Words for Nana

My Nana passed away last week. My cool, awesome, adorable, totally rad nana. My mom called last Monday night to tell me. We knew things weren’t good, but I didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did. It sucks.

My mom also asked me to write something to read aloud at the funeral, she said she trusted me to find the right words. Nana used to love reading my blog, she was so proud of me for writing. It wasn’t easy, but I would never refuse my Nana anything. I thought about it constantly in the days leading up to the funeral. Planning, writing, re-writing, editing, revising, reading, reading aloud. It had to be perfect, nothing less would do. Writing this piece helped me work through my grief, it helped me find closure and say goodbye. I’m so glad I got a chance to honour her memory in such a personal way; a way that I know she would have loved.

And so, here it is.

For Nana

There was this project I had to do in the tenth grade, for one of my English classes, an interview with a grandparent. The point was to learn how to conduct and transcribe an interview, but also to connect and learn about someone else’s life, to gain some perspective. I chose Nana to interview because I thought it would be fun. And it was. It was always fun spending time with her. But it was also a very meaningful experience because of how candidly she spoke about her life. We talked about everything… her siblings, her marriages, her kids, her homes, her travels and how she felt about all of it. Her stories were full of ups and downs, laughter and sadness. She told all of it to me like it was, she didn’t gloss over any of the tougher details and none of it was romanticized either. She was very matter of fact about it all.

It certainly wasn’t an easy life from the start, there were a lot of painful memories early on. We talked in-depth about what it was like for her to lose her mom at such a young age and to have to quit school to help raise her siblings. That tragedy set the tone for her life; after such a significant loss she had to grow up fast. She became first and foremost a caregiver and a nurturer. Someone who helped, guided, supported, and cared for everyone else. She always put the needs of everyone else first, and she sacrificed a lot doing that. Never once did I get a sense that she was complaining about it or feeling sorry for herself because that’s just what she had to do. That’s a core fundamental of who she was as a person, you always did whatever you could for family, without hesitation. That was very important to her.

She went through a lot, her entire life she was constantly having to rise to the challenges set before her. Helping her bereft father run the household and raise her siblings. Starting a family of her own and then having to go through the process of divorce before it became common to everyday life. Marrying again, having more children, seeing them grown and start lives of their own, then being widowed. She went through so much, and she did it all with a lightness in her heart that is just unimaginable to me. But again it comes back to her learning at a young age that such is life. You just have to keep going and you find it within yourself to keep giving as much of yourself as you can to the people who need it.

A recurring theme throughout all of the stories she told me was that even though times may have been tough, there was always something to be thankful for. They didn’t have much growing up, but they had each other. There was still so much love and fun all around her, wherever she went. She brought that fun-loving energy with her to everything she did. A coin has two-sides though, and I learned that despite her easygoing demeanour she was a very strong person. She had a quiet kind of strength though, it ran deeply, worked behind the scenes. She could find it when she needed it and use it to keep moving forward. But she didn’t make any scenes about it, or ask for any special attention, she just did it. Having to be so strong and shoulder everyone else’s worries throughout the many varied phases of her life didn’t define her. She didn’t let any of the hardships change her attitude or outlook. Tragedy would strike, and she would keep moving, she’d get through it, she knew how.

Later on, she married again, to Poppa Al, and the second half of her life she could finally begin putting herself and her dreams first. They travelled together, a lot when they first got married and that made her so happy. She saw the world. She rode around on Poppa’s motorcycle. She walked on the Great Wall of China! I remember how thrilling it was for her, telling her grandkids all about Beijing, bringing us back beautiful treasures she knew we’d love. She was finally getting to have her own adventures and do things she never thought she’d get a chance to. She loved being a mother and grandmother. A great-grandmother too! Her kids and all of their kids were her proudest accomplishment, she said that to me. But finally getting to travel and experience more of life made her feel young.

And that’s what I remember the most about her, her youthfulness. Never, not once did I ever think of her as an old lady. She was way too hip and stylish to be an old lady.

She had a beautiful, charming laugh that matched the knowing twinkle in her eye. She was funny and sassy, quick with her wit. She had a keen sense of humour and knew how to use it; we all laughed a lot with Nana. And she was a social butterfly, she loved meeting people, making friends. She forged lasting, meaningful connections with everyone she met because she was genuinely interested in and cared about others. When she hugged you, you felt it right down in your soul. Because she loved you unconditionally and you could feel it.

She was an incredible person. She was encouraging, generous, compassionate, and wise. Which is why this loss feels so unbearable to all of us, she was the heart and soul of our family. It’s hard to know what to feel and what to do from here. But we’re not alone, we’ve always got each other and Nana would want us to be strong together. Do lots of hugging, find ways to laugh. She’d want us to take care of each other, same as she always took care of us when we needed it.

I’m so grateful that I got to spend the time with her that I did. Every moment in her company was a joy. And I know there isn’t a person here who doesn’t feel the same.

Thank you, Nana. Thank you for sharing your stories with me, for helping me with my project all those years ago. And thank you for being such a remarkable role model, you’ve had more of an impact on the lives around you than you might have realized. You showed us how it’s done, with dignity and class. You are so loved, and you will be missed, deeply.

Nana

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Your Son is Wonderful, Mrs. Hoben

Don’t any of you bother with housewarming gifts because my buddy Hoben has already won. He can’t be beat. I don’t even think I’ll be able to speak to it properly, it just so totally blows me away. But I’ll try anyways and hopefully won’t wind up sounding all syrupy and hyperbolic.

I’ve been friends with Hoben for a long time now, over a decade. And those of you who’ve been reading this site for a while might even remember I’ve spoken about our friendship before and how awesome it is. I’ve told you about how he started the grand tradition of deckers and how through him I met D. I’ve mentioned how fantastic his parents are, Glenn and Gloria, for always letting us kids pal around and party on their deck. Hell, I name-dropped the Hobens and their deck in my wedding vows and the speech I gave that night because it’s such a wonderful detail of my love story with D. Detail seems too small. It’s the cornerstone of our story, really.

My buddy Hoben is a party animal. He’s fun and funny. But he’s also accurately described as prickly, curmudgeonly, and belligerent. Especially belligerent. It’s a point of pride for him, so don’t misconstrue what I’m saying as insult. He’s got a big heart, too. It goes with his big wise-cracking mouth. And I’m realizing now that he’s also sentimental and tremendously thoughtful.

You can only imagine how I felt when he handed me this last weekend:

the step

The first step off of his parents deck. Re-painted, beautifully, with our names and possibly the most apt description I’ve ever seen.

It is the literal first step in our relationship. I can’t even begin to thank Hoben for how fucking awesome and amazing this gift is and how much it means to us. All I can say is that I’m so goddamn lucky to have such a thoughtful and caring friend.

You’re the best Hobs, we love you.

piece of the deck

And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get lucky. Maybe he’ll drunkenly conceive the first Hoben grandchild with Shannie on my floor or something and I can pry up the floorboard and gift it back to him. You know, even things out a little.

Everlong

It’s our first wedding anniversary today.

I walked down the aisle to this song:

It’s always been one of my favourites. And when I hear it now, I tear up remembering our wedding.

I planned, and wished, and hoped with every inch of my being for that day to go as planned. While some things worked out really well, like the weather, and others left a lot to be desired, the shitty old man DJ, overall I couldn’t be happier with how it all turned out. The wedding was a dream.

Ashley and Darren (214)

Photo by Jennifer Moher Photography: http://www.jennifermoher.com

And marriage has been the greatest blessing of my life. That’s no lie, or flowery sentiment to make things seem rosier than they are. That’s just the truth, stated plainly from my heart.

It’s so easy these days for people to create the image of a perfect, happy life. Today we present the best possible versions of the life we wish we had, sharing photos that have been filtered and edited to look “just right” or posting to Facebook brief blurbs of ourselves that make us appear more thoughtful and caring than maybe we actually are. Posting only the stuff that helps corroborate our stories of “super awesome” lives. It makes it increasingly difficult to be certain, everything consumed with a giant grain of salt, because we’ve become so accustomed to seeing one perfect version of each other online.

Marriage is very similar. It’s hard to know for certain if the people in a given marriage are genuinely happy or putting up a front. You never can tell, and frankly, it’s not anyone else’s business. Yet we wonder anyways. It doesn’t stop us from prying and asking, reading into and analyzing what we think we see in the lives of others. People are curious and overstepping by nature.

We were asked a lot right after we got married, “so how’s married life?” As if some enormously earth-shattering change had happened to us and people wanted to know how we were coping. We always replied the same: that our life together still felt exactly the same as it always had. It did, it still does. That may be a product of having been together for nine years before we married, or that may just be a product of the kind of relationship we have. Life just carried on, same as it always had. That’s the end result I wanted, so I can’t complain.

All I know is that I married well and I am truly happy. I married someone who is unconditionally loving and supportive. Someone who values my opinions and treats me with respect. Someone who values honesty and trust as deeply as I do, and who I know will never give me cause for doubt. I married someone with all of the qualities I knew I needed my partner in this life to have in order to make a meaningful union.

And that’s my oh-so-sage advice to anyone who wants to marry. Don’t do it because you think it will fix something or bring about some tremendously needed change in your life. Don’t choose someone based on superficial qualities like looks or the balance of their bank account. Be with someone who puts the same level of importance on the same core values that you do. Anyone can just say the words “I do”, but they don’t have to mean it, or maybe they don’t realize how much meaning those words do have.

For all my planning and hoping and wishing we did wind up having a wonderful wedding. It was an amazing day, the party was a total blast, it was fun. But you have to remember that the wedding is just the shiny veneer put on your relationship that day for the sake of ceremony. The real treasure can only be realized in time, when at the end of the life you built together you can say with certainty that you did in fact have an amazing life together.

We’re only one year, of hopefully many more, into our marriage. We’re still so green. But I trust in my heart that we’re off to a very promising start. We put together all of the elements that we believe we need to make our marriage a remarkable one. And with every anniversary accumulated, we’ll get a little closer to seeing how well we’ve really done.

Ashley and Darren (502)

Photo by Jennifer Moher Photography: http://www.jennifermoher.com

Uncharted Territory

I like to eat. A lot. To be clear, when I say “a lot” I mean it both ways. I like to eat a lot of food and I like eating as an activity a whole lot. It’s pretty much my favourite thing. Food is happiness. I don’t care if people tell you it’s not good to eat your feelings. I do it all the time and it’s the fucking best. The mere act of crunching down on something tasty and mashing it into oblivion with my vice-like jaws makes me feel like I’m right on the cusp of divinity. Eating rules.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I like to cook. Traditionally, I’ve preferred to play more of a supporting role in the kitchen. If someone else wants to expend their effort slaving over a hot stove, I’ll gladly scarf down a plate when it’s ready and show my gratitude by providing the praise they sought. I grew up in a big family, my mom always cooked enough to feed an army and she’d had her shit all figured out. She didn’t need me to help. She needed my appreciation. Which I was more than happy to show, by reaching for seconds, and sometimes even thirds. Unless of course she made something totally disgusting, like lasagna or scalloped potatoes. Bleeugf. That’s how disgust sounds, by the way. Bleeugf. Like you’re about to have a hairball on the dining room floor. There was nothing more disappointing than coming home from school famished and finding out that dinner was going to be something you hated. What a waste of a mealtime… But I digress. Cooking just wasn’t my bag.

Eventually though, you grow up and fly the coop. And you’ve gotta feed yourself, gotta eat to live. Luckily for me, I found myself a man who loves to cook and doesn’t mind one bit that I’m a total slouch at it. I’m wildly independent and I’ve always charged through life without ever wanting to rely on a man for anything. I’m just crazy like that, I guess. But cooking is really the only way I’ve ever thrown up my hands and let D provide for me. I love eating so much, but don’t really have the drive to make good food for myself. But D does. It’s a great fit, he loves to cook and I’m happy to let him. Who’s it really hurting anyways? He needed to find a way to make me dependent on him for something and I need to eat.

We’ve lived together a few years now and we’ve had a handful of exploits in the kitchen. D does the majority of the cooking, and once in a while I come along and turn something into a pizza. So I do manage to contribute in my own way. And up until recently, I’ve been happy to carry on playing my supporting role. “Mmm, yum! Great job, babe!” I know my lines by heart. But I’m somebody’s wife now. Bit of a game changer that is. I don’t want to be a slouch anymore, I want to step up my game. I see a learning opportunity and I think I’ve finally uncovered some motivation. I want to make my husband happy.

I can do anything, I just have to want to do it. And I think I do now. Plus, I got a whole shitload of new gadgets for the kitchen as wedding gifts. Use it or lose it, right?

Feeling inspired, I decided to try something different for dinner tonight. I wanted to make something really scrumptious that D would love. But I’m not completely ready to fly solo yet, so I still enlisted his help. We’re a good team, and he does love to cook, so I don’t want to take that away from him. As an aside, I’ve decided that I’m going to pursue pies, as a hobby. I want to make lots and lots of pies. And I want to get really fucking good at it. I may as well get two birds stoned at once while I’m at it, right? So I decided to make steak and ale pie for dinner tonight. A chance to hone both my cooking and baking skills at the same time!

We grocery shopped this afternoon, gathering up all of the necessary ingredients, and got to work as soon as we got home. D chopped mushrooms, onion, and garlic.

chopped!

Then we browned the stewing beef, using our fabulous new Le Creuset french oven. A wedding gift from my darling friend, The Ladybird Magpie that I’m forever grateful for.

browning the beef

And before long, we had an intoxicating concoction simmering on the stove top. With a little bit of thyme, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, beef stock, and some Downtown Brown Ale it all came together in a snap.

le creuset!

D popped out to grab us a few beers to enjoy with dinner, and when he got back to the apartment he told me he could smell our dinner cooking in the hallway and it was starting to drive him insane with hunger pangs! I started to feel really great about this cooking thing. I’ve got this. I can do anything I want, and I can totally kick the shit out of it.

But that feeling didn’t last long… Not once I got started on topping the pie.

The pie dish was way bigger than I remembered, and we didn’t quite make enough filling for it. We made enough filling to get it half full, and I was starting to feel a lot less cocky. But I charged ahead anyways. We’d already come this far, and I wasn’t going to let this stand in my way. I started preparing the crust for the pie. It sagged pathetically inwards. And then when I tried to brush the crust with some egg, I totally fucked up and spilled my cup of egg onto the pie. It was a total egg flood! We tried our best to soak up the spillage, but the results weren’t good. There were little pools of egg all of the top. My beautiful pie sat there staring up at me like some kind of disgusting eggy crater and I flipped out. I just totally lost it.

eggy crater

I got really upset and started shouting angrily at everything around me, naturally. I was so mad at myself, and anger is a knee-jerk reaction kind of thing for me. Stupid, so stupid! Why didn’t you make more filling? Why did you hold the cup of egg on such a precarious angle, you clumsy butterfingered fool? Arrgrrgrhhhhh! Frustration! This whole thing is a total fucking waste. Why don’t you just fling yourself off the balcony and end it now?

I broke down for a minute there, guys. I’m not proud of it.

But D was able to talk me down from the ledge eventually. He always does. He told me to stop putting so much pressure on myself on my very first try. It’s just dinner, it’s not such a big deal. And he was right. But I have such a nasty tendency to do that. I put so much pressure on myself and I have totally unrealistic expectations of greatness. I’m no master chef, I’ve only just started on my culinary journey. There’s going to be mistakes, lots. And I have to roll with it, I can’t lose my head and start raving like a lunatic when something goes wrong. He’s a smart guy, that husband of mine. I definitely don’t give him the satisfaction of hearing that as often as he should. But he was totally right. It might not come out of the oven perfect, so what? At least I tried.

We put the pie into the oven and resigned ourselves to hoping for the best.

When it was done, and it was time to see the finished product, I was pleasantly surprised.

finished product!

I learned something very important today: puff pastry is a fucking miracle of nature! The pastry worked double duty and made up for the lack of filling. It puffed up way more than I expected and totally saved the day. Hallelujah!

the serving

It was 3 hours in the making, and took us mere minutes to wolf down. And my very first attempt at a steak and ale pie was goddamn delicious, if I do say so myself.

It was a trying experience at times and it ate up my entire afternoon making this thing, but overall I feel good about it. I’m not discouraged. I almost was for a minute there, but D helped me bounce back. I wouldn’t say that cooking is fun, not at this point in time, but it is an adventure. And I like adventures, so I think I’m willing to stay the course and see where it will take me. Yeah, I’m not one for giving up. I’d like to see where this can go.

The Strongest Man in the Whole Wide World

I’ve always known that my dad is strong. All dads are. Every dad is the strongest man in the world to their kids when they’re young. He can lift you right up over his head and everything! It makes you laugh, it makes you squeal, and you feel light as a feather, swooping through the air in his powerful grasp. It’s a wonderful, but fleeting feeling. You’ve got to come down eventually, he can’t hold you up forever. But he is still the strongest man in the whole wide world. Until one day when he isn’t…

Eventually, you get older and you realize that it’s just your own silly little misbelief. But that’s okay. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t literally the strongest man in the whole wide world, he’s your dad and he’s still plenty strong for you. He might not be able to lift you right up over his head anymore, you’re too old for that now anyways, but you’ll always cherish those days when he could.

Dad and I, back when I was at the perfect weight to be hoisted up over his head

Dad and I, back when I was at the perfect weight to be hoisted up over his head

I got to watch my dad compete in a power-lifting competition this weekend, and I felt an overwhelming pang of nostalgia for those days when I was young and my dad was undoubtedly the strongest man in the whole wide world. Where did all of that time go? How did it slip away so quickly? Somehow, during that frantic dash to adulthood, I’d forgotten all about what it was like to believe in Dad. But thankfully for me, he’s constantly fanning the flames of belief in my heart, even when I’m out playing “adulthood” and am too caught up in myself to notice.

My dad has always been into weight training, he started doing it back in the ’70’s when he was only sixteen years old and it became a lifelong passion of his. You wouldn’t know it to look at his average height and build, but he’s a very powerful man. He’s totally unassuming in that regard. And he loves pouncing on an opportunity to show someone what he can really do with a set of weights. He’s used to being grossly underestimated by those that so wrongly assume that only “built” or “big” men can lift anything remotely impressive. When I tell people that my dad is a power-lifter they immediately ask me how big he is or they’ll remark that he must be HUGE. But power doesn’t come from having stupidly gigantic muscles. It comes from an unyielding will to conquer the impossible and a relentless pursuit of ever greater challenges.

a very old photo of my dad on his journey to greatness

a very old photo of my dad while on his journey to greatness

Although power-lifting has been a great passion of his for many years, he only recently started competing. He’s been competing for a few years now, but I’d never had the opportunity to go and see him in competition until now. And though I’m quite familiar with what my dad can do–I’ve seen him lift mind-boggling amounts of weight while growing up–he totally floored me. At 57 years old he was the oldest man in the competition by a mile. All of the other competitors were anywhere from 20 to 30 years younger than him. But that didn’t faze him one bit, it never does.

My dad, showing off the deadlift tattoo that I drew for him over ten years ago

My dad, suited up and showing off the deadlift tattoo that I drew for him over ten years ago

Dad gets out there and pushes all of the bullshit preconceived notions about his age and his build completely out of his mind. His only thought is about the lift. I watched as he stepped up to the bar, all determination and focus. I watched with unbearable pride as he shattered every expectation with every successful lift. And just like that, I believed again. I never stopped believing, I just forgot that you have to keep doing it if you want to keep the magic alive.

A power-lifting competition comprises three different lifts: the squat, the bench, and the deadlift. Each competitor will get three attempts at each lift, with the weight increasing progressively for each lift. My dad’s favourite lift is the deadlift. The announcer at the competition stated that it was her favourite too, because “it’s an act of defiance”. Defying odds and defying gravity. For his final lift of the day, my dad did a deadlift of an astounding 402 pounds. I know that’s not a record and it’s not the most that anyone will ever lift. But in that final moment when he dug into every last reserve of strength and snapped the weight into position, my dad was the strongest man in the whole wide world again.

My dad is a remarkable man and I admire him. He’s inspiring and he’s brave and he’s amazing. And I get to have all of the joy in telling people that he’s MY dad. I’m going to hold on to my silly little misbelief awhile longer yet and cherish it. He’s earned it.

My dad is the strongest man in the whole wide world. Everything is exactly as it should be.