Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Gift of Time

Once upon a time, my whole life revolved around being a stay-at-home mother to five little boys: five precious souls entrusted to me by God, five gifts He generously bestowed upon me--gifts that I still can hardly believe He thought I was worthy to receive. I was humbly grateful to have been chosen to be their mom, and I tried to do my best by them; but I'm sure that I made many mistakes (both by commission and omission) in shepherding them along in their journeys to adulthood.  I do, however, have faith that the best mother of all, Our Blessed Mother, filled in for me whenever I fell short in my duties.  (Thank you for that, dear Mother!)

When they were little, it was hard to imagine that there would ever come a day when our boys wouldn't all be sleeping under our roof, so that I could sneak in during the night to make sure their little chests were still moving up and down, and all was well--much less that they'd have homes and families of their own.  I mean, for goodness sake, look at this picture of our two oldest, taken in 1987 (or YESTERDAY, it seems).

They were the cutest little fellas (said their very unbiased mommy), blond-haired and blue-eyed, with stocky little bodies and matching plaid shirts.  Their personalities couldn't have been more different; and yet they shared all the same interests over the years: cars and trains, then dinosaurs and drawing, followed by football and lacrosse.  They both liked to be the best at whatever they tried, whether it was a sport or a subject in school.  They had a competitive streak that made them excel both on the field and in the classroom--and full disclosure, also led to occasional bickering over video games and controllers being hurled at walls in frustration.  But the same jokes and TV shows and movie lines made them laugh, and they laughed together often.

They were very good boys--and I don't say that because I've got my rose-colored glasses on.  When I hear about what some kids will put their parents through, I realize just how great we had it with our boys.  We expected a lot of them, behavior-wise: talking back was not an option; and going to inappropriate movies or unsupervised high school parties wasn't either--no matter how many of their friends were allowed to go.  We were strict (stricter than most of their peers' parents), but if they felt oppressed they mostly kept their feelings to themselves.  There were no screaming matches in our house.  I'm sure it was hard sometimes to be the kids who always had to ask permission first, and heard "no" more often than they would have liked; but they abided by our rules and in general, life with teenaged boys was pretty sweet at Casa Pearl.

These two oldest of ours set a tone for the three younger brothers that came after them, who also grew up anxious to do well in all their endeavors and to keep out of trouble.  I know some people imagine a house filled with growing boys as a giant fistfight/wrestling match, but it really wasn't like that at all.  Whenever I think of my experience as a mother, I feel incredibly blessed.  I thought I was just about the luckiest woman on earth to be surrounded by funny and energetic little boys, then happy and endearing grade-schoolers, then kind-hearted, intelligent, and witty high-schoolers. Yes, when I had three boys under three, I had days when I didn't feel like there was enough of me to go around.  Yes, there were times when I felt like tearing my hair out.  Yes, my husband and I sometimes sighed with relief when bedtime finally rolled around.  Yet even so, I can honestly say that it was all good--every single phase they went through had its pluses.

But nothing could have prepared me for how incredibly AWESOME it would be to have grown-up sons.  Those two little guys in the matching shirts?  They are both married now and currently have eight children between them (son #1 has four girls and a boy, and son #2 is so far taking after his mom and dad, with three little boys aged 3 and under).  They are still sweet.  They are still funny.  They are still loving and respectful in their dealings with their parents.  And these days, they make me feel like they are the ones who are taking care of me.  They are very protective.  They sometimes take me on mother-son dates.  They assure me that no matter what, their dad and I will always have a place to live ("the best nursing home money can buy," they like to quip).

So don't be afraid of your children growing up and "leaving" you, young mamas.  They may have to move far away, geographically, because of work or whatever; but they don't ever really leave you.  And not only that, they will bring new people to love into your life, making it richer than it ever was when they were "yours" alone and lived under your roof.

Here are some pictures of me with sons #1 and #2, taken recently when we met up with three of our boys and their families at a lake in VA, to celebrate the 8th birthday of our firstborn's twin daughters, the oldest of our 14 grandchildren.  (Son #4 was there to celebrate, too, with his wife and 21-month-old triplets; but they'd had to head home before these pictures were snapped, to rest up after spending a few exhausting hours chasing after those little monkeys--who like to take off in three different directions at once!)

I am so proud of these thirty-something boys of mine, I can hardly stand it.  Imagine heart-eye emojis all over this page.  They are hardworking men, devoted husbands, hands-on dads, and most importantly, they consider raising their children in the Faith their prime responsibility.  I love them so much--for all they were, and for all they've become.

I could sit around feeling sad that my nest is empty, and feeling sorry for myself because I'm getting old...but look at those pictures, folks.  I mean, truly, who wouldn't want to be me?  When they were loud and scruffy little ruffians, running around doing what little boys do, my husband would say, "Just think: someday you'll have tall, strapping young lads walking along on either side of you, and they'll treat their mom like a queen."  Well, that day has definitely come.

You can either bemoan the passage of time, or you can celebrate it.  I choose to celebrate it.

Especially when I see the same plaid shirt worn in that 1987 picture on son #2's firstborn boy, Junior (because my daughter-in-law Ginger shares my sentimental streak when it comes to vintage clothing once worn by her husband).

If I'd frozen time to keep my boys with me forever, I wouldn't have had the joy of knowing the two little guys in this photo--who give me a distinct feeling of deja vu!--or their baby brother and 11 Pearl cousins (and counting).

Luckily, time marches on.  Because in spite of the wrinkles and gray hairs that appear, and the jaw lines that turn soft and jowly, time is not my enemy.  One day, my time here in this world will be at an end; but until then, every extra minute, hour, day, week, month, and year I am privileged to enjoy brings with it a new blessing.

As if I haven't been given enough already, God, thank you for the gift of time!

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Green Door for Oyster Haven

My husband and I are currently in Upstate NY, cleaning and doing odd jobs at our VRBO lakeside rental, which we named Oyster Haven after we bought it in the fall of 2015.  (We opened it for business in the summer of 2016.)

A while back, I blogged about the name of the house and where it came from, and how eerily apropos it was--considering how Irish our family is, especially on my husband's side.  (Here's the link to that old post that explains everything, in case you're interested.)

If you don't want to bother reading the post, I'll just tell you that we named our house before we knew that there was actually a place in County Cork called Oyster Haven Bay--and when I realized we had inadvertently given it an Irish name I was beyond tickled, let me tell you.
This 5x7" photo (taken at the Oyster Haven in Ireland) hangs in the kitchen of our lake house,
a nod to its Irish cousin across the ocean.

Anyhoo, our Oyster Haven is a lovely old farm house, the main part of which dates back to about 1830.  (An addition was added in the 1940's, and about 10 years ago the kitchen and bathrooms got some major upgrades.)  Right now, the poor old girl is peeling on the outside and badly in need of a paint job, but we recently had a new roof put on.  (Having a leak that causes the ceiling in one of the upstairs bedrooms to almost fall down will make a new roof happen lickety-split, dontcha know.)  We are hoping to have a fresh coat of white paint applied by this fall; but in the meantime, I thought the least we could do would be to give the front door a facelift.

From the road, it doesn't look too bad.  But the paint on the door (which has been that same blue hue since we bought the house) had faded quite a bit, and when my husband put a new combination lock on it recently and touched it up, the paint he found in a rusted can in the basement no longer matched what was on the door.

I decided that maybe as long as we had to repaint it anyway, we should go with something a little more bold and daring (and a little more Irish).

I was inspired by a scene from the John Wayne movie The Quiet Man.  His character, Sean Thornton, goes back to Ireland to reclaim his family's ancestral home, White 'o Morn, and he decides to paint the front door green.  I love the line from Mrs. Playfair, who pays a visit and says to Sean, "Only an American would have thought of emerald green."

Hey, Sean Thornton had a new roof put on, too, just like us!  (Only ours is not thatched...)

Yes, I decided, our front door just had to be green.  Emerald green, or Kelly green, or whatever you want to call it.  There wasn't another color that would do!  I painted it today--and oh, do I love the way it looks!

The blue was fine, it was...

...but the green--in my opinion--is so much better!

What do you think?!

That's it for me, today, folks.  But this green door, and all this talk about The Quiet Man, has got me in the mood for some Irish music.  So I'll leave you with this offering from a band called Flogging Molly.

And how about this one, from the Face Vocal Band, while we're at it.

Until next time...

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

An Open Book: Novels about WWII-Era Heroes

Over the course of the past few months I have devoured seven novels, all of them set during Word War II and all featuring heroic men and women who were as courageous and daring as the soldiers fighting at the front lines.  Some of these amazing individuals, in fact, served as nurses right near those lines and sacrificed their own comfort and safety to tend to the wounded and dying.  Others did whatever they could on the home front, working tirelessly, in secret, to hide the hunted or feed the starving, often at the risk of their own lives.  Still others strived to make life within the walls of Nazi concentration camps bearable for the suffering victims imprisoned there.

I have always been drawn to historical fiction--but particularly to works of that genre that are set in the 1940's, the era of the "Greatest Generation," where the Second World War is the backdrop for the story.  What people had to endure back then--especially in Europe--is unimaginable to those of us who have never known true want or need in the course of our lives, even when our country has been at war.  These days, when our brave men and women are fighting for our freedom abroad, we here in "the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" are not waiting in lines to get enough food to keep us from starving or experiencing any hardships even remotely similar to those endured by many poor souls during that turbulent time.  No, life goes on almost exactly as usual.  When our oldest son, at the time an Army officer and helicopter pilot, was deployed to Iraq for a year back in 2008, my husband and I realized that his life would be one of total self- sacrifice; therefore, we thought that the least we could do was to impose some Lenten-like sacrifices on ourselves.  So we gave up some favorite foods and entertainments for the year (one of them for me was reading novels--one of my best-loved rainy day or sunny day or any day activities).

I know novels are not "real"; but the authors who wrote the books I'm going to share here today all did extensive research to get every detail right, and their works have a ring of authenticity.  Some of these stories were also based on real people and events--which gives credence to the saying that "the truth is stranger than fiction."  You couldn't make this stuff up, truly you couldn't; and yet scenarios that were equal parts terrifying, heartbreaking, and inspiring, such as those described in these works of fiction, actually did happen.  In real life.

First up, a novel called The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan.

I love to bake, so the title was what drew me to this book--on a Sam's shopping trip with my husband, where we were supposed to be buying groceries but I couldn't help browsing the book section!  When I read the synopsis on the back cover, that paperback was in our cart before you could blink your eyes.

This story is about a 22-year-old girl named Emma who lives in a Nazi-occupied village on the Normandy coast of France.  All the young and able-bodied men are off fighting the war, and the women, children, and elderly people left behind are waging their own battles to find enough food to stay alive.  Emma had apprenticed with the village baker, an older gentleman named Ezra, and when the Germans realize that she can make mouthwateringly delicious bread, she is ordered to bake a dozen baguettes a day for the occupying troops and given a steady ration of flour to do so.  Emma stealthily begins to add increasing amounts of sawdust into the dough, so that eventually she can create two extra loaves each day (with the Germans none the wiser!) which she distributes to the most needy in her village.  She begins to build a huge secret network of barter and trade in an effort to help her friends and neighbors survive the occupation.

Emma's clandestine activities are exceedingly dangerous, of course.  And Ezra is Jewish, so you can imagine this will play into the story, too. I won't say more because you should read this book!

Next up is Teresa Messineo's The Fire by Night, a page-turner of a novel.

I won't lie: the appealing cover artwork made me want to buy this paperback book.  I knew right away that it was about the era that intrigues me more than all others.  Then when I read the back cover and realized it tells the story of two American WWII nurses working on different fronts--one named Jo, who tends to the wounded in a makeshift field hospital near the front lines in war-torn France, and the other named Kay, who strives to help her fellow prisoners suffering at the hands of sadistic captors in a Japanese POW camp in Manila--I knew I had to read it.  I have always been in awe of nurses, and often thought that if I had wanted to work instead of stay at home with my boys (and if I'd been born a much less squeamish person!), being a nurse would have appealed to me more than any other profession.  I couldn't wait to dive into this novel.

This is another book that I wholeheartedly recommend.  It is an exceedingly well-written debut novel by a homeschooling mom of four who spent seven years doing exhaustive research before she began writing it.  And there is even a wonderful love story included, but I don't want to give any spoilers because you really should read it yourself.  You will come away inspired by the indomitable courage of these women--characters who are not real people but definitely resemble actual WWII nurses whose courage and strength they mirror.  It is an unforgettable, deeply inspiring book.

The next three titles I'm going to share here are stories about the Holocaust, and although they are told as fiction they were all inspired by real people and events.

Karolina's Twins, by Ronald H. Balson, will keep you turning the pages long after you should have turned out your bedside lamp and gone to sleep!

This is the second novel I've read by this talented author (the first was Once We Were Brothers, for which I wrote a review here at the blog, four years ago).  The same husband-and-wife team from that first book--private investigator Liam Taggart and attorney Catherine Lockhart--combine their skills to help an elderly woman named Lena Woodward solve the mystery about the fate of some loved ones who disappeared back in Nazi-occupied Poland during the war. When Lena's best friend Karolina dies (like so many others did during the harsh Polish winter, when they were forced to do slave labor for the Nazis while wasting away from starvation), Lena becomes the caretaker of Karolina's two small orphaned twin daughters.  Now nearing the end of her life, she is obsessed with finding out what happened to the twins.  Her son thinks she is going crazy (he doesn't really believe Karolina's twins ever existed), but Taggart and Lockhart disagree and they are determined to help Lena solve the mystery.  The story jumps back and forth in time, from present-day Chicago to World War II-era Poland, and this is a technique that this author employs skillfully.  I love his writing style--and I so enjoy how the engaging characters Taggart and Lockhart interact.  Their sometimes humorous exchanges keep a book that tells a very dark and depressing story from getting too overwhelming.  And there's even a surprising twist.

The character of Lena is based on a real woman whom the author met while doing research for the novel.  And again, the research he did was obviously extensive.  This is another novel (and author) that I highly recommend.  It's simply a great story, heart-wrenching but ultimately uplifting, another fine example of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity.

Another thoroughly engrossing novel that was based on actual people and events is The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris.

You're going to see a pattern with these books...because like all the ones I've talked about in this post already, this haunting novel illustrates that there is nothing more powerful, more indomitable, than the human spirit--even in the most horrific circumstances imaginable, even when facing the most insurmountable odds.  The fact that it is based on a true story--about a Jewish man at Auschwitz named Lale Sokolov, whose job it was to permanently mark his fellow prisoners with the numbers by which their captors identified them--makes it even more poignant.  Furthermore, the fact that Lale falls in love with a woman named Gita, whose skin he is forced to mark in this way, and that their relationship actually has the chance to blossom and grow in the midst of all the suffering and fear in the Nazi death camp, is proof of the tremendous power of love.  Lale Sokolov believes in love at first sight, and if you didn't before, you will by the time you turn the last page of this book.

Because of his job as a tattooist, Lale holds a privileged position among his fellow prisoners, and he uses every opportunity at his disposal to try to help them--repeatedly risking his own safety and even his very life in the process.  This is a tough book; any story about the Holocaust--with its countless examples of man's inhumanity to man--is bound to be.  But ultimately, this brilliantly executed novel is also about Christ-like sacrificial love, resilience, and hope.  I enthusiastically recommend it.

I recently read another novel set in that terrifying and deadly place:  Auschwitz Lullaby, by Mario Escobar.

This novel is based on a real-life heroine named Helene Hannemann, a woman who could have remained safe and free but chose instead to accompany her beloved family to Auschwitz.  Her husband is of Romani heritage (a "Gypsy"), and therefore so are her five children.  The Romani people are one of the groups targeted by Hitler's thugs.  Helene is a "pure-bred" German and thus safe from the Nazi invaders; but when the SS demands that her family be taken into custody, she insists on going with them.

Once in the camp, the infamously monstrous Dr. Mengele asks Helene to organize a school for the Romani children, and she agrees, using her relatively privileged position as a non-Jewish, non-Romani German citizen to do as much for the children as she can, creating for them as safe a haven as one could hope to find inside the fences of that terrible camp.  Helene will be given the opportunity to save herself, but will she? Can she save the Romani children in her care? Will she and her family survive the horrors of Auschwitz?

This is a spell-binding story of courage, kindness, and once again, of Christ-like sacrificial love.  I was inordinately touched by it.  I couldn't stop thinking about Helene Hannemann and her incredible selflessness and strength, long after I'd finished the last chapter.  I guarantee if you choose to read this beautiful testament to the power of the human spirit over adversity, you will not be disappointed.

Thus far, the novels I've highlighted here have told stories about characters' experiences in Western Europe and the Far East during WWII; this next one tells what things were like in Stalin's Russia during that same period.

Kristin Hannah's Winter Garden is an absolutely enthralling, epic tale, with some of the most heart-wrenching scenes I've read in modern literature, and I really don't think you want to miss it!

I have heard that Hannah's The Nightengale is also an excellent novel, and after reading this one I believe I may have to put that title on my "to read" list!  If it is even half as well-written and engrossing as this incredibly affecting tale of suffering and perseverance, of brokenness and forgiveness, and more than anything else, of the fierceness of a mother's love, I'm sure it's a winner.

In Winter Garden, this extremely capable author goes back and forth in time, between Leningrad in 1941 and Washington state in 2000.  Anya Whitson is now an elderly woman of Russian descent who used to tell her adult daughters, Nina and Meredith, fairy tales about a girl named Vera and her Russian prince.  But she was a cold and distant mother the whole time they were growing up, and they relied almost completely on their American-born father for parental affection.  They stopped being interested in Anya's fables years ago.

Knowing he's close to death, their father worries that his girls will drift away from their mother, whom he loves deeply, after he's gone; so he begs Nina and Meredith to let their mother tell them the whole fairy tale.  As more and more details emerge, they begin to realize that perhaps their mother has been telling a true story all along.  And then they begin to wonder if the person she calls Vera is actually Anya herself.  Most astoundingly, they learn that perhaps their mother is not an unfeeling person at all, but has endured such heartbreaking losses that she has put up a wall around herself all these years as a defense mechanism.

I'd heard, of course, that millions of people died under Stalin's dictatorship--most of them from starvation; but I knew little to nothing about what life was like in Russia during WWII. I've always been more interested in what was going on in the European war theater.  This book was a revelation to me.  And ultimately, it was one of the most touching books I have ever read.  As a mother, it is almost impossible to comprehend what Anya had endured as a young woman living in war-torn Leningrad; there are passages that will make you weep.  But ultimately, Winter Garden is a story of hope, of family love, and of the courage and fortitude of one determined young woman, who persevered and almost to her own surprise survived some of the most harrowing experiences imaginable.

Three words: read this book!

Finally, I read an engaging and very enlightening novel called The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard, a story set inTennessee in 1944.  This is another book that grabbed me with the cover graphics right off the bat.

June Walker is a wide-eyed 18-year-old girl who goes to work at a place not far from where she grew up known as Oak Ridge, alongside soldiers, scientists, and other workmen.  She and many other young women become residents of a secret city that is a military reservation; they are told, "What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here."  They know that what they are doing will help to win the war, but they aren't allowed to ask questions about the machines they man or to talk about what they do to outsiders.  Unbeknownst to June and the other "Atomic City girls" who work at the facility with her, they are actually monitoring machines that are enriching the uranium that will eventually be used in the atomic bombs that are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I've heard of the Manhattan Project, and of course knew that many scientists worked to create the powerful weapons that brought an end to the war.  But I really had no idea that a place like Oak Ridge existed, and that naïve young people like June Walker were put to work to move this top-secret project along.  This was a very interesting and informative book, complete with official Department of Energy photos from the period.  (I believe this could be used in a high school classroom setting, when studying about WWII.)  It was populated with characters I cared about and was quite well-written.  I give it two thumbs up.

Okay, before I sign off, here is a quick plug for my own first novel, Finding Grace:

I have always been a huge fan of stories set in WWII that feature characters who triumph over adversity, who endure the most horrific kinds of suffering and live to see better days, with their faith intact--especially stories about the Holocaust that show man at his worst but also at his very best and finest, his bravest and most self-sacrificing.  When I set out to write what I thought would be my one-and-only novel, I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate something about the Holocaust into the book, even though it was a story about a young Catholic girl coming of age in the early 1970's.  So I gave Grace Kelly some across-the-street elderly neighbors named the Perlmanns, who had survived Auschwitz and moved to the US after the camps were liberated.  I think that section gave the book some added depth and a bit of an historical fiction component.

Okay then, that's it for me.  Congratulations if you're still here--this was a long one!   But this is what happens when I start talking about how I cannot resist well-written novels set in WWII...

Now head on over to Carolyn's Open Book link-up for more great reading suggestions.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Suzy Homemaker at Heart

My daughters-in-law, who are all in the thick of raising young children, toddlers, and babies, make comments from time to time about how immaculate my little house (a.k.a. my empty nest where no offspring live anymore) here in VA usually looks.  The toilets sparkle!  It smells good (as in, it doesn't smell like dirty diapers)!  There is little-to-no clutter (because we decluttered like nobody's business when we sold our house--filled with 26 years' worth of raising our boys--in NH two years ago).

Sometimes it makes me feel a little embarrassed--like it's possible that I spend too much time cleaning when I should be doing more important things.

But I have ALWAYS been a neatnik, even as a little girl.  (Even as a teenager!)  From the time I was about eight, I always had my own bedroom.  In our family, there was an older brother, then me, then a younger brother, and finally two younger sisters close in age.  So it just happened to work out that the boys shared a room, the "little" girls shared a room, and I had my own--at least until I left for college.  This was probably the best arrangement I could have asked for, because I craved order, and my two little sisters most certainly did not.  It was natural for me to keep my clothes folded and put away in drawers, or hung up in the closet, rather than strewn about the floor.  My bed was usually made, and the books and knickknacks on my built-in shelves were carefully arranged.  I thought of my bedroom as my own little "apartment," where I could escape to read or listen to 45's on my portable record player in peace.  (It was an introvert's paradise!)  My parents used to use me as an example for my brothers and sisters, much to my dismay--"Why can't you make your beds, like Laura does?"--but the truth is that I didn't do it to earn any brownie points with them; I did it because I loved having a neat and orderly hideaway of my own.

I also learned to bake as a young girl, because I definitely had a sweet tooth but my parents couldn't afford to stock the pantry with store-bought goodies, snacks, and desserts.  However, there was usually a box of Bisquik on hand for making pancakes, and some basic staples like sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, eggs, and margarine.  And thus, my lifelong love of making coffee cakes--and baking in general--was born.  (I even tried homemade doughnuts once, and they were delectable!)  It was part of my weekend routine for a number of years, starting at about the age of 10, to make Tollhouse cookies (my dad's favorite) as a special treat for my family every Saturday.

So as you can see, I was a regular Suzy Homemaker by nature.  (Does anyone even get that reference anymore?)

Aside from being a wife and mommy (the only jobs I ever really wanted), I dreamed of having a home of my own to take care of one day.  I couldn't wait to fix up and decorate my own little house, to bake in its kitchen, even to clean it.  (Yes, that's my shameful secret: I actually like to clean!)

Of course, when I had four boys in four years (followed by a fifth son who came along five years after son #4), I had to relax my standards or I would have lost my mind.  My house was not as clean and tidy back in those days that my boys were morphing into men, to say the least!  I learned to deal with cluttered tables (with half-full drinking cups and crumpled wrappers left behind on every available surface), clothes left on the floor, jock straps and smelly socks discarded in the most unfitting places, unsightly splatters around the toilets...well, you get the idea!  I often went to bed with dirty dishes in the sink, knowing I'd have more energy to deal with them in the morning.  My cleaning philosophy could be described as "crisis management": whichever thing needed tending to most at the moment got done; but that meant that the house was seldom clean everywhere at the same time.  I never had a cleaning lady (because as I explained, I don't mind cleaning at all, and I wasn't going to pay someone else to do it).  "Best at hiding dirt" was my criteria for picking carpet and flooring in our house, so it could look clean even when it wasn't.  If I didn't have time to deep-scrub a bathroom that needed it, a quick wipe-down with baby wipes or Clorox wipes made things look presentable.  And here's my guilty little secret: I LOVE to vacuum (my husband likes to call me the "mad vacker").  I guess I'm just hard-wired to enjoy the most mundane of household chores.

But there is so much less to do now, housework-wise, than there was when our boys were living with us.  Here are some panoramic pictures my sister took of the first floor of our VA house, when she was here for a short visit in March.

As you can see, this is a house where, unless the grandkids are visiting, there's a place for everything and everything is in its place.  It helps that we have so much less stuff now than we did after we'd been living in our old NH house for more than a quarter of a century.  I'm hardly a minimalist, but my husband and I are definitely living more simply in our new VA digs.

I never had a hall linen closet as neat and orderly and filled with soft, pretty sheets and towels as I do now.  (Marie Kondo would even approve, methinks!)

I wish I'd taken a photo of our old linen closet in NH before we moved.  It was overfull and disorganized, and most of the towels in it were threadbare and dingy.  I gave up on colored towels when my boys became teenagers; their Clearasil would leave bleached-out spots on them, so I switched to off-white for all of our family's towels...and by the time we finally sold that house in NH, none of those crusty old things were worth hanging onto.  To stage our house for selling, we got fluffy new towels--pretty ones!  And then when we moved into our new house, we bought some more, so that when we ever do have guests we have nice towels to offer them.  So here's what my linen closet looks like these days.  (Like something out of Good Housekeeping, practically!)

It really is kind of fun, after all the years of child-rearing and cleaning up after a passel of messy boys, to have a neat house most of the time.  I can't deny it.  It is very bittersweet to have your kids grow up and leave you; but the sweet part is that there isn't as much housework to do, because there aren't as many messes.  I'm actually enjoying living in a house that I can keep as neat and orderly as my heart desires.  It is one of the best benefits of having an empty nest (aside from the much smaller grocery bills and laundry piles!).

It would be sad if my husband and I were alone in our neat little house all the time, though; luckily, 14 young children are often here, with their precious sticky hands, running around like whirling dervishes and leaving trails of animal crackers in their wake.  They're keeping it real for Grammy, reminding her that a house is for living, and living can be very messy!

So girls, sweet daughters-in-law of mine, don't think this is what my house always looked like!  Believe it or not, I once lived in a house with toys and clothes all over the floor, overflowing laundry baskets, piles of junk mail and dinosaur drawings on every counter, dirty diapers spilling out of the garbage can, etc.  I didn't always live like I do now!  You, too, will be amazed at how much easier it is to take care of a home that only has two grown-up people living in it.

But you will miss the chaos sometimes, as I do.  So thanks for bringing your wee ones over frequently to remind me of how wonderful that season of life truly is!

Monday, May 20, 2019

Big BIG News--Delivered via Fortune Cookies and an Ice Cream Cake

I originally wrote this post on March 10, and I have been patiently waiting to post it until I got the green light from the parties involved.  But YAY!--I finally get to share it, as written the day after the events transpired.

March 9 was a bit of a red banner day for my husband and me, and for our family in general.  We got some pretty amazing news from two of our boys and their wives--and the fact that they were able to surprise us (when they thought perhaps we'd guessed beforehand) made the experience of hearing it that much more exciting and fun.

Before I say any more, I want to introduce you to the two boys involved, sons #3 and #4.
This was taken in the summer of 1988, when son #3 was just over 2 and #4 was 6 or 7 mos.

Here they are in May of 1992, when their oldest brother (far right) was about to make his 
First Holy Communion.  Son #3 (the one making the goofy face) is 6 here, and #4 is not quite 4 and 1/2. 
 (Son #2 is 7 and looking pretty dapper in this picture, if I do say so.)

Another shot from May of 1992.

We have been fortunate that our boys really like each other.  Oh, they did fight sometimes when they were kids--I'm not trying to paint too rosy a picture here.  They bickered over toys and video games, like all kids do.  But they generally got along really well and enjoyed most of the same activities.  They were great playmates and partners in crime.

Sons #3 and #4 (and later, #5) were always roommates growing up.  They were only a grade apart, so they played on the same sports teams throughout elementary school and high school and they had many friends in common.  They both went to Notre Dame and lived in the same dorm (although they each ended up spending later years living off campus).  They were both cadets in the Army ROTC at ND, and both went into the Reserves after graduation (and initially did their drilling at the same Reserve unit in MD).  They both settled in the Charlottesville, VA area and took jobs in civilian contracting.  They both went to work in the same building and shared a not-very-clean bachelor's apartment (that their mom feverishly scrubbed and tidied for them whenever she came to visit).

Are you getting the idea that these two are close?  Wait.  I'm not finished yet!

When these two boys got married--less than three months apart!  #3 in December of 2013 and #4 in February of 2014--they lived in duplex houses in the same development, literally around the corner from each other.  Since then, they have both bought new, larger homes for their growing families.  These houses are only a few minutes' drive away from one another.

Both of these wonderful boys are the fathers of three children: son #3 and Preciosa have G-Man (4), Princesa (3), and Rosita (1);

and son #4 and Braveheart have triplets--Senorita Paquita and identical twin boys Pumpkin and Peanut--who will turn 2 in August.

Isn't this just the greatest story?  And I'm just getting started.  It gets better.

Since our house (the one we bought almost exactly two years ago, when we sold our NH home and moved south to be near our ever-growing family) is in a great central location for the four married sons who live in the area, with no one having to drive more than an hour to meet up here, I arranged a play date with my girls on March 7.  Only three of the four daughters-in-law--and 9 of the 14 grandkids--were able to make it, because some of our oldest son's kids were sick.  While the gang was at our house, son #4's wife, Braveheart, casually invited my husband and me over for dinner the next night, saying that our fourth-born wanted to "treat us."  We gave each other a look, because although we love to help our kids out whenever possible and are always ready and willing to babysit for any one of them if we're free, we had just been talking about what a treat it is to just sit and relax and have dinner with them and their little ones.  So needless to say, we were happy that we had plans with them the next night and were very much looking forward to it.

Preciosa, hearing that we were going to be in the area that night, said that she and son #3 were going on a dinner date but would stop by son #4 and Braveheart's house to see us before heading back home.  This did not raise any red flags at all, because our sweet Preciosa admittedly suffers from FOMO, and it was totally in character for her to want to join a family party happening nearby.

The next night we got there early and played with the triplets for a bit.  When they went to bed for the night, son #4 and Braveheart ordered Chinese take-out, which we hadn't had in ages (and which we all love).  When we'd finished our meals, Braveheart brought over a small plate with four fortune cookies on it. I broke mine open and the little slip of paper inside read, "Lucky Number 15."  I said, "What kind of a fortune is that?!"  My husband opened his, and it had the same message.  "They're not very creative!  They're not even trying," he said.  He was acting sort of flummoxed--and humorously, even a bit annoyed.  The kids opened theirs, and it was the same deal: two more slips of paper that read, "Lucky Number 15."  So my husband and I are talking about these crazy "fortunes," saying that the whole package must have the same ones, and it must be some kind of mistake.  Son #4 interrupts and says, "So what do you have 14 of already?"  At first, my clueless husband was like, "I don't know."  But finally, the message got through to the two thickest-headed grandparents on earth: THEY WERE EXPECTING AGAIN!  And it would be our 15th grandchild.  Get it?  (Cuz we didn't!)

I can't imagine how crazy the kids were going inside, wondering when we were ever going to figure it out!  But when we finally did, it was awesome.  I'm pretty sure the "Lucky Number 15" incident will become part of Pearly family folklore.
Braveheart and son #4  had to steam the cookies so that they would open up, making it possible to remove 
the real fortunes and replace them with these handwritten clues.  What a clever ruse!

Anyway, once we did catch on, there was screaming and jumping up from the table!  There were hugs and kisses!  Wow.  Just wow!

We were SO excited for them, even though another baby coming along so soon after triplets is a prospect that is understandably daunting.  And boy oh boy, are we ever happy that we live down here now and will be able to help them out as they get adjusted to having four babies 2 and under!  (At least they hope it will only be four!  If you don't mind adding them to your prayer list, they would very much like to experience a non-multiple birth this time around--although of course they are putting it all in God's hands and know that He will take care of them no matter what.)

Okay, so things were pretty exciting already.  My husband and I were really on a cloud, smiling from ear to ear.  Then son #3 and Preciosa showed up, carrying an ice cream cake that they'd brought to share.  When Preciosa first set the box down on the counter, I peeked inside and saw that it had writing on it, and for a split second I thought, "It must have been decorated as a birthday cake, but they just picked it up anyway."  But when I read what was spelled out in blue icing on the top, I immediately jumped up and laughed.  "No way!  Oh my goodness!"  Here's what the cake said: "Sweet 16."

After all that talk about the number 15 just minutes before, I knew exactly what that 16 meant: they were expecting again, too!!!

My husband said after that even though I had already started my explosive reaction, when he very first saw the cake he thought son #3 and Preciosa had made a math error--that the cake was meant to celebrate the news we'd just heard from the other couple, so that the cake should have a 15 on it, not a 16.  Ha ha!  Along with all the exclamations of joy, there was a lot of laughter that night (mostly induced by how slow Papa and Grammy were to understand what the kids were all trying to tell them!!  And not that subtly, mind you!).

So there was more screaming, more hugging, more kissing!  And lots of talk about how they both thought we might have guessed about #15, because of "the look" we'd given each other when Braveheart invited us over the day before.  But nope!  We were clueless.  You'd think that with all the babies that have been born, rapid-fire, since we first became grandparents in 2011, we'd be constantly wondering if someone had news for us.  But for whatever reason, that night we were not really expecting to hear that anyone was expecting.  (Although my husband did mention, after the fact, that as we got into the car to head over to son #4's house for dinner, he almost said to me, "I wonder if they have an announcement to make," but then thought, "Nah.")

The funny this is, Preciosa had just found out that morning, via home pregnancy test.  When she'd told us the day before that she and son #3 were going to stop by while we were in the area (and now we know that they actually had been told the news about #15 already, and they wanted to celebrate with us), she had no idea that they were going to have some happy news to for us, too!

Isn't that the best story?  I mean, just the best story?

Life is good, my friends.  Even when your babies do the unthinkable--when they grow up and leave you, and your nest is all emptied out and much too quiet--there is SO MUCH MORE to look forward to.

These two couples are already planning to send their kids to the same local Catholic elementary school.  Those cousins are going to grow up being the best of friends, and I can hardly wait to see what the future holds for them.  For us all.

I am reminded yet again--by the best of news delivered via fortune cookies and an ice cream cake--that I have been inordinately blessed in this life.  God has been so good to me!  And to whom much is given, much is I have some work to do!  (And in the foreseeable future, that work might include helping these young people, with childcare or new mom care or whatever might come up, as they transition from being parents of three to parents of four!)

Sweet 16: I think that's a very good number, don't you?

As an addendum to this post, here are the Facebook announcement pictures that were recently posted by these two couples. (And thanks for the prayers--the triplets are only getting one new sibling!)

First it was Facebook official; now it's String of Pearls official!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mother's Day Came Early This Year

My 2019 Mother's Day celebration was actually last Sunday, when the four boys who live near us in VA gave me an early Mother's Day present: they came over for the afternoon and stayed to have a nice dinner in the dining room with their dad and me.  They didn't bring their wives (whom we totally adore, mind you) or their combined 14 precious offspring (who have stolen Papa and Grammy's hearts utterly and completely); they came alone.
I like how petite these big guys make me feel.  (That's only one of the many things I like about them, of course.)

Normally, our special family events or holiday parties at our new modest-sized, open-concept abode in our little cookie cutter neighborhood are rather loud, crowded, and chaotic affairs--but in the best way.  There are little people everywhere, and parents chasing after toddlers, and tussles over toys to break up; there are cartoons blaring away on the TV's, and juice cups to be refilled, and poopy diapers to be is so, so much fun, and kind of hilarious, with never a dull moment; but as you can imagine, these sorts of gatherings do not provide an atmosphere that is conducive to sustained conversations between adults.

Two years ago, son #2's wife suggested to him that it might be a treat for me to have just my boys over for a few hours, for a change of pace; so he called the two other brothers who were living here at the time and made it happen the Sunday after Mother's Day.  And I have to was so wonderful!  Son #3 brought his 2-year-old boy, G-Man, with him.  (We joked that G-Man could play the part of our absent #5 son, while my husband filled in for son #1, and therefore it would feel like old times, because there would be five boys sitting at my table once again).

I enjoyed that sweet afternoon so much, and I told my husband that would be the perfect Mother's Day present every year: just a few hours with my boys, reliving my glory days as a mother when my whole existence revolved around taking care of them and getting to see them interact in their inimitable way.  Hearing their deep, pleasing voices as they talk and laugh together is one of the things I miss most now that we're in the empty-nesting years.  I can honestly say that they are pretty much my five favorite people on earth, after their dad of course.  And it's not that they don't ever get to talk when their families are around.  But when they're here on their own, it's definitely different.  They are so relaxed.  And they're so smart and clever and sharp-witted--they make their mom and dad laugh til our bellies hurt.

Last year we were out of town, so the boys-only Mother's Day didn't happen.  But I'm so glad it happened again this year--thanks to my hubby, who sent out the first text and got the ball rolling.  As a mother of all grown children (aged 35, 34, 33, 31, and 26), I cannot recommend this sort of thing highly enough.  I never would have thought to ask for it on my own, because I would have worried that my girls would take it as a hint that I didn't like having them around.  (Which is so far from the truth!)  And of course, if our boys were living all over the country, I would never have wanted them to fly or make long drives just to do this for me.  But the fact that they all live less than an hour away from us here in VA made it something they could do. And I appreciate it more than I can say!  Because sometimes--even though the last thing I would ever want to do is to go back in time, because look at all we'd be missing if that happened!--it's fun to get a little feeling of deja vu, of what it was like when it was just my husband, our boys, and me, sharing a house and a life.  It's such a precious time in your life, mamas, when your children all live under your roof.  Cherish every moment, because those years really do fly by.

One of my husband's sisters married a guy who was the youngest of five boys.  When she first got engaged, I only had four of them, and I vividly remember thinking, "I would love to be able to say that I was the mother of five boys!"  God was surely listening; I got pregnant with son #5 very shortly after that.  This sister-in-law now has five children of her own, including triplets.  She told me years ago that she encourages her husband to fly home to see his folks on his own sometimes.  "When we're all with you, you pay more attention to us; I want you to pay attention to your mom!" she tells him.  She said she hopes that when her children are all grown and married, they will sometimes come home alone to visit with her.  This was a bit of a revelation to me, that a mother might ask for this.  And like I said, I probably wouldn't have done it on my own.  But boy, I can attest to the fact that it's a very special thing, having your chicks back in the nest together, even just for a few hours.

The only one missing from our little Party of Five was son #5, who is currently stationed in Oklahoma.  But not to worry: he joined in on the banter with his older brothers via FaceTime.
When they get together, they get so silly, and I believe they're all still little boys at heart. (Maybe all men are?)

After an enjoyable stretch of pre-dinner drinks and snacks and lively conversations about sometimes funny (movie lines, anyone?) and other times serious (the morality of driverless cars that are programmed to make decisions for humans) subjects, we sat down in the dining room to have a nice steak dinner.  Meat and potatoes are always a win with a houseful of boys, so no need to get any fancier than that.

I have always loved family meals eaten in the dining room, and lingering at the table long after everyone's plates are empty.  So my boys gave me the best gift they could ever give me by sitting around the table, talking and laughing with their mom and dad and letting the dishes wait.

I was on a bit of a cloud.  I insisted on getting pictures of each side of the table.

Unfortunately, I forgot to remove my apron for those photos.  But that just gave them one more reason to tease me.  And teasing is their love language, so as far as I'm concerned they can make fun of their mom as much as they want.  (Our side was not the "cool kids" section of the table, I was informed. LOL)

I cannot even express how much I love these boys.  Being a mother was the only thing that I ever wanted in life--and I got that, times five.  Then those five brought me four and now going-on-five beautiful girls to love, too.  And then being a grandmother (to 14 and counting)--that's the icing on the cake.  It's almost too much to bear, and I certainly don't deserve all these blessings.  But I am deeply grateful that God gave them to me, and I don't take them for granted.

My boys brought some Mother's Day gifts.  But the real present for me was their presence.  That was all I need to make it the best Mother's Day ever.

I recently read that during pregnancy, cells from the fetus cross the placenta and enter the mother's body, where they can become part of her tissues.  This cellular invasion means that mothers actually carry genetic material from their children's bodies, a phenomenon called microchimera.  It's no wonder that mothers often say they feel like their children are still a part of them after they've given birth; apparently, that is literally true.  Regardless of this amazing phenomenon heretofore unknown to me, I've always known one thing for a fact: I was my boys' first home--they lived in me once!--and for that privilege, I will be eternally grateful.

I'm going to end this with one of my favorite reflections about motherhood, a famous quote from Cardinal Mindszenty:

The most important person on earth is a Mother.
She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral.  
She need not.
She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral--
a tiny dwelling for an immortal soul,
the tiny perfection of her child's body.
The angels have not been blessed with such a grace.
They cannot share in God's creative miracle to bring new saints to Heaven.
Only a human mother can.
Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature;
God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation.
What on God's good earth is more glorious than this: to be a mother?

On that note--Happy Mother's Day, dear readers!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

An Open Book: My Brother Pier Giorgio, His Last Days

At the end of this post, I'm going to recycle an old Amazon/Goodreads review that I wrote six years ago, because it is about a book which I believe should be read by as many people as possible and I love having the opportunity to promote it.  This book is a biographical work titled My Brother Pier Giorgio, His Last Days, written by the saint-in-the-making's sister, Luciana Frassati.

If you haven't heard of this extraordinary young man, or if you don't know a whole lot about him, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati's life story is utterly fascinating and incredibly inspiring.  This particular book deals only with his final week on earth--with his last days: his "passion" and tragic death from polio at the age of just 24.  If you want to read more about him, here is a short article; or you could read this biography,  A Man of the Beatitudes, a longer book also penned by his sister, which covers his whole life from birth to death.  (I had my youngest son read this more in-depth book in 8th grade, when he was being homeschooled; I can't think of a better--or more relatable--role model than Pier Giorgio, when it comes to helping adolescent boys grow in manly virtue.)

I admire Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati so much that I had to include him in my Catholic novel Finding Grace.   I thought this would be the only novel I would ever write, and I wanted to include every subject that was important to me; this saintly young man made the cut.

My shy little heroine, Grace Kelly, who is determined to achieve the goal of sainthood while living in the in the turbulent, post-Vatican II 1970's, is "introduced" to Pier Giorgio.  (I won't tell you how--you'll have to read the book to find out!  But it took some finagling, I'll tell you, because the story takes place long before he was beatified.)  She becomes enchanted with him to the point of having a bit of a crush, even though he's been long dead. 

After discovering Pier Giorgio in a book about modern saints called Faces of Holiness,  I was intrigued by the handsome young Italian who'd had such a short life but had made such an impact during his time on earth.   I wanted to read as much as I could find about him.  (Indeed, I developed a bit of a "saint crush" on Pier Giorgio--just like my Grace did in the novel.)  That is what led me to the first book I ever read about him, My Brother Pier Giorgio, His Last Days, a slim volume that stayed with me long after I'd finished it.  I devoured it in one sitting and have re-read it many times since.   I'm sure I'll read it again, too.  In fact, writing about it today is making me feel like reading it very soon.  (Into the bedside table "to read" pile it goes!)

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  Here's that review that was first published six years ago.  (If you do read this book, I'd love to know what you think of it--and of him!)

's review
Sep 18, 13                                                
It's almost impossible for me to put into words how inspiring this book is. Luciana Frassati's memoir about her brother's last week on earth--when he lay dying of polio at the age of 24, surrounded by his unwitting loved ones in his family home, quietly suffering until the bitter end so as not to divert the attention from his elderly grandmother, who was also dying--is one of the most moving and affecting tributes it has ever been my privilege to read.

I was first introduced to Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925), a perfect model of Christian faith, hope, and charity if there ever was one, when I read a couple of pages about him in a book about modern saints called Faces of Holiness. Something about his story--and his handsome face with its engaging smile--spoke to me, and I wanted to learn all I could about him.

My Brother Pier Giorgio, His Last Days is the first complete book I ever read about this future saint, who was named a Blessed by Pope John Paul II and is considered a patron of young adults (although I went on to read a biography, also penned by his sister, titled A Man of the Beatitudes). I devoured it in one sitting. And not long afterward, I re-read it. Then I re-read it, and for good measure, I re-read it once again...I truly don't know how many times I've read this beautiful book at this point. It's a slim volume, and a quick read; but so much holiness, self-sacrifice, and love are packed in its pages.

This book will inspire you to become a saint, and it will show you that you can be an "average Joe" like this young Italian man was--an athletic mountain climber, a jokester with countless friends, a student who struggled academically, a son who was misunderstood and underappreciated by his family, a man in love who had to renounce the woman of his dreams because his parents didn't approve of her--and yet, you can make the kind of heroic sacrifices in your daily life that will put you on the path to Heaven. You can love God and revere the Blessed Mother. You can treat the poor and the sick with true Christian charity.

It has been said of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati that he always carried a Rosary in his pocket, and that people were moved to imitate him just by seeing the joy on his face when he prayed. I know that I, for one, have been moved by him. And this heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting, story of his last days is well worth your time--whether you're a Catholic or not. 

That's it for me.  But don't forget to head on over to Carolyn Astfalk's latest Open Book link-up for more book recommendations!