Lights of peace

Bear was a big, sweet, loving Golden Retriever. He came into our lives many years ago when he was being fostered and looking for a new home. We had been thinking about getting a small dog, partly because our daughter was afraid of large dogs. My husband took our daughter to the park one day; they saw a man my husband knew, and the man had a very large Golden Retriever with him. My daughter ran up to this huge dog, hugged him, and played with him.

When we found out that this magical animal who had cast a spell on my daughter needed a home, things moved quickly. Soon, we brought Bear home. The bond between this wonderful dog and my daughter was special and strong. When she was on a swing, he interpreted her joyful shrieks as a cry for help. He stood on his hind legs in front of the swing, stopped the swing with his body, and held onto her until my husband stepped in to rescue her.

He was protective of all of us. One evening, as we were preparing to move, I was sitting on the recliner after a long day of packing. My husband was sitting on the front porch, our daughter had fallen asleep on the couch, and Bear was dozing on the floor. A sudden pounding made me jump out of the chair, and Bear began barking ferociously. I screamed, and my husband came running into the house. We called the police and learned that someone had tried to push the air conditioner into the house as a way to break in. Bear’s ferocious protectiveness had scared them away, and he guarded that window every waking moment until we moved.

Bear loved the Christmas tree. Each year, from the time we put it up until the day we took it down, the spot under it was his territory. It was his spot for naps, guarding the house, and waiting for belly rubs. The tree seemed to draw him even more when the lights were on, so we kept the tree lit often. It seemed to make him so happy.

We didn’t want to limit the peace he got from the tree to one time of year, so I scoured craigslist and found an amazing deal on a huge ficus tree. We lugged it home, named it Bear’s tree, and put white lights on it. He loved it, and snoozing under it became his favorite pastime.

When we found out he had cancer, the tree became even more meaningful to all of us. We decided to expand on the idea, so we put year-round greenery on the mantel, and added white lights to it. Just as Bear relaxed and snoozed under the lights, even in his last days, we relax in their soft glow. They’re Bear’s lights, and they bring us peace.

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Going down a new road

When I write for work, it’s always on a computer. For my own creative writing projects, I go through phases: sometimes, I reach for an old-school notebook and a favorite pen. If inspiration strikes at an odd time, a scrap of paper and a stubby pencil will do in a pinch. Lately, though, I’ve felt drawn to a keyboard for my own projects, so here I am. I never write about myself, but I’m going down a new road, and I know writing about it will help me sort it out.

I’m back to working from home, and I’m happy. I’m freelancing right now, but I’d love to find the perfect long-term role. My dream job doesn’t have defined parameters. I love writing, proofreading, editing, and research, but I also love data entry, word processing, and other tasks that come with being an administrative assistant. Two things are important to me: making a difference in some way and working with nice people.

During a recent conversation, an old friend asked where I’m working now. When I said I’m working from home, he said, “How can you do that? I’d never get anything done.” I’m used to this reaction, but I love working from home. It’s the work environment where I feel most productive, most efficient, and most creative. I’m used to the next question, too: “Do you work in your pajamas?” and the answer is that it depends. Some days call for PJs, a giant mug of tea, and my favorite music on Spotify. Other days demand that I get dressed, lace up my sneakers, and take a quick walk to clear my head before diving into the day’s work.

Although this road is new in some ways, it’s familiar in other ways. I already know that popcorn helps with work that requires a lot of research, and it’s important to have chocolate on hand for intense projects. Reading while I eat lunch refreshes me for afternoon work. It’s easier to proofread on paper than on a computer screen. A walk with my daughter helps clear my head. I love working away while my dog snoozes next to me.

One of my goals is to devote more time to creative writing. I’ll still use a notebook and pen sometimes, but I think the computer will be my go-to spot for a while. For now, it’s a great way to organize my thoughts, figure things out, and put words on paper. Of course, a scrap of paper will work when inspiration strikes while I’m away from the computer.

I don’t know where this road is going to take me, but I’m enjoying the journey so far.

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“I like snow; I just didn’t expect to get it all at once.”

Parts of Western New York have experienced an epic snowstorm this week. At the beginning of the storm, my daughter was in awe of how quickly the snow was falling. She said, “I like snow; I just didn’t expect to get it all at once,” and we chuckled. Now it’s the end of the week, and we aren’t chuckling anymore. Her words have proven prophetic: over the course of a few days, part of the city and many suburbs have received an entire winter’s worth of snow.

This storm has caused so much destruction. As of this writing, there have been 13 deaths. Roofs are beginning to collapse, and a nursing home had to be evacuated because the roof was weakened by the weight of the snow. Impassable streets have made it impossible for ambulances and fire trucks to reach people in need of medical attention. People trapped in their homes for days are running low on groceries and other necessities. Meals on Wheels had to suspend meal delivery. Numerous motorists were stranded on the thruway.

Municipal budgets are taking a tremendous hit, and schools are being forced to use way too many snow days, especially considering that we haven’t even celebrated Thanksgiving yet. The list of problems goes on and on, and there’s another big one on the horizon: it’s supposed to get very warm this weekend, so the potential for flooding is huge.

In the middle of all this, there have been so many bright spots. Buffalo is known as the City of Good Neighbors. Throughout my life, I’ve seen Buffalonians live up to that name over and over, but especially in times like this. People are looking for ways to help each other out, cheer each other up, and just get through this. I’ve seen and heard so many wonderful stories this week, and each one makes me proud to call this community my home.

*Neighbors have been reaching out to help each other shovel out, clear heating vents, and share their remaining groceries.

*People have been using social media to post about people who need help, share storm updates, and keep in touch with family and friends.

*Ambulances can’t get down many roads, so firefighters have carried patients on stretchers to main roads or even all the way to the hospital.

*When a woman in labor couldn’t get to the hospital, she delivered her baby at a firehouse where firefighters and two nurses worked together to help her.

*When a young mother ran out of the special formula she needed to feed her baby, she mentioned it on Facebook. Her friend, a firefighter, walked to the store to get the formula and then walked to deliver it.

*When a young man was stuck at work for an extended period of time, a local couple invited him into their home to warm up and enjoy a hot meal; when he was done, they drove him on a snowmobile to his destination.

*Firefighters, police officers, and volunteers used snowmobiles and other vehicles to deliver medication and other necessities to people stranded in their homes.

*Pharmacies have opened up to fill prescriptions so people (regular customers or not) wouldn’t have to go without their medications.

*People have organized a “shovel mob” to help their fellow Buffalonians shovel out.

*An Upstate Farms milk truck passed a man walking home from a store. The driver stopped to ask if the store had milk; when the man said the store was out of it, the driver gave him two bottles of milk.

*Despite all the snow, destruction, and cabin fever, people are still being kind to each other and finding ways to help each other.

When people talk about the snow in Buffalo, they chuckle, or even laugh out loud. I’ve heard comments this week: “I’m so glad I don’t live in Buffalo!” and “I could never live with all that snow.” I’m sure this week will cement our reputation as the snow capital of the world, so these comments will become even more common. (How come our glorious summers never make the news?!)

But. This snowy city is an amazing place to live. The people make it so easy to live here. This week, my daughter learned that it’s possible to get a whole winter’s worth of snow in one week, but she also learned – again – how wonderful Western New Yorkers can be.

November storm 2014                            November storm 2014-2

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“Another tree, Mom?”

tree - October, 2014

When we lived in Rochester, my home office was on the second floor of our townhouse. I had a view of the courtyard, including a large and very beautiful tree. I loved to watch that tree change with the seasons.

Every autumn, when the beautiful leaves fell, I felt a sense of loss because the tree looked dead. I don’t love winter, so the fact that “my” tree was bare was just another reason to like the snowy season even less. When the tree sprouted tiny buds in the spring, I watched with great anticipation until the first leaf popped out. In the summer, the tree was full and grand; its shade made a cool spot for me to sit outside with lunch or a book.

When I was pregnant with our daughter, I watched the seasons change on the tree while I waited for her to be born. When she was little, we sat under the tree, walked around its trunk, read in its shade, and examined its leaves.

When we were preparing to move, my husband surprised me with a large, framed picture of my tree. It was so simple, but it is one of the best gifts I have ever received.

Today, I was outside with my daughter, and we were looking at the fall colors. We were surrounded by so much beauty, and it took me back to that tree. I treasured the memories, but I realized we were making a new one. (Then, I held her in my arms; now, she’s almost as tall as I am. How did that happen?) As I gave her a hug, she teased me for taking this picture. “Another tree, Mom? It’s ok. I like this one, too.”

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ALS took my grandfather


I was nominated to take the Ice Bucket Challenge, but I’m going to approach this a little differently.   Instead of dumping ice water over my head, I’m going to tell you how ALS has had a profound impact on my family and me.

My grandfather, whom I nicknamed Mitchell when I was a little girl, was one of my very best friends in the whole world. He had a very kind face with the most wonderful smile, and when he smiled at me, I felt like the world was a happier place. He loved to read, and I have many fond memories of us spending time reading together. When I was a little girl, he introduced me to Reader’s Digest, and we spent hours talking about articles, comparing our Word Power scores, and discussing topics that should be covered in future articles.

When I was in college, I met a wonderful guy, Alex, and I brought him home to meet my family.   Mitchell teased me because he and Alex were political opposites, but they grew to enjoy each other’s company very much. When Alex asked me to marry him, we chose Mitchell’s birthday as our wedding day.

At the wedding, after I danced with my dad, I asked Mitchell to join me on the dance floor. I had chosen The Wind Beneath My Wings because he was my hero, but also because he was always so supportive and encouraging. As we danced, I wished him Happy Birthday and thanked him for sharing his day with us. I also thanked him for being such a wonderful grandpa and for always being there for me.

At my wedding, Mitchell told us that he thought something was wrong with him because he hadn’t been feeling like himself. That day was the beginning of a long and very difficult journey through numerous medical specialties, tests, and misdiagnoses. Through it all, he remained kind, patient, and loving. Our whole family spent that year worrying, wondering, and hoping for a non-catastrophic diagnosis.

Alex and I went away the weekend of our first anniversary. I remember standing at a payphone (it was 1996, after all) in a beautiful hallway in the inn where we spent the weekend. Over the phone, my mom told me that Mitchell has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. She’s a Nurse Practitioner, and I knew this was one of the diagnoses that fell into the catastrophic category, but I didn’t know exactly what ALS was.

Mitchell died on April 4, 1999. Between his birthday/my wedding day and his death, ALS robbed him of his ability to breathe, eat, walk, and talk. It robbed him of his ability to move anything other than his eyes. Because of ALS, he couldn’t walk on the beach, ride his bike, go for walks, hug his beloved wife or anyone else, give kisses, read Reader’s Digest, swim, eat, or any one of a million other things we do during the day without a second thought.

With ALS, the mind remains completely clear. I used to sit with him and hold his hand because it was the only way I could think of to provide comfort and keep him company. I used to wonder what he was thinking. When he’d look at me and give my hand a little squeeze, I could picture the smile that would have been there if ALS hadn’t taken that away, too. It took me back to my childhood, and even to my wedding day, and I hated this disease with every fiber of my being.

He’s been gone 15 years and I still miss him every single day. ALS is an awful disease, and I hope that a cure will be found. I’ll be making a donation to help reach that goal, and I would be grateful if you would do the same.

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“We roam all over” and “Life is an adventure”


Around 25 years ago, I went to my college orientation.  I was excited, but I was also very nervous.  Would I make friends?  Would the classes be tough?  At the orientation dinner, I talked with a girl named Michelle.  She seemed really nice, and it made me feel better to have made my first college friend.  We’re still friends, and we’ve been through a lot since then.

Last weekend, Michelle’s oldest daughter graduated from high school, and she’s preparing to head off to college.  I felt like we had come full circle, and I wanted to choose a gift that reflected this somehow.  I went shopping with lofty goals: I wanted something that would serve as a connection to Western New York, but I also wanted to emphasize that college – like life – is to be explored, experienced, and lived to the fullest.

Mission accomplished!  The first item I chose was a bracelet with a small charm that said it all: “Life is an adventure.”  I love the fact that she can wear this as a little reminder that she has so many experiences to look forward to.  The second item was a mug with a picture of a buffalo and the words “we roam all over.”  Since Michelle’s daughter is going away to college, I thought this was a perfect reminder that although Buffalonians roam all over, they can always return home to Western New York.

I have many blessings, including some of the most wonderful friends in the world.  Michelle is one of those friends, and that friendship started during college orientation.  Now, it’s her daughter’s turn.  I hope that while she is roaming all over and discovering that life is an adventure, she makes some wonderful lifelong friends along the way, too.

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“Mom, why do we need to wear sunscreen, anyway?”

sun through the trees

We ran out of sunscreen, so I asked my husband to buy more when he went to the store.  While he was gone, my daughter asked why sunscreen is so important.  We talked about it when she was young, but it’s been a while.

We covered many bases during our discussion.  I explained that the sun’s rays are good in so many ways, but that our skin can be badly damaged if we don’t protect it.  Skin cancer runs in my family, so I explained that in an age-appropriate manner, too.  Although age spots are the furthest thing from her mind, I explained that the sun can cause skin to look older than the person’s actual age.

Her timing was good; I’ve read several articles about sunscreen and skin cancer lately.  It’s that time of year when many magazines remind us of the dangers of going without sunscreen.  I’ve had pre-cancerous moles removed, so consider this a Jenn McDougall public service announcement.

  • Wear sunscreen.  It only takes a few minutes to apply, but going without it can mean big trouble.
  • Read the directions.  Sunscreen doesn’t last the whole day, especially if you’re swimming.  Reapply it as necessary.
  • Do some research.  There are many different types of sunscreen; with a little research, you can figure out which one is best for you.
  • Look for sales.  Sunscreen can be expensive, but it’s a necessity, not a luxury.  With sales and coupons, you can find great deals; when you do, you may want to stock up.
  • Visit your dermatologist on a regular basis.  It’s a quick visit, and it’s completely worth every minute of your time.  Early detection is key.

I love summer.  The pace is slower, and the days are longer.  That means I have more time to spend with my family.  I’m careful about sunscreen because I don’t want to get skin cancer.  Writing this reminds me that I have to schedule an appointment with my dermatologist.  I hope you’ll do the same, right before you put your sunscreen on to head out the door.

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