Snapshots of my Nana

It is Thanksgiving Eve, and my Nana’s birthday*.

My nana did not like to cook, but whenever I visited, she made chocolate milk in her blender to make it frothy, and she always had at least two kinds of ice cream, which we ate in the afternoon. It was wondrous to my child’s mind, the kind of spoiling that nanas do best.

My nana called me Steph, Dear, and Snoopy in equal measures, most of the years that I knew her. But her face would alight with recognition whenever she saw me, so it didn’t matter.

I thought my nana’s living room was scary. It was formal, dark, and Victorian. There was a large painting in a gold frame portraying the death of King Ferdinand. I could not understand why anyone would want something so dismal. There were ornate lamps with pointy crystals. I would stand at the edge of the room, in the kitchen, hold my breath, and run quickly over the Oriental rugs and past the marble coffee table and uncomfortable furniture to her sun porch, where she always sat working on craft projects.

My nana impatiently guided my small hands through craft projects I was not yet ready to do—my first embroidery at age 4, and an astoundingly detailed string art sailboat at age 6, with macaroni letters spelling out the name of our boat. I remember making a shadow box with a cliff we made from clay and rocks, a tiny lighthouse, and a tiny stairway down to the water with a tiny boat tied to a tiny dock. By then I might have been 8. We would start a project and when she ran out of patience, she’d finish it. My nana was not a teacher.

But my nana was an artist—a watercolor painter—and I wanted to be an artist like her. Her watercolor painting of the Sandy Hook lighthouse, where I grew up in New Jersey, hangs in my living room. I realized early on that I did not inherit her artistic talent (nor her love of Victorian decor). But when I was old enough, I’d help her make bows from curling-ribbon in large quantities for the Riverview hospital gift shop.

My nana had many friends through her women’s club and I remember their craft bazaars and charity craft projects. Two of my nana’s favorite friends were much younger and visited often. When I was little, my mom would tell me not to be upset when they came over. Mrs. Baumeister shouted because she was deaf, she’d explain, and Mrs. Serpico shouted because she was Italian, but they were never angry, just loud.

My nana did not like to cook, but she loved hosting parties. She had a swimming pool, and one of those small buildings called a cabana, with two changing rooms grown moldy over time, and scary spiders in the corners. She hosted a pool party for my 8th birthday, and decorated fancy cupcakes in pink, blue, and yellow. I wore a pastel rainbow bathing suit and had stripes of zinc oxide on my late-summer, sunburned face.

For many years, my nana drove a blue 71 Chevy Impala. The back seats were covered with a thick layer of dog hair, and the car was so wide that when we were buckled up, my brother and I could not touch each other. It also had electric windows. She drove to the A&P nearly every day, so I was surprised when I heard that she got lost driving home.

I loved being outside at my nana’s house. Her land went on forever. There were weeping willows next to the river, an old, boarded-up water tower, back woods with lily-of-the-valley in early spring, and a huge sycamore tree at the edge of the woods. She had two great copper beeches—I could climb one high enough to see over the roof of her house and all the way to the river. I could disappear for hours with her dog Snoopy–most of the time she didn’t notice we were out.

My nana had a green painted stoop on the side of her sprawling ranch house, and below it, soft yet prickly Bermuda grass. I loved jumping barefoot from the sun-warmed stoop onto the spongy turf. It was years before I wondered where that door went, the one at the top of the stoop. I peeked through the clouded glass, but all I could see were stacks of boxes and furniture inside.

Much later, I learned that it was a secret room inside her house. It was secret because the doorway was completely hidden by stacked boxes and furniture. Today we would call it hoarding, but to me, it was just Nana’s house. It was the visual, chaotic debris of a once-sharp mind.

I lost my nana long before she died, to Alzheimer’s disease. She didn’t like having her picture taken, so I have no photographs of her. Nevertheless, these snapshots are the Nana I knew, and I keep them in my heart.

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*Postscript: Today we moved my much loved mother-in-law, who has frontotemporal dementia, into memory care. I’m not yet ready to write about that journey, but I wrote this to honor my nana and hoping that my boys will have happy memories of their nana too.

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One week til Chicago.

The miles are in the bank. We are T-9 days away from the Chicago Marathon, and I feel confident that our Down. Not Out! team will cross the finish line together. I’m so proud of Ann, and I’m excited that I will be with her to see this goal through.

I am looking forward to the adventure, and yet, part of me is dreading it.

I am relieved to have my Table Rock 50K behind me. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I was nervous about potential injury. Table Rock is a wicked course—one I hadn’t run—and there’s nothing easy about 5700 ft of elevation gain on single-track trails. In fact, it was harder than I expected (but I loved it all).

A couple of weeks ago, friends asked if I was doing extra training in addition to my weekly training with Ann, plus joining her long runs whenever we were both in town. Sometimes Chicago training looked like powerful walk/run intervals; other days we needed to do more walking. Ann persevered. Marathon training with stage 4 cancer is tough. There is no manual or instruction book. She’s writing it.

I sure as hell was not doing extra training. I don’t have time, and I’m not that dedicated. I was undertrained for distance and terrain, but that’s happened before, and it turned out OK. Still, I fumbled over my response. “No, but it’s fine.” Well, of course, duh. “Look,” I said, trying again, “my priorities are clear.”

I knew they were missing the whole truth, but I didn’t try to explain. I was worried that I might burst into tears unexpectedly and make everyone uncomfortable. Still, I squirmed inside about the possible misunderstanding.

My priorities are clear. That is true enough. A mistaken assumption, however, might be that my only priority is to help Ann finish her marathon. I think even Ann worried about it some. However, that isn’t the case at all. First, Ann has had many, many friends support her training. Second, I needed these miles together. For me.

As we neared the longest runs of her training two weeks ago, Ann said one day, with weariness, “I can’t wait for this training to be over. It is really hard on my body.” Her honest words filled me with deep sadness.

We knew that she would need to hang up her running shoes, to protect her long-term health and have energy for other goals. I’ve worried about her training. I know she’s making a good decision, at the right time, and I admire Ann for making the call and doing it on her own terms. Living life large has always been her style.

But there will be weeks and months and years ahead where I would trade anything for that time spent running together. Time that is free of distraction, often in the company of other friends. No agenda, just time spent sharing what’s on our minds, laughing about our kids, making plans, and telling stories.

I will miss it terribly.

So today, we run together. To get Ann to the start—and the finish—of the Chicago marathon, and fulfill a longtime dream of hers. At the same time, I am filling my cup for the road ahead, one without my best friend running by my side.

My priorities are clear. I treasure every single day that we can lace up our running shoes together.

ann and steph crystal coast 2011

Crystal Coast Half Marathon, 2011. One of our worst races together (Ann had a fever and my IT band crapped out), but the girls’ weekend with friends more than made up for it.

2015 tour de cure

Tour de Cure 2015. This was an awesome challenge for us to tackle together, since neither of us is very comfortable on a road bike. One of my favorite pics, taken at the end of the second long, hot day of riding.

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Sunset Beach Half Marathon last spring with the Peeps. It takes a flock!

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Chicago Marathon training in July with some Peep support.

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Many adventures are still ahead. We don’t just run. We also camp, eat Krispy Kremes, and listen to bluegrass. Plus a whole lot of other stuff.

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Our husbands (and kids) never question our crazy adventures and are our rocks of support. We’re looking forward to celebrating 20 years of friendship in 2018.

Ocean of Stars

I want to lose myself in the night sky,
Shiver in the November air,
Lie by the sea among grains of sand.
I want to feel dwarfed by the universe
Tiny, and inconsequential.

Perhaps then my cares, too, will seem small
Fear drifting away with the outgoing tide
My heart growing lighter
So I might twinkle again,
Just one of a billion stars above my head.

Les Etoiles

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“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You–only you–will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This weekend was hard. Two years have not been enough time to ease my sorrow. It was a long day Saturday missing one of my closest friends. Suzie loved the wisdom of Le Petit Prince.

Running the Shut-In Ridge

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Clouds and sunshine on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Andrew

Andrew, the boys and I camped in Pisgah National Forest for a rainy long weekend. I picked Flat Laurel Gap at Mt. Pisgah because of its elevation (5000 ft.) and proximity to some beautiful areas of western North Carolina. I’d never camped there before, though I’ve taken classes to the bog in the middle of the campground. We’ll definitely go back!

We lucked out on Saturday with the weather. I’d wanted to take the boys to the Shining Rock Wilderness, so we trekked the strenuous Art Loeb Trail above 6000 ft. to Ivestor Gap. After bushwacking (and feasting on wild blueberries) on Grassy Cove Top, we retraced our steps to find the trail, hiking to within sight of Shining Rock from Flower Gap, then turning back on the Ivestor Gap Trail for a challenging 8 mile loop. It was a glorious day, and they loved it as much as I hoped they would.

Family photo at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness.

My peeps at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness.

I’d had several recommendations for an out-and-back run on the wide and relatively easy Ivestor Gap Trail, but after trying to construct an elaborate route to meet Andrew and the boys at Graveyard Fields, I decided to simplify things and have Andrew drop me off at the NC Arboretum to run point-to-point on the Shut-In Trail. I’ve been intrigued by Shut-In for some time. It originated in the late 1800s as a path George Vanderbilt took from his Biltmore mansion up to his hunting lodge on Mt. Pisgah. In addition, there’s a wicked race there each November that I’d love to do sometime.

I knew it would be tough, even without running the full 16.3 miles. The trail gains a net 3200 ft. I figured 14.7 mi was as much as I could do—matching the distance I’d done in Charleston the weekend before but adding hills and terrain. My coach enabler best pal, Andrew, dropped me off at the Arboretum and we made plans to rendezvous at the 151 junction in three hours.

The run was as difficult as it was wonderful, and took me through some beautiful and varied stretches of forest. There were many not-runnable steep stretches, but also sections with a reasonable climb, including a few downhill breaks and flats that gave me the sinking feeling that I was going to pay for them later. [Which I did.]

I took my mind off the burning in my lungs during climbs by inventing a Tolkeinian forest classification. Either the oxygen was too limited or the connection was too tenuous, because I didn’t get very far.

Mirkwood.

Mirkwood.

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Lothlorien.

Maidenhair fern (and cove forests) must be Rivendell.

Maidenhair fern (and cove forests) must be Rivendell.

Shut-In has few views, though it does pop out on the Parkway now and then, usually at overlooks. Since it was either steady rain or mist, I didn’t miss much, though the elevation markers that I only glanced at from the car now took on new significance. However, fog makes the colors in the forest more vibrant anyway, and the wildflowers I saw were a good distraction.

Jewelweed, Impatiens pallida

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida

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Starry campion, Silene stellata

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And a crazy fungus!

For some reason, I was reluctant to pull out my map, even as I ran by several Parkway checkpoints. I didn’t look because I was afraid of how far behind I’d be. Finally, at 2 hrs. 45 min., I looked to see where I was. Sure enough, I was even farther behind than I’d thought. I’d never make the 3 hour meeting point.

That’s when I realized that I should have had a back-up plan—at 3 hours, I should go to the closest Parkway overlook and wait for Andrew to find me if I wasn’t at the meeting point. As luck would have it, we were able to text, so after I emerged from the woods again, I asked Andrew to come south and pick me up at Big Ridge Overlook, at 12.3 mi. He and the boys showed up with a towel, Fritos, a sandwich and a chocolate bar. Best. Pit. Crew. Ever.

Lessons from Shut-In:

Gear: Water in my 70 oz. Nathan pack, 2 Justine’s nut butter packages (peanut butter/honey and maple/almond butter, delicious but sticky), a Luna bar, a Cliff bar that I didn’t eat, and a package of Fritos. Should have brought Nuun. I had a map (no compass—the trail follows the Parkway, so getting lost would be quite a feat), phone, small first aid kit, camera, and a page from my NC hiking guide with trail distances. I carried a long-sleeved shirt and a wool pullover in a plastic grocery bag, stuffed into the shock cords on the outside of my pack. I wore shorts, a t-shirt, a hat, and my Brooks Trail Adrenalines.

Train for distance, but account for time. When will I learn this? I can’t get my head around time-training for long runs, though I know many people like it. My mistake, though, is that I chose a distance but miscalculated my time. A 12 min. pace seemed generous, covering snack time, photos, and navigation. I might have been close had I not gained ~2000 ft. in elevation. Instead, I was closer to a 15 min. pace. Moreover, I knew I was behind and ran hard whenever I could. Fine for a race, dumb for a training run.

Plan smarter. I knew I couldn’t run the whole distance, so I should have had Andrew drop me off higher up, on the Parkway, so I could have run 14+ back to the campground. That way he and the boys would not have had to meet me, and I wouldn’t have worried that I was behind schedule.

Angles count. Shut-In was great training for my trail 50K, with long stretches of climbing. I can run, seemingly forever, on a gentle climb. But the tipping point comes eventually, where the steepness becomes not runnable, which turns suddenly into barely walkable without gasping for breath. I need to work on running steeper angles while breathing easy. Hill repeats!

Walk when you need to. Another great lesson to remember. Sometimes I pushed myself to run steep sections to the point of breathlessness. Then the trail would level out, but I was so out of breath by that point that I couldn’t run.

Mental focus matters. Shut-In was my second birthday trail run for Suzie (last year it was in Acadia). This year it was hard, and I felt it. Toward the end, I was so discouraged by the climbing that I had to stop, and I took a few pictures to re-group. I had a hard time pulling out of the downward spiral. Food did not seem to help. And then there were beautiful stretches where the running was easy and fast and I whooped aloud for the joy of flying, and of having known my amazing friend. Such is the strange nature of grief. 

Joy outweighs sorrow.

She would have loved this. RIP.

[“Bedshaped,” by Keane, has been playing in my head]