Happy Birthday to an Extraordinary Friend

celebration colorful colourful cupcakes

Photo by fu zhichao on Pexels.com

Today is the birthday of someone extraordinary. She is the Martha to my Mary, a farm girl turned IT pro from a small town in northern Michigan. My children call her “Aunt Katy” and her husband “Uncle Todd,” though we share no biological connection with either of them.

We met while both of us were single career gals — at the time she was also nursing her mom through the final leg of her earthly journey. We lost touch for a few months, then reconnected as part of a young adult group at church. We started getting together regularly with a handful of women from the group, praying with and for each other, asking God to reveal to each of us the next step.  Within a year, we were both engaged, and stood up at each other’s weddings.

Craig and I knew going into our marriage that we would likely not have children of our own. Katy and Todd soon found the same was true for them. And so, when we became foster parents, Katy was the first to show up and lend a hand. She became our son’s godmother when we were finally able to adopt them three years later. And about seven years after that, when we had to separate the children for a time while we navigated the court system, she and Todd stepped up as guardians for our son for nearly a year. In between that, they welcomed a half dozen exchange students into their home — something that I think takes a special kind of detached affection. This year Katy ran her first triathalon, having taught herself to swim. “I’m just glad I finished!” she laughed. (She did more than that, of course … but she’s not one to brag.)

Even when we moved several states away, she and Todd continued to stay involved in our lives, helping Chris to become the best version of himself — and to this day, my son lights up when his Uncle Todd walks into the room. He doesn’t say much, but what he does say goes straight to my son’s heart.

As the years have passed, we have both faced challenges with our families of origin, and Katy’s ability to face life square-on, without flinching, has given me courage when I needed it. When my mom was hospitalized in Georgia, Katy came and stayed with my dad after I had to return home. As her own family members have faced their own mortality, Katy was always there to help them weather the hard details — up to an including moving her aunt into the house that she and her husband built with their own two hands. Now that my mother is living with us, we see Katy a bit more often. It makes Mom happy, as she regards Katy as an honorary daughter. She never seems to have bad spells when Katy is around. She’s just happy to see my friend.

She would probably be embarrassed to read this, but Katy is my model of what a Catholic woman should be. She doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but lets it ground her to do what she must. She works hard, loves deep, and makes tough choices and difficult sacrifices without seeming to give a whole lot of thought to herself. When you need her, she is there … without fanfare, without complaint, without conditions. She will paint walls, chase chickens, and share a bottle of wine or pot of tea with equal enthusiam. And when she faces her own challenges, she doesn’t demand anything remotely resembling payback. God help me, I forgot her birthday yesterday when we went shopping for a dress for our vow renewal in Rome. (Well, I shopped and she watched me try on dresses with mom.) When it finally clicked as I was driving back home, and I called her up to apologize for our lapse, she said, “Well, I thought about suggesting we get dessert at lunch, but we were all so full …”

This fall she and Todd are schedule to go with Craig and me to Rome to renew our vows, then get on the cruise ship and set sail for Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and Israel. The trip of a lifetime. And now that we have paid for our fares and made our plans, there is a chance Katy may not be able to go. So … if you are still reading this, please do me a favor:  Ask God to give her a very special birthday present, as a reward for a life so well lived … and because we still need her particular brand of sunshine in our lives.

They say it takes a village … But sometimes, all you really need is one good friend. Thank you, Lord, for taking good care of my sister-friend.

“Are You My Friend?”

marymarthaDo you ever look around and wonder who your friends are? I sometimes do. I’m naturally introverted, and yet the combined effects of several relocations, caring for two special-needs kids (and now my mother), and endless work-related social media interactions (I’m an editor) have depleted my little black book on those rare occasions when I’m craving a girls’ night out.

Yesterday I was discussing this with an author friend who happens to fall in the category of both professional and personal connection. She has met my extended family, and made rosaries for my kids. I’ve slept at her house, and call her whenever I’m in her area to get together.

Apparently this sense of rootlessness is something that many women experience. She also made me sit up and take notice when she identified what is often the source of the problem. “There are persons, and there are personas,” she reminded me. “When you are a writer, you cultivate a persona that you let out into the world … but it’s not the same as the real you, known to your real friends.”

The moment she said this, a light bulb went on. Do editors have personas, too? Of course! So … how do I set aside the persona and let the “real me” out to play, to establish real friendships?

Interestingly, my friend’s first suggestion was … silence. Spending time together in silence, “until the uncomfortable silences become comfortable.” Of course, this isn’t something that can happen on Facebook, or in any other social media venue. It takes physical presence. It means stepping away from the computer and inviting others into the messiness of ordinary life.

This is risky, of course. I’ve had women — from church, for example — who have reached out and made an effort to connect with my daughter and me. It always surprises me a bit, to experience such kindness, knowing that I’m not really in a position to reciprocate meaningfully. What is more, the way my life is set up right now, it seems almost impossible to set up regular get-togethers. And yet, this is exactly the kind of effort true intimacy in friendship requires.

The topic of friendship is very much on trend these days. Emily Jaminet and Michele Fahnle’s The Friendship Project is being discussed in book clubs and parish women’s groups across the country. Elizabeth Foss published True Friend, a four-week devotional to help kick-start friendship in your own life.

And yet all these wonderful books won’t do a bit of good unless I’m willing to venture into that scary territory of vulnerability and initiate contact. Invite someone over (or invite myself over) for a cup of tea. Strike up a conversation with someone at a bookstore who is carrying a book I’ve recently read. Even (*gasp*) take that water aerobics class for us grannies-in-training and chat up the friendly looking lady on the kickboard next to me.

Because every decades-old friendship begins with the touch of a real, live person.

 

Weekend Ponderings: Caution! Do you know where your friends are?

kitchen-madonnaThree of my favorite Catholic women writers just posted about the lunch they had together they other day. Oooh, I WISH I could have joined them!  Writing can be such a solitary, sedentary sport, with most of the communication going one way (out!). It can be tempting to lean on our virtual connections, and neglect the real-time ones. And yet, there is nothing quite like a REAL cup of tea (or a Cosmopolitan, as Kitchen Madonna and I are doing here), sitting across the table from a good friend. Getting to see her eyes twinkle, hear her warm laughter, crunch the cookies, feel the warmth trickle down the back of your throat. Yum.

Those personal connections soften the hard times, and sweeten the good ones. But they do require a bit of effort. Tonight for the first time in . . . well, forever . . . I’m going out with my girlfriend Katy to a benefit for Safe House. It’s being held at St. Andrew Parish in Saline (7-9 p.m., if you’re interested), and it will probably just involve sipping tea and buying a new set of sheets. But with a good friend . . . sounds like heaven!

Like all God’s gifts, friendship requires a certain amount of investment to function properly. I recently sent out invitations to a half dozen church friends — we used to run the mother’s program at church together, but have since moved on to other things. I’ve missed these women, and figured it was time to do something about it!  A little chicken salad and iced tea, maybe a pavlova for dessert. Time to catch up!

We’re all busy. We all have a million things on our to-do lists. But a year from now, how many of those things are going to matter? Only the relationships we build with one another. I was reminded of the importance of keeping proper perspective again today from the first reading, from Acts 5, which is about the Pharisee Gamiliel, one of the greatest Jewish teachers of all time (and some say a secret follower of Christ). In discussing what to do with St. Peter and the apostles (who had recently gotten on the last nerve of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court), Gamaliel makes an astute observation about human endeavors of all kinds.

“…So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go.
For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself.
But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them;
you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”

So the question I put to you today …  How many of the activities on your list are “of human origin,” and how many are of lasting significance? Are you maintaining the gifts God has given you — including the gifts of friendship? When was the last time you hugged a kid . . . or a friend?

Wee Cook Wednesdays: Comfort Cookies

comfort-cookiesI just got back from the post office, having mailed out a couple of Raising Up Mommy to conference participants … and a “Comfort Box” to a friend.

In case you’re not familiar with the custom, “Comfort Boxes” are care packages that you send to someone who has just experienced a great loss. The box can be plan or flowery (like the kind you get in craft stores), depending on whether you mail it or deliver it in person. What’s important is what’s inside:

* A box of “Comfort Cookies” (recipe below)
* A box of really good herbal tea (for late-night sipping)
* A pretty china teacup (representing the fragility and beauty of life)
* A really good book or CD, appropriate to the situation (for the death of a pet, a copy of Life with Marley; the death of a mother of a large family might be Cheaper by the Dozen or The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; the death of a spouse might be A Severe Mercy. Another favorite is the audio version of Anthony Destefano’s A Travel Guide to Heaven).
* Optional items, suited to that particular need: A pretty journal or box of notecards, a gift card for a favorite restaurant (for a night cooking is too great a challenge after the casseroles stop coming), a small box of chocolates, an aromatic candle. Anything that will pamper, soothe … and add a touch of beauty.

Comfort Boxes are a tangible reminder of love and concern, best sent after the initial flurry of the funeral. Anniversaries or other significant dates (birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s or Father’s Day) that first year can be especially hard, and a time when this expression of friendship can be greatly appreciated.

Now … for those cookies! Comfort Cookies are a little hard, a little bittersweet (kind of like memories), and their spicy aroma fills the senses (especially when warm, or dunked in tea). One recipe makes at least 5 dozen, so they are great for bringing to funeral lunches, too. (Sometimes I dunk one edge in chocolate as a decorative touch.)

Comfort Cookies

1-1/2 C shortening
2 C granulated sugar (plus a small bag for coating)
2 eggs
1/2 C dark molasses
4 C flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ginger
pinch of allspice

Combine dry ingredients (stir lightly with whisk). Cream shortening and sugar until fluffy, then beat in eggs. Add molasses and sifted ingredients. Chill 30 minutes, then roll in 1″ balls; roll in sugar. Place on cookie sheet 2″ apart. Bake 375 degrees 10-12 minutes, until set. (If you like them chewy, take them out while still soft in the center — let them cool on the sheet for a few minutes.) Makes about 5 dozen.

For small children, make “cookie lollipops” by inserting a popsicle stick before baking.