Tag Archives: family

Ten years later, this same niece instructed me, “Expand your color palette, Aunt Madeline,” after I had commented that the scarf she had selected for me in shades of gold and brown was unlike everything in my closet.

Expand your color palette


“Purple and green,” my five-year-old niece responded when I asked, “What is your favorite color?” I was planning to sew her a dress.

Purple and green? Two colors I would not have put together.

But to please her (and because I had asked) I set out to find fabric with those two colors. It turned out my niece knew more about colors than I did; I found lots of fabric in combinations of purple and green. How had I never noticed this color combination before?

Ten years later, this same niece instructed me, “Expand your color palette, Aunt Madeline,” after I had commented that the scarf she had selected for me in shades of gold and brown was unlike everything in my closet.

I doubt that my niece meant anything deeper than encouraging me to diversify the colors in my closet (I mainly wrote black clothes accessorized with colorful scarves), but simple words often hold deeper meanings.

Both her “favorite” color combination and her color palette comment have come back to me on numerous occasions—sometimes when I am considering a clothing purchase, but also when I find myself looking at something as I always have and am resistant to change the way I see, those times when I hold tight to what I believe, when I know what I know.

What if I could see things differently? What if I expanded my palette to see situations from different perspectives?

“Look for golf balls in the trees,” our Alaskan tour guide instructed us. “Each one is the head of an Eagle.” Where before I could not find even one Eagle, all of a sudden I saw many; trees were full of them. They were right before my eyes; I only needed to know what I was looking for.

This kind of looking and seeing requires an awareness and an openness. I need to be able to admit that I have narrow vision and preconceived ideas in order to consider seeing in a different way. And I need to be open to reality from a different perspective.

Difficult for me to do, especially because I like my views—and my friends tend to agree with me—so I must be right—right? What if God does not care about my need to be right?

After the U.S. presidential election last fall, a friend got an interesting assignment in her inter-faith dialogue group. The group leader invited them to interview someone who had voted for the “other” candidate. The caveat was that they were just to listen to the response—not to challenge the person’s decision or to defend their own votes, but just to listen.vulnerability-God-spiritualitySo often, I think I know why people do what they do—without even asking.

What if God is inviting me to ask questions and listen for answers that might not support my view? What if God is asking me to use my eyes to see and my ears to hear? To truly expand my palette?




expectations-family-letting go

Unmet expectations

So Abram said to Lot: Let there be no strife between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are kinsmen. (Genesis 13:8)

“You have a perfect family,” my friend Jim used to tell me. Of course, he knew the quirks and dysfunctions of my family, but it was his way of reminding me to intentionally look for the good—and to be grateful.expectations-family-letting goI was reminded of this the other day when I was praying for the people on my prayer list—a hand-written list I keep in my Liturgy of the Hours book. Some people on the list are very close to me—family and friends—and others are people I have been asked to pray for, people I often don’t even know, but who have undergone some great suffering—divorce, illness, job loss, etc.

Several of the families lost children to drug overdoses or suicides. Others have been shattered by misunderstandings, betrayal, or some other dysfunction. Illness, accidents, drugs, alcohol, mental illness—the list of things that can go wrong in a family is long.

Four years ago, I moved home to be near my family. It was a good move for me, and I am deeply grateful for the way my family (both immediate and extended) has welcomed me and created a space for me in their lives. I feel blessed by my relatives, but I know that not everyone has that same experience.

Sometimes families are like Abram and Lot who “could not dwell together.” (Genesis 13:6) Abram was wise to recognize the issues and address them, but I am not sure that happens very often. More often, I think people hold onto an image of what they think a family should be.expectations-family-letting goA friend recently told me that her brother had manipulated their mother into taking $10,000 from the bank and giving it to him. It is, of course, not about the money—whether it is $10,000, $100,000 or $10—it is about the manipulation and sense of betrayal.

Letting go of unrealistic expectations can be so difficult, but holding onto them is much more painful. Wishing and hoping that people will act in a certain way is a set-up for disappointment.expectations-family-letting goBut it must be fairly common to have high expectations for our families, because I keep meeting people who are surprised by some relative’s actions—like my friend who expected her brother to keep his hands off their mother’s money.

My family was perfect in that it was a great training ground for me in letting go. As a young child, I learned that more often than not things were not going to turn out as I hoped, so I needed to readjust my expectations. Over time, I have learned to ask God, What is the invitation in this? What am I to learn when my expectations are not met, when I am disappointed?

The lesson is usually about my unrealistic expectations, and the invitation is to let go.expectations-family-letting go






Giving thanks

For seven years, I was the director of an adult literacy program in suburban Philadelphia. Immigrants from many countries filled our English as a Second Language classes, but most of the students in our family literacy program were from South Korea.

As part of this program, we hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner each year. It was a way to introduce immigrants to this cultural holiday and teach them some of our customs, including the foods we traditionally eat on Thanksgiving. Our staff prepared most of the food, but students were given recipes for side dishes and invited to contribute if they wanted.

Invariably, a few of the students would bring dishes from their culture, and we would include the kimchi and rice in our Thanksgiving meal.

Our guests at the literacy council Thanksgiving dinners would gingerly try bites of turkey and cranberry sauce, and I loved watching them register the different tastes and textures. Food is an important part of any culture, and this dinner was a wonderful opportunity for people to try something new.

I wished my parents had attended such a class.

Growing up, we never had turkey for Thanksgiving; apparently turkeys were not available in Poland. We had ham or kielbasa or stuffed cabbage and a duck soup that I fear most Americans would not even try. Mashed potatoes were probably the only thing our Thanksgiving dinners had in common with the rest of America.


My mother did not care when I came home from school excited about traditional Thanksgiving dinners; she had never cooked a turkey and did not see the need for it.

Being thankful was what the holiday was about to her, and I could see her point. But I always felt a bit odd when kids talked about turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce—and I had nothing to contribute.

I have since come to understand that while we tend to think of one “traditional” American Thanksgiving dinner, the truth is that people in different regions of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds personalize Thanksgiving dinner. A simple Google search of “turkey stuffing” brings up hundreds of different recipes.

Merging cultures is part of the American tradition, and kimchi would have been as foreign to our Thanksgiving dinners growing up as the creamed onions I once had at a friend’s home in suburban Philadelphia or the Southern cornbread stuffing I was served in Virginia.

Recalling all those dinners this Thanksgiving made me think of the ways Americans can segregate ourselves into groups that reinforce our beliefs and allow us to stay in our comfort zones. We can tell ourselves that the Norman Rockwell portrait of a Thanksgiving dinner is the only true portrait, but that is just not true. Our country is made up of people from many different cultures and the blending of those cultures makes our country unique.

Honoring our heritage is important, but moving beyond our comfort zones makes life more interesting. Maybe it is time to try some kimchi.

Celebrating a life

We are celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday today. Her mother lived to be ninety-six; good genes.

My mother still does her own grocery shopping, cooks her own meals and takes care of her house. She loves to play cards, and every summer she plants and harvests a large garden. She still drives and even cleans her own gutters. A few weeks ago, she shoveled snow. Until a few years ago, she walked three miles a day, six days a week.

She is indomitable and fiercely independent. I once called her stubborn—only once. “I am not stubborn,” she admonished sternly. “I just know what I want,” she added. And that she does. She goes after what she wants, no matter the obstacles.

If someone was looking for subjects for a “mind-over-matter” study, I would recommend my mother. She is amazing in her ability to keep moving forward, surmounting every hurdle.

My mother does not like change—or, as she would say, she likes things to stay the same (she is a pro at the positive spin). My dad used to say you could set your watch by my mother’s schedule: breakfast by 8:00 a.m., lunch at noon and supper at 5:00 p.m.

Her parents emigrated from Poland at the beginning of the twentieth century. They had been farmers in Poland and were farmers in northern Michigan. My mother is the seventh of ten children.

As a young adult, she moved to Detroit and got a job at a Polish restaurant. There she met my father, a cop whose parents were also Polish immigrants. My parents spoke Polish as their first language, and I grew up hearing them speak Polish to one another and to their parents.

Frugality was a way of life on the farm, and my mother did not moved much beyond that, even when her finances would allow. Frugal and resistant to change, my mother repaired rather than replaced most everything. We darned socks and replaced stretched-out elastic. She composts directly into her garden and flower beds, and I think she was the inspiration for the motto, reuse, reduce, recycle.

The habits my mother learned on the farm also shaped our lives, and even though we lived in the city, we were awakened every morning by 7:30 a.m. “You’re sleeping the day away,” she would say. There were no cows to milk or eggs to collect, but that made no difference. Rising early is a virtue in my mother’s eyes.

Every day started with a full breakfast—usually pancakes, waffles or eggs—and we had meat and potatoes most every night for supper (fish on Fridays being the exception).  My mother cooked for us kids and then she made another meal for my dad, something traditionally Polish, like picked pigs feet or something with sauerkraut. Taking care of her family is what my mother has done for the past seventy years.

Today we celebrate a long life and say, Sto lat—that’s Polish for happy birthday and many more.


Sacred emptiness

I recently returned to Pennsylvania, to the place where I spent most of my adult life. Everything was wonderfully familiar—streets, stores, restaurants, and most importantly, people. This is the place where I have a strong support network, created over a thirty-seven year period, where I have friends who know me, accept me and love me.

My five-day trip included lots of visiting, and each friend asked how I am doing in my new home and new job. “I am fine,” I would say, and then go on to talk about my work and friends and being near my family. Although I miss my life in PA, I have no regrets about moving back home. I love the daily interactions with my family that are now possible, and I shared stories of everyday experiences with my mother, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. My hopes for being near my family have been fulfilled beyond my expectations.

And yet, with every friend in PA, I found myself talking about the emptiness I feel because I am not in close proximity to them. I became aware as I spoke that my hands formed a circle, as though I were holding a beach ball. This invisible circle sat securely in my lap as I talked about how different my life is without them. The circle formed by my hands is the image of the emptiness I carry with me.

“Move back,” a number of friends suggested, but that is not the right move for me.

Some people in Michigan have suggested I become more involved, that I find more activities to fill the emptiness. But that does not feel right to me either. This emptiness is not one that can be eliminated by activity. It cannot be filled up or covered over. It is an emptiness that begs to be honored, to be held sacred. It is an emptiness I need to live with and move through on its own timeline.

This emptiness reminds me of all I had in PA, and it makes me deeply grateful. I have had a rich, full life—too many blessings to count. That life of old friends and familiar places still exists, only it is two states away from where I am now. I don’t want to forget what was; I want to honor my past.

The empty circle also holds the promise, the hope of what can be, what will be—in time and with patience.

Little by little, I know the edges of my loss and sadness are being softened, the circle of emptiness becoming smaller as I am gradually meeting new people, discovering new places and creating a new life in my new home.

In a few weeks, my church will begin the season of Advent, a time of hope and promise. But this year, I think Advent has come early for me. My awareness of this circle of emptiness is the sign that I am already waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

Cultural Differences

I work in a literacy program in southwest Detroit, near a neighborhood known as Mexicantown.

One day, a coworker was commenting on how some of our students go back to Mexico for extended periods, usually to visit a sick relative and usually taking their children out of school for the trip. She is shocked at how little regard they seem to have for their children’s education.

“It’s cultural,” I observed. Not her culture. She could not imagine taking her children out of school.

“My mom used to pull us out of school for a week every fall,” I remembered.

“What?” she exclaimed.

I explained that my mother grew up on a farm in northern Michigan and my grandparents grew potatoes, which were harvested in the fall. Although my mother was one of ten children, only one remained on the farm and when it was time to harvest the potatoes, my mother returned home to help, taking her children with her.

The schools up north incorporated harvesting times into their school calendars; but Detroit Public Schools paid no attention to agrarian cycles, and my mother paid no attention to the Detroit Public Schools. Farming was in her blood, and helping her parents was her priority.

As we spoke, images of harvesting potatoes flooded my mind, images I had not thought of in many years.

A digger was hitched to the back of a tractor—giant metal talons which sunk deep into the earth and jostled the ground, gently dislodging the potatoes. I loved watching the digger dancing along the rows. In its wake sat piles of potatoes, previously hidden and now miraculously revealed.

It was magic to me, and I never minded missing school to participate in this annual ritual.

What I did mind was the corresponding week in spring when we would make the trek to the farm to pick rocks. My uncle once explained to me that while potatoes grew all summer and were dug up in the fall, rocks grew all winter and needed to be dug up in the spring before the plows could ready the fields for planting. “Why do you plant them?” I would whine to him. Picking up rocks was not as magical as digging up potatoes.

I really believed rocks grew, until I was about eleven and consulted an encyclopedia to learn about the geological formations in northern Michigan and the nature of frozen ground heaving.

My co-worker looked at me in amazement as I related this story. Yes, even though my mother pulled me out of school twice a year, I had turned out ok. We may have missed some academic lessons but we were still learning—about nature and farming and the importance of helping out family.

Genetic Clothe

After visiting my cousin Marlene when she had pancreatic cancer, I commented to a friend, “I hope I would not be in that much denial if I ever got sick, but I am cut from the same genetic clothe as Marlene and I don’t know what I would do if I were in her situation.”

Marlene’s sickness and death was a catalyst for me to move home, and now that I am here, I am getting in touch with my “genetic clothe;” I am learning about myself, just by being in the place where I grew up and around my family.

This past weekend, my mother and I went “up north,” 240 miles to northeastern Michigan, to the place where my mother grew up and where I still have relatives. An aunt and a cousin live down the dirt road from my grandparents’ farmhouse. Another cousin is converting the farmhouse into a hunting lodge.

While we were up north, I saw several cousins; a few were tending to their deer blinds in anticipation of the upcoming hunting season. Yes, my family hunts.

Neither of my parents hunted, and it was not something I ever did. Over the years, though, I have received annual reports—who hunted during bow and arrow season or who shot a deer.

This weekend, one of my cousins asked if I wanted to ride with him to his blind. I had seen blinds before, but this ride was on a four-wheeler, and I had never been on a four-wheeler. I said, “yes.”

We drove past my grandparents’ farmhouse and into the woods. Along the way, my cousin pointed out sights from our childhood. One spot was where the original hunting lodge had been, a favorite play house for us as kids. It is long gone, but the clearing remains. And then we crossed the spring-fed creek, clear and icy-cold; as a child, I loved drinking from that spring.

We continued deep into the woods until we reached his blind, poised on a beautiful little clearing, with a good vantage point for sighting deer.

I can’t quite imagine myself hunting, in the same way I can’t see myself parasailing or even golfing. I’ve got nothing against those activities, but if I had four free hours, I would rather read a book.

So, maybe I’ll go up north during hunting season to spend some time with my family, and while they are out hunting, I will sit in the lodge and read.