Chapter 3: I Might Be A Criminal Now

I pulled up to the house and as the garage door opened, I was met with a wave of devastation—the likes of which I had not experienced since the night I lost her 14 months ago. I pulled my car in and shut off the engine. Everything still looked the same. “Good,” I thought, “they haven’t changed anything yet.”

You see, when the house sold, all of its contents went with it. When I found that out it was like my most fear-inducing nightmare had been realized: Someone else was going to move into my home and live my life. I’d had the dream before, the one where I’m a ghost in my own home or maybe a I’m stuck in a parallel universe and everything is just as it is in my world except now different people are there. It’s not my Nonna walking down the hallway and it’s not the wheels of her buggy clicking against the cracks in the tile. It’s a different woman and a different man and different family using my kitchen sink, breakfast nook, TV, and backyard. It’s not my dog looking in through the window. And it’s not me reading at the counter.

In the dream, I’m standing in my kitchen and watching strangers go about their morning as if this is their life. But it’s not—its mine. They neither see me nor know me and I’m just trapped, watching it all happen. And now that dream has become a reality.

I got out of the car and closed the garage door behind me. I was about to unlock the door to go inside when I first noticed that something wasn’t quite right. There were paint cans on the work table and it was apparent that they’d been opened. The brushes looked to have been freshly cleaned and laid out as if to dry overnight in time for reuse in the morning. I figured it odd but continued into the house.

I had prepared myself to say goodbye to my grandmother’s house just as we had left it, with her paintings on the wall and dishes in the cabinet and big chair sitting in the middle of the room. But what I hadn’t prepared myself for was those paint cans and everything they brought with them.

Each room had been altered ever so slightly. The new owners, not set to officially be “owners” for another 24 hours, had already come in and begun to make themselves, well, at home. They had painted, moved furniture, and even brought in a few things of their own. The paint was all of one—maybe two—shades darker than the color currently on the walls and the furniture had been rearranged into a setting that we had tried a few years back and ultimately abandoned because it was absolutely ridiculous. And the items they had a brought in? There were three: A giant, horrendous painting of themselves (which now hung over the mantle in the great room), the ugliest recliner that I had ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of ugly recliners… I lived in the Midwest for awhile, after all) and finally, the worst thing imaginable—a Tupperware container of gluten-free flour.

“Is this my Upside-Down,” I questioned as a chill ran down my spine and the tears welled up in my eyes. Why paint but not really paint? This middle aged couple whom I didn’t know and had only briefly met immediately became the enemy. I flew into a mad rage. Had I not been alone, I’m certain that whoever I was with would have gotten out of my way for fear of being pierced by the daggers that now flew from my eyes. Maniacally, I began pulling things off the wall, out of drawers, and from the cabinets. I imagined that I was rescuing the salt shakers from a cruel, totalitarian dictator whose most terrible exercise of power was in bad taste. These monsters didn’t deserve a malfunctioning tea kettle especially considering the fact that they were probably going to use it to warm up water for the atrocity that is instant coffee. And the cookie sheets… Oh, the cookie sheets. I had to keep them safe! How could I let such innocence be defiled by gluten-free baked goods?

It was well past midnight when my rampage finally ended. I must’ve looked crazy. How could I not with the hot tears of anger running down my cheeks as I occasionally muttered “Thanks, Obama” while stuffing large paintings of sailboats into the trunk of my Challenger in the middle of the night. This was clearly not Obama’s fault and I felt bad about dragging him into it but, you know, there we were.

Once my car had been sufficiently stuffed with my Nonna’s things, I returned to the house. “There,” I thought. “Now it doesn’t look like hers anymore. It doesn’t look like mine.” If I couldn’t leave it exactly as she did then the least I could do is leave it totally and completely void of her. So I did. I walked through each bedroom, including my own, for one last look around. I shut off the lights as I went and when I reached her bedroom, I walked over to where her bed used to sit; where she used to sleep and dream. They had begun painting that room as well and had thus moved everything out. I stood where I had stood a thousand times before, remembering how I used to help her into bed and kiss her on the head before saying goodnight. Sometimes, just as I would start to leave the room, she’d grab me by the hand and say, “I love you, kid. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” And I’d smile and assure her that she would never have to find out. And she never did.

For the last time, I walked away from her bedside and flipped off the light. “G’night, Non. Love you,” I said aloud. And standing there in that empty room, filled only with my imaginary life, I swear I heard her say it back.

Then I left. I made sure that all of the lights were off and the doors were locked and I told myself that time would take care of the feeling that was gutting me. I prayed not for relief or comfort or escape. No, I prayed for endurance. Because at that point, all that was left to do was endure and take the next thing that comes. So I grabbed a couple of wooden spoons that had been missed in my burglary, thought about how technically I might be a felon now (albeit a yet-to-be convicted felon) and I left.
With a car full of my grandmother’s things and the only regret I had ever felt regarding her being that I wasn’t able to take the area rugs, I left.

——————————–
“Where did all of this come from?” my dad asked. It was early in the morning and my father and I stood in front of the open trunk of my car, both donning house slippers with coffee cups in hand. Steam rose from his mug as he leaned in to get a better look at my car’s contents.
“Uh, I stopped by Non’s last night.” He paused and looked at me—very obviously trying to decide what to do. I waited, expecting him to tell me to take everything back because this all definitely belongs to those new savage people. Instead, he pointed and drew my attention back to the trunk.
He gestured to the pile of obscure objects to the right, “Is that a lone salt shaker? Where’s the pepper?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t find it,” I said without taking my eyes off the trunk.

Then he nodded to the left, “Isn’t that kettle broken?”

“Maybe.”

“That’s a lot of throw blankets.”

“I get cold.”

“How did you fit those end tables in there?”

“…Magic.”

“And shoving?”

“A lot of shoving,” I said, this time looking down at my feet.
“Well,” he started. He sipped his coffee and nodded his head, accepting the fact that he was now complicit to my larceny. Then he closed the trunk. “Do you want some waffles?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I could eat.”

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A Tail of Escape

The following is a true story. All people, events, and dog are real. The opinions expressed may or may not be partially assumed by a human on account of the fact that dogs don’t type.


I heard it before I saw it. There I was, lying in the sun in a yard that wasn’t my own but had recently become quite familiar, when I heard the unmistakable roar of Her car barreling down the street. I say unmistakable because I hear it at least twice a day, every day: in the morning, when she leaves for work, and in the evening, when she returns home. I like to sit by the door and listen for her; I’m proud of Her every time she goes out, even if she doesn’t always take me. Anyhow, I sat up, confused because it was way too early for her to be back… Usually the sun would be just dipping behind those trees to the left (I believe that’s what she and the others would call “west.” But I’m simple: I’ll call it left.) side of the yard when she gets home. But now, that sun was still hung well above the left-trees and something must be wrong for her to return so early. Then again, maybe I’m mixed up and today isn’t a normal day. All I know is that every seventh time the sun hits these other trees (right ones, to be specific) I find that gate open and for awhile, I live like her. But I guess it’s possible that I lost count of the days… I never was good at days. Here’s what I am good at: She left this morning, that gate was open, and I walked out like usual.

But now that I think about it, this might not be so usual, after all. Because she just slammed on her brakes, it looks like her eyes have been watering her face again, and she’s looking at me and the Old Man like she’s never seen a dog and his friend before.


I didn’t know that gate was open. Every week, the gardeners come and rarely do they close it so usually I do it when I get home from work. But it’s Sunday afternoon and I must’ve forgotten because when I left 3 hours ago, Mac was in the yard and now he’s not. I didn’t know that gate was open.

And I didn’t know that dog would run. After all, he never had before. Every Friday, I come home to an open gate and my dog still in the yard, as usual. But it’s not Friday; it’s Sunday. And this day apparently isn’t so usual.


I didn’t always go out when the gate was open. I mean, why would I need to? For as long as I can remember, I always had some one to bum around with. Even when She left for work, the Old Lady was still around. I’d peek at her through the windows and let her know that I was there; I liked to think that I’d protect her, should she ever need it. Luckily she never did, at least not in the way I thought she would. She always sat in the same chair in the same room on the left side of the house, the same side as the trees. Cold sun after warm sun after hot sun after gray sun, she sat in that chair and read books and watched TV and called Her and made plans. As time went on, I noticedthe Old Lady changing. She spent less time sitting up. She walked a lot slower. I kept thinking that if she’d just use all four of her legs like she should then she might move a little faster but, much like Her, they preferred to just use the two. Humans, right? Anyhow, every day I watched her change. It made me heavy inside. I don’t know what to call it. Look, when She brings out the leash to take me on a run, my insides feel light and all four of my feet can’t stay still. But seeing the changes in the Old Lady made me feel heavy inside.  And She didn’t seem to notice them, either. Every morning, She’d kiss the Old Lady on the head, like she does to me, and then She’d leave and come back awhile later.

As much as I love Her, I also loved being with the Old Lady because we had secrets. You know, the way friends do.

I remember the day that everyone else noticed the changes. The Old Lady was taken away and She came home alone, her eyes watering her face. I didn’t see much of Her for awhile until the day the Old Lady came back. And this time, there was no mistaking the changes. I watched all of them, Her and all of these humans I’d never seen before, sitting around the Old Lady. I remember it being very late and still very hot out when She came outside and sat down with me in the dark. She didn’t say anything but I heard every drop of water fall from her eyes and hit her face. I licked some of them but, to be honest, I think I might’ve just been thirsty. Look, it was really hot outside. But I also think I might’ve known that it was going to be just me and Her from then on.


I opened the garage door and dialed my dad. As I pulled out of the driveway, I cried to him, saying that Mac was gone and he needed to come over and help me start looking for him. The past 6 months have been hard enough and knowing that this dang dog was the linchpin in my sanity, my dad came running.

Every night, I take Mac on the same running route, in hopes that he would become familiar with it and be able to find his way home in an event such as this. So as soon as my tires left the driveway and hit the pavement, I gunned it. Engine roaring, I took off down the street that we run every night, telling myself that I would find him.

I just didn’t anticipate who I might find him with.


She’s been lonely. I know this because that warm night that we sat in the dark together wasn’t the only time it’s happened. They say we haven’t gotten rain but I say they haven’t seen her when no one else but me is around. She’s started staying in, only leaving for work or the woods. She doesn’t talk much any more. She doesn’t write or read much either. She’s just sort of… there. Every now and then, I see Her walk by the Old Lady’s chair but she always speeds up her pace when she does. I wish she wouldn’t do that… It’s an awfully comfy chair. It isn’t hot outside any more. It isn’t gray out, either. It’s cold. It’s cold and she still won’t go in that room.

One morning, on a gray-cold day, I heard Her leave and that was when I noticed that open gate. I noticed the gate and I went and double checked the window, just to make sure that no one was there, and when I saw that no one was, I decided to see what She did all day. I stepped one foot out beyond the fence and I realized that it was the furthest I’d ever been from home on my own. And I loved it. I went right because that was where She always took me so I figured that must be where She also takes herself. I made another right, the way we usually do, and that was when I saw it: The Old Man. And he was smiling at me, just how the Old Lady used to.


Every night, Mac and I take two rights and a left to get out of the neighborhood and then we go west, south, east, north then west again until eventually we take a right and two lefts to get back home. I took the first right and thought about how stupid I was to forget to close the gate. I took the second right and wondered what I’m going to do about missing the dog and Nonna. I was about to take the left when I saw him laying there next to a seated old man, looking up at the sun above the westernmost trees in the yard. I slammed on my brakes and leaned over, opened the passenger door, and watched my best friend in the world nudge the old man with his nose and then trot over to my car and hop in like it was the most normal thing.

Apparently, it was more normal than I thought.


It all started about 8 open gates ago. I met the Old Man on my first outing. I didn’t stay long because I didn’t want to be gone when She got home so I left pretty quick. A couple open gates later, I went back. Then it became a regular thing. I always made it home before She did and I got to see the Old Man. They call that a win/win/win/win/win/win/win—that’s a “win/win” in dog years. That is, of course, until today because today she got home before me. I never figured out why but it didn’t matter. After all, I never was good at days. So I got in the car and was happy she left the window down because then I could hear what she and the Old Man were talking about. She’d stopped watering her face and had started smiling—But wait! Oh no. He just told her that I’ve been here before. But she’s still smiling! Only now, her eyes are watering again. Truthfully, I’m shocked that her cheeks haven’t sprouted weeds with the amount of water this girl has constantly trickling down her face.

But I’m glad She met the Old Man. I haven’t noticed any changes in him. But as for Her? Today, I’m starting to notice some changes in Her.


As I stood there, talking to the old man and looking back and forth between him and Mac, I found myself in a state of complete astonishment. I was dumbfounded when I apologized for the pup being a nuisance and the old man responded by saying, “Oh no, I love when he comes here!”

“I’m sorry,” I started, “when he comes here? You say that like this isn’t the first time.”

“Oh no, it’s not. He visits often. He’s been here for the past couple of hours, just sitting by me. Like I said, I love when he comes here.”

As the old man spoke, a teenage boy came walking out of the front door to greet me at the curb. I’d seen him before but I never knew where he lived. He was the old man’s grandson—and the two of them lived in the house directly behind mine. As the young man spoke, I got lost in my own thoughts for a second. Here, in the house right behind mine, was the mirror image of the life I’ve lived—the one that I had recently lost. And the tie between them was Mac.

I thanked them for looking out for MacArthur and promised to bring him back by sometime and Mac sat in the passenger seat of my car with his floppy-eared head sticking out the window, just waiting to go home. I liked to think that he was grinning about seeing me meet the old man. I loved to think that he knew what he had done.


We drove home in silence, silence but for the occasional sharp breath that came along with her eyes that were still running. Two lefts and we were home; I wondered if she knew that I was happy for her to meet the old man. I had been worried that she would think I’d forgotten the Old Lady in favor of my new friend but as I rode with her and looked at her face, damp with tears and her eyes familiarly heavy, I noticed the change that I mentioned before: This time, it wasn’t just heavy insides that I saw—there was something else. Something I hadn’t seen in Her in a long time.

We pulled into the garage and she shut off the car. I waited for Her to open the door and stayed still until she called me. Usually I would just hop over her as soon as her door opened but this time I thought she could do with the calm. So I waited. I don’t know what took so long but eventually she got out of the car and patted her stand-up leg with her strange front paw and I knew she was telling me to follow. So I followed. We walked in the house, side-by-side, and just as we were about to pass the Old Lady’s chair, she suddenly stopped.

She didn’t speed up like usual; she stopped. Like I said earlier, maybe this day wasn’t so usual, after all.


For several years, every day I would come home from work through the same door to find Nonna in the room on the west side of the house, reading in her chair. It’s a big, wing-backed, patterned chair that she’s had for as long as I can remember. It sits in the middle of the room with tables on either side of it, both overflowing with books, newspaper articles, and magnifying glasses so that she can read the books and newspaper articles. More often than not, she’d be waiting there for me with something that she wanted me to read. So I would come in and drop my work stuff, kick off my shoes, and read whatever it was while she decided where she wanted to go for dinner. Then, I’d go out and feed the dog, she’d tell me what a cute face he has, looking at her at her all day and what not, and then we’d go out.

Eventually, all of this became more difficult. She became more dependent on her oxygen and couldn’t go anywhere without it. It was ok though because she could breathe just fine with it. Looking back now, I can see how just not ok it really was. She was declining and just as you never see the flower blooming but you recognize it once it has, I didn’t see her deteriorating but I saw it once she did. August 15th was the last time I paused and looked at that chair.

I thought about how Mac saw Nonna more than all of us. He probably recognized her decline while we still couldn’t. Every time I came home, he was posted up outside of whatever room she was in. At night, he slept at her door. He had lost interest in his toys and didn’t care to chew on bones any more. For months, he just waited. Then, when we lost her that hot night in August, he turned all of his attention to me. I wondered if he knew that he had lost her, too.


While we stood there quietly, I thought about how badly I wished I could’ve told her what was coming. She loved the Old Lady like I loved Her and so naturally I, too, loved the Old Lady. I tried to tell Her—I really did! But of course she misinterpreted everything. She does it all the time. I mean, she thinks that when I lick her face while she’s watching TV it’s because I want her to play with me. She couldn’t be more wrong—I just really don’t get “New Girl” and I want watch something else. Anyways, She did the same thing every night that we ran by the Old Man’s house: I would go over there and start sniffing around and she wouldn’t get it and she’d pull me back to the course.

Look, I just wanted her to make a new friend like I had. I wanted her to talk more and laugh more the way she used to with the Old Lady; the way the Old Man still does with the Young Man. I wanted her to know that she isn’t alone. I wanted her to feel light on the inside.

And while we stood there, staring at an empty chair, I stopped looking at the chair and started looking at her. I hoped that she knew that I looked out for the Old Lady when she wasn’t there to do it; I hoped she knew that from now on I would be looking out for her. I don’t sleep outside the Old Lady’s door any more but I do sleep right next to Her. And she stays still all night now—I think that helps. She loved the Old Lady like I love Her and right now, I think she’s starting to see that.

Because she just started scratching me behind the ears.


I didn’t rush by her sitting room like I usually do. I don’t know why I did but I realized for the first time since losing her that this will get better. I realized that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting; letting go doesn’t mean losing out; and looking forward to the future doesn’t mean being ungrateful for the past.

And after the events of the day, losing him and then finding him and then finding that he had also found another, I was given the courage to do what I hadn’t been able to: Pause.

I knelt beside Mac and scratched his ears, thinking about how this dog maybe wasn’t a dog, at all. He seemed dang-near human, sometimes. After all, he seems pretty good at days if he’s been leaving and getting home before me for the past couple of months.

“That’s a nice thought,” I said to myself.


Honestly, I’m worried that she’s going to be more careful about closing that gate. She still doesn’t know about all of my other adventures.

And what’s a nice thought? She needs to quit mumbling stuff like that and not telling me more. I’m no mind-reader. I mean, I’m not even good at days.

Usually.

Wisdom of Old

I’ve been putzing around the house all day. I’m a putzer, it’s just what I do. I got it from my Nonna and I intend to never, ever give up on the silly habit. While my putzing usually occurs when I’m feeling particularly creative yet unable to commit to a particular outlet, hers would happen just because she was awake. Maybe she had a constant stream of creativity flowing through her, at all times, whereas I’m only limited to it for a couple hours a day. I digress! Back to why I brought it up, and to use the word just once more. Today, my putzing led to something that I had never seen before.

I found a box full of letters that my Nonna and Papa had written each other. In 1953.

A couple of years ago, she and I were going through a lot of old paperwork and letters (all, of which, made her grin from ear to ear and left me with stars in my eyes when she would give me the background story for a particular document) so I knew that stuff like this existed. But, today, I found a box that we didn’t go through back then. Or, at least, I didn’t. From the wear of the paper and the notes in the margins, written with fresh ink and older hands, I can tell that she went through them. Not just once or twice but many times since they were written over 60 years ago.

I began reading. Letter after letter, I started realizing that she held these in her hands, maybe even as recently as a few weeks ago. I figured that there’s probably wisdom in here that she hadn’t gotten around to sharing with me. I was right. You see, the more I read, the more I realized how much wisdom, intelligence, and beauty she and my grandfather, her most beloved, shared. I read her letters but I also read his and it was in one of his that I gleaned some of the best pieces of wisdom that I’ve come across in quite some time.

In September of 1953, my grandfather opened a love note with this:

Hi Hon,

It’s about 3:30, Sunday afternoon, and I am in the park like I said I’d be. It was fun pretending that I was actually with you for awhile.

Thus began one of the most poignant four pages of writing I have ever laid my eyes on. These letters were exchanged over a period of time when my grandfather had moved to California for business and my grandmother had yet to leave Chicago to join him. They had been married for 7 years, at this point, and they had a young son, Mike, and their only family was in Chicago. Through their exchanges, it’s very apparent the hesitation my fearless Nonna experienced about uprooting and heading west. That was never the picture that I had of her, though. No! She was brave and beautiful and could do anything she wanted. It isn’t that those things weren’t true of her; it’s just that they weren’t without insecurity. And that was a card that I never believed her to hold. To me, she was a royal flush. In reality, she was the first four cards of a flush in hearts plus a five of spades.

But, if life was a game of five-card draw, then Nonna bluffed her way to the jackpot. She had a knack for making happen that which she wanted to happen. And, after reading the letter that my grandfather wrote her on that day in September, very much like the day I find myself in now, I understand why that was such a knack for her.

This letter, in particular, addresses some of her deepest insecurities. Two, of which, stand out to me. The first, she felt like she had fallen into a state of existence. She was just going through the motions, aimlessly living. The second, she feared that she would fare poorly amongst the educated, wealthy people with whom she would regularly interact once joining my grandfather in California. His response to these two items is the exact type of life advice everyone needs to hear. Or read. Whatever.

To address the first, these were his words:

Tell me, did you think real hard about me? Because I thought about you. I closed my eyes and cleared my mind of everything else but you. Then something terrible happened. I remembered in one of your letters that you felt like you were just existing and that life didn’t mean as much without me there… No matter what, your life is more than keeping house and loving your husband and children. No matter where you live—life is all around you. Take this! The grass—why is it green? Why is the snow white and what makes it fall? How can you plant a tiny seed and in a few years there’s a giant, beautiful tree? See what I mean? God asks us to do more than to merely take care of our own lives. We are supposed to get interested in our communities and contribute our time and efforts in helping other people… So honey, we must never feel as though we are “just existing.” It’s our own fault for just sitting around and gossiping about things that have no importance. Take interest in the life around you.

My grandfather. Man alive, I wish I could’ve spent more of his life with him. But, after reading his words? I realize that the past 20 years I’ve spent with Nonna were years spent with Pop. I didn’t get to live his life with him but I’ve certainly gotten to live mine with him because his zeal and passion and wisdom were fused with Nonna’s. As I read his words, I felt like I was reading something Nonna would’ve written to me. This was how she lived her life! It never occurred to me that she could’ve picked up that particular wisdom at the ripe old age of 26; the age that I am now. I guess I just assumed that she was born with the white hair and wisdom. It never occurred to me that she went through a journey of development and learning, much like me in my current state. It also never occurred to me that my grandfather had such a crucial role in her development, as she had in his. He kept her safe; she kept him wild. And what resulted was the kind of love that one only dreams of.

Lucky for me, I was always taught that to be a dreamer is to believe there are no such things as dreams… Only realities that are yet to be grasped. I am a dreamer. And now I have the antidote for the poison that is existence: life. If I cannot find the life in me then I need to recognize it in everything else. We must recognize the life outside of ourselves in order that we may let it pour into our souls, reigniting the flame that has gone out. Your life, my friend, is your fault. For better or worse, you and I are where we are because of who we’ve been, what we’ve done, and how willing we were to work for what we wanted. Let that be an encouragement! For it is just as easy to take pity on one’s self as it is to take pride and get back up. You and I were not made for mere existence. Neither was my grandmother. She figured out how to live! I mean, a beloved grandchild of hers went her entire life believing that she could do anything. That was the woman I knew. That was the reality that she grasped. I was one of the people that she would eventually take an interest in and help and I can put my finger on about a million of those moments. Thank God for Lou Caradonna, right?

To address her second insecurity, the one she held regarding how she would do in a society unlike the one she was accustomed, and this is perhaps even better of a lesson than the previous, he said this:

The only reason, not the only but a very good one, for being afraid of something is that you don’t know enough about it. Once you start getting out and start investigating, you soon learn that people and things are on an equal standing. Imagine me talking and arguing with shrewd lawyers and doctors! I was scared to death when I started here. But I got out there. When you get acquainted with things, it’s not so bad. There is one thing you should always remember: truly intelligent people very seldom try to impress you with their intelligence. They just like to talk to a person who is willing to listen and learn. So Bessala, if I can keep up then so can you. Life becomes more interesting this way. A lot of new things open up for you. Your mind becomes more inquisitive. You begin to ask why to a lot of questions instead of just the question itself. Never be afraid to admit your ignorance about something. Always be willing to learn.

Just like that, my grandfather started the unraveling of the tightly wound web of fear that I’ve spun for myself. Knowledge is the enemy of fear. If we are always willing to learn, always willing to ask questions, then we’ll never have a need to fear. Because the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. And when you know your enemy, you know how to beat him. Or at least how he will try to beat you. Even better, when we get to know our perceived enemy we will sometimes find that he wasn’t the enemy, at all. He was just an unknown.

The bit about how truly intelligent people behave is my favorite part. Here, my grandfather suggests that a truly intelligent person ought also to be humble. This is such a beautiful sentiment that is lost on so many of the pseudo-brilliant minds of my generation and generations past. The second you have to stand on a box and shout, “I’m smart!” is the second that everyone stops believing you. I would argue that if knowing is the enemy of fear then being known is, as well. And the best way to be known is to simply be you. To speak your mind when your voice is necessary, not just to remind yourself and the world of how it sounds. Only the humble allow others to know them. The humble are the only ones who don’t build walls to keep the world out and their selves shut in. You cannot possess true intelligence without being humble. Scratch that—you cannot possess true intelligence worth learning from without being humble.

Today, I learned that my grandmother had the kind of partner, companion, and husband that every man should strive to be. He wasn’t a particular set of characteristics. No, he took the time to learn her. Not every woman needs a lion of a man and not every man needs a woman who is unbreakable. That’s what they were and what I want to be. But that’s not what love is. It’s about learning what the needs are of your partner and assessing whether or not you can meet those needs and then working, tirelessly, to do that. Shortly after this exchange, my grandmother packed up and left all familiarity and moved with her young son to be with my grandfather. She left Chicago, leaving behind the old self and taking on the new one that built two businesses while her husband had his own career, raised four children with the love of her life, instilled in all those who knew her the virtue that she and her husband had learned together, and endured the pains of every day life in order to find joy up until her dying breath.

These lessons are great. 62 years ago a young man wrote to his young wife, comforting her about her worries of the future. 62 years later, a young woman reads those very words and finds herself changed. Now you’ve read them. It’s your turn, my friend.

Will we pursue life outside of ourselves when we feel our flame dying? Will we put ourselves out there and make the unknown known? Will we expel fear from the ranks of our hearts by employing humility and vulnerability? Will we stomp our feet until the world notices how intelligent, funny, beautiful, or talented we are? Or will we just be intelligent, funny, beautiful, and talented, regardless of what they think?

Moving forward, what will we do?

P.S. “Life is more than keeping house and loving your husband and children.” Papa had his priorities straight. He saw his wife as an equal human. My mind is blown. Not because I didn’t think that’s how he was but just because now I have confirmation. What a man.

P.P.S. I’m a little ignorant to how to format using this blog. I tried everything to properly indent the quotes but it was to no avail, thus the italics. Look at that, I’m already admitting things that I don’t know. Stay tuned, there’s plenty more.

P.P.P.S. I listened to Ol’ Blue Eyes and Dino and the Glen Miller Orchestra while reading their letters. I’m officially nostalgic for a time that I never even experienced. I mourn the fact that, in 60 years, my granddaughter might read letters that I wrote while listening to Maroon 5 and find herself thankful that she didn’t have to listen to that junk. (Unless its Songs About Jane, that album is ok.)

Beauty & The Beast (Of Reality)

Growing up, my vision of the type of woman I’d become was heavily influenced by my favorite characters from film. They were these breathtakingly gorgeous women who seemed to float when they walked. Not a head stayed screwed on straight when women like this entered a room. Every eye was on her, always. This type of woman was the kind men searched high and low for, the kind of gal who would accept him just as he is. She would never ask him to change a single thing—scratch that, she would never need him to change a single thing. She wasn’t needy. She wasn’t clingy. She just lets him be himself. This woman is a little crazy but it’s the cute kind! The kind the proverbial man refers to as “quirky.” She wants ice cream when it’s 10 degrees outside. She has a favorite hat and it’s red. She makes it all ok. Debt? Who cares, he has her love. Health? What’s that, she bakes him cookies every day and they’re made with fairy dust. Responsibility? Nonsense, the ethereal princess has no bedtime or day job. This woman, the one who I figured I would become, would be all things. She would be a dream girl. A manic pixie dream girl, to be specific.

The term was coined back in 2007, attributed to Nathan Rabin after viewing Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown.” Incidentally, “Elizabethtown” is one of my favorite romantic comedies. It’s simple and it’s contrived but, at the time, it felt honest. It felt honest for my heart and mind that had been cultivated to believe that I would be this type of woman—the type to pull a handsome man from his life of simple existence and infuse him with my particular brand of vibrancy and passion. I dreamt of myself as the ultimate manic pixie dream girl.

Then, I woke up. At 26, I woke up and realized that I am not a dream girl. Nor am I manic. Nor am I a pixie. Nope.

I am a real girl. I am a man-up, pick-your-own-adventure, real girl.

I don’t want a man who needs my neurosis to help him figure his life out while I wait in the corner for him to throw me some attention. I do not need his attention the way an MPDG does. As a real girl, in the real world, I need his affection. Dream girls want to be noticed; real girls want to known. Dream girls are surprising but never complex; real girls are exciting, messy, boring, unusual, typical, and so complex it makes your brain hurt. Dream girls are your purpose; real girls encourage you to find purpose in yourself. Dream girls challenge you to be Peter Pan; real girls challenge you to be yourself.

A dream girl needs a man.
A real girl wants one.

Dream girls are built around the men in their lives.
Real girls build their lives with the people they choose.

Letting go of the idea that I’m meant to be a dream girl is scary. But realizing that I am a real girl, the one who isn’t afraid to ask more of men than just they’re attention, the one who stands firmly in all of her messy complexities, the one who is her own hero… Realizing that I am that girl is so freeing. The dream girl is just that—she’s a dream. But she isn’t the awesome kind of dream where you’re flying or eating dinner with a drug-free Led Zeppelin. No. She’s the kind of dream where you wake up knowing that you dreamt but you’re unable to remember what about. She’s the girl you only see between sleeping and waking.

But what you want is the girl you can know between waking and sleeping. And realizing that I am the type of girl worth knowing in the sunlight, with all of my flaws, faults, and goodness on full display, is what makes it ok for me to let go of dream girl. Real girl is so much better.

I wasn’t made in a dream.
I can only be found in reality.

I’m not the beauty who will coax you out of your shell.
I’m the beauty who is having the adventure that challenges you to have one of your own.

I don’t want Peter Pan.
I want the guy who is ready to man-up and make life beautiful with me. Not for me.
With me.

To every girl I know: Let go of your dream girl, whoever she is. Let go of her and just be you. Be the real girl. The real girl is worth knowing, she’s worth being, and I would love to be friends with her. Pursue your dreams, fall in love with some one who challenges you and likes that you challenge him. Perfection is not your endgame.

To every guy I know: Let go of your dream girl, whoever she is. Let go of her and look at the real girls around you. They are worth knowing, they are worth finding, and you would love to have them in your life. You don’t need to be convinced that life is worth living and you don’t need to suffer through ice cream when it’s freezing outside. That’s ridiculous. You get to be yourself, too. But please understand that “being yourself” around a real girl doesn’t mean that you’re never going to change. The same goes for us. Don’t be Peter Pan. Don’t refuse to grow up. Be a man. And be a good one. Real girls look at the world with wide-eyed wonder and the ability to explore it. Dream girls just point at things and say, “If only.” Choose wisely.

So, rest in peace, Manic Pixie Dream Katie. I’ll fight you out of my dreams, once again, when I see your trope in some blockbuster that is sure to be terrible. Or when I watch another Cameron Crowe movie. Because I’m sure I will. I just really love his movies.

Sincerely,
Man-Up, Pick-Your-Own-Adventure, Real-Girl Katie

A Little Ditty For A Little Lady

Today, we buried my beloved grandmother. At her funeral, I knew I wanted to speak. Normally, I would be confident to just get up and talk about her but, in this instance, I didn’t trust myself to properly communicate all of the things that I wanted to say. So, I started to write down what I needed to say. And it just wasn’t coming together! None of it felt right. It didn’t feel like they were my words on a page. And they didn’t aptly describe Nonna. My solution at 2am (7 hours before I needed this to be done) was to make it all rhyme.

You see, Nonna loved rhyming. She loved when I would tell her my stories and she loved them even more when they rhymed. So, here I am, with a little ditty (not about Jack & Diane) to commemorate my little lady. It’s silly. It’s juvenile. But, man alive, it’s also my heart. And it was her’s, as well. Here it is! A little ditty for the little lady who made me who I am.


There once was a woman named Bess,
From whom my name was derived.
She taught me to laugh, she taught me to dress,
& she taught me the meaning of life.

It was May of 1926,
When first this world met her.
If they knew then, I cannot say,
But now we know for sure,
That this life was hers for the taking
And not a single day did she waste,
For she built a family & she built a home,
Alongside whom every trouble she could face.

She’d tell us stories of the moving,
Oh! The moving she would do!
From Illinois to California–
She spoke as though she had something to prove.

Prove to whom? It never mattered,
Because, as a woman not easily flattered,
At the end of the day,
All she needed to be able to say
Was, “I wanted to do it, so I tried!”
And fail or succeed, she took it in stride.

Thus, her philosophy was laid,
Right out front, for all to see
In black & white, as clear as day,
“Whatever you want is what you can be.
Always try your best & keep your smile,
Don’t let the hard times get you down.
Because, kid, you’ll do amazing things
& you shouldn’t greet them with a frown.”

She taught me that a house is not a home,
Until down you had knocked a few walls.
She taught me the same was true of my heart,
For there is where you need the most open floor-plan, of all.

What kind of life is worth living if,
For those in need, you can’t make your heart a home?
What’s the point of things & food & money,
If it serves only you and you alone?

She told me not to wait on my ship,
But instead that I should swim out to it,
That I shouldn’t wait for the good things to happen,
No! I should chase them, pursue them, & go do it!

Her final days were unexpected
But they were filled with laughter, nonetheless.
She reminded the nurses several times,
“I hate the name Bessie! It’s Bess!”
One night, while sitting beside her,
She said, “Kate, you’ve always been around.”
& in that moment, the greatest of lessons,
My heart had surely found.

You see, life isn’t about the big gifts
Or seeing New England in the fall.
It’s about being there for the ones you love
& answering them when they call.

Your life, my friends, will be a grand adventure
If you’re generous, kind, and true.
Then, on the day you’re laid to rest,
This world will celebrate you.

My Nonna lived & gave & loved;
She poured into my life so freely.
Now she sees the face of God,
& with the angels she’s making a… dealie.

“My gold plates for your
Silver platter and spoons.
This is a deal for you, Peter!
Take it now! The deal is expiring soon.”

She’d sell ‘this’ to buy ‘that,’
& encouraged us to do the same.
She told us to write our own life’s rules,
But she also taught us to play the game.

So, my life will continue
& I’ll miss her everyday,
Until I see her again and,
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” is what she’ll say.

There once was a woman named Bess,
From whom my name was derived.
She taught me to laugh & she taught me to dress,
& she taught me the meaning of life.

Self(Less)

Dear SELF Magazine,

Karlie Kloss is beautiful. And, according to you, also incredible. Incredible because of her “dream body, 24/7 drive, and [ability to be] balancing it all.” I do believe she’s incredible but I think those are 3 of the dumbest danged reasons to attribute such a grand descriptor to a woman. Shame on you for short-changing that woman by reducing her to such perfection.

That’s right. Perfection is not the pinnacle of the human species. It’s the reduction of us. For a magazine called “Self” you sure have managed to completely miss the point of what one’s self actually is. The self is the entire being. You’ve ignored the flaws and challenges that she’s overcome in order for her to achieve self-love, self-worth, and self-respect. By your standards, she is not incredible.

That’s because your standards are garbage and reveal absolutely nothing about a person. Seriously.

According to your cover, my best me can be achieved through flatter abs, thinner arms, and a tauter butt–all in one week. And what a disappointment! Because I could have the best abs in the world and still be a jerk. I could have 9% body fat and still hate myself.

I know what you think of me and myself. You plaster it all over your cover how I need to do anything but be me. Now, you know what I think of you and your Self. And I think your Self sucks.

Sincerely,
Katie and the Women of the World

When Strangers Aren’t Strange

I’d like to tell you something. Alone does not mean lonely. Just as you can feel lonely in a crowded room, so you can feel fulfilled alone. Last night was one of the best nights of my life and you know what? I was alone. You see, I had planned a trip with a friend to go to San Francisco to see this musician, who I love, and putz around the city together. So, I booked a hotel (it lent itself to the putzing—I’ll get to that), began to plan our little trip, and then something came up at work that meant she couldn’t go anymore.

The hotel was paid for and non-refundable so I began to search for some one else to go with. Alas, my efforts were in vain and I couldn’t find anyone. I had a choice to make! Eat the hotel cost and just stay home or stick to the original plan and see what happens.

I went with the second option.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived at my hotel. The very hotel where one of my favorite Hitchcock films was shot (Vertigo) and with my list of filming locations, fun backstories to investigate (this is the putzing), and a single ticket for a concert, I checked in. The concert. I was well into my self-guided tour of Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco, and was having a blast, when I looked at my watch. I realized that I needed to get going if I was going to make the concert. And here was another crossroads! Do I just scrap the ticket and continue on my Hitchcockian adventure or do go and see this musician, one of my favorites, and do it alone?

Again, I went with the second option.

I arrived at the music hall to find it wasn’t so much a music hall as it was a relatively small space with a small stage and a large bar. So, I got a Guinness and sat at a corner table, all alone. No one talked to me. People looked at me, some smiled and waved, but most just kept on moving. I realized that I likely had a serious case of RBF going on so I decided to look up from my phone a little more often and scowl with a little less frequency. On one of these phone-less-smile-more ventures, I made eye contact with the musician I was there to see. He walked up and introduced himself and asked if I was hanging out by myself. I told him I was but that I didn’t mind it. He said he did mind it because we’re all there together. Then, he told me that the people I happened to be sitting next to were his family members. So, I ended up hanging out with the dude’s grandpa for a while. I lost his mom a bet (In all fairness—she was wrong! “What’s Up” is sung by 4 Non-Blondes and not Sheryl Crow. I’m sorry but the facts are facts.) And his dad was really kind. I made friends with another guy who was slightly offended when I referenced Gimli as a comparison to him (he said he gets Strider more often… I said there’s no way. He agreed, there was no way.) and we all took in the music as friends.

I left before the set was over because I wanted to make it to a showing of Mad Max (the original!!) in an old movie theater, so I called a Lyft. My driver picked me up and we had about a 20-minute ride. Instead of sitting in silence, we got to talking. She asked what I had done that night and after I told her, she asked if I had done those things with other people. I told her that I had gone on the trip alone and was just kind of meeting people along the way. She wanted to know if I did stuff like this often and, when I thought about it, yeah. I kind of do. I was her last ride of the night so we got to talk a little longer and we ended up becoming friends. She asked why I’m ok with doing things alone and I told her it was because I decided that I didn’t want to miss out on my life because I was waiting around for other people to want to do the same things that I did. Her response was, “What a revelation to have. I wonder if I can do that?”

She said exactly what I was thinking because, at that moment, I was asking myself the very same thing. Can I live my life like that? You know, on purpose instead of just on accident; in reality instead of just theory. She and I ended up exchanging numbers and agreed to hang out if ever we’re in the same city again. When I got out of the car, I continued thinking about what we had just talked about. And it clicked. I am far more likely to find people who share my interests if I go out and partake in those interests than if I just think about how interested I am in them.

“But what if I have to keep going alone?” I asked myself. “Well, maybe you’ve spent so much time worrying about what strangers think of you that you completely missed the point that you could make those strangers your friends.” I scolded myself right there because, dang, that’s exactly what I’ve done my entire life. Instead of just making new friends and letting people matter, I’ve pigeonholed them all into being strangers whose opinions and thoughts I absolutely must not care about.

Here it is: we would all breathe so much easier and with so much more joy if we viewed every person as having something wonderful to offer. Instead of seeing strangers as trolls who are out to get me and make me look stupid, what if I made them my friends? Every single person on this earth is full of life. Whether they’re living it or not, it’s there. What if I made it my goal to find that life in them? I’m not saying that I should attempt to extract their deepest secrets or share with them my biggest fears (Frogs… it’s frogs. That’s actually not a big one), what I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be hard for me to genuinely care about their answer when I ask them how their day was. Every one has a story to tell. And, holy wow, do I love a good story.

So, today, I will go forth into this city alone, intent on making strangers my friends, and not missing out on the things that I want to do just because I have no one to do them with. Life happens whether or not we’re looking and I don’t want to reach the end of mine and realize that I missed it. Today, I will look for life in others. And, in doing so, I firmly believe that I will find the life in myself that I’ve always wanted. Because, being alone doesn’t have to be lonely. And strangers don’t have to be strange.

Good Grief

I thought I wanted to sit down and write about sadness and loss and pain. Not my own, of course. I just thought I would talk a bit about those experiences in theory, maybe consider my own situation briefly but move right along. I thought it would be a good idea to keep the darkness at arm’s-length, to just not even open the door that leads to my true heart. So, I began to write. And you know what happened when I wrote that? Garbage—Garbage happened.  Seriously, it was the worst thing I’ve ever written. It was so dumb and shallow that it was actually laughable. I realized that the words that I need to communicate are stored up on the other side of that door, they live in the dark part of my heart that I want to pretend doesn’t exist. So, I went in.

When I opened that door, I didn’t find what I was expecting. I’ve suffered the most catastrophic loss in my life and here, in the deepest, darkest part of my heart, I am just not seeing what I thought I would. I feared that experiencing the depth of my emotion would send me into a spiral. I thought I would drown in it; I figured I’d go under and just never come up again. But, here I am, standing on my own two feet in the soft, vulnerable, broken part of my heart and all I can think is, “I’m gonna be ok.”


In the early hours of the morning, I knelt at my grandmother’s bedside with my hand on her back, feeling the shallow rise and fall of her failing breaths. A few hours earlier, I had leaned down and spoken words that I didn’t believe into her ear. They told me that sometimes folks need permission from their loved ones to go on to the great unknown, so I told her that it was ok for her to let go, it was ok for her to leave me on my own. I didn’t believe the words when I said them and I didn’t believe them as I sat there, watching the life leave her body. How could I have meant them? She wasn’t supposed to die yet. She was supposed to go to dinner with me, like usual, and order the tilapia and be disappointed when it came out with sauce on it. She was supposed to take my phone call every day at 11 AM, she was supposed to tell me again that she was just having some coffee and getting around and then ask me when I’d be home from work. She was supposed to help me pick out a wedding dress and see me get married and have children. She was supposed to see me climb mountains, run races, and break a couple more bones while having the time of my life. So… no. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to let go. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to leave me on my own.

But I said it, anyways. And when she died, it felt as though my very soul had been torn from my body and every light had been extinguished. My world crumbled. This was my person. She believed in me, encouraged me, and challenged me. She was my namesake and my hero and the reason that I’m fair-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed while my family is exactly not. This was my favorite person in the world. I asked my mom if she was sure that Non was gone. “I’m sure,” she said. And right then, everything changed. I knew, for sure, that I was a goner.

Fast forward to today, to me standing in front of the door in my heart that surely leads to my demise, the one that houses my honest feelings and the true weight of my devastation. As I mentioned before, what I found in that dark place was not what I expected. I found a version of myself that was ok. A version of myself that was broken, devastated, and without Nonna but… was ok. There was the light of good grief, shed on the darkness of painful loss. The loss felt no less empty, the pain was no less severe. But the light shed on my struggle revealed unto me that the emptiness caused by her loss was room made for new life. And that new life starts now. My pain, when illuminated, looks less like an irreparably broken person and more like a woman who is primed for growth and rebuilding. And recognizing this person as myself is the exact type of fresh air I never expected to find here, deep in my heart.

What I expected was to spiral, to rage against the world, God, my family, and myself. Why is that not happening? Why am I not getting a dramatic haircut, a neck tat, or thinking about dating some one who is truly, apparently, obviously incredibly terrible for me? How am I still sane? How am I already sure that I’m going to be ok?

Allow me to go ahead and answer my own question. A few months ago, on Father’s Day, I was having a sprinkler problem and I called my dad. Instead of coming and fixing it himself, he talked me through the solution. I identified that as a loving act because, yet again, my dad was giving me a new skill that would render his useless. I put my finger on that moment and said, “That is what love is. Fearlessly allowing some one else to no longer need you but trusting them to want you, anyways.” And thinking about that moment with my dad has got me thinking back on the countless moments I’ve experienced, just like it, with my Nonna. For the last 26 years, this woman has been teaching me how to make it without her. And I didn’t realize that until just now.

She probably didn’t realize that was what she was doing, either. But that’s the thing about the pure-hearted—their love is transformative without them even trying. She has been pouring into me since I was just a small child. She gave of herself and created in me this sustainable, joy-filled human with the capacity to love and thrive with or without her. For the past several years, I’ve chosen her over so much. And I thought that I would find myself regretting that when it came her time to die. I thought I would miss out on my life because I was so busy living hers. I could not have possibly been more wrong.

Because, you see, the life I lived with her gave me the tools and laid the foundation for the life I’ll live without her. My heart aches when I think about all of the big things she’ll miss in my life. But, maybe she’ll miss the big moments because I couldn’t have had them while still having such a beautiful life with her. How was I supposed to fall in love with a handsome fella when I was so busy listening to her talk about how she fell in love with one in the 1940’s? How was I supposed to live in Peru when I lived with her in Clovis? How was I supposed to chase my dreams when I was already living one with my favorite person on the planet? I’m 26 years old and my entire life is about to change.

And it’s going to be amazing.

Not a day will go by that I don’t miss her; I’m probably going to absent-mindedly try and call her a few times before it finally sinks in that she’s gone. There are some really, really hard days ahead. But those days will be faced as this new version of myself. The version who fills the emptiness with a new, incredible life using the tools that my grandmother gave me. The version who combats loneliness with friendliness, sadness with joyfulness, and the loss with the realization of just how truly blessed I was to have her.

When I sat there, telling her that I would be ok, that she could leave me on my own, I didn’t believe it. But that new version of me did, the person, deep down in my heart, the one who Nonna built without even trying, the one who says, “I’m gonna be ok.”

For 26 years, I’ve lived a most incredible life. And tomorrow, when my eyes open and I realize that everything has changed, I’ll look upon a new life with zeal and excitement.

I’ll say, “I’m gonna be ok.”

Then, I’m going to take my good grief and I’m going to live.

And my new life will be as beautiful as the old.