter’s insurance for his apartment and couldn’t fill out the form without texting you a barrage of questions. Take a deep breath. The transition from the cocoon of college life to the working world of adult life is a process. It doesn’t happen as quickly or smoothly as our young adults’ hope nor as we, their mothers, expect.

It’s not common sense if you have never done it before. I said that repeatedly, during the first years my kids were out of college, when they called or texted with questions about daily life issues that they were facing for the first time. Common sense is practical experience. It is based on understanding how things work, and it is in performing a task that experience and knowledge is gained.

When my kids called with their latest predicament, I willed myself to listen rather than rush in with advice, similar to when I watched and waited to see how they handled a tumble when they were toddlers. I learned to discern whether they were in crisis or merely facing a frustrating chore for the first time. If they were in a crisis-health or safety-I assisted quickly and ably, but otherwise, I asked, “What is your plan?” After hearing their strategy, I responded, “I’m glad you’re thinking of what to do”. Occasionally I gave a time or cost saving tweak, but mostly I listened-to complaints about the late the cable guy, confusion in understanding car insurance coverage, and anguish over paying a replacement fee for a lost key-and I heard them entering adulthood.

Life is work. The administrative tasks can be repetitive and tedious. Patience is needed otherwise tasks become burdensome and frustrating quickly. Early on, finding the time and effort needed for their administrative life was draining. In their first years out of college, when they asked, I willingly answered questions on a range of issues, including lease agreements, parking tickets, and salvaging clothes ruined in the washer, but the follow-up was on them. The costs-time, money and effort-were theirs to bear.

Often, I mused how kids who navigated apps effortlessly, called mom to get daily life questions answered rather than using their phone. I realized it wasn’t just that they didn’t have to sift through screens to find the right answer, but they wanted reassurance as well as advice. All the apps and screens weren’t the same as my voice of experience. Rather than an annoyance, I took their calls as a compliment (and proof that they were dealing with life’s daily tasks).  I knew that this stage, just like the tumbling toddler would pass. And I recognized that unlike in my youth, when I called home on Sunday evenings after the rates went down, my kids had the benefit of technology, that allowed them to call from Trader Joe’s to ask about veggie selection or FaceTime to show me the color and size of the stain on their new shirt.

They made some mistakes; taking risks, delaying tasks or ignoring deadlines. It was hard to watch, but a part of the transition to adulthood. If they were distraught or anxious, I waited for them to act. If they suffered from inertia or an inability to cope, I pushed them for a plan of action, reminding them they were resourceful and capable. I told them to be self-reliant and not to suck other people into their drama. Whether it be a roommate asked to search for lost keys, or a co-worker asked to cover while you deal with your towed car or a friend asked to buy your drink at the cash-only bar because you forgot to go to the ATM, don’t drag others into your self-made struggles. Over time they gained experience. They learned to carry cash in case of emergency, how to navigate the DMV, to set a place for their keys, and to get renter’s insurance before moving into a new apartment. Your son will learn, too. Before long, he will become proficient in dealing with governmental agencies, financial institutions, and paperwork full of legalese.

Finally, my dear friend, I’ve encouraged you to be patient, calm, and understanding. But before I sign off, let me be clear on one point: Do not complete adult life tasks for your son. Coach him, advise him, walk him through it, but don’t do it for him. He can do it and you are just a phone call or text away.

Your pal,





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