Humor-April Letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

April starts with a day I dread-April Fools’ Day. I’ve never liked it. Practical jokes feel mean and embarrassing and I have spent a life time avoiding them. I do not laugh at myself easily, but rather easily feel the sting of a joke. I cannot stomach others being made fun of or laughed at; I will not watch TV shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos. Maybe it was growing up with a sibling who was easily fooled and often made fun of that impelled me to warn my kids of the pitfalls and possibilities of being the butt of an April Fools’ prank, rather than to plan and execute them. I worried about the struggled with nuance, that they might reacted strongly and with anger if they felt humiliated by a joke. In a school or work setting, if the recipient reacts harshly, he can be further mocked and harangued; the targeted person is at fault. Unquestionably, practical jokes are not my sort of humor, but I love a good side splitting laugh.

Your Uncle Dan’s humor is clever, sophisticated and incredibly dry. It is my constant companion. In my late twenties and early thirties while grappling with grief after your grandparents’ and great-grandmother’s deaths, I often took myself very seriously and feared I had lost my sense of humor. Dan helped me retain it. His humor is playful, topical and even a bit bawdy. He grew up with parents who liked insult humor, Don Rickles was their favorite comedian, but Dan followed his Uncle Jack’s approach of not making a joke at someone else’s expense. While Uncle Jack’s style was slap stick, Dan is witty and often catches his listener off guard. His quiet and polite demeanor is a great façade for a well-timed one-liner that makes people chortle.

And then there is the humor of children. Your brother Thomas, at three, repeatedly told the following knock-knock joke:

Knock, knock

Who’s there?


Boo Who?

Don’t cry, it’s just a joke”

He was ever so pleased with his telling and didn’t tire of laughing at this joke. It was a delight to watch the little tow-head’s burgeoning efforts at humor and how he navigated the nuances of telling the joke. And, Oh, the sound of his little boy voice and his laughter. Even now, decades later, Dan and I still repeat the punch line with his inflection.

When I had Mary Kate I anxiously waited and longingly searched her face for the first smiles. But it was her laughter that caught me by surprise-what a magical moment when six-month old MK went from smiling to laughing.  My children’s laughter, like daffodils in springtime, was hopeful, refreshing, and always welcome. I craved for it to fill our home. Vividly I remember Mary Kate jumping up and down in front of baby Patrick as he squealed at his big sister. And the giggles that baby Meg let out when Patrick made goofy faces or funny voices to entertain her are etched not just in my memory but in my heart.

It was fascinating to see what struck them as funny and then how it changed as they grew older. Young Mary Kate twirled around the kitchen singing Baby Beluga, The Bare Necessitiesand other songs, giggling as she sang along. As a grade schooler she liked silly jokes, funny stories, and always had a friend who was comical and entertaining. By high school intelligent humor became her stock-in-trade; ironic, highbrow and clean. And today she is the giver of the wittiest cards.

From early childhood, sketch humor was Patrick’s favorite form of comedy.  By four years old, he reenacted movies while watching, taking on the persona of the characters. By second-grade he could memorize skits and imitate voices letting him step into a character and entertain, not only us, but his friends and classmates. That year he was Mr. Bean for Halloween. By middle school, no longer was he the dyslexic kid, but he was the soccer player who did the Harry Caray imitation, the Scottish brogue and a slew of hilarious voices. He enjoyed but didn’t linger long in the sophomoric humor that predominated middle and high school. Thank goodness, because there is only so much bathroom humor and immature boy movies a mom can tolerate. Rather he was the family funnyman or part of a duo when Dan got in on it; I relished their regular Sunday morning recap of SNL’s skits. New schools and new countries brought new material, like the Scouse accent he brought home from Liverpool.

Meg was my child who found all manner of things entertaining and in turn entertained us.  Little Meggie rode on her dad’s shoulders singing made-up ditties while patting his head like a drum or holding his hair like the reins of a horse. First grade Meg laughed and danced along at a school performance, enjoying herself with such abandon, that her picture was snapped and put on the front page of the local paper. In fifth grade, she performed the dance from Napoleon Dynamite on stage in front of the entire school. At ease with herself and not easily embarrassed, she played for the laughs. From early childhood, she was the teller of tall tales and in college, she perfected spinning stories that made me want to cringe, cry and correct her, but instead I found I chuckled, chortled and cackled aloud. Her timing is excellent.

As for me, at home when I am not the audience, I am the straight man. I am a good Martin to Meg’s Lewis or Abbot to Dan’s Costello. My peers find me funny with well-timed deadpanned asides, those comments that fly over my kids’ heads or make them roll their eyes. I love a smart quip or retort garnered from the amusing moments that arise in family life.

So, whether it is like the cackle of Aunt B, the belly laugh of your Grandpa or the titter of your Grandma with a hand over her mouth, I wish laughter fills your house. Knock, knock . . .

much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie


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Lenten Reflection-March letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

March is part winter, part spring and this year once complete, it is Easter. Alleluia! This Lent I reflected on my parenting in relation to religion, faith and spirituality. My Catholic faith was paramount during my childhood and I wanted my kids to be a part of the Catholic Church. Over the years, I repeatedly considered how best to help them gain faith and develop their spirituality; to teach the prayers and sacraments, but to steer away from blind obedience and excessive guilt.

I wanted the kids to have a moral compass founded in Judo-Christian values and centered in the Catholic tradition which, for better or worse, is the faith of our family. It has its messy bits and lots of them, but any organized religion is flawed-they are run by humans, after all. The Church’s 2000-year history, its rituals and its catholic with a lowercase c of universality meant that my children would be part of a world-wide church, something much bigger than themselves. A foundation on which to build their individual faith. And although the Church hierarchy is male only, Mary-the blessed mother-is central to our faith and her maternal love is a focus I didn’t want to lose.

When the kids were little, I was active in our parish. I taught CCD, organized the summer bible school and sat on the school board and parish council. Our social life, my volunteering, and the kids’ education centered around our parish. We enjoyed the bonds of the community and built deep friendships, many we have maintained for the twenty years since we moved from Columbus. We were young and had young children; this was where we built their religious foundation, taking the kids to mass, praying before dinner, and choosing catholic schools.

But like most of my parenting, imparting faith and spirituality morphed with the challenges, temperament and age of each child. Smart and quiet with her hands folded nicely on her desk, Mary Kate looked the quintessential Catholic-school girl, yet she practiced her faith in a sociable and pragmatic way. Whether processing down the aisle dressed as St. Lucy on All Saints Day, taking up the gifts or reading at the lectern, Mary Kate liked to participate at mass.  She also had a Pascal’s Wager approach to God, a hedging of her bets. If there was a God and heaven, she had given her best, and if not, she was content with herself. When she was older she figured out how to bypass parts of Catholicism, particularly the sacrament of reconciliation. With her good girl reputation firmly established, she chose the middle of a pew while waiting her turn and shortly before she and her fellow pew-mates stood to go to the confessional, she would calmly get up and go to the bathroom. Then, upon re-entering the church she would take a seat with the kids who had finished. She shared this ploy with me when she was grown, explaining that there was no need for a mediator between herself and God. I was surprised, but impressed with her ingenuity and her introspection.

As a small child, Patrick enjoyed the pageantry of the mass. He mimed the movements of the priest during the Eucharist prayer, he sang the responses and he loved going with us to communion. When it was time for his first communion, he was a soulful seven-year-old who had deep thoughts about the complexities of life and the unknown of death. Questions about the purpose of life, the existence of a God that couldn’t be seen, and worries about dying kept him up at night. I understood his worries and angst well, as I have spent my life pondering and occasionally being obsessed by these questions and fears. I refer to this as our Scottish soul or melancholy because Mam, my beloved granny and your great-grandmother, too, shared this soulfulness. It was a burden for her, a fear that engrossed her thoughts and prayers. I’ve tried to embrace this soulfulness or melancholy in a positive way, for both Patrick and myself, teaching that it is a longing for understanding, a passion for knowledge and a stirring for meaning. Rather than focusing on the dark side, I pushed him to consider the light side-being profound and purposeful. Yes, that last sentence was a Star Wars reference, but easily understood by Patrick as a kid and teenager. I encouraged him to explore his spirituality. Through prayer and the exercise of his mind and body he found ways to harness his soulfulness and understand himself without the worries of the unknown consuming him.

Mass was a happy, social time for Meg. She was the last baby of our friends and literally was passed around during mass. Happy and snuggly, she loved being held, and went to others readily. She would reach out her little arms when she spotted family friends and I would pass her over.  It was not unusual for her to end up several aisles away having gone from family to family, being held by my pals and entertained by their older kids. For little Meggie, Catholicism and faith were synonymous with being loved. Unfortunately, her good start fell flat in New Jersey. She was the first to go to CCD and our parish’s program didn’t offer much intellectual understanding or depth. Meg was flummoxed by the simplistic yet dogmatic approach. When her 2nd grade teacher declared as undeniable fact that God was Jesus’ father and that Jesus rose from the dead, Meg walked into our kitchen indignant that no explanation was given. She was skeptical. As she prepared for Reconciliation and First Communion, the teacher continued dismissing her questions. She soon felt deceived. Meg loved mythology and knew the Greek stories well. She wondered if Catholicism was just another myth. She participated in the sacrament, but doubted the doctrine. These years were tough years to be Catholic-the pedophile scandal, the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope and the Church’s hostility toward gays and lesbians-turned us from active parishioners to C and E Catholics. When we arrived in Belgium we were culturally catholic, like most of our European friends. At St. John’s International School, with its ecumenical curriculum, Meg gained knowledge of world religions and spirituality. She continued to question and chose Notre Dame, in part, to experience a strong intellectual Catholic community.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our aunts and their cohort of friends who helped me sustain my Catholic faith. Their lives of faith, service and love are the images that I hold onto when I grow frustrated with conservative, rule-mongering Catholics. The Sisters of the Holy Cross inspire me to delve deep into my faith and spirituality, not obsess with whether I am contributing to the collection basket or participating in the rites. Their concern and focus is on my spirit and my soul. Lucky me to have been blessed with the friendship and guidance of so many holy women.

And, my faith and the Catholic Church offered me one of my life’s favorite honors . . . being your Godmother!

much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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The Sweet Spot

I can see us clearly. Five across, loosely spaced, we walked down the middle of our street. My son bouncing or side stepping, that fast shuffle move I struggled through during high school basketball practice decades ago, he does effortlessly. His nine-year-old body unable to keep any pace for more than a step or two. My youngest, five, doing double time every few steps to keep up with her siblings. On the way home, she will be riding high on her daddy’s shoulders, but for now, she is determined to keep up. My oldest, holding the dog’s fully-extended leash, walking along-side me content as she chose today’s destination. My husband at the far edge, maybe even a half step back, enjoying being along for the outing after a week of traveling. We are out for a hike, through the woods and along a lake near our home in Kalamazoo, walking along the street, through the old gate, down the path to the lake, and out across the open fields. Taking turns leading, searching for discoveries, gathering a few rocks and sticks along the way. A couple of hours later we walked five across, loosely spaced down the middle of our street, sweaty, a little tired, and content. This was the sweet spot.

The diapers disappeared, along with temper tantrums, the school calendar gave a rhythm to life but before high school academics and activities absorbed the kids’ attention. It was a time of knobby-knees; the baby fat was gone, replaced with lean, active kids. There was enthusiasm and excitement for any family activity, parenting went from watching them on a playground to full engagement-playing soccer, basketball, or any sport with a ball in the yard. There were nights of board games, cards, and family movies. Anything could be an event, do it twice, and it was a tradition. I put streamers and signs up in the dining room one year for my daughter’s birthday and left them up until her brother’s birthday two weeks later, and it became our family’s birthday tradition, something I did for the following twenty years. Whether it was the streamers, Friday night fun, walks in the woods, or kickball in the cul-de-sac, the kids were all in. Dan and me, too.

It was a time of explanations and responsibility. There were endless discussions about social encounters, everything from introducing yourself on the first day of dance class to a respectful response when a friend said something mean. Gaining responsibility went from kindergarten Meg walking to a friend’s house all by herself to the Saturday night when MK babysat her siblings. I realized our last babysitter was only a year or so older than MK and it was embarrassing to have a babysitter. I employed what I hoped to be a fool-proof plan for successful sibling babysitting. I paid everyone. She got paid to be in charge, but not weld power unnecessarily, and her siblings were paid to be good. It was a win, win, win; MK gained responsibility, the kids had a little pocket money, and we had a short evening out at neighbors.

When growing up, a friend told her daughters, “You are writing the story of your life every day.” Each day’s actions-large and small-mattered. I felt that keenly during the kids’ elementary and middle school years, that every day we were writing the story of our family. Their childhood memories were made, be it digging ‘for China’ on the beach in South Haven, Michigan, playing travel soccer, or riding up and down the neighborhood streets no-handed. And although I wondered if the tennis, dance or drum lessons would go from a fleeting interest to a life-long pursuit, I wasn’t bogged down by it. Instead I focused on the daily habits: getting to practices, lessons, and school on time, ensuring that assignments were completed to the best of their ability, reading to and with them every day, helping them complete household chores, teaching them to be caring and honest. It was an age of accountability, for children and parents. They had razor sharp memories. “Remember at the red light on Stadium Drive Tuesday morning when you promised we would stop at DQ after school on Friday”, a voice said. They held me to my word. Mmmmmm, a blizzard from Dairy Queen, that’s a sweet spot, too.



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Love-February letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

J and M sitting in a tree,


First comes love,

Then comes marriage,

Then comes C and B

In a baby carriage!

The playground song gets it right . . .first comes love!

For you and J, like Dan and I, next was marriage and children, but the song stops there and as we both know, family life is just beginning with the baby carriage. Creating a healthy family and keeping a strong marriage take motivation, determination, and follow-thru. And lots of LOVE.

Valentine’s Day makes Love the focus of February. Marketing and advertisements have super-sized the holiday and although I pooh-pooh their push of materialism, I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment. A moment, a day or even a month to focus on our loved ones is a good thing, especially in our current society with its polarized politics, 24-hour news cycle, and addictive social media.

It’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t go overboard on Valentine’s Day; this was not going to be a mini-Christmas or birthday. Rather, sitting on the breakfast table for each of the kids was a small red and white tissue-paper bundle. Sticking out the top was a ten-dollar bill and inside was a box of sweetheart candies and a few favorite chocolate goodies. And beside it was their Valentine’s Day card. Using a folded 8-by-10 white piece of paper, a couple of colored pencils and his wit, Dan would take a current interest or event in the kids’ life and make a funny Valentine. Those cards were the main event; a simple yet concrete expression of their dad’s love, jocularity and artist efforts.

Those simple cards represent what I hope is the best of our family-unpretentiousness, affection, and humor. Creating a family, a healthy and happy family, was(still is) my vocation. Although the term homemaker is considered old-fashion, I prefer it to Stay-at-Home-Mom (SAMH) because making a home covers more of what I wanted to accomplish. I wanted Dan, the kids and myself to have a place where we felt physically and emotionally safe, protected and loved, where we could be, for better or worse, our true selves, and where, regardless of location, our attachment was to each other. Our moves helped the kids learn to depend on each other; to have each other’s back. When you move, you don’t take your friends with you, just your siblings. And the little brother, who was a silly kindergartener before the move, is now the only familiar face at your new school and the one who points you in the right direction of the bathroom when you see him in the hallway.

And I insisted that Home was our haven. Of course, there were sibling squabbles and complaining, but I stopped meanness and cutting comments in their tracks. I didn’t allow the kids to put each other down. It is hard to feel a deep affection for someone if you fear they will hurt you with nasty comments. That doesn’t mean that complaints, whining, and gripes weren’t allowed. One of our Mannix mottos was that at home, in the confines of the five of us, the kids could speak freely and it stayed in ‘the vault’, not repeated to others. It allowed the kids to come home and say their piece if they had had a bad day. Most often, after they had finished complaining about a friend’s questionable behavior, a school assignment or a crummy practice, they let it go, not making a mountain out of a molehill. Of course, an unchecked flow of negative commentary wasn’t healthy and needed to be re-directed, but it was daily moaning about the kids in seventh grade that alerted me to dig a little deeper and discover that my child was getting bullied at school. Open communication, even the nasty bits, was essential for a healthy family.

And the most important communication in a healthy family is between the spouses.   That’s critical for a strong marriage. Notice I didn’t write happy marriage, because we both know-and anyone who is married knows-that happiness is not a constant state, even in the best of marriages. There are good times and bad, there are moments when someone is frustrated, saddened or bored by the other. There can be rough patches, but a strong bond will keep you moving forward, ever slowly, together.

To strengthen the bond, we are still utilizing the four rules of marriage that were given to us by a thirty-something couple the summer before we married.  They are:

1. Be By

2. Talk to

3. Take with

4. Feed

These simple statements have been central to our marriage. We eat dinner together nightly without distractions, laugh at Modern Family, and read in the same room so that we can be by each other. Making time to talk often wasn’t easy when the kids were home because the daily calendar was packed. For years, we had a daily phone call before they came home from school, sometimes it seemed like the only time we had each other’s attention. The third rule to ‘take with’ was a challenge. Only-child Dan, who travelled a lot, needed to be reminded to occasionally take me along, whether was on Saturday morning errands or now walking Stella. And he isn’t allowed to get ahead of me at airports because he is walks faster and is familiar with the surroundings. Finally, letting anyone get hangry is foolish. Unfortunately, we have both done it.  Each time, I swear it will be the last!

Marriage is a team sport, but it is based on cooperation not competition. If you keep score, you both lose. It requires continual effort, and it is not so much give and take, as give and give and give. And while the legal and financial benefits are well-understood-think tax deductions, life insurance costs, and less estate issues-in recent years, the social sciences have weighed in on the long term emotional health benefits of marriage including longevity, less depression and safer behavior.

The experts agree that a good marriage is good for you. They also say that kids at home add a lot of stress (and a lot of joy) to a marriage. My response is, “Duh . .  . and thank goodness for Dan’s sense of humor.” His dry wit relieved more than a few squabbles when the kids were teenagers.

We have more inside jokes than I can count, and have gone from being able to give a sideward glance to acknowledge the joke when in a group, to reading each other’s mind and laughing about it later when we are alone. It’s great fun to have him as my buddy, my partner and my co-conspirator. I am in too deep-and happily so. Who else will discusses the minutia of MK , PA and Meg-and do it for hours on end. Dan holds my history. He is my present and I pray, my long future.

Finally, my dear niece, the love you and J have for each other and for your children is obvious-it’s palpable. Revel in it on Valentine’s Day!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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Shoot with the Truth

When my kids were younger, especially teen-agers, I allowed and even encouraged them to use me as their go-to excuse. Whether it was turning down an invitation, avoiding dangerous activity, or simply taking a break from a friend, I was there to take the blame. “My mom won’t let me, my mom made plans, my mom will kill me if she finds out”. But by early adulthood, “my-mom” excuses don’t fly and it was time to handle those uncomfortable, undesirable, and anxiety-producing situations by themselves. It was then I gave my kids the advice I try to heed myself: Shoot with the truth. Don’t lie.

I’m a ‘knee-jerk yes’ person, quickly agreeing to ideas, outings and activities of all stripes. I’m also a homebody who prefers quiet evenings and comfy pants. In my younger days, this dichotomy along with limited funds, created awkward situations where I had accepted an invitation but when the time arrived, I didn’t want or couldn’t afford to attend. I found myself making excuses, telling white lies, or fabricating the truth. It made me cranky and disappointed in myself. I put an end to it.

Initially, telling the truth felt complicated because of my uncomfortableness in dealing with problematic situations or the potential negative reaction of the other party. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like to let people down. I thought telling a white lie or embellishing the truth would save people’s feelings and ease my conscience. And while I rarely got caught in my fabrications, I felt my credibility slipping away from myself. I had to remember the lies, and that was taxing and might lead to more lies. Too many complications and potential for drama. It was time to break the bad habit.

I worked at being discerning in accepting invitations and I would shoot with the truth if a conflict or needed change arose. I took a deep breath and I kept it simple: I’m strapped for cash and can’t afford an evening out, I’m sorry I agreed earlier to attend but I wouldn’t be good company today, or a similar statement of truth. And I reminded myself I was not on trial or on The Jerry Springer show. I didn’t have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, nor did I have to over-share embarrassing myself or anyone else. The fewer words the better. If an apology needed to be made, I made it, hoped it would be accepted and moved on. Quickly, I found the truth was an easier and happier habit.

And over time I applied this honest directness to other uncomfortable and difficult situations. Whether it was giving feedback, turning down requests, or helping someone grieve, I wanted to be straightforward and plain-spoken. If I didn’t mean it, I didn’t say it – no glossing, no embellishing, no white lies. I learned to accept silence in conversation and not to fill it with meaningless words. This was especially hard for me. I’m chatty. But with practice, I improved. And I reminded myself that being truthful doesn’t equate to being blunt or harsh. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I want my words to be heard, to be remembered, and hopefully to be wise.

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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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