I don’t know how it was exactly, that when we were 17 we felt so old.

Road worn, burnt out, exhausted.

There were movies in the 80’s that tried to play homage to the era. They were over blown and exaggerated. But not. On many weekends we could be found at any of the following scenes.

The standard issue 80’s party: Aqua net hair, so many bracelets, Cindy Lauper inspired eye make-up. Acid washed jeans. Lita Ford screaming out a radio, drunk girls singing along. A keg in the basement, boys getting blow jobs behind garages, a drunk girl crying in a corner somewhere, furniture on the lawn. A cheerleader and her best friend’s boyfriend fucking in someone’s parents bedroom, beer bongs, short skirts, and the cops showing up to disperse the chaos.

The hoodrats parents party: 40 year old men wearing grease stained levis and plain pocket t-shirts. The men ogle us, the teenage girls. They make jokes and try to slip their nicotine stained hands up our skirts. Their very thin, very drunk wives, pretend not to notice but give us the stink eye all night while they gossip and complain and drink cheap beer. A handful of someone’s siblings run around unattended. Our inebriated 17 year old selves wonder who is keeping them safe. Our friends, the boys, play poker in the basement and call each other by nicknames only they can use. We all smoke too much, drink too much and the dads pass around ditch weed.

The chill night: a dozen or so best friends converge on the house of whomevers parents are either working third trick or out of town on vacation. Our choices seem to center on those two options. Mini dramas play out between friends/lovers. Euchre is going on in the kitchen with the occasional game of quarters to liven things up. Motely Crew plays on the turntable. Eventually the couples pair off for another night of pregnancy roulette. The singletons stay up finishing off bottles of whiskey and smoking the rest of the cigarettes. Some nights the guys drop, smoke, ingest; too much. We fret, worry, mother them. We love them.

They self abuse to forget their absent fathers. Fathers taken away by the ride of capitalism, chasing tail or their own personal demons. We gather in circles and sing old songs, Ruby Tuesday, Crimson and Clover. Songs that make us remember being young.

I remember standing in the doorway of a house that smelled like ashtray and old laundry. The couches rust colored with some autumnal scene. One of the dads was doing the lean in. Making small talk. Cigarette dripping from his fingers, Judas Priest playing in the background. Passing a bottle of whiskey between the two of us. The way he’d run his hand along the outside of my thigh so casually I questioned if it actually happened. He was cute. Tall and lithe with jagged edges. Beat up hands, calloused, a contrast to my soft youth. One of the few single dads of the group. “Lets go out back for a bit”. My flight response kicking in. I head down to the basement where my boyfriend played poker, betting pennies against his friends.

Being 17 was exhausting.


I was riding in an Uber in New Mexico and was struck by my drivers hands. She was about my age, straddling that line between her 40s and 50’s. That age where your clothes or hair might not give away your age, but your face and hands sure do. She was listening to the local top 40 station, driving a sporty SUV. She liked driving for Uber, it gave her some extra cash, filled up some gaps of time in her day. She warned me the area I was going to wasn’t a good place to be walking around with my pack on, and that when I was done at the gardens I should call another Uber to my next destination instead of walking as I had planned. “I’m sure you can take care of yourself, but this area has been hit hard by drugs and you stick out around here. Trust me on this”. So I did.

Over the next week I would take dozens of Uber rides with a variety of drivers. A young woman who had recently moved to New Mexico from Louisiana. A retired cop who had spent his professional career undercover as a narcotics officer, he was glad to be retired and to be able to wear his hair short. A former scientist who told us all about Los Alamos.

And as we talked, I’d watch their hands. Gripping the wheel, fiddling with their water bottle, checking their app, or gesturing to accentuate a point in their story.

One of the first things I notice about a man is his hands. My ex-husband has big hands. Thick. He had a habit of hitting things back in those days, thankfully I wasn’t one of them. His hands were often cut up, raw on the knuckles. He had a job as a milk man, he worked hard and in the elements. His hands were rough to the touch. Those same hands would hold mine through some dark days. They would diaper our babies, turn the pages of books he would read to our children. The last time I remember holding hands was the day his father was buried. We were in the last phases of save-our-marriage mode.

When I was a little girl I loved holding my mothers hand. She had small hands, but her fingers were long and slender. Her nail beds were kind of flat and her nails were never polished. She had pretty hands. She didn’t bite her nails or her cuticles like I did. They were always cool and dry. She didn’t particularly like to hold our hands, ours were hot and sticky as childrens hands tend to be. The last time I held her hand was the day she died. Her hand was cool and dry.

When my babies were little I loved to marvel at their chubby little fists. I was mesmerized the first time my daughter reached out and grabbed a toy. Her impossibly small fingers grasping the ring of toy keys and pulling them to her mouth. Her fingers long and slender, I thought she might have my moms hands when she grew up; but they actually look a lot like mine. I was glad for that. They aren’t pretty, but they are warm and kind. My youngest has his dads hands. We joke about them being beefy. The knuckles don’t punch things, so his hands are smooth but strong. I wonder at the things he will accomplish one day.

There is an intimacy, a closeness, that comes with holding hands. Holding hands says I love you in the most basic of ways. I’ve held hands with my girlfriends, walking home from a bar. I love you, I’ve got you. I’ve held hands with my kids, not just to keep them near to me in a crowded space, but to let them know, I love you, I’ve got you.

When I think about the men I’ve loved, I think about their hands. The sculptor, with his large broad hands. Long fingers, dusky pink nail beds fading into brown skin. Strong hands that delicately mold wax and beat metal. The way he could scoop me up into those hands and make me into any shape he wanted. Rough thumb running across my lips, dripping honey. When he held my hand I felt dwarfed by him, enveloped.

The photographer with his smooth hands, who would hold my hand on car rides, and under the table during meals. Who could tell when I was sad or anxious and would reach out, slip his fingers in mine, and give me a quick squeeze “I’m here, I love you, it’s ok”.

Chris. With his mechanics hands. Who used his hands to teach his boys, to lift mine up onto his shoulders. Who meticulously taped a $20 bill to the bottom of my daughters plant when she went away to college, her “emergency cash” he called it. Who could take anything apart and put it back together. Except me.

My hands. They’ve punched walls and windows in my angry youth. They’ve trembled in fear, in anger, in sadness. They’ve held my breast up to the mouth of my babies. Wiped their tears, cradled their heads. They’ve typed out more words than I’ve spoken. They’ve traced down the backs of lovers. Flipped the pages of books. Fixed up an aging house.

15 years ago, I met a man who would end up being one of my best friends. He’s held my hand many, many times over the years. To this day when he picks me up for lunch, the first thing he does is grab my hand in his. No matter what is going on in my world, that moment always makes me feel safe and loved. Unconditionally.

On my way home from New Mexico, as I was disembarking my flight from Albuquerque to Denver, a woman reached out and grabbed my arm. She looked up at me somewhat frightened and said “I don’t know how to get to my next plane”. With very broken english she told me where she was headed next, Washington D.C. Along the way, she told me she had recently lost her husband and her son, and was headed to meet her other son. I still don’t know where she originated, or if DC was her final destination. As hard as we were both trying, we struggled with the language barrier. With her boarding pass in hand, I tracked down her flight and walked her to her gate in another terminal. The gate attendant got her seat assignment, and as the plane was already mostly boarded, I was able to walk her to the door.

As we were parting after our brief excursion together, she grasped both of my hands in hers, looked up into my face and said “thank you”. And then she hugged me and got onto her plane. There was no language barrier in that moment. Just two people briefly holding hands, silently wishing each other well.

Being single and Goo Goo Doll triggers

So I’m laying in bed this morning doing what I do when I wake up in the morning, I’m scrolling through my facebook mindlessly. A friend of mine had posted a video. I don’t know why I clicked on it. It’s the Goo Goo Dolls singing Iris. One of the most overplayed songs of the late 90’s and I’m watching them play in the rain and I’m thinking about how I forgot how good looking the lead singer was and then the lyrics hit my brain:

“And all I can taste is this moment
And all I can breathe is your life
And sooner or later it’s over
I just don’t wanna miss you tonight

And I just started crying those deep aching sobs that come from that place you bury deep inside yourself when you’re afraid to feel what you feel for long periods of time. Loneliness.

It looks like a pretty cool show actually. . ..

Spotify likes to do that thing where they show you what you’ve been listening to for the last year and I was surprised by some of the songs.

Linens by Water Liars came back into rotation. A few years ago, this song slayed me, laid me out, along with Let it Breathe. I couldn’t listen to them for a long time. They are back, but they cut for different reasons, not because they are attached to someone, but because they are attached to who I’ve become.

I can’t come up with another song that so perfectly sums up the wobbly balance of life for so many, myself included. That fine line between desiring a loving, deep, soul fulfilling connection with another human with whom you share your bed and your life; and the fear of knowing that something might be intrinsically broken inside you that simply won’t allow it.

We were kissing in the kitchen, I was listening
To the coffee and the bacon drip and sizzle
There was flour on my hands from the biscuits in the pan
And I was happier than I thought I could be
Then I woke up on the road, my head was killing
Remembering some shit I read in Milton
How the mind is a place unto itself and in it
Makes a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven

What I would give to be quiet beside you
With the window open, a record playing low
To feel your skin between the clean bed linens
Inside a room where sadness never goes

You can do some emotional cutting by listening here: https://open.spotify.com/track/7077uM6i22HmFLv85rMH8Q?si=aXWEAfQzRC2NoI2YrSc3XQ

I have a lot of single friends. I love to read all of the great things we all post about the fabulousness of being single. I love so many aspects of my life and I can’t imagine most days letting go of the freedom I have. I really, really like not answering to anyone. Not because I’m doing anything I couldn’t do in a relationship (mostly). It’s being able to work as much as I want. To stop at 11:00 on a Saturday and put thoughts to keyboard. Or wake up at 3 am and watch Friends AGAIN. Or eat cheese for dinner, washed down with a bottle of wine with no judgement. Or go on ridiculous fitness binges where I eat nothing but vegetables and chicken for 30 days and work out 5 days a week. Whatever the hell it is, I don’t have to say “do you mind, or would it bother you or HOW ARE YOU FEELING ABOUT THIS THING I’M DOING”. Or honestly, just having to constantly check in to make sure my partner is doing ok before I can think about myself.

I don’t need therapy to figure out where that comes from. I got it.

Conversely, being single brings with it a loneliness that can fucking GUT you. It’s ok to acknowledge that and still be a warrior goddess of single life.

I also know, that there were years and years of being in relationships that were lonely as hell. My marriage was a lonely space. The things I long for now: intimacy of the soul, someone who sees me, someone who nurtures my mind and my spirit and my body, was all missing from my marriage. Not that he wasn’t thoughtful and kind. We just spoke a different languages and kept missing the mark on the connection I needed.

It’s not that I am unable to connect. I can meet someone across the table in the most random spot and BAM, I feel that connection. Where you just know you know that person even though you just met. That happens to me. I run across these amazing, electric connections that make great friends or lovers, or partners.

I’ve fallen in love a lot. I fall hard, I fall deep; I can see inside your soul and pull out the very best of who you are. I can hand my heart over on a platter. Through the strange twists and turns of my life I’ve been lucky enough to know some phenomenal men. Sometimes they stay awhile, sometimes we move on pretty quickly, they are all a part of what has made me the person that I am.

But that fantasy of a long lasting, healthy relationship that has been presented through movies and songs, is elusive. Based on my playlists, I’m not the only one searching, a lot of people are out there writing songs about it, and a lot of us are listening, trying to decipher the code to “happy relationship”.

Relationships are hard, tricky spaces. Very rarely do I see truly happy and fulfilled couples. I see a lot of people who struggle to keep it together, and some of them find fulfillment in that. The accomplishment of the anniversary. I get it. I remember crossing that 10 year mark and thinking, “fuck yeah, we made it”. And then a year later running out the door with my three little kids because I couldn’t sell it to myself any longer.

And of course, there are other things attached to those long term commitments that are fulfilling besides the number on the calendar of life. I get that. I miss those things too. Being able to sit around and celebrate the humans you have created together, the life you have created together. I don’t get to do that. Hell, at my daughters wedding my ex-husband barely said two words to me. Not because we don’t get along, we get along fine, he just clearly had nothing to say. It was a hollowing feeling.

I have so many goals, plans, things on my bucket list. I want to write more. I want to travel the world. I want to start a business with one of my friends. I want to learn to scuba dive. I want to dance under the stars in Madagascar, go diving in Dahab. I want to skinny dip in the crystalline blue waters in Greece and kiss in the snow in the Alps. I want to to watch fireworks and hold hands and run around with no clothes on for a week in Barbados.

I’d like a partner to join me for life’s adventures. But I’m not going to sacrifice those adventures to make someone fit into my life.

So some mornings I’ll have to wake up and acknowledge that loneliness. To accept it, cry it out, and get up and keep working towards those goals. Maybe I have it in me. Maybe I’m not intrinsically broken. Maybe someday when I’m ready to grow up I’ll settle down in one spot in my head and heart and life. Or maybe I’ll get to the end of the road and say “thanks to you all, for the big moments and the little ones, I appreciate you all” and slip off into the ether knowing that my time on this marble was just a curvy path filled with an amazing cast of characters.

Cigarettes, dinosaurs, and calming blue smoke.

Today I was conducting some business at the bank, and my heavily bearded, perfectly coiffed teller had his Vape sitting at his station. I think the intent was for it to be out of sight, but I was just short enough that it fell in my eyeline. I had already been thinking about the subject of smoking that morning, after reviewing a piece about great marketing and one of the examples of killer marketing (pun intended) was the Marlboro man. Just seeing the Marlboro ad made my mouth salivate for that lung biting inhale off a Red.

Hello gorgeous. I’m talking to the cigarettes. Mostly.

My first foray into the land of the rolled tobacco was on the park playground. My next door neighbor was an older girl, much more experienced in the world, as children from my neighborhood tended to be. I remember swinging on the swings, her lighting up and goading me into taking a drag. I wasn’t hard to convince, even at a young age I had a proclivity towards rebellion. I don’t think I’d quite lived a decade at this point. I still remember her one piece of advice. “Never smoke and chew gum at the same time, it will give you mouth cancer”. To this day I still prefer to smoke and chew minty gum at the same time, but I always l think “good lord I’m going to get mouth cancer from this”.

It wasn’t until middle school that I took a renewed interest in smoking. A bowling alley sat situated between my neighborhood and the one where my “rich” friends lived. I took quite the delight in stopping and buying a pack of smokes from the vending machine. I can only imagine how this 60 lb. pre-pubescent version of myself looked dragging off a cigarette outside the bowling alley, trying to be a bad-ass. Probably as absurd as it looks in my head. I was scrawny and as uncool as you can get with my Sears garanimals baseball style t-shirt with the iron-on glitter swan and rainbow combo on the front. My coke-bottle glasses and unstyled long blond hair.

My allegiance for many years was to the Marlboro. We could pick them up at the mall, or the bowling alley, or really about anywhere. They were easy to ask for. Nothing would trip you up faster with the little old ladies working the register at the drug store than to ask for the wrong type of cigarette. You had to ask for it like you meant it, or tell them they were for your mother. Either way, mess it up, and they’d deny you. This was the early 80’s and no one really cared about kids smoking. We smoked IN THE MALL. Sometimes I simply forget that people smoked everywhere. If you went to the mall on any given weekday, you’d find a handful of kids chain-smoking away while ditching school. Eating cheap pizza in the food court, playing Pac-man inside Aladdin’s Castle. Shoplifting sunglasses and pins for our jean jackets. The omnipresent cigarette burning away in our fingers.

In my late teens, after I had graduated from high-school the roommate of a co-worker at my new “adult” job at the home improvement store took a liking to me and my friends. He offered up his apartment as a place to hang out, do our new college homework, drink. He gave us a key. He kept his fridge supplied with wine coolers and lite beer. Cartons of cigarettes on the counter. All the pot. This is when menthols entered my life. Salems to be exact. Pack after pack of free smokes. It was only in retrospect, sometime after he introduced me to his young children, that I realized that he wasn’t just a kindly older dude who was being nice to some college students. After a few months I got the clue. I also failed out of my first semester of college, and got kicked out of my parents house. It was time to get my own place. And go back to my trusty Reds.

Not too many years later, I got married and settled down and started having kids. I quit cold turkey when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I never smoked around my kids. I’d have a smoke with my sister-in-law at the holidays. I’d buy a pack if I was going out with my girlfriends. I’d have one here and there, but not much. I had switched to the ultra popular 1990’s classic, Virginia Slim Menthols. It seemed classier for a mom to smoke those over Reds.

Then one day, I decide to get divorced. And my habit started again in earnest. I would sneak out to the porch and smoke. A lot. As soon as the kids would go to bed I’d sit outside and chain-smoke and drink wine. I can still feel my eye twitch from my anxiety, then I’d take a long drag. Filling my lungs with blue smoke, exhale. Something to focus on other than my world imploding. I would find this to be a pattern that would repeat. With each subsequent relationship, and subsequent end to the relationship, I’d find myself, on my front steps. Breathing in, breathing out. Letting it drift around me, envelope me, my sadness.

I took a job in radio sales. Everyone smoked. You smoked with your co-workers. You smoked with your clients. It was the martini of the early 2000’s. A socially acceptable bonding ritual. Sure you had to go outside to do it, but that’s where you would take your break. Flirt with the Dj’s, chat up your co-workers, convince your boss that next big sale was right around the corner.

Then somewhere along the line, everyone quit. Even I cut back to 1 or 2 a day, more on the weekends. People weren’t bonding over smoking anymore, it was becoming taboo. You couldn’t smoke anywhere. It was a relief, to go to a bar and not chain smoke, it was gross to go outside to the cattle pen with the other smokers. It smelled bad. It looked worse.

Flash forward to 2015. I was up in Chicago and I was back up to about a pack a day. After a series of devastating life events I had gone back to my old friend. I walked out of a bar in Old Town to have a smoke. I got out to the street and there was no one else out there. The ‘Hawks are playing their final game for the cup and there is not a single smoker on the street. I had a full fledged panic attack. Was I the last smoker? Was everyone just inside vaping away? Had everyone quit?

I had to sit down on the curb. Arms crossed over my knees. Head on my arms. My trusty American Spirit (the healthy cigarette), dangling between my fingers. “I am a dinosaur. I. Am. A. Dinosaur”.

A young man sits down next to me. “Can i bum a light?” I look up, into his fresh face, with his ridiculous beard. “I thought I was the last one. You still exist. We still exist. The last two smokers in Chicago”

He looks up and down the street. Then back at me. “Everyone's just in watching the game.”

And a handful of people come out of the bar and light up.

I tend to be overly dramatic.


I recently decided I was no longer going to be a slave to the habit. I cut back from about a pack a day to about a pack a week, if that. I’ll go days at a time without one at all. I know that if I’m ever coupled again, it’s likely my partner won’t smoke and that is probably when I’ll quit for good. When I have someone who wants to kiss my face and doesn’t appreciate the mint/tobacco combo. And I’m good with that. Or maybe I’ll get to the point where I’m just done. I feel close.

Cigarettes and I. We have a long history, longer than any friendship. Any boyfriend. We go back. Back even farther to memories of my own mother, sneaking out to the back porch to smoke her super thin cigarettes. (Capris — do you remember Capris?!)The way my dad would smell after coming home from the theatre, hanging out with his actor friends, where of course, everyone smoked. Stealing his Pall Malls, or Winstons out of his jacket pocket. My first boyfriends who all smoked by middle school. All the tv bad boys kept a pack rolled up in their shirt sleeve or in the front pocket of their leather jacket.

I’m glad it's becoming a thing of the past. I know on the long list of things that might kill me, it’s pretty high. But I don’t regret my relationship. It’s a part of my past. It’s gotten me through a lot of dark days. But I’m leaning into new, healthier, less anecdotal vices. I feel like that should make me happier than it does.

(originally written in November of 2016). I quit about 6 months later, and I’m actually pretty ok with it. Most days.

The Carpet is Blue.

This is my sisters room. The carpet is blue.

I picked the room closest to the stairs, with access to the attic. But I’m jealous of her two closets and copious sunshine. I don’t want to want my room and her room too. But I do.

I scale the back of the house. I find my footholds. Balance on the handrail of the back steps. I stretch upon its highest point, one foot on the back door, while I curl my fingertips around the airing porch rim. I pull myself up from a dead weight, over the railing, through my sisters window. Startling her, again. I clamor over her, onto the carpet.

My sisters carpet is blue.

“Moms in the shower, hurry”

I creep down the hall. Slink under my covers. Cover my mouth with a pillow to hide my alcohol breath. Hear the shower turn off. My mother is pissed, asking why I’m not home yet. My sister covering for me again. “She is home, she's in bed”. I can feel my mothers anger. She does not open my door.

I’m sitting on the floor, winding the phone cord around my wrist. Consider winding it around my neck. In my flannel shirt and ivory veil. We argue into the phone. “Can we not fight on our wedding day please?” My appeal to my future spouse. We slam down our phones. I cry. Trying not to ruin my mascara. Watching my tears drip.

My sisters carpet is blue.

My parents now use this back bedroom. It’s been vacated by my sister for two decades. The blue carpet has been pulled up and the hardwood floor is oak.

One closet holds the computer. One closet holds my mother's chair. And books.

My mother lies in bed, with her morphine drip. We are sorting the pictures for her funeral. I’m in charge of making the video. She’s picking out her favorites. We laugh. We pretend we have said all we need to say. I keep trying to force the words out. “Mom I’m sorry”. They don’t come. I keep waiting for her to force out the words “Heath, I’m sorry”.

They don’t come.

We know it’s close to the end. Soon she will need to go to hospice. We will know when it’s time. She will become less responsive. She won’t be able to function through the morphine haze.

It’s time to go home. I get her a water before I go. I put the pictures in piles. I don’t know this is the last conversation we will have.

I only notice as I leave. My mother's toes are blue.

Happy Non-Anniversary

A note to my 21-year-old self, on what would have been your 26th Anniversary.

I can still picture you sitting on blue carpet in your veil and flannel shirt. Sitting in your sister’s old bedroom, leaning against the bed. I remember your doubts that day. I remember how you dried your tears, squared your shoulders and marched down your parents steps to meet your soon-to-be husband. You’ll need that tenacity a lot in the coming years.

No one really told you how marriage worked. There are basic skills you were both lacking: the ability to communicate being a big one. You won’t figure this out for many years.

I hate to break it to you kid, but your marriage isn’t going to last. You pictured a house and kids, a labrador retriever and picket fence, and you get all that. The reality is not what you thought it would be. It’s a lot lonelier. It’s a lot harder. One day, you are going to decide doing it alone is easier than trying to make your marriage work in a way that makes you both happy. This knowledge will break your heart. This will be the hardest decision to make, and you will never quit feeling guilty about it.

Your children will literally be your lifeline and reason to wake up each day. Your love for them and need to provide for them will lead you into careers you would never picture for yourself. You will never have much, but you will have enough. You’ll never be able to give them what you had imagined for them, but you’ll keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. You really should have gone to college, but you’ll manage to fashion together a nice career out of moxie and hustle.

You will be humbled. Right now you are cocky and young and have one hell of an attitude. That attitude will help you, and hurt you. You will be your biggest champion and your worst enemy. You are a fighter, but you will learn to choose your battles. You will need to learn to ask for help. From friends and family. You will need to learn grace, and forgiveness. These will not be easy lessons.

You are going to have your heart broken. A lot. You will lose friends. You will lose family. You will lose a child you helped to raise. You will lose lovers. You will lose jobs. And you will survive.

You are going to meet so many wonderful people. You can’t even imagine. You are going to meet men and women that will change your life. Some of these people will only be around for a short while. Some of them you will know for years and years. You’ll have friends who become lovers, and lovers who become friends. You’ll have more female friends than you could have imagined and you will learn so much from them. They will teach you to be soft and open. You will love them harder and longer than any man, be thankful for that.

You are going to see and do so many things. You will travel and go to concerts and meet strangers and stay up too late. You will sing Carly Simon songs with Irish boys in a little bar in Ireland.

You will go running through Chicago in your bare feet, heels dangling from your fingertips so you can make it to the bar in time to watch the Blackhawks cinch the cup with your best friend. You can’t even imagine that now, but it will happen and it will be one of many great stories to tell someday. You will have so many great stories.

You’ll never love someone again like you loved the man you married and had your children with. You can’t even fathom right now how someday you’ll barely really know each other. But he will always have your back. He will turn out to be a great dad. He will be the best ex-husband a girl could ask for. He will also be a monumental ass before that happens and he will hurt you like no one else could. But you will both put all of that aside and raise your children together, but apart, in the best way you can. It’ll be ok.

Rest assured, you will fall in love again. You’ll fall in love a lot actually. But you will spend most of your time without a partner. Don’t be afraid of that. It was scary as fuck for a long time, but you will get past that. You’ll do more things by yourself than you can picture. You will be brave.

You will never have a silver anniversary. You will wonder if you will meet that one person to settle down with. There will be moments fear will grip your chest in the middle of the night. And you will continue, at times, to be lonely.

The most important thing 21-year-old me: you will have the best, most amazing children. You are going to do some things really poorly and it won’t be easy. You are going to miss some things you didn’t think you would. They are going to go through hard times, really hard times. And it will break your heart into tiny pieces when they hurt, every time they hurt.

They will be the best things you ever accomplish.

Happy non-anniversary to my first (and only) ex-husband. Happy non-anniversary 21 year old me.


There are a lot of things I learned from Sally. The older I get, and the further away I’ve gotten from that special relationship, the more those lessons resonate and come into focus. Here is my Sally story:

After my ex-husband and I separated in 2002, I spent a year cleaning houses as way to generate income. After being a stay-at-home mom for so long, I was heartbroken to consider putting my kids into daycare on top of the rest of the upheaval we were all going through. I had mentioned to my daughters teacher that I was looking for cleaning jobs, if she knew of anyone looking for a housekeeper. She connected me to Sally.

Sally lived in a condo, just minutes from my new apartment. To this day, I don’t have a clue how old Sally was. She was simply, old. She was quite short, clocking in at under 5 feet and carried close to 100 pounds more than her frame was built for. She had a host of health problems that made getting around and staying on her feet a challenge. Despite her health issues, Sally was a very active woman. She volunteered for multiple organizations, with the Children’s Zoo being at the top of her list. She also loved to entertain, hosting her friends for card night, book club, special dinners and holiday meals with frequency. Because she maintined such an active volunteer and social life, she had no energy for general housework. This is where I came in.

At the time I had about a half dozen cleaning jobs and adding Sally in once a week was going to be the key to keeping my head above water. We met for the first time and she showed me around her place and talked to me about what she was looking for. I was completely overwhelmed. Her house was a wreck. Honestly, if I had any other choice at the time I probably would have politely declined the challenge. As it stood I had three mouths to feed and really needed this job. This started a 5 year relationship that fed and nurtured us both.

It took 4 consecutive weeks to gain control of the chaos. I learned her behaviors and habits and came to know what to expect.

She faithfully received the newspaper, but rarely had the time to read it. Every day when she arrived home from whatever excursion she was on, she would stop at the mailbox, retrieve the paper and her mail, pull into the garage, waddle into the front hallway, and promptly drop any mail that wasn’t deemed important (most of it) and the paper.

Most weeks there would be multiple bags of groceries strewn about with the cold items (usually) removed and put away, but the rest left for me. She shopped like many of her generation, using coupons for items she really didn’t need. She had enough food at all times to survive the apocalypse. A few months into our arrangement, I decided to clean out the pantry only to find some items a decade old.

Her method to dealing with dirty laundry was to pile her clothes in her closet or in the bathroom outside the shower. Each week I would strip her bed and replace the sheets, collect her clothes, and do that weeks laundry. It wouldn’t seem like a weeks worth of laundry would be much, but she often went through multiple outfits a day. Incontinence is a bitch.

Shoes and jewelry could be found anywhere, but was most often on the TV tray next to her recliner where she ate her meals, on the back of the toilet or occasionally on top of the microwave. It almost became a game, to find all of the strung about earrings and necklaces and put them back on her holders. We had some good laughs about it.

The kitchen was always a hodge-podge of pans and dishes piled around the sink and counters. Sometimes I’d have to remove a whole stack of items from the oven, her favorite hiding place when company was coming before I was. She’d forget to tell me they were there until weeks later. I learned to check.
I’d occasionally have to deal with a pan that had all but caught on fire as she’d sometimes start dinner, and then fall asleep with food on the stovetop. I bought her a fire extinguisher.

Despite the chaos of the house, Sally was very particular about certain things. I might find it more pressing to clean the rotten food out of the refrigerator, but she would want me to feed the birds first. That was her priority.

I learned to dread the changing of the seasons because it meant the switching of the closets. Every 6 months she would ask me to remove everything from the closet in her bedroom and move it to the guest room closet, and everything from the guest closet, containing the upcoming seasons clothes, would go into the closet off of her room. I dreaded it because it took hours, I’ve never known anyone with that many clothes. On top of that, her closet was always a disaster, that was one area I hadn’t even started to tackle that first season. It always felt like a huge waste of time when the two rooms were 20 feet apart, but that was part of her routine.

One of the more enjoyable tasks was holiday decorating. She celebrated every holiday with gusto. She possessed 60 years of accumulated decorations for holiday and they were meticulously organized in boxes in the garage. She knew where every last piece went. Every holiday we would pack up all of the normal house decor, including the pictures on the walls, all of the Hummel figurines, the 20 miniature tea sets that sat on the table in the living room and get out the Easter eggs, Christmas decorations, 4th of July flags, Valentines hearts, or whatever was the theme of the particular holiday. Three weeks later, I’d undo it all and put back the everyday decorations. Every holiday.

Sally loved to entertain her friends and it was always a BIG event. She had special plates, special decorations, napkin rings, cups, for every single type of gathering. Card night, Valentines Ladies night, Summer gathering, 4th of July party, holiday gift exchange. All themed. She taught me what it meant to entertain old school with tables that were set with precision. She was the consummate hostess. The following day I’d go back, clean it all up, and hear all the stories about who came, who didn’t show, and who was having what health issue.

Not a single holiday or birthday went by that I worked for Sally that she didn’t surprise me with a gift, not only from her, but also from her dog Murphy. Cute quirky items that a broke single mom often had little use for, but they were thoughtful and sweet and almost always made me cry at her kindness.

About a year after I started working for Sally I went back to work full-time and she asked me to stay on. I dropped to every-other weekend and would spend that Sunday morning working as fast as possible to get her caught up. She’d follow me around as best she could from room to room updating me on her last two weeks and asking about mine. Apologizing for having done no laundry and leaving it all to me, and me explaining that I didn’t mind. Sometimes I timed my arrival so we would only have a short time before she left for Church. I knew how much she looked forward to our visits, and often felt bad about my impatience. There was twice as much work as there was when I was going weekly, and I was always exhausted from my full-time job. Sometimes I just wanted to get done so I could get home to my kids or home to my bed. Those were long days back then.

Despite or shortened time together, we developed a nice friendship. She was a passionate Michigan fan and was very proud of the fact that Michigan was one of the first major universities in the country to allow women to attend. I can't tell you how often she told me this. She had the picture of her class hanging in her bedroom. She had gone to Michigan to become a teacher, and taught school for somewhere around 35 years. In the 1980’s she had a partial mastectomy from breast cancer. This story was told as I walked in on her in her room, buck naked, as she was struggling to get dressed for church one Sunday morning. Sally wasn’t shy.

She did find some of her other physical ailments more embarrassing, and would call me from time to time in the middle of a week and ask if I would come clean up some accident or another that had happened. She hated these episodes, they frustrated her, they embarrassed her greatly. Not only to lose control of her body, but also to have to call for help to clean up the mess. The sheer number of medications she was taking wreaked havoc on her digestive system. If you know me at all you have no idea how hard it was for me to handle these incidents. But you can’t hear the voice of a woman who is embarrassed and upset and not run over and take care of things, as awful as they sometimes were. It was life.

Sally had never married and had no children of her own, but she had adopted several families over the years that she became a surrogate grandmother to. Every holiday season I would help address and stamp hundreds of cards and mail piles of Christmas gifts to people all over the country. She was a generous soul.

Even when I was tired and dreading going to clean, I found my visits to Sally to be a respite from my life at the time. I had lost all my grandparents by the time I was in my early 20’s and she filled the role nicely. She told me stories and anecdotes and gossiped about her friends. She talked about the ones she liked, the ones she found to be irritating and phoney, but that she had known for 45 years . . .she distracted me from my own angst.

One Sunday morning, I timed my visit a little later than normal. I was short on time so I headed over when I knew she would have left for church.

As soon as I walked in the door, I felt uneasy. The entry way had its usual amount of newspapers and mail strewn about.

In the living room her “important mail” was piled up on the TV tray. A pile of earrings sat on the tray next to her can of coke. She knew she wasn’t supposed to drink it, but she loved it so much.

The kitchen was surprisingly clean. No pans in the sink. I headed to her bedroom.
The mattress was missing from her bed.

I hadn’t even noticed, Murphey hadn’t met me at the door.

With shaking hands, I flipped through her address book to the number of the woman who had introduced us five years ago, my daughters teacher.

“Mary? It’s Heather. I just came to clean Sallys . . .”
Pause. Breath. “Oh my god Heather. It never occurred to me to call you. Sally passed this week”

I sat in the living room I had dusted for the last 5 years, completely stunned. And just cried. Deep wracking sobs.


One time when I was cleaning, Sally gave me 6 large insulated cups with cards in the plastic, her old cards night tumblers. At the time I remember thinking “what in the world will I do with these?” But I took them home. After she died I was grateful for those silly cups. I would use them for years, and think of her.

I regret not asking her more. Did she love someone once? A man? A woman? Who was she when she was young? She told me what she wanted to tell me. This is what I learned:

Be brave.

Family is who you surround yourself with.

No matter what life hands you, keep moving forward.

Do what you love.

Feed the birds.

Give your heart generously and you will receive more back than you can imagine.

Entertain even if the dog pees on the carpet, your friends won't mind (except that bitch Edith, she ALWAYS has to make a comment!).

Use the nice dishes.

Drink the Coke even when your doctor tells you to stop.

And when you get the the point in your life that you have to chose between volunteering at the zoo and cleaning your house, hire a young single mom to do it for you. You wont regret how you spent your time, and she will never forget you.