Quiet Time-January letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

Happy New Year! My hopes for you and your beautiful family this year are for many moments of contentment. Winter’s short days, long nights and cold weather slows the hectic pace of life and offers an opportunity for stillness, calm and the ordinary. It offers quiet time. This is where the magic happens. In those ordinary moments, bonds are built, a deeper understanding of each other’s interests, quirks and routines are gained, and occasionally your child shares a glimpse into his or her soul that gives an intimacy for a lifetime.

January’s weather discouraged over-scheduling and on snow days obliterated the schedule entirely. I loved holing up at home doing puzzles, reading aloud and playing in the snow. But it was more than just time together, it was an opportunity for deliberate practice of self-reliance and focusing on your Uncle Dan’s favorite motto-know thyself. Shoveling snow, walking on icy sidewalks and battling the cold taught the kids how to deal with the elements and respect Mother Nature. And learning to slow down and fill their time with a quiet activity rather than external stimuli was an opportunity to examine their personal interests.

Come January, there was time to teach the kids household skills and give them responsibility. I identified areas for growth and had the patience to demonstrate procedures. Whether it was teaching them how to load the dishwasher, set the table, or fold laundry, there were tasks to master. It was during the quiet days of winter that third-grade Patrick began to bake cakes, handling the oven with ease (and giant oven mitts). Meg hit her chocolate chip cookie-baking stride in fourth grade while MK was a competent sous chef by fifth grade begging to wield the chef’s knife to mince garlic. With competency came confidence and the hope for more responsibility, especially the exciting stuff like lighting the charcoal starter or wielding the weed whacker. Participation in household chores helped everyone. Many hands do make the work light.

I seized these cold, short days to direct their time so that the kids might better know themselves. In pre-school after lunch, Meg would have ‘book look’. She was too old for a nap I would say, but never too old for some quiet time with a book. Without a rest, she would not make it to the evening without a meltdown. Those twenty to sixty minutes, depending on if she fell asleep, were her quiet time. Several stuffed animals joined her on her bed along with several of her favorite books. ‘Book look’ allowed her to rest her body, explore her imagination and build the essential skill of learning to be alone. She made up elaborate tales of her bed being a ship or the carpet being hot lava and saving the animals from death and destruction. And she learned the invaluable lesson that a book can be a friend-an old friend that you can count on-that you might reread or in her four-year-old case, look at again and again. Years later on school trips, at camp or while traveling abroad, she always carried a book, one that was an old friend, to transport her away when she was lonely, worried or homesick. Grown-up Meg is indebted to pre-school Meg for learning the value of quiet time.

Winter, with its few scheduled-activities, outdoor recreation and hours for reading aloud had a calming effect on our family life. When we lived in Kalamazoo, we could count on snow. Forts were built and tunnels carved, snowshoes were strapped on for hiking to a nearby lake to test the firmness of the ice, and there was lots of sledding. But it was the hot tub, which had come with the house, that was winter’s game-changer. With the snow eighteen inches or deeper and the thermostat outside the kitchen window reading freezing temperatures, the kids would scamper out the garage door, onto the back patio and into the bubbling water. There they chatted, laughed and dared each other to roll in the snow or do a lap around the house in their bathing suits. It was everyone’s favorite end of the day ritual, a gigantic tub of bubbling warm water, a relaxing place to share their thoughts while letting their worries, like the bubbles, release into the water.

As I reread what I’ve written, I fear I am making winter’s quiet time sound trouble-free, but please know it was not. Like most of parenting, it took resolve and energy to limit the schedule, keep the TV off and initiate reading and games. And I’m still in the doghouse for not letting Patrick and Meg play hockey. My journey to harness winter’s quiet time began with a flurry of illnesses in the winter of 1992. That was the year your grandmother died and for twelve weeks one of the kids or myself was sick. There was strep throat, chicken pox, shingles, pink eye, and a few rounds of the flu. It was an awful time but like many awful times, it was a learning time. I had created a full schedule with play dates, activities, community engagements and lots of volunteering. I soon realized I was doing too much and needed to focus on making a family and home that was healthy and calm. I wanted a no drama or trauma life and I consciously decided to create it. I limited our activities. I embraced the ordinary.

There were still winter illnesses, but I refused to be frustrated by them.  Rather I found the good in caring for my kids when they were under the weather or injured. They felt my love as I cared for them. And sitting with them, developed my patience while giving them a deep understanding of trust; trust that I was there, trust that I would stay and trust that they would recover. It also was a great time for reading aloud. Our first winter in Kalamazoo, Mary Kate was home ill for four days. It was on day two that I sat on the living room floor leaning against the couch where she rested and read Anne of Green Gables aloud. MK and I began a love affair with “Anne with an E” that day and soon learned that we were kindred spirits. Oh, thank goodness for those quiet days, for the patience to sit with her, and for LL Montgomery.

In January, may you have ample time for playing games, taking walks and reading aloud. Enjoy the quiet.

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie


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Making a Home

Brisk air greeted Stella and me when we stepped out at 6:00am for her morning walk, reminding me that winter and Christmas are near at hand. After she finished her business, we retreated into the lobby of our building and the feeling of home washed over me. This is the first time we’ve lived in a large apartment building and I am repeatedly surprised how much I like it. The apartment and amenities are lovely, but it was the positive vibe that made me believe this could be home. Making a home is creating comfort in the physical space, being involved in the wider community and having a sense of belonging.

Dwellings need to be lived in, and once the boxes were unpacked, it was time to remove the stale emptiness of an idle apartment. Soon books were on end tables, iPhone cords spewed out of their nesting basket, and my desk had a to-do pile of papers neatly stacked in a corner. The routine of life returned, especially the smells of life being lived-the trace of Dove soap lingering from the shower, the scent of our detergent wafting from the laundry room, the aroma of simmering garlic from last night’s dinner. And when the kids were still at home, even the stink from soccer cleats dumped by the garage door was a welcome odor. It made the new dwelling our home.

Each new community had its uniqueness but I found there were more similarities than differences even when we lived abroad-people are people-they care about their families, their communities and their livelihood. Getting involved was my priority, whether at school, church, or community events. Generally, the first year I was a watchful observer, the second year a willing volunteer, and the following years had leadership roles. Involvement was key to meeting people and embracing the community as home. It helped determine if I fit; most of time I found my niche but I had a couple of places that I never quite settled, never felt the comfort and belonging of home.

We always encountered people who had lived all their life in the community and couldn’t imagine anywhere better. At their best these folks built tradition and history for communities. The flip side was when the fear of change manifested in unfriendliness and suspicion of new people. Often these locals know there was only one way to do something, whether it was high school sports, acceptable playground behavior, or the best time for community celebrations. They couldn’t imagine another way. Eventually I heard the line, “It’s the way we have always done it”. Although at times frustrating, I tried to see that reaction as a gauge for what was dear to the community, to hear, “this is what we value, this is what makes us feel at home”. I wasn’t always successful at this, especially when it limited the kids’ play, something I valued dearly. They went to a school that feared harsh weather. When it snowed or rained, the students weren’t allowed to play on the grass or playground equipment, if they were allowed outside at all. But I learned new ways, too, including Memorial Day rather than the Fourth of July for community parades, high schools without football teams, hunting and ice fishing for outdoor fun. Most importantly, I learned different isn’t wrong, it’s just different.

I’ve heard people talk about the difficulties of moving kids, I disagree. My experience was that moving-leaving behind the friends and the familiar-bonded our family tightly. And the kids, with school and activities, assisted in re-building the social circle. Although it took time to feel familiar, to gain shared experiences with new friends, and then adjust the social circle to identify friends from acquaintances, it was easier done when there were kids under the roof. With a full calendar of school, sports, and volunteer activities, the feeling of belonging came quickly.

The move to DC, like the last two moves, was without children. But I felt boundless opportunity as I have with every move. A new area to explore, new people to meet, and new choices to make; a clean slate. Over the years, I discovered I didn’t re-invent myself as much as refine myself; a truer version. During this past year, I chose new twists on my preferred endeavors-writing, reading, being outdoors-I am blogging, tutoring, and hiking Rock Creek Park regularly. All help strengthen my sense of belonging, of being home.

I’m often asked, ‘where is home?’ I think . . . loved, respected, secure. I consider . . . my stuff, my comfort, my belonging, my people. I believe . . . home is where we are together. I know the asker is expecting a location and although I give one, the real answer is complex. This Christmas home will be Buffalo. Wherever you are during the holidays, I hope you are home.


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Christmas Season-December letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

You can hardly turn the dial on the radio after Halloween without coming across a 24/7 Christmas music station. I thoroughly enjoy Christmas music, but I haven’t adjusted to hearing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in November. Rather, the tune that plays in my head is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. That song reminds me that December is Advent season: a time of preparation, anticipation, and hope.

After we got married, I looked forward to celebrating Christmas with your Uncle Dan in our own home, creating our own traditions. There were decisions to make regarding substance and timing-real or fake tree, white or multi-colored light. When to put up the tree, to open gifts, to invite family? Maybe the most important was when to begin the whole process. Because once we got on the Christmas Express, it was like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill; it grew exponentially in size and speed. It took me a few years to learn that the Christmas machine can swallow you whole in December and laser-sharp clarity is crucial when deciding activities, commitments, and gift buying.

When the kids were little I wanted them to have a perfect Christmas, every year. I felt as the youngest of seven I had missed a lot. By the time, I was a 1st grader our stockings weren’t filled because there were too many of us, we started going to midnight mass when I was seven because it satisfied the older kids desires and I didn’t attend the Nutcracker or any kind of Christmas performance until I left home. When I became a mother, I wanted to do as many things as possible with my gang, all while they looked cherub-like in their Christmas outfits. There were outings to visit Santa, Christmas breakfasts, drives to look at Christmas lights, cookie-baking, and Christmas performances in the weeks leading up to the big day.  And then once the holiday arrived, there was Christmas Eve dinner for all the family, followed by loads of presents on Christmas morning. The year MK was four-the year of the pink bicycle-she didn’t have the energy to open all her presents.  She gave out before the gifts did. I was embarrassed by the excess and expense. It was too much. I would not let it happen again.

After the over-indulgence of 1990, I controlled the purchasing and honed our style of giving. I found that waiting until December to purchase Christmas gifts helped me buy less. And I thought before I bought, no impulse purchases. Santa gave two or three small wrapped gifts and then left ‘A Big Wow’ under the tree unwrapped for each of the kids. This was the most desired gift, one that would hopefully elicit a big gasp and shout of “Wow” from the recipient. I have great memories of the Big Wows: Meg hugging her American Girl Doll Felicity, Patrick clutching his Lego Western Fort box, and Mary Kate clasping her ipod. These Christmas morning Wows proved my “LESS IS MORE” mantra was working.

Having two November babies forced me to slow down and let go of a lot of the expectations I had about Christmas. We became what I called ‘an Advent family’. The year that Patrick was born we didn’t get a tree up until the weekend before Christmas. It happened again the year that Meg was born and it became our tradition to wait until the third weekend of Advent-the pink candle on the Advent wreath-to bring the tree into the house. At times, it was hard on the kids that we didn’t dive into Christmas on the Friday after Thanksgiving like many of their friends’ families. Instead, we had three advent calendars: religious, chocolate, and Santa themed. Every morning in December, the kids would open the day’s calendars, rotating between adding a piece to the nativity set, eating a piece of chocolate or opening a paper window. At dinner we lit the advent candles and said a prayer.

This change in focus to Advent helped me slow down the buying frenzy, the over-the-top preparations and the secularism that surrounded Christmas. My focus returned to family, with the image of the Blessed Family never far from my mind. I recall the 5:00pm Children’s Christmas Eve Mass with six-week-old Meg held closely in my arms, as Silent Night was being sung. “. . ., Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy Infant so tender and mild” In that moment, holding my much loved and wanted youngest child, I felt a deep bond with Mary and Joseph. Each year at Christmas mass, I search out the infants held tenderly by their mothers and fathers, feel that bond of parenthood with Jesus’s parents and pray that these new parents do as well.

Less you think, I’m all religion and no chaos at Christmas; please note we had our fair share of traditions. Until Meg went to college, she and I would sneak off for photos with Santa and shopping for the big kids, and do it on a school day, no less. Every year on the day Christmas break begins, I had a new Christmas movie wrapped and ready for viewing that night. We attended live performances annually and saw the Nutcracker, the Christmas Schooner, Handel’s Messiah, White Christmas-the musical, and the Rockettes in the Christmas Spectacular. We attended 20 years of school Christmas concerts. Santa stuffs a mean stocking at the Mannix house and Dan read a new Christmas book each Christmas Eve before bedtime. And finally, I make gingerbread houses, lots of them. I curse that dough. Never enough give in it, always falling apart and I vow each year will be the last. But the laughter, the creativity and the joy of watching the kids and their friends decorate gets me, and just like the Grinch, my heart grows three sizes that day. And I know that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

I’ll close with the comment that I loved Christmas when they were little but I loved it even more as they grew in the understanding of its true meaning.  And one of our all-time best Christmases . . .well, that’s easy . . .the one we spent with you, J and Thomas in Belgium!  Joyeux Noel!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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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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