She Can Still Be A Doctor

WordPress tells me I’ve hit Publish 334 times now. But of all the posts I’ve written, this one is probably my favourite. I first published it back in June 2021, but I think about this story regularly. It came out of a relatively forgettable moment – a single comment from a friend – but the memory of it has remained vivid.

And even now, all these years later, I sometimes need to remind myself that she can still be a doctor…

When Abby was born life turned upside down – literally. Delivery required far more medical intervention than I had expected and my vision of motherhood – rocking a contented baby, having hours just melt away while I watched her delicate little features in sweet slumber – couldn’t have been further from reality.

I’d pour a bowl of cereal at 8 a.m. and, if I was lucky, eat it by noon. The first few months were a haze of sleepless nights and days filled with tears (hers and mine) while we navigated infections, colic, and seemingly endless feeding challenges.

The biggest sticking point? I’d always planned to nurse my children. It was healthy, economical, convenient. It was also what a good mother would do. Not only did I want to do it, I was inundated by messaging that championed and elevated this aspect of mothering.

I was also surrounded by mothers that could do it. Baby-hour at the library was basically a lesson in how to feed and nurture your little one naturally; you could find me wallowing in a corner covertly wielding a bottle.

I dealt with these things – as one does – by cycling through stages of denial, anger, depression, and pseudo-acceptance (there wasn’t much bargaining to do, she was only 2 months old after all). I researched techniques, bought supplements, and consulted experts before officially conceding defeat.

She got older and things got easier. By 9 months she was pure joy – full of all the spunk and personality we cherish today. She was happy and well fed. Though the crying was behind us, guilt lingered. And then a new friend entered my life and helped to shift my entire perspective with just one sentence.

This friend and I were out for an evening walk. Somehow I had circled back to discussions of feeling less-than because of my inability to naturally deliver and feed my (now toddler) daughter. This friend paused for a minute and said wisely: “You know, Elisabeth, she can still be a doctor.

What she meant – and what I needed to hear – was that the future was unwritten. The unexpected complications of the past, which were completely out of my control, didn’t mean Abby was doomed to a life of illness, missed opportunities, and continual disadvantages. If she wants, she can still be a doctor. Or a stay-at-home mom. Or a physicist, a mechanic, an artist or anything else her determined self wants to pursue.

When Levi was born several years later, I met with a lactation consultant proactively, bought new supplements and did all the “right” things. I gave it my all for a week. When the nurse told me, gently, it simply wasn’t working…I cried. The second time around it was still sad and disappointing. But I also knew: he can still be a doctor. Or a pro-surfer. Or a stay-at-home dad. Or an electrician. Or a teacher, or a financial analyst, or a playwright. The sky is the limit.

It really is – after all, he could still be an astronaut.

Your turn. Did anyone else find certain (or all!) aspects of the transition to motherhood different from your original expectations? The subtle irony in all of this is that I was a formula-fed baby and I don’t think it hasn’t slowed me down too much in life?

There Is No Rush: And Other Sayings

I’ve loved reading all the responses to my post on family sayings and vacation mantras. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking through more go-to lines that have subconsciously embedded themselves into our lexicon.

More by good luck than good management. I’ve mentioned before how my maternal grandmother loved to play the board game Crokinole. I first referenced it because she was forever saying: So near, but yet so far while competing in weekend-long tournaments with my older brother. But, with equal frequency, she was quick to say: More by good luck than good management. If someone managed to accidentally knock one of her players off the board, her commentary on the situation was always the same: It was more by good luck than good management. I can’t remember if she would apply this logic to herself when she made a play that was more by “good luck” than “good management”…?

Be kind, be safe, be neat. We adored the preschool Abby and Levi attended with good reason. It was amazing. John and I used to joke we wanted to quit our jobs and attend preschool full-time. Outdoor classrooms. Incredible staff. Delicious food (Levi still raves about many of the dishes). Sand and water tables. Dress up stations with costumes. Magnets and puzzles and books and magnifying glasses and every creative delight you could imagine. And, perhaps most alluring of all, someone to encourage you to lie down after lunch who would also rub your back until you fell asleep. #BestLifeEver. They also did great preparatory work with the kids, offering them support in handling conflict at the pint-sized level. One year, when Levi was still attending, the class was tasked with coming up with a saying to promote good choices. They settled on: Be kind, be safe, be neat. We still repeat this line to our kids regularly. Kissing them goodbye outside the school? Be kind, be safe, be neat. Dropping them off for a playdate? Be kind, be safe, be neat. In the last few years we’ve added our own family twist with one extra line: “…and have fun!”

Nobody loves us…but at least there aren’t any bills. This one might not be the greatest quote to mention publicly. Are you familiar with the truly disgusting/horrible song that goes: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me…guess I’ll go eat worms. If you’ve never heard this song, count your blessings. It gets worse in the following verses, detailing the specific characteristics of said worms. Ick. Yet, somehow, this chorus has stood the test of time and continues to make its way ONTO CHILDREN’S ALBUMS. Anyhoo. Somewhere along the way our kids learned this ditty (can I blame preschool), and found the whole worm-eating bit rather hilarious. Sigh. Where does this fit in with regular family sayings, you might ask? In our household, checking the mail remains a very serious endeavor. One child is primarily responsible for this task and takes the job very seriously (woe to the other sibling should they abscond the mail key and check the box first). At one point somebody said, in response to an empty mailbox – Nobody loves us. How depressing, right? I pointed out an empty mailbox was GREAT news since it meant no bills. It has become a family ritual, when the mailbox is empty, to say: Nobody loves us…but at least there aren’t any bills. *For the record, both kids regularly receive fun things in the mail. Many people love us – mail or no mail.

Home again, home again. I know my Dad used to say this, but it’s in regular rotation at our house, too. As soon as we pull into the driveway someone will either sigh – or scream with delight, depending on what situation we’re leaving/entering – home again, home again. (This originally comes from To Market, To Market to Buy a Fat Pig; we apparently get a lot of our material from questionable and antiquated nursery rhymes?)

You get what you get and you don’t get upset. Another preschool saying, and one I know has made the rounds in daycares and homes around the world: You get what you get and you don’t get upset. Does saying this to the kids eliminate all their angst? I wish. They still love to complain – especially if they feel like a sibling has gotten an extra microgram of chocolate sauce on their ice cream or in other matters of equal importance. If complaining was a sport, our kids could vie for the top prize. But occasionally, when I remember to repeat this line, something clicks into place in their sweet little brains and it actually does make a tangible difference. And let’s be honest, I need to repeat this line for my own benefit, too. Elisabeth: you get what you get, and you don’t get upset. It works…occasionally.

The things that go wrong often make the best memories. I got this line from Gretchen Rubin years ago and we say it all the time. All. the. time. It’s so true. The things that go wrong often do make the best memories; or, if not the best, then at least the most likely to be retold around the dinner table.

And in the current chaos of finishing out a somewhat oddly configured summer schedule, I’m still trying to lean on my vacation mantras like: It costs what it costs, Choose the bigger life (I actually said this out loud to Levi yesterday when I jumped off a diving board at a public pool), and This will feel different tomorrow.

My newest addition to the repertoire: There is no rush.

90% of the time when I find myself rushing, there is literally no need to rush. Rushing adds an unnecessary layer of stress to the day and is usually self-induced.

I wrote this line in the front of my daytimer. I’ve said it over and over to myself when I’m bouncing like a pinball around the house or the grocery store. I don’t have to run down the stairs to get the mop. I can walk. I don’t have to push my cart at top speed to get Greek yogurt. I can saunter.

There is no rush.

A few weeks ago John went on a long run and we coordinated a rendezvous point I could meet him with the car. On our way home he asked about stopping to go down a side road he knew provided access to a field covered in freshly baled hay. The detour was a bust – when we arrived a tractor had just cleared the field of our photo op. But as we drove back up the little dirt road, we spotted a huge wheat field with a beautiful cloudy sky as the backdrop. Would I mind stopping, he asked?

It was supper time. I had a list of things to get done at home. But we stopped, he hopped out. He got the picture. There was no rush.

Here’s the sad truth. Too often I don’t stop for the wheat fields in life. I rush past. And I suspect I’ll continue to do this because, well, life is busy and once you get started, it can be hard to slow down. But sometimes these little reminders of simple truths – There is no rush, This will feel different tomorrow – can change decisions or attitudes long enough to create little bits of magic.

Your turn. Any new sayings you’ve come across lately?

A Sense of Loss in the Midst of Joy (Repost)

I wrote this post last summer, but the same feelings have resurfaced as I spend time with my parents. There’s an undercurrent to visits I can’t ignore: a sense I’m holding on to a past reality, while simultaneously being forced to let it go.

I’m not the only one navigating this odd combination of emotions; I appreciated this beautifully reflective post by Suzanne where she says: “You can never go home again. And I’m feeling very wistful about that fact.”

Unlike many, I do get to go home again, in one way at least. My parents’ cottage-turned-home (called “The Camp”) has been a pivotal part of my life since birth. We visited every summer until I turned 13, when we moved there permanently.

But in another sense, I don’t get to return home. Because for me, my idea of “home” is buried back in an era when we spent summer vacations with no indoor plumbing or electricity. Back when we washed our hair in the lake and heated water for dishes over a tiny propane stove. Back when there were no cell phones or internet connections. Back when my parents set my bedtime and paid bills and made all the tough decisions for me. Back when I spent lazy afternoons in the hammock listening to cicadas. Back when I picked wild raspberries and went swimming when I got too hot and read book after book after book and looked for shapes in the clouds and played games with my Mom and coloured pictures and went fishing and listened to the Titanic soundtrack on a yellow Walkman…because I had time for all of that and more.

That home is no longer my home. That life is no longer my life.

Now, home is with my own little crew. Now life has an unmistakable weight of responsibility, as John and I set bedtimes and pay bills and navigate tough decisions for our kids. And while this existential shift is how life works – it also leaves me feeling wistful and restless. Because when I’m at the lake it always feels like that old life – that old home (both physical and emotional) – is just beyond my reach. And that, somehow, if I could find the right wrinkle in time, I’d be transported back to when I was 8 years old again.

Which makes the whole experience feel…bittersweet.

Repost from July 2021

I think a lot about family in the summer. Time at the lake demands full nostalgic immersion. I spend evenings flipping through old photo-albums, decades of memories at my fingertips. Looking at the faces of loved ones that have passed reminds me of how things used to be; we laugh at the irrefutable evidence of hairlines that have receded and marvel at all those vacations we spent off-grid.

But lately summer has also been a prompt for future-think.

One evening, years ago, my father took me out boating. Abby, maybe six at the time, was with us. The sun was setting over a mirror-calm lake, our bellies were full of delicious home cooking – everything about the moment was perfect. And I had the overwhelming urge to cry.

The joy of the moment felt like too much to bear while the weight of the future felt crushing with the realization that these moments will end. Maybe soon.

As my parents age, I find myself wondering how many more of these memories we have ahead. I’ve come to the lake every summer for over 35 years and, incredibly, many things have stayed the same. We have bonfires on the same shoreline and walk the same paths through the woods. We boat to the same beaches and dive off the same raft. But how much longer will my father be able to start his boat motor? How many more sunny days will my mother be able to cannonball off the raft? [Sad update from 2022: I overhead her say to Abby earlier this summer: “I think my cannonballing days are over.” It made me want to cry.]

How many more sunset boat rides will I share with my father? Maybe many more, but definitely fewer than last year, and the year before that.

I try to embrace these moments more tightly because I’m recognizing the brevity of this season of life. And it’s not just my parents. My role in motherhood is changing – fast. I struggle to lift Levi up; he no longer fits on my hip. While I love the independence – often celebrate it – it can still feel like a loss.

At one point everything – my childhood, my own small children – seemed like it/they would stay frozen in time.

It didn’t. They don’t.

But the harder I try to hold on to the moments, the memories, the past…the faster it all seems to slip through my fingers.

A few months ago I was reading E. L. Konigsburg’s A View From Saturday. In it, one of the main characters has experienced a traumatic accident that leaves her wheelchair-bound. This, of course, impacts her life in significant ways. She goes on to lead her team of academic quiz competitors to victory, and when I read the passage about her reaction to this major triumph, the words ran true.

Mrs. Olinski felt a strange sense of loss. She did not feel like a loser, but she did feel a sense of loss. She drove for miles worrying about it. Finally, almost involuntarily, she said out loud, ‘Win some. Lose some.’ She glanced at Mr. Singh and laughed. ‘Why did I say that?’ 

Mr. Singh replied, ‘Because it is how you feel at this moment, Mrs. Olinski.”

“I am happy that we won, Mr. Singh. But I don’t understand why I feel a sense of loss. This is not like my accident when my loss was overwhelming. Why, after this wonderful victory, do I feel that something is missing?”

“Because something is.” Miles hummed past before his voice floated back to her. “For many months now, you have been in a state of perpetual preparation and excitement. Each victory was a preparation for the next. You are missing future victories.

E. L. Konigsburg

I was excited to leave home, go to university, get married, have children and come back “home” periodically. But now I’m already missing future boat rides on the lake. I’m already missing phone calls to my Mom. Already missing baby teeth and boys that can fit on my hip. I’m already missing the gaggle of American nieces and nephews that descend on the lake every second summer; for years it was a pure chaos of pack-and-plays, diapers, and watching toddlers navigate the rocky shoreline. Now they are busy with summer jobs and college. Will we ever all be together again at the lake?

Even if we are, it will be different. Not bad different. But unmistakably…different.

I don’t want to distract from the moment by living with one foot behind and another ahead, but sometimes accounting for the past and the future can help bring into sharper focus just how blessed I’ve been and also how special these moments, here and now, really are.

I don’t know what a day, a week, or a month will bring. Today is here and I try, not always successfully, to embrace it. I stress and rush and cry. But I also binge and savour; prioritize adventure over possessions.

In A View from Saturday, Mr. Singh concludes the exchange with this advice:

Have you enjoyed the journey out, Mrs. Olinski?”

“Very much. Every cupful…”

“Now, you must put down anchor, look around, enjoy this port of call. Your stay will be brief. ”

Today I’m putting my anchor down, looking around and enjoying the port of call. The stay may be brief but I’ve enjoyed the journey out. Every cupful.

Thoughts. Can anyone else relate to this odd juxtaposition of emotions?

Thirteen Years – A Love Story

Thirteen years ago today, I married my best friend. Of all the great joys in life, can there be anything sweeter?

We met in church in our final year of university. It was a small congregation, tucked into a nondescript building near the side of a highway. Apparently, he drove by it for years without even realizing it was a church. But he stopped one Sunday morning in September 2007 and I was there.

I still remember what I was wearing that day – a jean skirt and a black T-shirt with tiny white polka dots. I didn’t say much of anything, content to ride the coattails of a friend who engaged him in conversation.

But I didn’t stop thinking about him for weeks.

Reuniting was a comedy of errors. I was doing fieldwork that revolved around tide schedules, which caused me to miss the next two Sundays. He was there, but I was not. Then I showed up and he was away. I simply assumed I wasn’t going to see him again.

And then one week – it must have been into October? – I was up on stage singing and looked down to see him in the crowd. As soon as the service was over (I have a strong suspicion I didn’t absorb much practical teaching from the sermon), I ran outside and caught him in the parking lot as he was about to drive away. I scrounged a piece of paper and scribbled my e-mail address on it.

And then I waited.

And waited.

I got impatient and tried finding him on Facebook. I searched Google. Our university database.

Nothing. He seemed to be untraceable. A secret agent, perhaps?

The reality was less dramatic. Turns out he wasn’t able to distinguish my writing very well and had sent an e-mail which never got through. Eventually he figured out what had happened and deduced the correct e-mail address. Once our correspondence started, there was no stopping it.

We e-mailed each other constantly. We spent hours and hours and hours and hours using MSN Messenger. This was before texting, but after ICQ. (Can anyone else still hear Uh oh?)

On our first “not-a-date” date, he didn’t show. I had picked out my cutest outfit – including some too-tight American Eagle flats which were a silly purchase made in an attempt to make my large feet look slightly smaller – and told him to meet me after he finished class. I gave him directions to the lab where I’d be working.

And then I waited.

And waited.


I was very disgruntled by the time I slumped back home for supper. But then an e-mail! Apparently, when he arrived, he looked through the door and saw my research supervisor working with another student. He didn’t see me, assumed there was an actual class going on, and left.

In this same explanatory note, he sent along his phone number. I still have the scrap of paper (a pay stub) where I wrote them down. He said I must have made the call before his e-mail had a chance to hit my inbox.

What can I say? I wanted this “not-a-date” date very much.

I can still picture the phone I used to make this first call. Seeing his old numbers gives me goosebumps.

We rescheduled for later that evening and I changed into an even cuter outfit (an “evening-cute” outfit – distinct from my idea of an “afternoon-cute” outfit – and which, blessedly, did not involve tight shoes). Brown chords, a cream sweater, hair down. I set myself up at a microscope where he could see me through the ground-level window. My scheme worked (I wasn’t looking at anything through the microscope, I just wanted to appear very studious – how devious of me) because as he tells the story, seeing me through the window that evening took his breath away. Apparently he also thought to himself “Don’t screw this up.

We went to a local cafe. I got an oatcake and burned my tongue on hot tea.

So many details from that night – and many other moments in our heady courtship – feel alive and fresh all these years later.

Over Christmas vacation I had to go to a neighbour’s house to access e-mail, our only form of communication. I ended my visit home a few days early just so I could get back to see him. We still weren’t “dating,” though.

He had sent me a joke Christmas wish-list, including a request for a monkey riding a surfboard wearing a Pokemon backpack. He also requested a book on the life and times of Chuck Norris (that is one of the tiny books peeking out of the bookbag). I spent hours and hours making some version of a gag gift for every single one of his ridiculous requests. I also made him some home baked goods, including my favourite ginger cookies.

I skipped out on an evening with friends to deliver his Christmas “gifts.” Unbeknownst to me, that was the night he thought for the first time: “Someday I’m going to marry her.”

He saved one of the ginger cookies; tucked it away for two years in a basement freezer. The night of our wedding rehearsal he brought out a huge container of gingerbread men and women (commissioned from one of my uncles who is famous for his gingerbread cookies), along with that single ginger cookie he had saved from my Christmas gift. I took a bite. It wasn’t great – turns out ginger cookies aren’t very edible after two years in a deep freeze. But that he had been so sure that night we’d get married – and proceed to secretly keep track of a ginger cookie for TWO years – is one of my favourite details from our wedding.

Six months after I brought him the cookies and cardboard monkey, he proposed.

It was a gorgeous sunny day and he suggested we go to our favourite farmer’s market in a nearby city. For some reason, I had this little germ of an idea that he might just be contemplating a marriage proposal.

We strolled from stall to stall, getting all our favourite dishes from regular vendors – a curry dish, some sushi, gourmet cupcakes. On our way to a park to eat, he noticed a good sale on tires. On a whim, he stopped into the automotive center, bought a set of tires and scheduled to have them installed later that morning. In that moment I decided there was no way he had planned this into any proposal. The picnic was lovely, with nary a diamond in sight.

When the appointment was over, he suggested we test the new tires. I voiced my disapproval when he mentioned going in the opposite direction from home. The route home included a VERY long straight stretch where he liked to go…fast. This would be perfect for “testing tires” which, at the time, seemed like a perfectly ridiculous exercise to me, not to mention a waste of gas.

But he persisted, and we went the other way. We stopped to buy lemonade from two kids manning a tiny roadside stand. There was nothing rushed or premeditated about our drive. A proposal was officially out of my mind.

We ended up at a little beach and I suggested we play Pictionary in the sand. We played for a while and then he casually suggested a game of Hangman.

And that’s how, on a beach, about 4 o’clock in the afternoon on a gorgeous July day he proposed, just the way he had always planned – via a coded hangman message.

I found these in a shoebox full of old photos. He took the beach picture minutes after I said yes. The top picture was taken an hour later at a tiny covered bridge we had visited several times while dating. Several years ago, on our anniversary, we went to this same bridge and etched the dates of all our big milestones into one of the beams.

We’ve had a great life together. Ups and downs of course, but so much love. He brings out the best in me and I’m so glad we’re getting to do the craziness of life together.

Years ago I read an unattributed quote: Love is what makes two people sit in the middle of a bench, even if there is plenty of room at both ends. Happy Anniversary, my love! Here’s to many, many more anniversary celebrations to come. And to always sitting together in the center of the bench.

Fun fact: The night I officially fell head-over-heels for him was the night he whispered this poem by Yeats into my ear (which I wrongly attributed to KEATS in our wedding album).

Your turn. Anyone else celebrating an anniversary soon? Any fun proposal stories? A shout-out to Suzanne for requesting I share how John and I met someday! The time has arrived.

P.S. Some bonus pictures.

A not-so-fun fact: My dress was altered in another province. I only got it back a few days before the wedding and it was too big. But…I didn’t discover this until a few hours before our wedding. Eek! I compensated by cinching the top too tight (since the waist was too big) which made everything feel awful (my armpits were raw when my dress came off) and look odd. Full disclosure – I Photoshopped the bodice portion of my dress in most of our wedding pictures. This has made for a hard memory but deep down I know a wardrobe malfunction is inconsequential in light of the fact I married my best friend. That said, where applicable, try on your altered wedding dress before the actual day of your wedding. Also, it feels like most people have some iteration of this story. My parents, celebrating 50 years of marriage next month, had to cut short their honeymoon because of an illness in the family + my father got horrible food poisoning.
Back to fun/shocking facts: these adorable little munchkins – some of the nieces we just visited in South Carolina – are now old enough to drive and attend college. How did this happen?! Hi Laura! Hi Elizabeth!

Things Making Me Smile

I love those moments where I realize I’ve started smiling – either in the middle of a happy moment or when I’m caught up in the memory of some event or person. It’s easy to forget the little things that cause random – genuine! – smiles and I wanted to bring them more fully into my consciousness by naming them.

In no particular order, here are some things that have made me smile lately:

  • While we were visiting my sister in South Carolina, several of my nieces routinely labeled people or events with the phrase Bless or Love, often accompanied by hilarious hand or facial gestures. Levi up on John’s shoulders on a hike? One look at this scene and someone would pipe up (in their delightful Southern accent): Love. If Abby opened the door while someone was carrying a load of groceries? Bless. I now catch myself using these one-word labels…and it makes me happy. A few weeks I sent an (objectively adorable) picture of my kids to this Southern family of mine and guess what they texted back – Love.
  • My Mom using emojis. I’ve written before about how she sends daily texts to our family iMessage group (the term “text” is underselling things as they are literally hundreds of words long). Lately I’ve been making note of when she uses emojis, because it strikes me as both endearing and hilarious coming from my decidedly non-techy mother.
  • This post about dressing joyfully over at The Aesthetics of Joy. Her clothes just look so…happy.
  • Hearing the kids laugh from afar (especially after they’re in bed and John heads in to chat with them which = tickles and hijinks). There is something extra fun about hearing the giggles but not seeing their faces. The undertones of the belly laughs say it all: I’m living my best life.
  • Snuggling my best friend’s toddler. He’s so content to be picked up and will nestle right into my shoulder. And how he calls me “Biff”. And how whenever he sees me he starts looking for John. Basically, toddlers are just great at making people smile.
  • Cherry cheesecake. Walking in the door to the strains of Happy Birthday and seeing my favourite dessert on the counter = smiles. Every delicious bite of this birthday treat = mega smiles.
  • Seeing the kids sleep. A few weeks ago I went in to kiss Levi goodnight after he was asleep (even if going back to read what I wrote about this near-daily ritual hurt my heart because he looks so. much. older. now), and if I squinted just right he still looked like a toddler. He’s not, of course, but watching the kids sleep always, always, always makes me smile, maybe in part because I know the bittersweet truth that this too shall pass.
  • Looking at pictures from our recent road trip. (Lots more posts on this to follow. Toronto! Niagara Falls! New York City!) The whole experience was…a roller coaster. Some amazing highs and some extreme lows (I may have ugly cried twice). But, looking back, there were a lot of special moments and I’m so glad we have pictures to help us remember the details – big and small, happy and frustrating – of this big family adventure. The photo below, captured at the end of a magical evening spent on a rooftop in downtown Manhatten, definitely makes me smile!
  • Opening my e-mail yesterday to discover a lovely note from a niece. She was just checking in and telling me how much she misses the family/wants to visit us in Canada (come anytime!). She also told me her morning routine now involves checking this blog. Hi Laura! Bless. Love.
  • This very moment – seconds before I hit Publish? It’s 1 am AST (I’m still on Eastern time), and it’s the first time in two weeks I feel like I have true solitude. It’s raining and there’s a steady patter of drops on the skylight and metal roof of my parents’ home. Lightning is flashing through the skylight in beautiful bursts and everyone else is asleep (read: blissfully quiet). Smile.

Your turn. What’s making you smile today, this week, month, or year?

Header photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash


My name is Elisabeth. It has been Elisabeth since the day I was born. And it is just Elisabeth.

Yet there are a number of people who call me Liz and I find the whole dynamic rather fascinating.

For example, the secretary at my doctor’s office always addresses me as Liz. I will introduce myself on the phone by saying “Hello, this is Elisabeth calling!” and she will immediately respond “Hi Liz!” She is the loveliest receptionist ever and I find it heartwarming.

But where did she get Liz?

I’m no stranger to nicknames. I have a brother Tim (Timothy), a sister Bec (Rebecca), and my Dad is Tom (Thomas). I have a brother-in-law that goes by his middle name, a brother-in-law Timothy (who does NOT go by Tim, which is convenient so we never confuse him with my brother, Tim), and a brother-in-law Chris (Christopher). I even have a child – Abby (Abigail) – that goes by a nickname.

But my name is Elisabeth.

Let’s take this story one layer further, shall we? Let’s talk about when I was called a completely different name.

Years ago, when the kids were still in preschool, another parent (who I knew very loosely, but I assumed we were on a first-name basis since I knew HER name) started very enthusiastically greeting me. As Anne.

The first time it happened I was…surprised? Confused? I guess I waved back/responded? But then she proceeded to do this for TWO WHOLE YEARS. Always very, very enthusiastically and with full confidence in her labeling of me. Even though in every context at preschool (including when I organized the teacher gift for two years and signed my name as Elisabeth on every single e-mail she received) I was Elisabeth.

Then there is the former work supervisor who had pegged me as Elizabeth (with a “z”) for years. Every single e-mail I sent her way was signed Elisabeth (with an “s”) yet she always addressed e-mails to me with a “z.” It didn’t bother me…until she submitted an application for a new e-mail address that was my full name and I had to tell her that I couldn’t have my name spelled as because my first name was actually spelled with an “s” and she was absolutely shocked. She even asked me if I had recently changed the spelling of my name. I had not; in fact, I had sent (and signed) 100s of e-mails as Elisabeth with an “s” over our working career together.

All that to say I’m Elisabeth, not Liz.

But I’ll even respond to “Anne” in a pinch.

How about you. Do you have a nickname or shortened name? Any funny stories to share on the topic?

Header photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

On Mother’s Day, An Ode to Letter Writing

It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday.

I want to start by acknowledging we all have different stories to share. Some readers may be mourning the loss of a mother or friend, others processing a difficult parental relationship; some may be desperately wishing to become a mother while others are finding the very role of motherhood complicated and overwhelming. For anyone struggling, I’m sorry for your loss, hurt, frustration, or grief.

Today I’m sharing a piece of my story. This essay (or whatever one can call it) has been sitting – untouched – for several years, but I always wanted to share it on Mother’s Day. But where? With whom?

Now I have a space.

It’s long (shocking) and I’m aware it could use plenty of restructuring. But I tried to limit edits of the original draft because…well…it struck me when I pulled up this file – Mom writes long. Really long.

It’s a bit of a family joke how much I take after my mother. We look alike, sound alike, and think alike. We both have a tendency for “smoke to come out both ears” when we get worked up (translation: we’re stubborn and emotional). Apparently, I’m told, we even eat ice cream the same way.

But more than anything, I write like she writes.

The working title for this essay was An Ode to Letter Writing, but at the core sits A Letter To My Mother.

an ode to letter writing

One of my earliest memories is of Mom perched on the edge of a wooden chair – complete with forest green crocheted “footies” (to avoid scuffing our 1970s-era dining room linoleum) – in front of the Christmas tree.

I was about four, though this same scene was repeated for years, so I’m sure to be amalgamating memories. I always found a place on the floor by the tree; blonde hair, blue eyes, bubbling with the delight reserved for four-year-olds on Christmas morning. My father would have been there too, having made the concession of waking thirty minutes early to shave and get dressed. Two older sisters and a brother. And Mom, sitting on her chair, clipboard in one hand, a blue Bic ballpoint poised in the other.

Christmas Eve would have found her hunched over that same clipboard. Stockings stuffed – including toothpaste and soap for every member of the family (which, once unwrapped, would be back in the communal pile under the bathroom sink before the turkey was on the table) – and breakfast prepped in the refrigerator. Her world in order, Mom would sit, ruler in hand, preparing her grid. Recipient on the horizontal, giver on the vertical. This careful tracking was as traditional as the cinnamon coffee cake for breakfast, the scented Avon mistletoe figurine on the mantel, and the vintage star (with questionable wiring) glowing atop our tree.

And so Christmas found us – Dad smelling of aftershave, the coffee cake baking, Mom with her pen. One at a time gifts were unwrapped. This year, a stack of Nancy Drew books from Grammie, the one with a fiery temper who was continually offering unsolicited advice but was, nonetheless, recognized as a top-notch gift-giver. Next up, an alarm clock for my brother. A sweater for Mom. Some Licorice Allsorts for Dad.

Throughout the festivities there was, without exception, strict adherence to a single rule: before opening, admiring or using a gift you paused to announce the giver. And another block in that grid would fill up.

These were snapshots of our life and Mom was recording.

Before the ball dropped in Manhatten on New Year’s Eve, our local postal team carried away the results of Mom’s dutiful records. A thank-you to the opinionated grandmother (those Nancy Drew books sit on my daughter’s bookshelf today). A note of gratitude to my other grandmother, a soft-spoken woman whose cheerful smile (which she removed each night for a bath in Polident) belied the fact she was widowed by 35 with three small children. This year she had sent an elaborate tea set. My own children still use it, nibbling on chocolate chips and Cheerios piled on impossibly tiny plates, pouring Diet Pepsi out of the faded purple teapot. I wonder if Mom’s thank-you captured the generations of use ahead?

Another note for a wealthy aunt and uncle. The arrival of their Christmas parcel was a tradition itself – wrapped in brown paper and plastered with stickers, this was a gift that kept on giving. First, there was the anticipatory journey to our local post office, parcel notification in hand. Then the first glimpse of that giant box – bigger and heavier than a child dared hope. At home, Exacto knife in hand, the outer shell would be carefully removed to reveal a pile of boxes wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper. Double-sided tape, crisp corners, and lux ribbon were a given. Seeing those gifts under the tree was a perpetual delight and I always saved their gift for last.

The thank-you note for sisters Hazel and Marion (who always gifted Quality Street chocolates) would be hand-delivered at church on Sunday night.

Somehow, Mom managed to capture all the magic of that giving and receiving in her letters, maintaining relationships the way she knew best – through words and a $0.45 cent stamp.

My mother is an extraordinary woman. She raised four children, managed a household, worked part-time as a nurse until we were teenagers, and then launched a big career. She is a doer. She patiently led us through Bible-verse memorization for Sunday School, cooked every meal from scratch (with a little help from Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup), and created handmade Christmas gifts for decades. If you wanted something done, you asked my mother. Amidst the baked hams and scalloped potatoes, the cross-stitched mason jar toppers, the endless years of diapers – she wrote letters. Every two weeks, for decades, she wrote letters to my grandmothers. These recorded births, deaths, blizzards, new recipes, and the status of blooming peonies. They bridged gaps of time and distance as her own children grew and married. Miscarriages and stillbirths, cancer, surgeries. There was a lot of hard to share. But also awards, graduations, successes, new jobs, weddings, and the arrival of grandbabies. Often written in long-hand and spanning multiple pages, they were crafted at the dining-room table unless we were on summer vacation – then letters were written by the flickering light of kerosene lamps.

Perhaps most memorable to everyone were her Christmas cards (which were distinct from her Christmas thank-you notes; the holiday season warranted two letters from my mother). She devoted entire days to this activity.

As Mr. Zukerberg’s dorm room lay far in the future, this was her form of connection. She wrote to the bridesmaids from her wedding, classmates from nursing school, distant family members, friends old and new, and the church members we saw three times a week. In early November she would get out her tattered address book and work systematically from A to Z. American recipients were prioritized, since theirs took longer in the postal system and needed to be dispatched first. The cards weren’t ornate, always purchased on a post-Christmas sale the previous year. But the letters they contained were a work of art.

She told the same stories, recounted the same highlights over and over – but in a personalized way – all in her meticulous handwriting (only in recent years has she finally succumbed to the siren song of a more generic, typed Christmas letter). To the uncle who traveled for work, inquiries about destinations and hobbies; to someone whose loved one had passed, words of sympathy and hope. A few people responded in similar fashion but most, if we’re being honest, just attached their name to a generic greeting.

Yet my mother persisted. Year after year after year. Like spring follows winter, Mom’s letters were a constant; each one tinged with the beauty of recorded history. Her words gave meaning to our family story – a meaning that comes simply by sharing and connecting.

When I was 13 we moved. I likely wrote before this point, but here my recall starts. My letters, addressed with loopy adolescent handwriting, were filled with details of high-school drama. I sent these letters for years. I wasn’t looking for anything in return (and got few replies), which seems odd for a self-absorbed teenage mind – but even then I comprehended that the very act of writing was a gift of sorts. I shared my stories, my youth, and the world of possibilities in front of me, mostly for the benefit of elderly seniors (think: small Baptist church) and a few childhood friends I’d left behind.

Then one day I received an unexpected response.

I was in my final year of an undergraduate degree in Biology. The requisite hours spent dissecting pig fascia were behind me and I was doing a victory lap of sorts. Sitting alone in a summer rental, I opened a hand-addressed package. I didn’t recognize the sender information. The dull yellow of the mailer envelope was covered with black scuffs, paying homage to its journey.

But let’s back up and introduce a new character to my story.

Her name was Nina and she lived at the end of the road. When I say the end of the road, I mean that literally. The road that skirted my childhood home stretched up and down hills, twisted and turned, lurching precariously close to the side of a cliff face before it abruptly ended at the ocean. And there, nestled on the very edge of a cliff – near the very end of the road – was Nina’s house.

Nina was an artist, her husband a fisherman. The wharf from which he worked was at the bottom of that cliff. They attended our church, and I accompanied my Dad through years of visitation. Visits where Leroy, her husband, introduced me to his homemade pickled herring (an acquired taste, but a delicacy I loved) and showed me the jewelry he made from sea glass and stones tumbled in their basement.

Leroy died, Nina aged, and I moved away.

But I also stayed, I think, through my letters. I like to imagine those notes perched on Nina’s kitchen table, stuffed into her napkin holder. Or maybe my letters served as bookmarks in the novel on her bedside table. I wonder how she read them? I like to imagine she couldn’t wait. When she opened up her mailbox, did she smile? Did she save my letters for the end of the day, or tear open the envelope on the walk across the street? Did she laugh with me? Did she laugh at me? Hopefully both.

But Nina never wrote back. Not a single time in all those years.

Now back to that package. The letter was from Nina’s daughter, someone I don’t ever recall meeting, informing me that Nina had passed away. Nina, maker of homemade fish cakes (her home always smelled like fish, which wasn’t entirely pleasant). Nina, owner of the wood-paneled living room where I sat in a floral-patterned swivel chair and watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy because we didn’t have cable, but Nina did and she would sometimes invite me to stay for fishcakes with a side of Vanna White. Nina, who always set aside a special bag – (shhh: don’t tell anyone, it was a bigger bag) – of Halloween treats for me.

Nina the artist.

Her daughter wrote to tell me how much Nina had appreciated my letters. The letters that shared how my world was growing as Nina’s got smaller. That Nina was gone. The bulky envelope contained several of Nina’s paintings, watercolours she’d made in her little studio (also perched on the side of a cliff; she clearly didn’t have any issue with heights). Her daughter said she hoped the art would leave me with happy memories of Nina. Her art and my “art” bonding us across time and space.

And I do believe letter writing is art. Like sculpture and oil and lyric. The canvas – heavy paper, hotel stationery, Hallmark cards. The brush – a pen, pencil, crayon and, yes, even a keyboard. From the first tentative letters scribbled by a preschooler to the final, halting scrawl of an aging parent.

I’m not sure what place letter writing has in the modern era. In a world where our stories are told through the filter of Instagram or within the confines of 140 characters.

I send fewer letters in the mail now. Christmas cards, the occasional thank-you note. But each month I write and e-mail Family Updates – lost teeth, first bike rides (without the safety net of training wheels), potty-training successes (and failures), kindergarten concerts; the ups and downs of life have all made the cut. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, glimpses of our family’s life show up on screens down the street, across the country, and then ping-pong around the globe – Portugal, Denmark, America. I’ve saved every e-mail, full of details that would be hazy for me (newborn era, anyone?) and forgotten entirely by the kids, without this written history.

Julia Cameron talks about piecing together the story of her grandmother’s life simply by reading through her decades of letters in which she [the grandmother] recounted “a series of small miracles. [Her] secret lay in recognizing the quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is in the gift of paying attention.”

Letters help us pay attention. To celebrate more fully – find delight in the ordinary and share it with others; to grieve more deeply.

A few years ago my daughter performed in a local church play. A neighbor happened to be in the audience. The next day we came home to a plate of cookies from that neighbor – congratulating my daughter for her performance on stage (and Levi’s in the pew; he was shockingly well behaved for a then-toddler). Delighted by the cookies and the praise, my daughter picked out a thank-you card; a doughnut covered with sparkles that read “Thanks, with extra sprinkles!” I don’t know what she wrote, but I’m suspecting something along the lines of: “Thanks for the cookies. I liked them a lot.

It’s a start.

I watched her from the front window as she looked both ways and crossed the street in fading April light. She was in her pajamas already, a polar bear one-piece ensemble that should have been sent to the hand-me-down box months before. Delivery complete, she came home flush with accomplishment. There was silence for a few weeks and then a sudden appearance by the neighbor at our back door to express appreciation for her note. A beautiful cycle of thanks and connection and relationship, bridged with words.

You don’t get many hand-written notes these days,” said our neighbour, somewhat wistfully. “It’s really nice, you know.”

Actually, I do know. That’s why I write letters. That’s why Mom writes them, and why I hope my daughter writes them too. I can’t force her, of course. But I’ll keep writing mine and hope she writes hers. Maybe even to me.

Things come full circle, I suppose, and I now get a letter from my Mom every day. They aren’t handwritten, but they have Mom’s fingerprints all over them. She sends out hundreds of words (I told you I write like she writes) via our family text chain. Every day. My siblings and I know what wildlife she and Dad spotted through the front window over breakfast. What neighbours they passed on their afternoon walk, how her quilt is coming along, and what vegetables she’s planning to plant come June. We hear about blizzards and doctor’s appointments and art classes and, sometimes, the state of her laundry pile. Yesterday I learned all about her canoe trip down a local river; Dad, apparently, took a nap on the shoreline after their picnic lunch. I can’t remember, but I suspect she told us what had been on the menu. Egg salad sandwiches, perhaps?

It’s wonderful. Every word and description of her day makes me smile. Especially because I know This too shall pass.

This Mother’s Day, I’m so thankful for my mother. For everything she did, and does, for me. And for the deep impact of her written words over the years.

This letter, for lack of a better description, from me – well, it’s for her.

To my Mom, to Nina, to my daughter and all the other special women in my life – Happy Mother’s Day.

Header photo by Kate Macate on Unsplash

Do You Have a Compliment? Give It!

To my shame, I leave a lot of compliments/verbal affirmations unspoken, especially to those I love the most. And I want that behaviour to change because I know I’m overlooking the power of (genuine) compliments.

A few months ago I wrote about an unexpected incident in a checkout line at the DollarStore. I was masked, as were all the people around me, and I wasn’t expecting an interaction of any sort. But then the woman behind me leaned forward to say how much she admired my earrings.

By all accounts, this was a tiny gesture. I wasn’t overly chatty in lineups before the pandemic. I’m introverted and, rightly or wrongly, tend to hibernate in big social settings (including the chaos that is checkout lines).

But that comment? It made my day.

I thanked her, told her my husband had bought them for me (which she seemed to find particularly endearing), and we went our separate ways.

But here I am writing about that compliment. Months later.

I felt particularly sorry for cashiers during this pandemic. They interact with a steady stream of people all day while standing on their feet in masks. It must have been especially exhausting and scary in early days pre-vaccine.

I typically visit our town’s small grocery store several times a week. One cashier always looked especially tired. She was clearly apprehensive about her front-facing position and wore 3-layered masks long before it was the standard recommendation. Sadly, I’ll admit I still don’t know her name, but she stands out to me because she had the nicest masks.

Every time I ended up in her lineup I made a point to comment on how seeing her and her beautiful masks (such pretty patterns!) was a bright point in my shopping experience. And every single time her eyes would light up and she’d tell me where she bought them (a local farmers market) and that taking the time to source nice masks was a big boost to her spirits.

My compliment was entirely genuine – her masks were lovely and I did notice. But it would have been easy to mumble “Debit please” and scamper out of the store, leaving the compliment unspoken.

And so often I do leave compliments unspoken. Why?

I went out to coffee with a new friend recently and she wore a simple – but lovely – sweater. It was a shade of blue I can’t properly do justice; rich, warm, bright, and happy (because I think “happy” is a great colour descriptor). She wore matching earrings; paired with casual jeans it was a perfect outfit. The entire time we were together I kept thinking about how well the whole ensemble suited her. But it felt…awkward to say anything. I haven’t known her very long and how do you even inject that information into a short conversation?

At the end of an hour, when she got up to leave, I finally got up the nerve to blurt out: “That sweater and colour look great on you.

Not surprisingly, she looked elated to receive this compliment. Maybe she didn’t think anything about her outfit when she left the house or maybe she spent a long time curating it. Either way, it looked fabulous…so why not tell her?

I know there is a fine line between patronizing comments and true compliments. I try to be authentic, but sometimes it can be about quality AND quantity and I’m determined to work on both.

And I think that’s where attention plays such a central role. When we’re on the lookout for the good and the beautiful in life – for the magical way the lights blur when I take off my glasses to look at the Christmas tree, for the reset that comes from sitting down at a table with a bowl of comfort food and some candles – we can be more open to seeing and sharing that delight with others.

Compliment God – look at the beautiful blue sky, listen to the crashing of the waves, taste a delicious meal and thank Him for being such a great Creator. Compliment your spouse – for their outfit or gorgeous eyes or romantic gesture. Compliment your children – on their beautifully illegible place cards or on giving the best bedtime hugs or for their empathetic response to a sad friend. Compliment someone’s earrings or their hard-to-describe-happy-blue sweater.

And if you see someone wearing a beautiful mask, go ahead and compliment them too and thank them for injecting beauty into the world in a simple way.

Your turn. What’s the nicest compliment someone has paid you recently? How did it make you feel?

FYI: The earrings I reference are the top left pair in this picture. Simple, but one of my favourites with sparkly Swavorski crystals.

Header photo by eleni koureas on Unsplash