Maternal GPS

I was struggling recently. You’re shocked, I know. Specifically, I was struggling with childhood issues stemming from uneven parenting. I prefer “uneven” to “dysfunctional”, because it allows for the good things that did seep through, speaks to the paradox of sometimes good, sometimes really bad that occurred during my formative years.

I have gotten to the point where I can hold two truths simultaneously, one in either hand: 1) My parents probably did the best they knew how, AND 2) I did not get what I needed.

I have been angry. I have been grieving. I have been astonished and awestruck, both to understand the extent of the damages to my psyche, and to acknowledge the inner strength I must possess to have become (at least on my good days) a (mostly) functional adult.

I am at the point where I need to choose how to move forward, both in grieving for my parent who has died, and in reassessing my relationship with the one who is still living, renegotiating something that will meet both my needs for connection and for self-protection.

In the midst of this painful process, I stumbled across a letter I wrote to one of my sons a couple of years ago, as he awaited acceptance/rejection letters from law school. As I reread it, I realized it could be easily applicable to any one of my children, and then, HOLY COW, it might even secretly be a letter to me, that older, wiser, inner parent part of me, speaking to the younger, tender, deeply wounded little person who still longs to hear that she is ok and worthy of love. I share it here in the hopes that it might resonate with those of my readers, my pseudo-siblings who got cheated out of a “normal” childhood (whatever that might look like) and are struggling to be adults without having the solid underpinnings of unconditional love that are our birthright. It’s kind of long, my apologies. I guess it’s just an example of what happens when I hand my pen to my heart and get out of the way.

“Dear Son,

Sorry the waiting is so hard. I know this will sound extremely dorky, but it can’t hurt, right? You can envision yourself opening letters of acceptance. In my mind’s eye I can see you walking to the mailbox, opening a letter, and it has big, red, felt-tipped handwriting that says “Yes!” (You may choose your own font.)

At the very least, it beats stressing about the possible noes. They may come, but that way you won’t be miserable until they do. I in no way mean to invalidate how hard this is for you. Truth be told, I am slightly anxious too, but more in a good way–wherever you land, it will be better than where you are now, and I am excited for you, for your next steps, for your new future, for the wonderful person you are and the amazing person you are continuing to evolve into. I know that the people you will champion in your new line of work will be deeply blessed by all that you bring to the table. Right now, it’s just a question of which table.

When I say I’m proud of you, I’m not proud in a “hey, look at me, I did a great job, and check out the result” kind of way. It’s more like: “Look at that man, and he’s so awesome that the love I feel won’t stay put quietly in my heart, and it’s too big to fit inside, and holy cow–that man’s my son!! and I’ve been blessed to witness his journey and sometimes be a guide, and even though he’s had to overcome so many obstacles, he still is kind, and thoughtful, and generous, and compassionate, and intelligent, and beautiful, and talented, and perservering, and loving. And that’s a miracle. And I am grateful for the blessing of you, to have had the privilege of sharing your life.

Today I am rearranging my office, gearing up for a new phase, and noticing, much to my chagrin, how much it bothers my sensibilities when my books are not lined up by height. Sigh. I guess I couldn’t hope to be my parents’ daughter and come away unscathed. But, truth be told, also blessed–my eclectic vocabulary, organizing skills and above-average intellect are gifts, though, as my father once admitted to me, smart is fine, but isn’t as important in the long run as kind.

And you are both, and so many other things as well. I am crying now just thinking about what a treasure you have been and continue to be in my life, and even if you end up practicing law in Zanzibar with no internet or phone service, my heart will always find you, ’cause that’s just how it works when you have kids, and you love them, and you try hard, and you get some stuff really right, and you get some stuff really wrong, and a lot of stuff in-between, but you just hope that it was enough, and you’re proud because even though it was harder than anything you ever imagined you could do, you somehow managed to pull it together and never give up, give way better than you got, and you hope that if your kids can do the same, give better than they got, and their kids too, maybe in six more generations no one will need therapy anymore ’cause they’ll just know how to love each other and be caring, and loving, and kind, and fun, and responsible and consistent, and flexible and tenacious, and they’ll know from the get-go that they are already good enough, and they won’t have to spend so much time and energy trying to prove that to themselves and others.

So back to my original point of that unintentional run-on paragraph, which is that wherever you land, I will find you, my maternal GPS system will tell me which direction to stand so that my love will flow out and make its way to your heart, and course through your veins, and the sound of my voice will whisper softly in your ear–you are loved, you are blessed, you are enough.”

And I’m a little embarrassed, ’cause this is not the email I planned to write, and I thought about not sending it ’cause it might seem too corny or overly-emotional, but then I figured you get to decide what to take in, what fits, what feels right, and scrap the rest of it.

So, um, back to my to-do list, which is mostly the business about dealing with bad checks left over from December.

Ma Dukes”





How to Fell a Tree


Have your eye on a tree.

Consider carefully, is it really dead?


Gather your tools.

Gather yourself.

Study your tree.

Take some time.

Observe—the trunk, the width, the breadth,

the twists and turns.

Consider the wind.

Be still.

Give thanks—for oxygen, for shelter, for shade, for beauty.


Set your course.

Consider the angle.

Aim true.

Make your first cut.

Be gentle; do not rush.


Tenderly cut some more.



The tree is still dead.

Your angle is true.

Take a risk.

Commit to your angle.



Thoughtfully, calculate your second angle.

This one’s higher than the first.

With sadness and gratitude, dig in.

You are now committed.

There is no turning back.

But remember, the tree was already dead.

It’s still dead.

Doing something different will not save it.

With sadness and gratitude,

finish your second angle.


Remove the wedge you have created.

You have made space.

Removed the old, readying the new.

Take a break.

Observe your handiwork.

Keep breathing.

Regard the wind.

Study your flight path.

Calculate your third angle.

Resume your labor.

Take your time.


Pound in a new wedge.

Ease the tree past its tipping point.

Make another stroke.

Stand aside and wait for gravity to do its work.

Your part is done.


Watch your tree fall.

Feel the rush of wind.

Inhale the quick, sharp movement.

Honor its strength.

Marvel at the power.

Let your heart well up with gratitude for all this tree has offered.


Mourn the collateral damage.

Gather strength from the knowledge that you have done your best.

Remember that the tree was already dead.

You did not kill it.

You merely hastened nature’s course.

Give thanks–

for oyxgen, for shelter, for shade, for beauty.

Mending a Broken Heart

It’s a gloomy day in a gloomy spring. Rain is pouring non-stop in what appears to be our new local temperate rain forest.

I’m lying in bed, recovering from a leg injury, trying to “be have” myself, resting my leg on a pillow. I’m “supposed to” be paying bills and such, but my heart isn’t in it. My heart is in a lot of other places apparently.

My heart is with Anne, my mentor, teacher, wise woman and companion in the healing profession, who will undergo a bilateral mastectomy tomorrow, on her path to reclaim a long life of vibrant health. Something about this grips me to the core. Her courage, her spirit, her choice to embrace all the positive aspects of this experience, leave me awestruck. But I am railing about the unfairness. Why? Why her? Why anybody?

A mastectomy seems like such a maiming, such a violation, such a shattering of something so powerfully symbolic of the feminine—the first bloom of the path to womanhood, the seat of our ability to nurture new life.

According to legend, Amazon warriors used to cut off a breast to permit them to be better archers. And so it is that as we lose parts of ourselves, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, the ensuing process of loss, grief and recovery, allow us to develop new skills, habits, attitudes, that will serve us better in the days to come.

Oh Anne, my prayer for you today is that your sacrifice will ultimately be worth the cost, and that when all is said and done, your arrows will fly true.

My heart is with Michelle, our pastor of the past six years, moving today to Mankato in the rain. She has served us well, and is called to move on. I am thankful for the crossing of our paths, for the miles we have walked together. We are at that crossroads where our ways must part, at least for the time being, that fork in the road marked “God be with ye”, the origin of today’s simpler “goodbye”.

My heart is with my artist son, bound today for Tennessee, for a gig doing airbrush tattoos for–as he put it–” hillbillies at NASCAR”. It’s the millennium, in what would some say is post-racial America, yet I worry  for his safety as a young man of color traveling in the South.

My heart is with the people of South Africa, as Nelson Mandela’s light begins to flicker. The man whose life has been a testament to persistence, forgiveness, hope, and freedom, will undoubtedly soon finish his earth’s journey. When we lose our leaders and teachers, our pastors, or parents, it’s a frightening prospect—the mantle has passed to our shoulders and we understand that carrying on the work is now up to us. We pray that the seeds they’ve planted have fallen on rich soil, and have had time to root deeply, so that we’ll be strong enough and equipped for the task at hand.

My heart is with a couple of little girls I met last week at the overflow shelter. I spent some time reading to them on a saggy couch in a church basement. They liked my earrings and told me I looked like a rock star, high praise from a four and a six year-old, (and music to the ears of one whose last birthday just made her eligible for the Goodwill’s senior discount).   One of them asked me if it was ok to take her shoes off. I said “of course”. “That’s ‘cause this is my house” she replied, then asked me, beaming “are you my auntie?” “I’m your auntie for tonight”, I said, but went home troubled, thinking about all our children, and how we can be better aunties.

My heart is in so many places today, it feels splintered, if not shattered, and I struggle to hold onto enough of it for myself. I hold these people in my heart, and perhaps they hold me in theirs as well, but does that mean that a part of my heart goes with them, and a part of their hearts get left behind? Is that why people end up being heartless, because they get spread too thin? Or is it part of the mystery of life that the heart continually replenishes itself, that as much as we give away and share, more grows to replace it?

The Bible tells us that “God hardened Pharoah’s heart”, which has always seemed a dirty trick, a heartless play by God, if you will, which I have never understood. Dr. Suess, on the other hand, tells us that the Grinch’s heart “grew three sizes that day”. This gives me hope that, given the blessing of a non-judgmental, loving community, small-heartedness is something from which we can ultimately recover.

And how does the heart work, I wonder? I don’t mean the physical, blood-pumping, life-sustaining heart with which we are all too familiar. I mean the metaphorical heart, the one the Bible tells us to guard since “it is the wellspring of life”.   The ancients understood the heart, rather than the mind, to be the seat of the soul, and they may well have been right. Besides, theres just no poetic ring to “I love you with all of my brain” or “I hold you in my cranium.”

And my dreams, oh those dreams. They just keep on a’comin’, wave after wave after wave—I need some dreamless nights to catch up and incorporate the lessons they bring:

Little girls that need tending, girls bitten by tigers, or riding camels, or afraid that they are not beautiful enough.

A young man, driving erratically (I hope he at least has his permit)–I am riding in the backseat, leaning forward, calmly speaking into his right ear as he careens the wrong way down a divided road, coaxing him past obstacles until he can get back on the right side of traffic, making sure he slows down before he goes over a big bump.

 A woman I meet at a retreat house tells me she was at the funeral of a mother of three children—I don’t recognize the dead woman’s name. I wonder–did I know her? Her partner has already remarried; I think that seems a little quick, and hope she’s taken time to do her grieving.

As I heated my coffee this morning and the haze of sleep finally started to lift, I was startled to recognize that the dead woman was me, as was her remarried partner, as was the young driver, as were the little girls–pieces of my psyche that have separated or gotten left behind along the way. I understand that I have to be kind and gentle to myself, to invite back and incorporate these missing pieces of me, honor their journey, tend their wounds, embrace them back into my current life. I need to take good care of myself and pace myself, and make space for the frightened little girls, for the young man who’s driving through scary territory, to grieve for that young woman who died, and rejoice for that somewhat older, slightly wiser woman, who’s still taking a chance on life.

Everything’s Kosher, Except the Ham

Offering hospitality has long been an important value to me—I love the idea of welcoming, embracing, of making room. Of providing rest, respite and sanctuary to others. But being on the receiving end of hospitality can sometimes be more challenging. This is the story of how, one Christmas season, hospitality came to me in a very powerfuI way.

The call came early. It was still dark. My stepmom cried out in anguish—“he’s gone, Cindy, your father’s gone.” And so he was.

My father’s death was sudden, and, for me at least, unexpected. Although he lived with several chronic illnesses, my father’s health had been stable—there had been no recent decline. He was 76 years old.

Days later, we held the memorial service for my dad. Although he was not technically Jewish, his wife was; her mother always joked that her son-in-law the doctor (my dad held a PhD in Chemistry) had a Jewish soul, and so it was that we held his memorial service at a nearby synagogue. Practical joker that he was, he would probably have been amused to know that his ashes inadvertently spent the memorial service inside a Target bag in the rabbi’s study.

That evening, we sat shivah at my home.

As an observing Methodist, my experience with the custom of sitting shivah was only literary. I was aware of the Jewish tradition of accompanying the bereaved in their home for several nights after the death of a loved one.

In theory, sitting shivah sounded like a beautiful concept. As a practical matter, I wasn’t so sure. I was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of 200+ friends and acquaintances descending upon our mid-sized home. My dazed, grieivng mind could not embrace the logistics. How would everyone fit? Where would we put them? How would we feed them all?

It was, both my stepmom and the rabbi assured me, not my problem. It would all be taken care of. All I had to do was show up.

Accustomed as I was to midwest Protestant memorial services followed by church basement luncheons that inevitably included some form of jello salad (an oxymoron in and of itself) I tried unsuccessfully to wrap my mind around how this would all work. My brain broke, and I did the only thing I could do—I threw up my arms and let go.

And amazingly, miraculously, magically, without my doing anything more than opening the doors, we sat shivah for my father in our home, and the hospitality came to us.

The shivah committee arrived an hour or so before the guests, set up the dining room, brought chairs and serving dishes, and took over the kitchen. I was continually and good-naturedly shooed away. Christian tradition has so pounded into our collective psyche the adage that it is “better to give than to receive” that we are often unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with being on the receiving end of hospitality. Sitting and doing nothing while strangers took over my kitchen was anathema to just about every social rule I’d been brought up with.

Guests began to arrive, many bringing with them sweet treats, as is the Jewish custom—providing something sweet to take the bitterness out of grieving. Some people I knew, many I did not.

One especially welcome guest, the teenage son of a good friend of mine, arrived with a very special contribution, accompanied by an earnest introduction that would have done Garrison Keillor proud: “My mom sends this with her love. Everything’s kosher except the ham, and the hot sauce is Lutheran, so it’s pretty mild.” There ensued an intense consultation in the kitchen regarding what to do with the ham. I didn’t want to offend Jewish sensibilities (particularly my stepmom’s) by putting it out. The shivah committee assured me that it was my home, and I could do whatever I wanted.   As I recall, we put it in the fridge and dined on delicious ham throughout the week.

Back in the living room, the service was about to start, and I was greatly comforted by the gathering of so many, both known and unknown to me, to honor the memory of this contentious man I loved and argued with and wDsc02561c2as honored to have called my father.

There was special music, there were prayers in Hebrew and in English, there were strangers and friends. There were Christians, Jews and my devout Muslim friend who is dearer to me than a brother.

After the service, there was food (I was not allowed to serve myself—a plate and beverage were brought to me.) There were stories and memories and poems, and there were kind and caring words of condolences.

All in my living room. All lifting my burden. All helping my father’s soul make the journey to its next home. And all I had to do was say yes, open my doors, sit down and let go. Maybe I should try doing that more often.

Monty’s Lady Thurber

It was a September Saturday, and I was ten years old.  I had just started the fifth grade.  My family –, my two younger sisters, my parents and I, lived in an old house full of character.  Built in the 1920’s, the house’s basement walls were damp and crumbly, and the basement bathroom was used only in dire emergencies (or by my father, whose piles of magazines–The New Yorker, Scientific American and National Geographic—were the bathroom’s only redeeming quality.)

My favorite features were the front porch with its slatted wooden swing, just perfect for relaxing with a good book on lazy summer days, and the attic that my father and a couple of helpers refinished shortly after we moved in.  In his rather creative, eccentric manner (he once used a potty chair for an in-basket on his desk at the office, but that’s another story altogether) my father had suspended two unfinished plywood doors from four hanging steel cords to make two swinging desks. My friends thought the desks were quite amazing — in truth, I’ve never seen anything like them. They certainly were unique and provided a lot of room to work, but typing could be a challenge when the desk started swinging back and forth as you worked!

On this particular fall day, my father asked me if I’d like to accompany him on an unknown errand, and I was happy to join him.  I was delighted to discover that our errand was to pick out a puppy from a nearby litter.  My parents had made the arrangements and agreed to surprise us — as the oldest, I was lucky enough to be the one to choose our pet.  The owner showed us to an enclosed area where five miniature Bassett hounds ambled about.  I immediately noticed that one puppy was smaller than the rest; she had lovely coloring — a brown head, white shoulders and a black body, with a white star-shaped mark in the middle of her back.  She was considered the “runt” of the litter, but she looked beautiful to me.

And so “Monty’s Lady Thurber” entered out lives, so-called for our surname—Montgomery– and my parents’ affinity for James Thurber’s writing and the many dogs illustrated in his works.  Monty’s Lady Thurber was her official name, posted in her pedigree and record, but to us she was simply “Lady”.

Bassett hounds puppies are quite humorous, with oversized paws and long floppy ears. Until they grow a little taller, they have a tendency to trip over their ears while running, rolling over in unexpected somersaults, or dragging their ears through their food and water dishes.  They also develop a deep bark, (they are hounds after all) which appears to scare them as they first get accustomed to having a noise that loud come out of their throat. They look confused, as if to say “did I do that?

Lady was our family’s one and only pet for as long as she lived — about 15 years.  She was a playful and loyal companion, mischievous at times, but not much use as a guard dog– she would only bark if we were at home, but, (as several of our friends reported to us) not if strangers came to call while we were out.  She had many grand adventures– rolling in dead fish when out for a hike by a river, eating entire sticks of butter, or on one holiday an entire ham, catching her hind feet in a tennis racket and clomping across the living room floor — clickety-clack kerthumping her way through the room until she was rescued and set aright.

But I am most grateful for her companionship that very first winter she was with us.  I was in the Girl Scouts at the time, working on the “Pets” badge.  One of the requirements was that I take full responsibility for a pet for two months.  I suppose I started in late November; my job was to feed her every evening then take her out for a walk.  I did so eagerly at first, then more dutifully as the winter arrived with its early darkness and often bitter cold.

As we moved into December, my mother was called away; my grandmother had had a major stroke and was very ill.  I missed my mother, worried about my grandmother, who was my dearest relative, and baked my first birthday cake for my sister, who was turning six.  It had a ring of animal crackers around the top like a circus parade, and unceremoniously broke in two shortly after being brought to the table.

Come mid-December the fateful call came early in the morning — I remember I was eating rice krispies at the time. Before my father hung up the phone, I knew that my grandma had died.  I had lost the person who loved me the most. I felt hurt and empty, lonely and so very sad.

And yet every evening, I still had Lady to walk.  We would rush out into the cold (she always loved her walks and strained at her leash until we were out the door) then walk a few blocks out and back. I often looked up at the sky as we walked; on cloudy nights the sky reflected back some colors from the city lights, on clear, crisp evenings I looked at the stars and wondered about heaven and where my dear Grami might be now.

Somehow those walks comforted me during my season of grief, and each evening when we got back home, back to the warmth, Lady would cuddle up and sleep in a lump in the middle of my bed (she always took the best spot).  Her compassionate eyes, her warmth and steady breath calmed me and reminded me that I was still loved.

Come spring, I received my “Pets” badge, as an acknowledgement of my completion of all the necessary requirements.  As I remember it now though, it seems that the badge rightfully belonged to Lady, who gave me far more than I gave her through that long, cold, lonely winter.







Death is No Longer a Stranger

As many of you are aware, my dad, Peter Williams Montgomery, passed away suddenly a week after I returned from Europe.  On my last visit with him, I shared my Europe photos, which he really enjoyed.  The last time we went for a walk together, in October, before I started my travels, I shared with him some of my writing.  He was very enthusiastic and encouraged me to keep writing.  Little did I know that my next writing assignments would be his obituary and eulogy.

Losing a parent is a big deal.  No matter how young or old you are, or what your relationship is with that person, the loss of a parent is a significant loss, and one that is difficult to prepare for.  Like many of life’s other passages, you just don’t know how it will be until you get there.  One of the surprises for me is to understand that when you lose a parent, you not only lose that person, that unique individual that birthed you, and/or raised you, for better or for worse; you also lose that role, having a mom, or a dad, with all that that implies.

At my dad’s memorial service, after I gave my eulogy, several people asked me to post my remarks.  I’ve decided to do so here, in abbreviated format.  May they be a blessing to each of you, wherever you are on your journey.

“Life has a funny way of teaching us what we’re made of.  We wonder what our reaction will be if and when the unthinkable happens.  We tell ourselves we’ll never be able to face it or overcome it, this impossible thing, and then we surprise ourselves and do it after all when the need finally arises. 

As my father’s health began to fail, many times I wondered what I would feel, and how I would ever possibly get through it all when he died.  When that day finally came, I couldn’t have been more surprised to find that, curled up tight, right alongside the grief of losing him so suddenly, surged a deep and powerful sense of gratitude.  When I got to Cookie’s home on Thursday morning and first saw my father’s body, covered lovingly with his red and white serape, the words that sprang instantly to my heart were not: “Oh my God” or “He’s gone”, but a deep and heartfelt “thank you.”

I read a quote once that likened death to the period at the end of a sentence.  The period completes the phrase and helps define and emphasize what came before.  The finality of Peter’s death has given me the ability to see, in a way that was never before clearer, how great is my debt to him.

The unexpected blessing of this week has been that as my father’s earthly journey has come to its end, my understanding of who he was, and what he meant to me, is beginning to unfold in an entirely new way. As an artist’s work suddenly increases in value upon the artist’s death, so too the words of wisdom and acts of kindness of our loved ones take on new meaning when one knows they are complete.  Thus, my father’s death, while it marks the end to my opportunity to see him, to walk with him and hold a conversation, or to simply sit with him and hold his hand, also is the beginning of a new phase of the journey. What a blessing to learn that love can reach beyond death and surprise us with new gifts, that a loved one’s impact is neither limited nor eclipsed by death, but in some mysterious way, is expanded and enhanced, as we integrate the whole of who they were into our hearts.  As family and friends gather and share memories and stories, we learn from each other more fully who Peter really was, we paint the bigger picture, and I come to appreciate and honor even more this man who I was blessed to call my father. 

As we move into another Minnesota winter, most assuredly we will face some raw days as we experience Peter’s physical absence.  But in these moments we can pull out and treasure, one by one, the lessons and memories of a lifetime, and know that winter is always followed by spring.”

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