Box of Leaves: 10 Years

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Our box of Michigan leaves arrived yesterday.

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My cousin Joann has been sending them to us every fall for ten years now. She waits for the perfect conditions–peak colors and dry weather–and always texts me on the day she gathers: “Today’s the day.” Every leaf is hand-picked and vacuum-packed into a box that she pays a pretty penny to ship…just to make us smile. We were expecting the box to arrive Saturday, but it didn’t make it which sent my cousin in a tizzy because she was afraid with the extra day of sitting at the post office, the leaves might lose their color or dry up or get moldy, but they were as perfect as ever.

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What began as a thoughtful gesture to give my kids a taste of a northern fall has turned into a deep-rooted ritual that connects us to home, each other and reminds us how happy something as simple as a box of leaves can make us.

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One of my favorite books I often return to is Simple Abundance, a collection of essays for every day that foster a gratitude practice and celebrate finding sacred in the ordinary from Autumn leaves to an afternoon cup of tea. That book is the foundation of my “Enjoying the Small Things” celebrations, and ever since my sister and I toted copies of it in the 90’s like the dorks we were and consequently started “comfort boxes” to stash our favorite little things that made us happy, I refer back to it often and think of it in moments like geeking out over our box of leaves. I recently bought a follow-up children’s book by the same author, Sara ban Breathnach, called The Best Part of the Day and love this quote in the author’s introduction: “Gratitude is often thought of as an intellectual concept, when really Gratitude is a small seed planted in the heart that is nurtured and nourished through acknowledging all the good that surrounds us. Good that can be discovered through the reassuring comfort of family customs, rituals, and traditions and restoring a sense of rhythm in our daily round and through the changing seasons.”

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This tradition, these leaves, the way we run to the woods to do the same thing we do every year with them–toss them into the air and drink up their earthy scent and pile them up to make little pillows where we lay for pictures…

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The way my kids all look at me while we do this, anticipating my happiness…following my lead…
The way they’ve come to look forward to them and enjoy them as much as I do…

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It’s a small seed of gratitude that has grown into a sturdy ritual that grounds us and reminds us that no matter how challenging life gets, there is an abundance of little pleasures around us that can bring us back home.

My kids may not know a Northern Autumn, but they know the joy that comes from its treasures.

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(Dash copied Lainey in the above picture, said “Look!” and we all lost it.)

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(I didn’t notice until I was editing that Lainey is clutching the Sophie necklace my niece sent her)

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We melted a pan of beeswax and dipped a good 30 leaves or so in it last night so we can enjoy our leaves a little longer and make a garland that will get us through Thanksgiving.

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Until next year’s box…sending vibrant Autumn happies your way today.

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Forever and Always Our Sophie: Losing Our Beloved Family Dog

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We lost our beloved Sophie Wednesday night after sixteen wonderful years with her. She was blind and deaf and didn’t have a lot of energy this past year, but she had love and spent her last days sleeping in Lainey’s room and wandering around the house every now and then to find people. Every time I questioned whether I’d know when it was time for her to go, she’d give me a good tail wagging while she rested, letting me know she was happy. Her passing was unfortunately tragic (although many have told me dogs sometimes “go away” to die when they know it’s time), and while the kids don’t know all the details, we’re all completely heartbroken and feeling her loss more than I ever thought I would. I always knew it would be sad when we said goodbye, but it’s been since I was a kid that I lost a pet. And, while I’ve hugged friends with a good “there there, now” pat and tried to relate to their grief when they’ve lost dogs; I’ve never understood until now that losing your family dog is losing a part of your family, and that the pain of wanting them back to hug one more time, to whisper in their ear–even if they can’t hear–and tell them “You MAKE this family–you’re part of us, we love you so much” one more time is deep and recognizable. It’s what has had us curled up in bed the last two nights, hugging each other all in one bed, everyone wrecked and crying but sharing one of those magic moments in life when our love for each other and what we have in this home is palpable.

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Sophie came before me–she was Brett’s dog–so really, she’s the true matriarch of our family. But we never competed for that role. In fact, she was awful at doing laundry too which I think was her way of validating me and letting me know, “Sister. Yes. It’s so hard.”

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She was better with the kids though–definitely more patient. I mean, look at her patient face.

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Like a good matriarch, she humbly partook in childhood play, letting the kids dress her in bonnets and capes and baby clothes and, while obviously mortified, always took one for the team–like she was telling me, “Go ahead. Finish cleaning the kitchen. I got this.”

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When we made that triumphant entrance through the front door with the car seat, bringing each of our babies home from the hospital, she was the first to welcome them–tail wagging, never hesitating to come right up, gently sniff, commit her love and devotion and loyalty, her vow to serve and protect for life. She loved them all so fiercely, and I have countless memories of going in to check on a baby only to find Sophie already there, reporting for duty: “Look, how many times do I have to tell you? I got this.

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Sophie was who we all wanted to be around when we were sad. When the boys had bad days in middle school and high school, they never stormed off to their room without making sure Sophie went with them. And yes, a quick nod from Sophie who made some good eye contact: “This one’s a hard one. I got it.”

She was fiesty and playful in her young years, grabbing stuffed animals and running with them, initiating a good tug-of-war, loving a walk around the neighborhood (but always veering off and pulling the leash where she wanted to go because, like I said, FIERCE MATRIARCH) and–my favorite–running around the living room in mad-dash circles after a bath, knowing her little show would start a fit of giggles from the kids. In her older years, she fell into a nice rhythm of rest and companionship. While she could not see or hear, she never failed in finding us and letting us know that even when it was hard, even when she was tired, she was still there for us–fighting age and body challenges to loyally serve with love for as long as she could. And GOOD LORD, the tears that are rolling as I type that. She modeled matriarchy like none other. And for those who are wondering if Sophie ever got to feel what it’s like to fall in love, I can assure you she did. In fact, she waited until old age to do so. With kids running in and out of the house, she found many opportunities to slip out which led her a few houses down to Brandyn’s friend’s house and the love of her life, Mustang. Whenever we couldn’t find her, we always knew where to look…secret rendezvous at Mustang’s. Get it, girl.

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I stayed up until 1 in the morning the night she died, digging into folders of old photos, looking for all the ones with Sophie–there are so many. And I realized as she showed up in the background in photos of so many events, so many milestones and holidays and memories, what a constant presence she has been in our family. The grief of her passing also represents the grief of the passing of time–the end of The Sophie Era. It was beautiful–some of our very best years.

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This is also the first real experience of grief for my kids. In a way, Sophie has given my children one of the most cherished gifts they’ll have for life; for this delicate, beautiful, deeply important subject of loss and grief that will be part of their future began with her. Her loss will be the foundation, the first lesson that paves the way for the rest, and because of how we loved her and how she loved us, that lesson is beautiful.

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Sophie was most attached to Lainey these last months, choosing her to follow, her to sleep with, her to give her services of peaceful companionship. Telling Lainey that Sophie was gone and leading her through this grief has been gut-wrenching, one of the toughest parenting challenges thus far. I’ve held her–the two of us completely pretzeled together, crying–the past two nights until she fell asleep. “I miss her so bad. I love her, Mom. I love her so much. I want her back, I want her back, I want her back.”

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I do too, Baby. I do too.

While we’ve talked a little bit about death with our kids and have addressed some of the questions of what happens after, it’s kind of awkward and out of place to introduce that subject without reference–“Oh hey kids, let’s talk about death.” I mean, important, yes, and I think it’s something we should be talking about with and without reference, but the reference of real experience and relatable pain definitely gives us an opportunity to talk about these things in a way our kids remember. So what do I tell them? You know, I thought saying the right things about death would be a stressful challenge, but it hasn’t been. I know people have a lot of different beliefs about afterlife and where pets go and heaven and how realistically we should approach these things with kids–we struggle to put a comma where a period might be–but I’ve found the most important thing you can do is talk about it. I have a lot of questions myself, but I find comfort in hearing everyone’s ideas about what happens after, and I tell my kids about all the different ideas. I don’t plan exactly what I’m going to say, and what comes out is sometimes messy, but I don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep me from talking about everything–all the ideas–and creating a safe place where my kids can create their own ideas. We take all the beliefs and throw them into a giant Love Stew and hope that LOVE is what stands out the most. It looks a little bit like this:

You know what Poppa thinks? Poppa thinks there’s a heaven with everyone we love who’s passed together, waiting for us. He thinks his old dogs Ginger and Max are taking care of Sophie now and that my grandpa who always loved dogs has found Sophie and that she’s asleep on his lap. Doesn’t that vision make you smile? And do you know what my friend Nici thinks? She lost her dog Alice, and she thinks that Alice’s spirit is always part of the universe–that Alice shows up now and then to show her love. Sometimes she sees a special glow of light in the mountains where Alice used to run, and it makes her feel so happy as if Alice is letting her know her love still lives on. That makes me feel good too. Maybe Sophie will do the same. And do you know what Donna Nonna thinks? She lost her Tilly, and she feels Tilly’s spirit still with her. Every morning, the moonlight hits the same spot of light in her kitchen, and she takes this little sliver of moonlight as an opportunity to connect with Tilly’s love, even after all these years of losing her. She says, “I love you Tilly.” Would that be something we want to do for Sophie? Maybe we can find a special spot that’s ours and Sophie’s and say I love you to her every time we see light in that spot.

It feels so good to talk about all these different ideas, to talk about what happens to bodies after death–that they are always a part of the Earth we all enjoy–and to talk about the fact that the spirit of love is greater than any proven law in science. We take what we know about death and add what we know about faith and love–that it lives forever and ever. All of these discussions and ideas and memories are comforting us so much.

And the boys? Well, Sophie was theirs first.

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I think Brett was more scared to tell the boys than anyone else. Their love for her was evident to all, and the first thing they’ve always done when they walk into the house is find Sophie and hold her. Austyn has always carried just one picture in his wallet–a crinkled 3×2 photo of Sophie and Latte. They both arrived yesterday morning to have a moment with Sophie’s body before we took care of it, and watching these two grown boys rock her and hold her and sob, shoulders shaking, is something I will never forget. Brett had a meeting and had to leave, but I’m thankful for the bonding moment I got to share with the boys after with Sophie. We wrapped her in one of the kids’ baby blankets, Brandyn tucked his childhood stuffed animal next to her, and we huddled together, hugging and crying and talking about how much we loved her–what a good dog she was. I called Brett after they left and told him how much I loved those boys–how special that moment was.

And last night, friends joined us as we celebrated Sophie’s life and talked about our favorite memories. We released two pink balloons and yelled, “We love you” into the sky as they gently floated away.

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As my therapist friend Cynthia told me the other day, “This is your opportunity to model grief for them–show them how we celebrate and love and remember through the pain.” It is a great privilege to take this pain together as a family and learn from it.

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Several readers sent me this post, written just last week by blogger Julia Marcum after she lost her dog, and I’ve found it to be very helpful and relatable. We ordered Sophie-look-alike stuffed animals for the kids and have been finding many ways to honor and remember our girl.

The house feels like something’s missing, and truly, we’ve lost a part of us that can never be replaced. I miss her quiet presence as I work alone while the kids are at school and would do anything to hear her paws scratch across the floor one more time.

“I didn’t get to say goodbye,” Lainey cried over and over the other night. I told her she gave her the best goodbye a dog could ever hope for–a life full of love, a warm bed to sleep in, a welcome to play, a lap to lay in, a family to call her own.

We’ll miss you, dear Sophie. You will forever and always be loved by us.

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How to Be a Grandparent

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Of all the things I’m grateful that my kids get to experience, I don’t think anything compares to the moments they share with their grandparents. There isn’t a family dinner that goes by–a package of handmade goodies my mom sends, a story Brett’s dad tells Lainey, a sleepover at Brett’s mom’s house, a moon walk with my dad–that I don’t make mental note how lucky we are to have meaningful relationships with grandparents and so many memories stashed away. I have one living grandparent and she means more to me every day–and the memories of the ones who have passed have become comforting reassurances that often lead me home when I’ve wandered away from what’s important and what I want in life.

Each of my kids’ grandparents (we have 8 thanks to the blessings of remarriage and the beauty of family complexities) holds a special place and fills a unique role in our lives, but today I’m thrilled to be sharing a few of my dad’s words on what grandparenting means to him and his tips for maintaining a meaningful bond with the littles…no matter how old they are.

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On Being Poppa
by Rik Cryderman

I’ve been introduced with titles I’ve been proud to hold, taken my place on the dais in the company of greatness, heard kind tributes that stirred my heart and made my eyes pool with tears, but there’s one word that melts me and finally tells me I’ve climbed to the summit of all I’ve longed to ever be…That word is Poppa.

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It begins every sentence their little lips launch or their teenage fingers text. It heralds each announcement they share in my presence. It’s their personal password for plans they propose, “Poppa, maybe we could build a tree fort, you and me”…and, years later, “Poppa, can I bring my boyfriend to dinner on Thursday?”

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“Daddy” was good—I thought nothing could be better, but “Poppa” tops it all, letting us do it all again, with a heart tendered by time, a mind enlightened by experience and a spirit humbled by age. And since my retirement, loving my grandchildren has become even more intentional, inspiring, invigorating. Listening to their uninterrupted narrative, attempting sound answers for their unending questions and accepting their sweet invitations to play, pretend, create and be amused—this trumps every greyhound tempting rabbit I ever chased in my career.

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I have few memories of my own grandparents. Being the youngest in my family, I said goodbye to mine as a little boy, cherishing the few clear memories as treasures. The privilege to imprint my babies’ babies with some stories that will echo when I’m gone, some lessons that will teach when I’ve left, some love that will warm when I can no longer hold them close—that is a blessing sacred and strong. To know them, really know them, and to let them know you—therein is the precious and powerful passing of the baton, firmly in the hands of the tomorrow you cannot enter, except through the hearts of your grandchildren.

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If I were to offer advice to one new to grand-parenting, I would tell them:

Bring your grandchildren home. Just them. Without their parents. Make them your focus. Listen. With your heart. Make them feel their words are wise and wonderful. Let them teach you. Let them try things. Let them fail. Let them try again. Be playful. Be silly. Don’t always be the wisest, the corrector, the one with the last word. Value their dreams, their differences, their dedication to the passions they pursue and the positions they hold. (It’s easier when they’re 10 and a Taylor Swift fan but more important when they’re 17, and at a Bernie Sanders rally). Be a safe listener. This is critical with the older grandchildren. While the toddlers’ antics and anecdotes are fun to share, the teen’s issues and queries should be guarded as treasures. Be a vault not a voice box—and they will continue to trust…and talk—sometimes sharing things with you they bring to no others. Learn their language, know their loves, plot the latitude of their life. I’ve got Toca Boca on my IPhone and Shawn the Sheep on my Firestick, but I also know what Coachella is and can decipher the cryptic captions on my cool teen granddaughter’s Instagram feed.

Tell them they’re wonderful, the brightest, most beautiful, the bestest of all (making up superlative words is perfectly acceptable). Read them bookshelves of stories, but employ bold volume and exaggerated cadence to bring them along. Change your voice, use an accent, falsetto, deep bass.  And make up stories, with drama and details where they have the lead. If you scare them, hold them close and make the ending just perfect. If you want them to laugh, break the dyke on the silly—let it flow ‘til they shake! Decorum’s forgettable, but the ridiculous is remembered forever. Tell them stories where they are the champions, the winners, the greatest around. Let them know of your life—your strengths AND your struggles, your big moments AND your bumbled mistakes. Share your faith, without preaching, persuading or projecting. Share it as an anchor in storms, an ally in lonely times, a comfort in crisis. If it’s part of you, show them, let them know you.

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Create rituals, like simple repeated activities you can almost hear them someday tell their children, “Poppa always let me make pancakes all by myself.” Keep their things in your home like you’re hoping they’ll come, and when they do, they’ll see—you’ve been expecting their visit, there’s room for them here. Buy a step stool to help them work beside you in the kitchen, reach the Oreos in your pantry, brush their teeth by themselves. Take their messes in stride, their fears as quite normal, and an occasional tantrum as a compliment—you’re family, you’re home. Hold them, hug them, give them a kiss. Tell them you love them, with eyes locked and voice sure. Be unexpected, spontaneous, serendipitous too—taking moon walks with flashlights, hearing bird songs before breakfast, sitting down on the curb with your knees on your chin, because the little boy beside you loves big garbage trucks and you’ve heard a distant roar that tells you it’s coming your way. These are the things that will set your heart’s rhythm and carve deeply your profile on the hearts of your grands. These are the things that, long after you’re gone, will make the sound of your name bring a far away gaze and a sweet settled smile to the face of the little who stood on a stool right beside you and made “the best pancakes I’ve ever, ever tasted, and I’m telling the truth.”

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