The Importance of Being Alive

I was in the middle of doing a sit up when Dan asked me how I was doing after getting dumped last week. I’d actually been waiting to tell my friend about this romantic development until it felt a little more legit. My friend Dan is a lot of things — hunting advocate, sworn enemy to sugar, an occasional handyman when things are falling apart in my house — but he’s also skeptical of men and their intentions. He’s also often right, which can be maddening.

So, I didn’t really want to hear anything negative about this new dude. I was trying to use my own BS monitor to assess the situation without letting anyone else color my opinion. 

But then the new dude straight up dumped me while my dumb dog was snuggling in his lap, and I reported the situation to Dan the next time I saw him.

“It’s gotta be tough,” he said as I lifted my upper body off the ground to touch my right toe with my right hand in midair. “Now you’re never going to want to date.”

I sat up on my purple yoga mat and wrapped my arms around my knees and told him that in fact, thanks to Adam Driver, I was feeling quite the opposite.

“You’re not really going to understand this because you’re not a Broadway dork,” I told him, “but I watched the movie Marriage Story last night and Adam Driver sings a song from the musical Company at the end and it killed me but also reminded me what life is all about.”

The song, “Being Alive,” comes at the end of both the movie and the Sondheim show when the main characters come to realize that it’s the messiness of life, the complications of being in relationships, that means we’re alive. It’s not just standing on the sidelines and making sure we’re never going to get hurt, but getting in there and playing the game, whether we win or lose.

My therapist, Jennifer, had told me as much when I reported a few weeks earlier that I’d started dating someone. I’d told her there were some red flags, some things he’d said that were troubling. “What if he’s just a douche like all the guys around here?” I asked, pointing out that lots of dudes where I live are successful and have the giant egos to match their bank accounts, which confuses them into thinking they can behave badly. 

But Jen wasn’t having it. She told me that was like saying all women were gold diggers and that I needed to stop standing on the sidelines wringing my hands. She reminded me of a story I told a few years ago onstage about finding the courage to jump off a cliff with my young daughters at a quarry one hot summer day in Vermont. 

How we’d sat on our picnic blankets eating lunch and watched people get to the edge and jump, and it looked so easy. But when we got up there and I looked down at the cold water below, I panicked.

A few months earlier I’d told my husband of 17 years I wanted a divorce and that was a giant leap off a cliff of indecision I’d been standing on for a long time. It was terrifying but also propelled my life in a healthier direction. 

In the end, the girls and I counted to 3 and leapt off the ledge of the quarry and plunged into the icy green water below. The bracing temperature and thrill of flying through the air propelled us back to the surface where we floated on our backs for a bit and caught our breath. It had been scary, but worth it.

“What do you have to lose?” Jen asked. “Jump.”

So I did. And for a few weeks, I felt pretty alive. And it was nice, despite the outcome.

Then Adam Driver started to sing at the end of Marriage Story and I immediately knew the song, because I’d seen the show when it was revived on Broadway in 2006. By then, I understood the complexities of marriage and relationships — topics dealt with in the play with lyrics only Sondheim could write. And I remember sitting in the darkened theater listening to the words of the final song, “Being Alive,” which acknowledge how annoying relationships can be — partners can be needy and hold us too close, hurt us too deep — but also, remind us of being alive. 

“But alone,

Is alone,

Not alive.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I said to myself when Driver started to sing, my eyes starting to water. I’d been sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself, when I impulsively started the movie two hours earlier. “You’re going to starting singing THIS song?”

But it was a gift. As was the whirlwind relationship. Because it reminded me that what I most want out of this life was to live it. 

And not alone. 

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Birthdays Can Be Hard When You’re Single

I turned 52 in the back of an Uber last month, crammed alongside my three adult kids on our way home from sweating on a crowded dance floor as we sang and danced to one of my favorite bands late into a Sunday night.

We jumped up and down to the opening chords of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” shouting the OH YEAHs and ALL RIGHTs while pumping our hands in the air. Later, I saw that my oldest son had posted a video of me on Instagram, dramatically singing every word to “Born to Run,” my 24yo daughter looking on with a big smile, as I pressed my hand to my heart and swore to die with Wendy on the street tonight in an everlasting kiss.


I like to elbow my way up to the front of the dance floor, especially after a few vodka clubs, so I dragged the kids with me so we could watch the band up close. Later, we agreed we were slightly deaf from being so close to the stacks of speakers and wailing saxophone player.

I’m not sure what we talked about after we tumbled into the Uber car to go home. Initially, my older daughter was pissed because the rest of us were kinda wandering around deaf and tipsy outside the bar and having a hard time following directions. Eventually, she herded us into the car she had called and at some point during the half hour journey home, the clock struck midnight and the kids started wishing me a happy birthday.

And even though I really love my birthday, I mostly remember feeling relieved that I’d done the obligatory celebration and that it was almost over.

Here’s the thing about birthdays and holidays when you are single: they are hard.

I mean, maybe they’re hard for folks in relationships, too, but for some reason, I don’t remember it that way. Of course, holidays were always stressful, regardless of my relationship status. Every November I’d be sitting on my therapist’s couch complaining about how some of my family members would show up empty-handed to Thanksgiving or sometimes, just not show up at all.

But back when I was married, I mostly remember my husband doing all of the heavy lifting around my birthday. He was always good for getting tickets for us to see a show I wanted to see, or planning a gathering with friends. He loved a reason to celebrate.

Normal people probably don’t need a big commotion around their birthdays, but sadly, the Leo in me demands attention. She will settle for nothing less than a day in the spotlight filled with people celebrating her. 

Another driving force behind my birthday planning mania is that there’s also something super-depressing about having nothing to do on your birthday, especially in the age of social media. Your birthday needs to be all Insta-worthy to complement all those Facebook birthday messages (of which I’m always hoping to break 100 hbds).

Now that I’m divorced, the burden to plan and execute the kind of birthday extravaganza I need has fallen upon me. I now need to be a shameless birthday huckster and convince people to go along with it. And mostly, it’s been working.

The worst was turning 50.

While other people’s husbands I knew were organizing big parties or taking them away to Hawaii or Italy to celebrate the half-century mark, I was wondering just who I could convince to go to the movies with me, or maybe out to dinner. To make things worse, my 50th birthday fell on a Saturday, which added to the pressure to come up with something worthy of an entire weekend. It felt like I needed two-days’ worth of activities to live up to the hype.

But the problem with weekends, as any single person can tell you, is that your married friends are doing things with their husbands-slash-families. It’s hard for mothers and wives to get away on a Friday or Saturday night. When you are uncoupled, you’re more of a Monday-through-Thursday playmate.

Which left my four children to pick up their mother’s birthday mantel.

I ended up buying tickets for us to go see a matinée of the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which was playing at the time on Broadway. Most of us had listened to the audiobook on our way down to my older daughter’s college graduation in Virginia a few months earlier, and we ended up talking about it all weekend — joking about the characters and trying to speak with British accents. It got to the point that we began to annoy anyone who hadn’t been in my car and listened to the book.

So I returned to New York, the city of my birth — 50 years later and this time, by bus — and my children complained about the melting heat as we walked along 41st Street and cursed my parents for having me in August (“What were they thinking?” the children moaned). But other than the excruciating weather, we had a lovely day out. The kids took me to brunch where we were served pitchers of mimosas and ate chicken paillard and the play reminded us why we had liked the book so much on that long drive in the spring.

Then it was my BF’s turn to share my 50th birthday burden, and she hosted a little gathering later that night with some of my favorite ladies where I received an alarming amount of wine and appreciated their group effort to make me feel loved and give me the attention I needed.

Another year quickly flew past, and I found myself still single and needing to come up with a plan for turning 51. Since the recipe the year before had worked so well, I decided to get us tickets to see another show and started stalking the Internet for cheap tickets to see “Dear Evan Hansen,” of which there are none. Finally, after a lot of agonizing and rationalizing — not to mention needing to see Ben Platt sing “Waving Through a Window” IRL — I broke down and bought the tickets for a matinée on my Sunday birthday that I’d had in a shopping cart for a week.

The next day, my oldest son found me in the kitchen and announced that he’d heard Ben Platt wasn’t going to be in the performance we were going to, and I went upstairs to my bedroom and cried. 

Eventually, my older daughter came up and sat on my bed and assured me that we were still going to have a great day together. That was all that mattered, she told me. I heard the logic in her reasoning and eventually dried my tears and went downstairs with lowered expectations, to match my new credit score.

We took the bus back into the city on my birthday and returned to the same restaurant we’d gone to the year before, and drank more mimosas and I had that delicious chicken again. I am a strong proponent of sticking with a formula that works.

And of course, I don’t need to tell you how phenomenal the show was, despite Ben Platt’s absence. I had a feeling the story would resonate for us, but didn’t realize how much until I heard my daughters crying on either side of me. Then, towards the end of the musical, my older daughter grabbed my hand when Evan Hansen’s mom sings:

“Your mom isn’t going anywhere

Your mom is staying right here

No matter what

I’ll be here”

Seriously. Who wouldn’t have paid money for that? Then later, after we returned home, my 15yo son came downstairs and announced he already knew every word to every song, and sometimes when we’re driving around, he’ll put one of them on and we’ll sing along. Ka-ching.

Then, and I swear the years are coming at me on an accelerated cycle where 365 days have been compressed into maybe 300, yet another birthday approached.

The nice thing now is that my kids just assumed we were doing something to celebrate 52 together. “What are we doing this year?” they started to ask in, like, June.

Since my credit cards cannot handle five tickets to see a Broadway show, I needed to think cheap. For the last few summers, I’ve headed south with a group of women I like to call my Little Mommies to a Jersey Shore summer staple, the Parker House, to dance on a Sunday night. It’s a a big white house two blocks from the ocean with a wraparound porch where you can sit and eat and a bar inside that’s pretty clubby on a Friday night in July and where anyone over 30 would look really out-of-place. But on Sundays, they have bands down in the basement tavern that play lots of Bruce and Tom Petty and the likes and it’s a blast being down there with a big posse pushing your way up front to dance the night away. It’s pretty joyful.

As my birthday fell on a Monday this year, getting a group together to head to the Parker House seemed like a good way to celebrate my birthday, and then I wouldn’t care what I ended up doing on the actual day of my birth. It also helped that three of my four kids are now 21 and that my baby was not the kind to feel left out.

I put an invitation out in text and email to all my groups of friends but, as it was August, folks were away or busy entertaining out-of-towners. In the end, two (Gold Star) Little Moms hauled themselves down to show their love and dance — and it was perfect. We met up with two of my sisters and a brother-in-law and later, my baby girl, who’d been making beds as an intern at the Hotel Hershey all summer, arrived after her shift to join the fun.

We tumbled out into the warm August night and my inner Leo was satisfied with the celebration.

Lately, my dad has taken to telling me that he is impressed with the relationship I have built with my kids (he’s also always telling me that I don’t want to die alone, which is his way of saying, “Start dating, already.”). He admires how the kids and I still go on vacations together and that they show up to celebrate my birthday. “You have a family,” he says, and it resonates since I struggle with my family of origin. Even though my divorce shattered the fantasy I clung to of creating some perfect family, I think I might have ended up with what I really needed instead.

Jennifer My Therapist often reminds me of this phenomenon. She’s impressed that my adult children actually want to pay to go on vacation with me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a whole lot of dysfunction swirling around us — you should have seen the argument the kids had in Florence this spring that erupted over a pizza drizzled in pesto that should have been the real reason for tears, it was that good. One child stormed out of the tiny pizza place — where one little Italian man kept shoveling slices in and out of a giant oven, taking orders from a long line of customers — and I went out to reason with that kid and came back inside to talk to another kid, when all I really wanted to do was sit there with my glass or red wine and enjoy the magical pesto pizza I’d dreamt of eating for months.

But to our credit, I really think we’re all trying to figure it out. I think we all feel deep down that it’s worth trying to work through it all. When we are able to see past each other’s masks — through the hurt feelings and miscommunication — to see the person struggling inside. I think that’s what keeps us together. Pesto helps.

Prior to heading out to dance on my birthday eve, my two older kids and I had a drink, and my oldest son took a sip of the margarita I had made and asked if he could give me his birthday card.

“Well, my birthday’s not until tomorrow,” I told him. “Why don’t you wait?”

“I can’t,” he said, handing me the grey envelope. He’s the kind of person who gets a bee in his bonnet and just can’t shake it. The card itself was pretty funny, with a cartoon of a little yellow duckling on the front asking its mom if she remembered all the times he had said mean things and did things she told him not to do. “Thanks for letting me live,” the little duck says at the end, and my son thanked me for letting him “live 25 years on this Earth,” in his note below.

“I love you more than you know,” he wrote, and although there have been times when I’ve really wanted to throttle my oldest kid, I know that deep inside he’s a mush. He’s like my very own M&M, sweet and gooey deep down, once you get beyond the hard outer shell.

Tucked inside the card were two pieces of paper folded together, and when I opened them up, saw that they were two tickets he’d purchased for a performance next month of the show “Mean Girls” on Broadway. 

This. Was. Unexpected.

“I got you two tickets, but I was hoping that you’d bring me,” he said, and I told him that sounded like a perfect date. My daughter joked that she should have given me her gift first, and we finished our cocktails and called an Uber to go out and dance.

Happy birthday to me.

It turns out, my inner Leo is hungry all-year-long! Please consider feeding her by signing up for my highly-erratic newsletter, which sends my latest post right to your inbox (who needs Facebook?). 


Waving Through a Window

This summer, there have been times that it’s felt like the whole universe has been conspiring to get me back here, to my dusty old blog. There have been some moments it’s felt as if the Blog Gods have grabbed me by the shoulders and given me a good shake before asking, “Amy, wtf are you doing?”

The truth is that I’ve felt stymied for a while–creatively, professionally, economically. I’ve reasoned that I should find places that pay money for my writing instead of giving it away for free here. But then I lack the motivation and chutzpah to pitch any of my work. I compare myself with other writers I read and admire and think that my writing could never measure up to what they produce so–it seems–effortlessly. If you looked at my Documents folder, you’d see dozens of unfinished essays, which is def a metaphor for my modus operandi.

Then there are all the other voices in my head. All of those mouthy bastards. Some of the internal monologues come through distinctly in my voice — the snipes of self-loathing and indecision — but there are other voices festering in there as well. Family members from whom I’m estranged. People I used to be married to. The mother of my good friend. A writing mentor.

I hear those voices and I cringe any time I read something that I’ve written. It’s like, “What am I thinking? Who cares? Will they care?”

Sometimes, all those voices seem to be standing in the way of me telling my story, which is all it really is, my take on things that happen in an ordinary life. But really, I’m starting to think it’s just me unable to get out of my own head.

Recently, I’ve gone back and read some of the things I’ve posted here over the last 5 years and am sometimes shocked that I went as far as I did in some pieces. That I shared as much as I did. But at the time, I had zero issues with occasional oversharing. It felt kind of cathartic.

I’d like to get back to that.

It’s what connected me to every person who’s read something of mine and said, “Me, too.” Not in a #metoo, Harvey Weinstein/Matt Lauer, kinda way, but more in the, “Totally,” vein. As in, “I totally get it.”

The kids and I got to go see “Dear Evan Hansen” last summer, which is something I highly suggest you refinance your house to do. It’s epic. Anyway, there’s a song the main character sings in the beginning, called “Waving Through a Window,” and it’s about how all any of us wants is to be seen. To be heard. To be loved. It’s what connects us all at our core. You can watch him perform it here to get a sense of just how moving the song can be (here I pause to watch for the 100th time).

When I first thought about writing personal essays, or maybe a bigger memoir, I felt hampered by the fact that my story was just so ordinary. My divorce, in the scheme of things, was pretty run-of-the-mill. I mean, we had some exciting moments, don’t get me wrong. But it wasn’t like my ex had a second family stashed somewhere in New Jersey or had gambled all our money away. We just didn’t get what we needed from each other, and no amount of couples therapy or red wine was ever going to fix that fact.

(Teachable moment: Kids, don’t get married when you’re 24.)

I remember saying this to a college friend early on in my separation, how my story was a dime-a-dozen. We were sitting around after dinner in her Brooklyn Heights apartment with friends, sipping grappa, which I was about to find out was not only very strong but could lead to blackouts. I told her what was holding me back and she shook her head and told me that my thinking was all wrong.

“People read to feel connected,” she told me. “They want to know that they’re not alone.”

Of course, it would be another few years before I put that logic to the test here on my blog, when I quickly found that both men and women, folks my age and way younger and older — some with kids and some without — would tell me they could see pieces of themselves in my stories. Snapshots from their own lives.

I was sitting around a long picnic table having dinner with friends this summer in Montauk, all the way out at the very end of Long Island, where glass box beach houses sit atop a bluff overlooking the Atlantic and there are long stretches of beach with more rocks than people, when one of the women in our group starting talking about my blog.

“You were so fucking brave,” she said of the things I wrote, and I felt kind of proud because this woman was no shrinking violet. I also noticed she’d been speaking in the past-tense.

Earlier in the summer, I met some women at a local bar that sits along the Shrewsbury River and offers a front row to a spectacular sunset most nights. It’s all pinks and purples stretched across the sky and slowly dipping into the water.

We stood in a circle with our drinks in clear plastic cups and someone that I knew introduced me to the gal she had come with. “I don’t want to come off as crazy,” this new girl quickly said, “but I love your blog. I even wrote you fan mail a few years ago.”

And this woman in neither divorced nor as old as I am. Just another human struggling on this planet to make sense of things.

Finally, just last night, I was at a mixer for my baby’s high school football team at a local bar where we stood outside on a deck and clung to our icy vodka drinks to help us not melt in the oppressive New Jersey heat. I ran into a gal I went to high school, with whose son is now in high school playing football, and she always has something nice to say about whatever crazy thing I’ve written here over the years.

“I’m not getting your posts any more,” she immediately told me. “Do I need to sign up again?”

I told her that no, I’d just been lame lately, and she said she missed reading my stuff.

“You’re in luck,” I told her, “because I am posting something tomorrow.”

You know how Oprah is all, “Pay attention to the whispers of the universe”? That eventually, the universe will start shouting at you if you don’t?

I’m pretty sure that’s what these most recent incidents were. The universe shaking me by the shoulders and telling me to write. Anything. Just write.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.

Are you waving through a window, too? I totally see you. Sign up to get my posts right in your inbox in the erratic fashion I’ve accepted, after 52 years, is just the way I operate. We can wave to each other (I’ll try to remember to comb my hair and put on a bra).

When Family’s Not Family Any More

IMG_1963At least once a day this summer, I will notice a woman of a certain age out of the corner of my eye and think, just for a moment, that it’s my former mother-in-law.

Maybe it’s the color of the woman’s hair as she moves briskly through the parking lot of our local farm market. It’s cut short and straight, the way my mother-in-law began to wear her hair after she’d finally forsaken the permanents she had endured every few months to give her locks the curl she always admired on others. Or maybe it’s a certain type of beach cover up that catches my eye and the tote bag she’s carrying, similar to the canvas one my mother-in-law would bring to the beach each day, neatly packed with all of her reading essentials. There would be whatever book she’d most recently checked out of the library along with that day’s The New York Times and probably some gardening magazines for inspiration and brochures for whatever European bike trip she and my father-in-law would embark on in the fall.

When I spy her doppelganger, my gut reaction is relief. There’s been so much I’ve wanted to talk to her about. I’d want to know what she was reading and how the tomatoes in her garden were doing and whether she’d seen a certain smash hit on Broadway and if she loved it as much as I did. I’d tell her all about my new house, how some mourning doves built a nest in the branches outside my daughter’s bedroom window, and we’d talk about how wonderful it was that my two oldest kids had graduated and landed grown up jobs. We’d shake our heads over how quickly they and all the grandkids were growing up. And, man, would we both have a lot to say about Donald Trump.

But then, just as quickly, I realize that it’s not my mother-in-law after all. It’s just another small-framed woman in her 70s with short hair and not the woman I met right after my 16th birthday who taught me how to add bone meal and fertilizer to the soil before I planted something in the earth and that All Things Considered makes for good company while cooking dinner. That same woman with whom I’d end up spending countless hours over 25+ years talking about our gardens and politics and what we were reading and the kids.

And although her family would often joke that their matriarch sometimes lacked that filter the rest of us have between our brains and our mouths, the one that prevents us from really telling people what we think (and she had some pretty infamous zingers), I’d say about 95 percent of my interactions with my mother-in-law over the years were perfectly pleasant.

I mean, I also don’t remember childbirth being that big of a deal so obviously I am pretty good about glossing over the more negative stuff in life. It’s a gift.

All the same, I think it would be fair to say that my mother-in-law and I were cut from a similar cloth and as such, were pretty fond of each other.

I got the call that she was in hospice one Monday afternoon in April as I was just sliding back into my car after picking up some dinner fixings at the market. It was my sister-in-law, we’d both been married to brothers, calling to tell me that our former mother-in-law had suffered a stroke that morning and was in the hospital down in Florida where she and our father-in-law had spent their winters for about 20 years.

And even though in retrospect I probably should have been preparing for the call for a while, I’ve never been really good about reading the writing on the wall. Instead, I found myself stunned and sobbing in the car.

I mean, I knew her health hadn’t been great these last few years. She looked so frail the last time I’d seen her. I’d heard she’d started to need an oxygen tank to help manage her COPD and that she had fallen and broken her hip a few months earlier. But I was under the impression she was on the rebound. I’d overheard her voice when my oldest son called to check on her while she was in rehab and was glad to hear how strong she sounded on the other end, promising him she’d be out of there in no time.

That last time I saw her was at my son’s college graduation last year. Honestly, I was irritated at first when I noticed her and her husband making their way up to where we were all sitting in the football stadium, me and the kids and their dad. I was still so angry with her for believing she needed to choose sides following the divorce and, frankly, that she did not choose mine. I still have dreams in which I find myself screaming at her for dropping me like a hot potato. For forsaking all of the hours we logged together over the years sitting on the beach or around each other’s houses for holidays and birthdays or summer days reading on the porch of their cabin in the Poconos. Hadn’t that meant anything?

I had known that their family’s immediate response to conflict was to cut a person off, so I had written a letter to her in the throes of the divorce in an effort to circumvent an estrangement. I tried to reason that we could still be a family even though I was no longer married to her son, unto no avail.

In short time her presence began to fade from my life. Gone were the Christmas and birthday cards and thoughtful gifts – the glass hummingbird feeder for my garden or the copper mixing bowl like the one she used to whip cream for her famous chocolate cake. She no longer called to see what I thought the children might want for Christmas and when I ran into her on the sidelines at one of the kids’ soccer games once, she gave me a perfunctory “hello” and went back to watching the action on the field. She acted as if I simply didn’t exist.

And it kinda broke my heart.

One of the things that attracted me to my former husband way back in the day – aside from the killer blue eyes and smooth bad-boy ways – was his family. Especially back then. They enjoyed being together and I loved being a part of that. Spending hours around the coffee table in the living room duking it out over Trivial Pursuit or out in the yard throwing bocce balls on a warm summer night. That sense of family unity was something that I desperately craved. I still do. And even though things changed over the years, the kids got older and we started spending less time together, my mother-in-law and I could pick right back up and fall into our old, comfortable groove whenever we were together.

And all of those days and hours and conversations have infused much of who I am today. A good mother. A reader. Gardener. Ardent Democrat. Someone who’s gone on vacation by herself and owns a cooler with a flat top for the beach because that only makes sense.

But as I watched her at the graduation slowly make her way up the stadium steps to our row, I began to soften. She was winded by the climb and the early-morning Virginia sun was already strong and I could tell she was not doing that great. Over the next 24 hours we engaged in pleasant conversation, just like the old days. We talked about books and the kids and when it came time to say good-bye, we both had tears in our eyes as she gave me a big bear hug. We stood and embraced surrounded by black-robed graduates and proud families, and it was like we silently forgave each other. In a weird way, as I watched her slowly walk away, I knew I’d never see her again.

She died a few hours after I got that call about the stroke and just a few days before she was to have celebrated her 80th birthday. In a sad twist, her four children and a couple of grandkids had tickets to fly down to Florida to surprise her that weekend for her birthday. But it had all happened so fast and she was gone before anyone could get to her to say good-bye.

The kids and I cried long and hard after we got the news that she was gone. The girls were still both away at college so we commiserated over the phone but the two boys were at home so we sniffled together on the couch. It’s the kids’ first brush with losing someone they loved and the first time for me since the last of my grandparents passed away some 15 years ago.

The day after she died, I went food shopping and bought devil’s food cake mix and a package of pudding and baked my mother-in-law’s chocolate cake, even though only the two boys were home to eat it and I really need to lose 10 pounds and not gain 10 pounds. But it felt good to pull it out of the oven and remember all the times we ate that cake together over the years for birthdays and barbeques, the warm, chocolatey slices slathered in the whipped cream she’d beaten in the icy bowl pulled from the freezer.

Then I dragged my youngest guy over to my in-law’s house in the next town to see her garden. I hadn’t been there in years and it looked like it was waiting for her return from Florida and bring it back to life. I’d spent so many happy hours in that yard, swinging in the hammock and playing bocce. Getting a tour of the garden from my mother-in-law as she pointed out the bright red poppies blooming along the side yard or the tangle of pink roses at the end of the driveway. And man, did I cry.

But I was also glad for my 13yo to see me so sad as he came over to the middle of the yard and wrapped me in a hug, leaning down to rest his head on my shoulder. For him to understand that even though I wasn’t married to his dad, I could still really love his dad’s family.

Because they had been my family, too.

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Magic on the Sand


Here’s a story about finding your place, and a little magic, on the sand.

I saw a little piece of magic this weekend, right here on the Jersey Shore. Something that reminded me, not for the first time, that I am right where I’m supposed to be.

The celebration of our nation’s independence stirs up a lot of emotions for me. I mean, when you’re divorced, all holidays kinda suck, but the Fourth of July a few years back marked the end of my almost 18-year marriage and the beginning of a whole new way of life for our family. It’s become the delineation between our “before” and “after.”

For me, that means I no longer spend my summers at the hoity-toity beach club where we raised our four children – our days filled with swim team practices and tennis lessons and where beach boys set up your chairs and umbrellas – to a much more low-key situation about a half mile down the beach to the south. There’s a snack bar, bathrooms and a pool but parking can be challenging and I now own a rubber mallet to help secure my own beach umbrella.

Honestly, that fancy beach club – with its dramatic arches, mullioned windows and black-and-white-tiled ballroom – was probably one of the reasons why I stayed married for as long as I did. It was a part of my super-shiny identity. You know, that part of me that secretly loved the club’s parking sticker on the front bumper of my car and Sunday happy hours in my oh-this-old-thing Trina Turk cover up. Or humbly telling folks, when asked, that the exclusive club was where I planted my umbrella during the summer months. Oh, you know. NBD.

But it’s also where I hauled my children – and their playpens and buckets of toys and our cooler filled with juice boxes and ham sandwiches with neatly trimmed crusts – every single summer day for 15 years. Seriously, I was like a pack mule. We’d set up camp in the morning and stay until dinnertime. I was the boss at getting babies and toddlers to nap and later, I’d carry them into one of the club’s shower stalls and rinse the sand from all their chubby little nooks and crannies before heading home for the day.

As the kids got older, there were early-morning swim team practices and tennis lessons later in the afternoon and then swim meets at night. The kids would go to bed sunburnt and exhausted and – aside from the sunburnt part – I’d felt like I’d crushed my job as a mom that day. And then we’d get up the next morning and do it all over again.

One of the more interesting dynamics of this club is that members sit with their families on the beach or – if you were so blessed – in front of coveted cabanas lining the boardwalk. As my then-husband’s parents were the original members to the club, we spent our days sitting with his family. We’d sit in a circle on the sand or watch the kids together up at the pool and a lot of times, sit together at dinner in the club’s Tea Room overlooking the ocean. And honestly, I didn’t hate it. I mean, I’d complain sometimes and roll my eyes behind their backs about this or that but really, I could do the same for my own family. Probably your family, too. We’re all a little annoying. A little bit crazy.

But I spent many a pleasant summer afternoon sitting with my former in-laws, taking turns filling inflatable pools with big buckets of ocean water for toddlers to splash in and chatting and reading the paper. The ladies would talk about the books we were reading or the trials and tribulations of raising children and the men would dig holes and play basketball on weekend afternoons (while the women back on the sand watching the kids noted how annoying that part was).

The years went by and the kids grew older and those traditions became woven into the proverbial fabric of our lives. We had the sweatshirts, trophies and the kids’ names engraved on the plaques that line the club’s walls to show for it.

When my marriage ended, I fought hard to stay at that club and help maintain those traditions. I reasoned that even though the marriage fell apart, everything else in my children’s world didn’t have to. I’d been down that road when my own parents’ marriage dissolved 30 years earlier and didn’t want my kids to have to experience the same type of disruption in their lives. The abrupt end to everything they knew before the fall.

Sure, their dad would still be a member, but he worked full-time and – if we’re being really honest here – I was the glue that kept all that family stuff together. I embraced his family and made their traditions ours. And a big part of that was the beach club. And at the time, I still had four kids from about 5 to 15 to entertain for four months out of the year.

But neither the powers-that-be at the club nor, sadly, my in-laws subscribed to that broader type of thinking. They were all immune to the idea that divorce doesn’t have to end a family. That it could be, instead, a different way of being a family; a group of people who, despite the lack of a marriage license, still care about each other after years of sitting around and talking in the sand.

Instead, lines were drawn and sides were chosen and I was left looking for a new place to park my beach chair.

So I headed south and fell into the big, wide safety net held up by my new beach family. The men and women who made room for my beach chair in their circle and offered me their company – not to mention some super-spicy margaritas – when my going got tough.

Sitting in that circle in the sand this weekend I thought about how far I’d come in the six summers since my marriage ended. How, at first, I felt so out-of-place sitting on that new beach as a single person. I felt like an intruder among the couples. I mean, I didn’t even know how to put up my own umbrella. Back then, I figured it was as good enough place as any to bide my time and besides, my youngest was thrilled to get to spend his days in the ocean with all his friends.

But now we’ve logged a lot of hours together on the beach, bonding while kids swirled around our circle, looking for towels and fins and money for the snack bar. We save places for each other in the sand and talk about our kids and what we’re reading and roll our eyes at the guys and come back the next day and do it all over again.

Just like any other family

As the sun began to set on Sunday, I noticed a couple of kids running to stand at the shoreline and point towards the ocean. I turned and saw a fin rise out of the darkened water before slipping back down and soon we were all on our feet watching a line of dolphins swim north past us, close to shore.

We oohed and aahed as they began undulating a little higher out of the water, exposing more and more of their sleek gray bodies. And then, as if on cue – as if the animal knew an audience stood gathered on the beach watching the parade go by in wonder – one of the dolphins jumped completely out of the water and gave its tail a shake before plunging nose first back into the ocean. The crowd erupted in hoots, turning to each other in amazement, as the pod continued to make its way north under the setting July sun before we all settled back into our chairs to wait for darkness to arrive.

And I have to believe that the dolphin’s thrilling leap was a sign from the universe that there is magic around every corner – no matter where your umbrella is planted – and that I was right where I was supposed to be, on a beach in New Jersey surrounded by friends on a warm summer night.

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I’m From Jersey

It wasn’t until I went away to college that I learned firsthand that New Jersey, and its denizens, were a joke. Like, even my new roommate who hailed from Baltimore — BALTIMORE! — sneered at any mention of the Garden State.

Apparently, it was an embarassing place to live.

Even when we gather now as legit grown ups, there’s always some put down of my home state by my college friends and sometimes the person throwing the insult actually grew up in New Jersey. We went to high school together but after college she moved outside D.C. so I guess there’s a statute of limitations imposed on Jersey. You can disavow yourself of any relation to the state as long as you skeedaddle before you have to start paying taxes.

For a while, I dreamt of getting the hell out of Jersey, too. There’s just so many assumptions made about those of us who live here by those who don’t and for a long time, I really cared what other folks thought. I hated having the taint of Jersey on my skin.

I had a big interview for a PR job at Gucci years ago in Manhattan and the elegant Italian woman conducting the test-a-tete was astounded I grew up in the Garden State. “You don’t sound like you’re from New Jersey,” she observed, and this was long before Snooki and the Housewives gave the rest of the world the impression that we awl tawked liyk dis and ran around drunk pulling each other’s hair. I mean, I gave that shit up after college.

Following my divorce, I dreamt about moving with my youngest child to the city when the older three kids graduated from college. But as time went on, it became clear that my situation was not that cut-and-dry. It turns out, just because your child completes his or her’s higher education does not necessarily mean they’re relocating. Sometimes they’re still living in your basement despite a diploma.

So when I was looking to downsize a bit I realized a 2-bedroom apartment was really not going to work and I quietly wondered how long I would be trapped in the wilds of New Jersey.

But it was a conversation I had this fall with another college pal that helped me see that my thinking was twisted. She and her husband had relocated to Long Island and she said it was hard to make friends because she commutes to work every day and didn’t have kids in the school system to help forge those local connections.

“It’s nice that you’re a part of a community,” she said to me, and I was like, “What is my fucking problem?”

I have everything I need right here. My family. My friends. A lovely town. I’ve also got the beach, pork roll, proper pizza and bagels, Bruce Springsteen and a cool new national park  that’s got an Alexander Hamilton bent and I mean, who’s cooler than that fly founding father these days?

This is where I live. It’s where I’ve raised my four children. Practically my whole family is a quick drive away and I’ve come to appreciate the real Jersey part of Jersey. The Goombas. The accents. The Turnpike. That opening sequence of the Sopranos? You better believe you’ve got yourself a gun baby. Bada bing!

It’s all part of the charm of the state. It’s what gives it its color. The same can be said for where you live, too. Whether you hail from Long Island or Boston or Savannah or Minnesota.  Or even Baltimore. I don’t want us all to be the same. Shiny and hoity-toity. Let’s celebrate our differences and not make assumptions.

And on Sunday nights in the summer, there’s no place on Earth I’d rather be than dancing to Rosalita and being in love with a Jersey girl surrounded by friends in a crowded bar about a block away from the beach because, it turns out, down the shore everything’s alright.

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Carpe Diem

IMG_1417Today I am thinking about how complicated life can be. And short. And confusing.

You think you have all the time in the world to make things right. To tell people how much they meant to you. How much you loved them.

But that’s not how it works and I am reminded once again there’s no time to right all the wrongs and settle all the scores. Giving that big monologue you’ve been composing in your head when you’re awake in the middle of countless nights and you can’t settle your thoughts — you’re spinning back in time to long ago arguments and college and wedding days — just might not pan out. All that waiting for the right moment — when the moon and the planets and the stars align — might have all have been for naught. That window might just snap shut.

Instead, let the people you love know how much they mean to you every day. Tell them. Show them. Bake them a cake.

Life is messy and complicated and it is so easy to take the path of least of resistance. To avoid yucky situations. To tell yourself you’ve got all the time in the world.

Because you don’t.

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Happy Birthday, Halle Berry!

Things that make turning 49 less awful. Like Halle Berry.

Things that make turning 49 less awful. Like Halle Berry.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Leo, or an extrovert or just a raging narcissist but I’ve always loved my birthday. I love being the center of attention.

I’ve totally come to terms with it.

And maybe it’s because I grew up with so many siblings and never had a proper birthday party as a kid, or that my birthday falls during the summer so I always missed out on any sort of school celebration, but I usually organize some type of gathering of friends to help celebrate the day. And it doesn’t have to be just one event. Some years, I start celebrating my birthday as soon as the calendar page flips to August and squeeze in any number of birthday-related events – lunches, drinks, dinner. I consider August my birthday month and need to have as many people as possible pay attention to me.

One of my friends recently dubbed this phenomenon “Amy-ka” as the celebrations tend to drag over at least seven days.

But this year is different. This year I’m turning 49 and it doesn’t really make me feel like celebrating. What it really makes me feel like doing is sitting down in a dark room and looking at pictures of myself 10 years ago. Or making an appointment for a face-lift.

It seems I’ve hit an age snag.

And it’s ridiculous, I know. Any time I hear someone stressing about turning 40, I want to punch them in the face. I’m sure anyone reading this right now over the age of 50 would like to smack me, too.

In my head, I hear the good old Girl Whisperer telling me how good I’ve got it. My health and that of my children. Good friends. A nice roof over my head. Yes. Yes. Yes. I know all of this and am usually able to quickly reel myself in when my pity party goes into full swing.

I guess I just didn’t see it coming. I didn’t think 49 would trip me up like this.

Usually, I don’t even think about my age. If anything, inside I feel pretty young. I tend to like younger things – music, movies, zombies. Recently, I was sitting around on the beach talking to my group of Little Mommies. It’s what I’ve dubbed the ladies I’m friends with whose oldest children are all the same age as my little guy. And even though they range in age from about 40-45 and thus are not chronologically THAT much younger than I am, my experience with my three older children – the harrowing years between middle school and college graduation – have aged me considerably. In mom-years, I am probably double their tender ages.

So we were chatting about someone doing something and I was like, “Is she our age?” and then I thought about what I’d just said and rephrased. “And by that I mean is she 42?”

You see? A lot of times I usually forget how old I really am.

I’m just surprised to be nearing the end of my 40s. It’s been a great decade. I’ve done a lot of assessing and made a lot of changes to correct the course my life had been heading in the preceding four decades. I left my marriage, got a full-time job reporting, started a blog and was published in a national magazine. Not bad for some mommy whose claim to fame up to that point was successfully breastfeeding four children.

There’ve been some not-so-great parts, too, like losing said job and my attempts at dating, but let’s not go there right now, shall we? Let’s stay positive and all that.

But if I was going to be really honest, really expose a little bit of my soul to you, I’d also admit that some of my anxiety also stems from being 49 and single. A while ago I was out doing some errands and returned to my car to notice this on the rear windshield:

Seriously. Not. Funny.

Seriously. Not. Funny.

It turns out my younger daughter had put the stickers on as a joke but I freaked out and drove immediately to the car wash where I paid a man $5 to scrape it off the window. I mean, is this how I want people to see me as I drive around town in my mom-car? “Hey! How ya’ doin? I’m 49 and like cats and often drink wine by myself!”

Granted, all of these happen to be true, but still. This is a sad way to illustrate one’s life.

But here are two things that give me hope as I round the corner towards 49 (please notice I’ve mentioned nothing here about 50 because 50 is bullshit and I can’t think about that yet). Item #1 … an essay in the NYTimes this weekend by Dominique Browning about being too old for so much of the hand wringing I’ve just blathered on about.

She writes, “Young(er) women, take this to heart: Why waste time and energy on insecurity? I have no doubt that when I’m 80 I’ll look at pictures of myself when I was 60 and think how young I was then, how filled with joy and beauty.”

I read those lines while lying in my bed reading the Sunday paper and quickly grabbed my laptop, Googled the piece and shared it on Facebook. Not long after, not one but two friends texted and messaged the same link to me along with notes that the article had somehow reminded them of me.

I can think of worst ways to be thought of.

Here is the second tidbit that brings me comfort in my final hours of 48: Halle Berry turns 49 the day after I do.

Of course, Halle and I have literally nothing in common except we’re both women and Leos (she was born on Aug. 14, 1966). She has been blessed with smooth ebony skin and the money to do something about it should it begin to sag whereas I’ve hit the cheap Irish skin lottery that acts as a flimsy covering to withstand life’s slings and arrows. It’s like going through life wearing a white linen suit and not having the money to get it dry cleaned.

Regardless, I like knowing Halle is right behind me. And that we’re in good company. Robin Wright and Salma Hayek were also born in 1966. These women are no slouches. They are strong, accomplished and beautiful.

I like being in that boat of ladies. It helps make this milestone a little easier to pat as I pass it by like the giant planter I round when I get to the end of the boardwalk and start speed walking back towards home.

Here’s what I hope: that this is only the beginning for me. It took turning 40 to really shake me out of a decades-long reverie of complacency. Realizing then that I’d hit the halfway mark in life really made me sit up and take stock of things. And now that I’m starting to move briskly through that second half of life, I hope it’s time for another course correction. I hope I can point myself towards all the things I really want to do before it’s too late.

But, like everything else in life, nothing is free. Everything comes at a price. So if the fee for continued self awareness and living a more authentic life is a few more wrinkles on my face and that crepey thing happening on my eyelids, I guess I’m willing to pony up. In the end, I’d rather be the woman I am now at 49 rather than the more taut gal I was at 39. Hopefully this all makes 50 a little easier to swallow next year.

But first, I need to get through all those birthday celebrations.

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Where We Live

And just like that, it's time to go.

And just like that, it’s time to go.

I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but around here people tend to stick around. They buy a house, raise a family, send their children off into the world and then, quite often, the kids come back to buy their own house nearby and raise a family of their own and begin the cycle all over again.

I live in a town of about 6,000 people in New Jersey and it sits at the bottom of a peninsula that juts east towards the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded by two rivers. And while there are lots of fun things to do in and around those rivers – sailing, fishing, paddle boarding – for a lot of us, it’s all about the nearby beaches. There’s a bridge at the end of the peninsula that connects us to a skinny spit of land that is dotted with public beaches and beach clubs, which runs north and curls into Sandy Hook. This is where we spend a majority of our time in the summer months. Going to the beach. (Not the “shore.” Nobody around here goes to the “shore.”) But I mean, don’t get crazy. Nobody around here goes to Sandy Hook between Memorial and Labor days with outsiders. We stick to ourselves.

Because of the geography, we are a pretty insular community. We eat here. We drink here. We shop here. In fact, people always seemed shocked when I tell them I do most of my food shopping at the Wegman’s about 20 minutes away.

For Wegman’s, I am willing to travel.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when a bunch of the people who showed up for my open house this weekend already lived here in town. They all have young children and are starting to feel the pinch of their capes and ranches. They’re looking for a little more space to store all those bikes and American Girl dolls.

It was a busy two hours and I am thankful I had a wonderful friend help me show everyone around my house and point out the big garage that use to teem with scooters and pogo sticks and the finished basement where we stored our own impressive collection of American Girl and Bitty Baby merchandise. But now that garage is down to two bikes with flat tires and the basement is mostly a place to go play XBOX or smoke pot. Actually, I said that last part just to be funny but certain people around here have over the years thought the basement an excellent place to try to get stoned.

I’m giving selling my house without a realtor a shot and have to say that the Internet certainly makes marketing and getting the word out about an open house pretty easy. Most people who came through on Sunday had seen my “for sale” post on the almighty Zillow or through word-of-mouth, which I attribute to a few things I had posted on my own Facebook page that a lot of lovely people shared with their “friends.”

And so it was through the magic of the Internet that among the day’s visitors was the family that had lived here for 30 years, who saw that the house was on the market and stopped by Sunday afternoon to check it out. I had bought the house a dozen years ago from the people who had bought it from them. Those people were here two years, made some quick improvements and updates and a giant profit off us. What can I say? That’s the way the real estate cookie crumbles. I was super-pregnant with my fourth kid and crazy.

I had seen the former owner’s name here over the years. Every once in a while, some mass mailing arrives in my mailbox with her name on it. And I’d also pieced together that she had also gotten a divorce while living here but stayed in the house to raise her kids. I had developed an affinity for this woman I’d never met. I felt kind of a solidarity with her. A kinship. So I was thrilled to discover that the lovely woman standing in my foyer with a European accent was indeed the former owner who had arrived with her son, who’s now in his late 30s, and his wife.

And they were adorable.

He shouted, “No way!” a lot as they walked through the house and he pointed out different things to his wife, like the way the paneling in the den had been painted over or that the bar that had been in the basement was no longer there. I even discovered that the light hanging in the foyer was not some cool, Shabby Chic number that the people I had bought the house from had found in some upscale shop – because they acted like it was a big deal when I asked if they would leave it – was instead the same fixture that’s always been hanging there except it had been spray painted white.

Overall, they seemed pleased with the changes that had been made to the house in the 15 years since they moved. They liked how we combined the kitchen and dining room to make one big living space in the back of the house and how that now opened up to the family room in the front. They described how the back deck used to be higher up off the ground and how a pool table used to take up a big portion of the basement.

The son joked that had he known the house was going up for sale, he wouldn’t have just bought an apartment in Hoboken and they laughed about how weird that would have been.

After we’d said good-bye and I continued to show young families around the house, it occurred to me that that’s going to be me in 15 years. I’ll be in my mid-60s and my oldest son will be edging towards 40 (which is messed up, but whatever). I hope that someday we’ll be able to come back and see what has transpired here in our absence. I mean, the stuff you can see – like decks and kitchens. Whether or not this is a place to come and get divorced remains to be seen.

I did, however, get to peek recently at the house we lived in before we moved here. My oldest daughter and I had to pick something up from the family that’s lived there for I think over a decade and the owner asked us if we’d like to come in and look around. We’d moved there when that daughter, who’s now 21, was an infant and her older brother had just turned 2. We had another girl a few years later and so the house is mostly remembered by me as a place where I raised my babies. The kitchen that always had a high chair crammed in the corner or booster seats strapped to our old Ikea kitchen chairs. Where we’d spend rainy days around the table working with crayons and glitter and PlayDoh. On sunny spring afternoons we’d fill the big plastic pool I’d bought at ToysRUs with water and they happily splash the hours away or play in the nearby sandbox their dad had built for them one weekend. And the bathroom we built in our bedroom downstairs had a big Jacuzzi tub that easily accommodated three little soapy bodies to soak and make bubbly beards before bedtime.

In fact, it took me a long time to get over that house. I had terrible buyer’s remorse after we’d packed up every last Lego we’d accrued over eight years and moved to the bigger house across town. I regretted the impulse to upgrade our life. It turns out that bigger is not always better.

So my daughter and I walked around the house and a little bit down memory lane. The owner pointed out some things they had done – like refinish the basement – and some things that were the same – like the Dutch door that led out to the screened-in porch where we’d sit on summer nights and listen to a bullfrog croak in a nearby pond.

Once we sell this house, we’re still not going very far. We’re planning to stay in town. My youngest in going into seventh grade and we love our school system and I don’t want to pluck him from the middle school action and move to a nearby town. It’s bad enough that his parents are divorced.

I just want something smaller that I can afford along with my portion of two college tuitions and still get my hair done every six weeks.

And maybe some day one of my kids will come back and buy a house in town and we will be neighbors. When they were small, I liked to ask the kids where they thought they’d live when they grew up. Back then, I hoped they’d think bigger than I ever did and say they wanted to live in a big city or some exotic country. But now, in retrospect, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to just like what you have. What you know. Maybe I should have been proud when they answered, “Here, duh.”

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Finding the Courage to Sell My House

This week I posted the following on Facebook:

Making the leap.

Making the leap.

It’s been a move months in the making. Actually, compared to the other three major real estate transactions I’ve participated in, this go round was not a knee-jerk reaction precipitated by a pregnancy and raging hormones. I seemed to have made many big decisions in my 20s and 30s based on my heart and not on my head. I jumped right in and hoped for the best.

But this time, I wanted to take a more logical approach to buying and selling a home. I didn’t want my heart to get anywhere near the situation. Selling my current home is somewhat financial — I mean, two college tuitions suck — but mostly just a practical move. My kids are getting older and I don’t require all the space we needed so desperately a dozen years ago.

My parents separated the summer I turned 12 and the following year my mom got remarried and we pulled up stakes and moved an hour away. It was like the rug had been pulled out from under me and I never wanted my children to feel the same way. When I first got divorced it was critical to me that the kids’ lives weren’t turned upside down any more than was necessary. It was bad enough that their parents had to split up, I didn’t want them to have to move on top of that.

And that’s pretty much how I operated until a few months ago when I said something about moving to one of the kids and she was like, “What took you so long?”

As I mentioned in the Facebook post, I’ll miss a lot of the amenities around here, specifically my kitchen that still brings me great joy. I still come down to it every morning and can’t believe it’s mine. It makes all that counter wiping and taco cooking that I do a little less terrible.

Of course it would be easier just to stay put and hope for the best. But I’ve been down that road before and learned that as painful as change can be, it’s where you find the place you need to be rather than where you thought you were supposed to be.

Does that make sense?

But it took me a little bit to finally make the leap and put the sign up front. It seems sometimes, in the absence of hormones or an impending newborn, I have a hard time figuring out what to do. I’m afraid to dive off that ledge and do something that scares me.

But this week I did. I took a deep breath and jumped.

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