Dancing with Turkeys

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, dances with a turkey.I WILL make a turkey for my son for Thanksgiving. Even if I’m wailing during the whole process. Even though my son and and I will be feasting elsewhere for the holiday. I will roast a turkey. I want to have a huge platter of bird in the fridge. A plate full of turkey in our own home means we are okay, that our tiny family is surviving, that life goes on.

This will be my fifth Thanksgiving without my daughter. I’m learning how to handle it.
Remembering Marika in the kitchen tearing breadcrumbs for the stuffing and baking carrot cake, I’ve learned that one can simultaneously grieve and be grateful. Last year I called it Thanksgrieving. This year it is Dancing with Turkeys, as I dash all over town to dine in three different households before coming home to the turkey in my fridge.

Here are my holiday tips for grievers:

  1. Treat yourself like you’re the guest of honor. Our beloveds won’t be seated at the table but they are seated in our hearts. So carry on the way they would want and be good to your self.
  2. Allow yourself to cry. Let the pain gush out in tears. Pull out old photos, phone your sister in Florida to reminisce, chop onions, and cry like a lemon being juiced.
  3. Allow yourself to smile, maybe even laugh, at the memories of sweet times. Remembering and making memories are the real gifts of holidays.
  4. Focus on what you have, not on what you’ve lost. What are the lessons you learned from your loved one? What was gifted? What has changed your life?
  5. If you can’t find something to be thankful for, do something nice for another. The most joy can come from giving someone else something to be grateful about.

So go do this holiday, my friends. Whether you gather with others, or chow down your dinner standing alone over the kitchen sink, I am sending you my warmest wishes. We are going to be okay. We are surviving. Life goes on. You are not alone.

 

How do you grieve and be grateful at the same time?

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Changes at Home

Robin botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs home with her inherited Havanese dog.In my home, where I sing and dance, and talk out loud to the life-size portrait of my dead daughter when I’m not talking to my inherited dog, I nervously picked crumbs off the floors. My friend Hussein was on his way over to see the guest room. I’d never rented it to a guy before. And I was afraid Hussein didn’t like dogs. So when he pulled up in his car, I scooped Suki into my arms before she could erupt into her ferocious greeting.

“Come in,” I said, squeezing Suki. She squirmed and emitted small choking sounds through the hand I’d clamped over her snout. Hussein’s eyes ricocheted off every surface of the house, and I wondered if he spotted spider webs in the corners or the mezuzah with the tiny Hebrew prayer scroll that my uncle Max had given me as a housewarming gift fifteen years ago.

“This is home,” I said, surveying the walls covered with photos of my daughter, the cracked concrete countertops, the stacks of papers, the view of the pond. Suki growled in my arms. “This is the bathroom,” I said, grateful the kitty litter from my old cat no longer monopolized the space. “Here’s the laundry room.” I remembered bottomless piles of clothes from a long gone husband and young children. “The dog chews holes in your underwear if you leave it on the floor,” I said. Hussein looked at Suki. She grunted.

“She doesn’t like men,” I stated, bouncing her. “This is the work table.” Visions of children doing homework flashed in my head. Suki writhed. “Is it okay to let her down?” Hussein assured me he had no problems with dogs. I put Suki on the floor.

“That’s the upstairs where my son lives when he’s in town. He comes and goes at weird hours. You get used to it.” I thought of the mess upstairs, except for the quiet room that was my daughter’s. “We’re not going there,” I said. “Here’s your room (if you take it). Oh, we get an occasional mouse in the house,” I added, needing to divulge all the shortcomings. In my mind, I saw the last girl who lived in the guest room. She didn’t mind mice. She would sit, reading on the bed amid perfumed pillows. Suki used to invite herself up on the bed to sit by her. Suki loved that last girl.
“Your dog loves me,” Hussein said. His head was bent at a strange angle. “What is she doing?” he asked. I looked down and saw Suki was wrapped firmly around his leg. Horrified, I stood speechless.
“She’s humping you,” I finally spit out the only words I could come up with.

A couple of weeks later Hussein called to say he would not need the room. By then, I had told myself there’d be no more prancing around in pajamas with a guy in the house. So it was a relief to know home would not have to change in that regard. I felt sorry though, for Suki.

 

What are the differences between your house and your home?

 

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From the Other Side

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, finds a lone red leaf in her yard.From the other side of the wind, a girl searched for a red leaf. It had to be red. When the girl was alive, she had given her mother red socks, red flowers, a red sweater and a red velvet cake. She wanted to give her mother a gift now. But from the other side of life, her options were limited to redirecting energy, manipulating objects, or invading her mother’s dreams. She finally found a perfect red leaf and traveled with the wind to her old house. She left the leaf on the lawn.

Soon her mother came out to walk the dog. The mother immediately spotted the patch of bright scarlet in the grass and thought it was a mitten. Dragging the dog over the yellow and brown leaves that dotted the lawn, she discovered it was a single red leaf. She looked around, but there were no other red leaves anywhere near. She picked the leaf up and examined its pale pink underside, turning it over and over as she walked the dog. She laid the leaf on a small bush outside the door before entering the house.

The girl sighed heavily. Her mother had left her gift behind.

As the afternoon turned into evening, the girl watched her mother come and go in and out of the house several times, eyeing the red leaf on top of the bush each time she passed. Once, her mother came outside briefly just to photograph the leaf. The girl pretended to be a breeze and made it shake. But her mother always left the leaf outside. The girl grunted.

That night the rain came down hard. The wind howled fiercely and blew the last leaves off the trees. They swooshed around in noisy gusts all night long while the girl hovered over the bush with the one lone red leaf.

In the morning she saw her mother peek through the window at the bush. Suddenly her mother rushed out the door and grabbed up the red leaf. Tears dripped down her mother’s cheeks as she looked to the sky. Then she carried the leaf into the house, into the warm kitchen. There she placed it on a tissue and studied it, as if it were a map of her daughter’s heart.

 

What do you think? Can we get messages or gifts from beyond life? Have you ever received one?

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Storm Food

StormFood2“Is there anything to eat?” my son asked, staring for a long time into the empty refrigerator.
“Look in the freezer,” I told him. “There might still be some storm food left.”

Everyone I spoke to last week agreed that storm food was a good idea.
“What’s storm food?” one friend had asked. “You mean the non-perishable, no-cooking-necessary stuff you keep in the cupboard for when the power goes out? Like powdered milk and canned beans?”
“Ick. No.”
“You mean comfort food. That’s what I want in a storm,” she’d insisted.
“Not exactly. I’m thinking hearty stews and homemade soups that you freeze for emergencies, for when you can’t cook or get out of the house. Like turkey chili or Moroccan lamb stew. It should be healthy and delicious. It has to feed body and soul,” I had told her, trying to sort out the difference between storm food and comfort food. “Comfort food is too high in sugar and carbs; it’s more about nostalgia than nourishment.” I then listed a half dozen dishes, like the Curried Lentil, Kale and Butternut Squash Soup at the Finger Lakes Feasting website; and the Pork Pot Roast with Pears at Ciao Chow Bambina’s; and Alton Brown’s Sauerbraten recipe. There were five Sundays in November and I intended to make five different stews.

Storm food is purposefully and lovingly prepared, and then stashed away for future catastrophes. The packed freezer and individual-sized portions of nourishing foods provide a feeling of wellbeing similar to that found in comfort food. Each meal that finds its way to your table in a time of turmoil is like a care package.

Even before my daughter died, every fall I stored food to help weather winter storms. A storm could be a blizzard, a level-4 hurricane affecting the entire East Coast, or simply a headache. Once in a while a storm appears in my son, coming home hungry, looking pathetic like he hasn’t seen food in a year. Feeding my son a bowl of care brings even more joy than quelling my own storms.
“Really, look in the freezer,” I told him. “It only takes ten minutes to nuke up a storm food. How about turkey chili from last December?”

 

How do you weather a storm? What special things do you do to take care of yourself and the ones you love during a difficult time?

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Coping with Halloween

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, Photoshops her daughter's face painted as a cat, into the mouth of a carved pumpkin.“Mom, I wanna be a cat,” my daughter said, the year we saw the musical, Cats, on Broadway. Marika loved dressing up. Halloween was her favorite holiday, and every year I’d sew gowns and paint her face. She’d sit stock-still-serious with only her eyes roving, occasionally meeting my own eyes as I painted whiskers or pink clouds of rouge across her pristine porcelain cheeks. There were only a couple of years out of twenty that I did not transform her into a fairy princess, a garbage-monster, a witch, a genie…. After she died, it took a long time before I was able to apply makeup or wear a costume myself.
Saturday, friends invited me to carve pumpkins. The same friends had had my family over for holidays since our children were little. But four years out from the death of my daughter, my heart still sputtered when confronted with holiday traditions.
“Do you remember if we carved pumpkins when you were a kid?” I asked my son, hoping to extend the invitation.
“Mom, I’m sure we carved pumpkins,” he said, and buried himself under his blanket, uninterested. Alone, I joined my friends and two of their grown children, aware that I had only vague memories of drawing faces on pumpkins.

The old familiar kitchen table was covered with pumpkins, bowls for the seeds and scrapings, and tools for cutting and scooping. After drawing on the bumpy orange surface with Sharpie markers, I picked up a tiny serrated pumpkin-carving knife.
“How cute,” I said, turning it over in my hand. That’s when I realized I had no idea what to do next. Someone else had always taken over for me at that point. Squeamish around knives, I’d always let a husband, or a friend, or a friend’s husband do the carving. But now, my friends were busy with their own projects. With quivering hands, I made a hesitant stab and started to saw. Before long I surprised myself, gouging and sawing the pumpkin’s flesh with vigor.

I carved my own pumpkin.

I am free, I thought. I’m strong. I can do this. No one would need to carve for me ever again. Maybe I could even carve a Thanksgiving turkey.

Last year I wore a costume. This year I carved a pumpkin. Who knows what I’ll be able to do next! But I’m pretty sure I’ll never, ever be able to paint on a child’s face again.

 

Cheers to my friend’s son Andrew whose cat-pumpkin was much friendlier than my own. What stresses you about Halloween? How have you surprised yourself lately?

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Making Connections

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, walking the dog at night.There were two Karens and two Robins in my sixth grade class of 1963 at PS94. We met in Manhattan last weekend for our second reunion.
“Who else is a cancer survivor? Who became a teacher? Who went into medicine?” Fifteen of us threw questions across the huge table at the Lincoln Square Steak House. “Who’s retired? Has anyone filed for social security yet?” We noted who was gay, who was single, and who had “not changed a bit” over the fifty-two years since we graduated. In the corners, we whispered about who had died. And also, probably, about who had lost her daughter.

My claim to fame in grade school used to be that I was voted the best artist. Now, many of us had art and writing in common. I would always be the only one with a sibling who was also a classmate, but I was not the only one who had married and divorced more than once. In how many more ways were we connected? How were we different? With my eyes, I stroked the familiar faces that yet contained the smiles of the children I’d grown up with. It was like coming home to long lost cousins.

“We should have asked if anyone else has a living parent,” my sister said later, still trying to find connections.
“Or who has a tattoo,” I added. “Or who’s Republican and who’s a Democrat, maybe.”

After the dinner, several of us walked the few blocks from the restaurant to an apartment owned by one of the Karens. I would never live in the city, I thought as I trailed the others down hallways and into the elevator of the thirty-floor building. But we soon opened the door to a beautiful space with large windows, artwork all around, and a serious but comfortable area devoted to work. The TV had been left on for the dog. A fuzzy white Westie greeted us. It looked like my dog. The place looked like my own home.
“Entertain yourselves while I walk my dog,” Karen said. But I grabbed my coat and followed her back down the elevator and hallways, and out into the streets of New York City where, like silent magic, from all directions, solitary people walked their dogs under bright streetlamps.

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