A Birthday Memory

My mom’s beloved butter roses. August 2018

Today, I’m remembering my mom on her birthday. To honor her this birthday, I’m thinking about the things that made my mom so special to me–the aspects of her that I carry with me daily and that bring me so much comfort as I navigate through this new(er) journey without my mom in physical form.

For starters, my mom had excellent foresight that guided me throughout my entire life and continues to guide me. She always knew exactly what I needed well before it was a blip on my radar. On the very first day of college, after my family helped me unpack my dorm room, my mom pulled me aside and said, “When you graduate, don’t forget about your student loans and health insurance.” I smiled and nodded, thinking that these issues would work themselves out by the time I graduated. Graduation seemed incredibly far away, and I would most certainly deal with those things later. Throughout college, my mom continued to offer me advice on various things like applying for internships, writing resumes and cover letters, the kinds of courses I should take, etc. I, wanting to assert my independence, always said I’d figure these things out myself. I would agonize and by the time I had “figured it out,” I ended up heeding whatever suggestions my mom had made. Therefore, by the time I reached my senior year, I saved myself the heartache by simply asking my mom what she thought and following her advice immediately. By the time graduation rolled around, I found myself armed with a diploma, a thick envelope with a bill for my student loans, and a pamphlet on how to get health insurance now that I’d be off my parents’ plan. Reality started to sink in especially since I was still without a job. Student loans and health insurance! My mom had known all along that these things would plague me forever if I didn’t consider them upon graduation. She had been so right.

My mom showed kindness and care in everything that she did. Whether it was cooking, gardening, teaching, traveling, or just being with family, she took great care in all of her endeavors and did it with kindness. After I had lived in Boston for a few years, I decided to move back to Wisconsin where my parents were living. My mom was gracious enough to allow me, a twenty-six year old who was more than capable of living on her own, to move into the apartment above our garage. I promised her it would only be for a month. Two and a half years later, I was still living there. Once, my good friend and neighbor told my mom that she should pull the rug out from under me, that it was the kick in the pants I needed. She laughed but of course would never force me out of the house. With my 30th birthday on the horizon, I decided it was probably time for me to fly the coop for once and for all. There was something about being a thirty year-old living in her parents’ garage that didn’t sound so appealing to me.

Mother/Daughter cooking adventures. Christmas 2013

My mom’s love of food and hosting dinner parties has become part of the fabric of my being. I always observed my mom in the kitchen and because she was very good at delegating cooking tasks when preparing for a dinner party, she gave me plenty of opportunities to develop my cooking repertoire. When I was ten, she taught me how to make Julia Child’s tomatoes Provençale. By “taught,” I mean my mom was more like, here Sonja, here’s the recipe and the ingredients, make it happen. At twenty-six, during my live-at-home stint, my mom and I often prepared dinner together in the kitchen. We had the same approach to cooking, a dash of this, a dash of that. We joked that we would start a mother/daughter cooking blog that I wanted to call Joanie and Sony’s Food Delights. We had numerous cooking adventures including my favorite during Christmas 2013 wherein my mom finally taught me how to prepare a turkey, complete with putting my hand up in the carcass to season and stuff. I had always avoided dealing with bird carcass, but no longer! Thankfully, we had gone for gel manicures first, so our hands looked lovely while inside the turkey (and the gel manicure meant the color lasted for weeks).

My childhood bedroom. July 2018.

My mom knew I needed to feel special as a middle child since we middle children often feel overlooked. To me, feeling acknowledged meant self-expression. Thus, I was allowed to decorate my room in whatever way I wanted, which meant I taped up pictures of friends and magazine cutouts over my teddy bear wallpaper. When it came time to redecorate the house, once we were all in college, my mom kept my room in tact the way I’d left it. I wasn’t ready to let go of my childhood room, and she validated these feelings (however ridiculous they were). Even when she turned it into her office, she continued to do her research amongst the teddy bear wallpaper and magazine cutouts of 90s’ hunks.

Finally, one of the great things about my mom that often flew under the radar was her sense of humor. After I moved home from college (the first time), she would often respond to me, “well why don’t you marry it?” whenever I was going on about how much I loved her cooking, or the book I was reading, or my boyfriend at the time. When I asked her to read my cover letter, she pointed out that I had written the word love five times in the letter and that it was way too enthusiastic–nobody loves working that much. Or, she would razz me for that fact that I had an incredible ability to show up at the front door just as she was putting dinner on the table.  It was true. I always arrived home from work just as she was placing a hot dish on top of the table.

I could go on and on about the wonderful things my mom did for me, her incredible talents, or the beautiful memories that shared, but I’ll pause for now. Instead, I’ll raise my glass to my mom’s memory on this day and continue to carry on her legacy by being kind, caring, passionate toward everyone and everything I encounter.
To Mom!

2017 In Review: My Year In Books

CaptureIn a year marked by tragedy—both personal and political—I turned to books, as usual, for solace, answers, escape, and laughter. I had set out to read 20 books in 2017 (I’d forgotten about this goal until I recently logged into my Goodreads account) and ended up reading only eight books. Better luck next year! Despite the many challenges of 2017, I found lots of pleasure in the books I read this year, and so I present to you (in hopes that you might enjoy a few, too) my year in books, in chronological order:

1. South and West: From A Notebook by Joan Didion

Only Joan Didion can publish excerpts from her notes and captivate an audience. As a fan of Joan Didion, I greatly appreciated this book. Written in 1970 after a month trip to the South without a specific story in mind, Didion’s notes offer a unique outsider’s perspective on life in the South and the reader can see through her observations how the mostly unchanged South has influenced our current political climate.

2. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Naht Hahn

I purchased this book shortly after my mom’s passing in order to start to grapple with grief (which as many of you know is a lifelong journey). Many of the ideas in this book resonated with me–particularly the idea that one shouldn’t try to push away suffering in order to find happiness; both have to peacefully coexist. Hahn also talked about the idea that we often let “les petites miseres” of life cause us more suffering than its worth. I’m pretty new to meditating (as in, I’ve done it a handful of times), but the mantras at the end of the book providing helpful centering exercises.

3. A Farm Dies Once A Year: A Memoir by Arlo Crawford

I’d come across this title on a list of promising nonfiction to read in 2014. I’d picked up the book in 2014 at a time when I relate to the narrator-a young 30-something who was questioning his purpose in life and searching for meaning. Also like the narrator, I fantasized about simplifying my life and moving to a farm to live and work of the land (instead I opted to return to the field of teaching). I finally read this book it in its entirety this year when I decided I was going to rotate fiction and nonfiction. I found that by now, I no longer could relate to the narrator and the story felt a little trite, the narrator a little whiny, and the idea of showing up to one’s parents’ farm to live and work for a year and then move a little too classic millennial for my tastes.

4. Moonglow by Michael Chabon

This book was given to me last Christmas by my mom and it turned out to be the last book she would ever give me, so this book has a lot of sentimental value to me in addition to it being a beautifully-written and intriguing story. We’d first heard of the book a couple summers ago while watching a segment on PBS Newshour where Michael Chabon spoke about his process for writing Moonglow, which is billed as a “faux-memoir novel,” and we were intrigued. The story takes place in 1989 while the narrator’s grandfather is on his deathbed. While on medication, he tells the narrator stories about his life, which is also interspersed with the narrator’s memories of his childhood. The novel plays with the conventions of fiction and memoir and I was pleased to hear Michael Chabon read from Moonglow and talk about his process this past fall at the 92 Street Y. I even waited in line and had the copy of the book my mom had given me autographed.


5-8 The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

     5. My Brilliant Friend

     6. The Story of a New Name 

     7. Those Who Leave, and Those Who Stay 

    8. The Story of the Lost Child 

I ended the year by reading the Neapolitan Novels. This was a delightful adventure that I recommend to anyone who loves coming-of-age tales that last over four thick novels. The story chronicles the life of Elena Greco and her lifelong friendship with Lila from elementary school until the present. The first novel is set against the backdrop of 1950s Naples, in a poor neighborhood where few residents go to school beyond elementary school, and the novels that follow trace Elena’s life through the decades amidst varying political changes and struggles of the time and relationships with family, friends, lovers, neighbors. One of the blurbs on the front cover of the first novel summarizes these novels best, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”

There is also some mystery surrounding the actual identity of Elena Ferrante,  the author’s pen name, which adds an even more exciting buzz to these already intriguing novels.

That’s all for 2017! I’m looking forward to reading more in 2018 (hoping to hit 20) and of course I’m looking for your suggestions! Here’s to another great year in books!

#shatterthetaboo: Time to Talk About Mental Health & Opioid Addiction

The following is a guest post written by my dear friend & colleague Morgan. We’ve shared a lot this year: a classroom, ideas for several creative projects, and the grief of losing a family member.

Morgan lost her brother in February from a Fentanyl overdose. In an effort to #shatterthetaboo around mental health and opioid addiction, here are the words Morgan penned about her family’s experience as well as a video of the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial:

On February 9th, 2017, my 27-year old brother Jamie died from a Fentanyl overdose.

Jamie struggled with mental health for the last 10 years of his life and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

At some point, he became an opioid user. Opioid addiction is often deadly because you need more and more to feel high each time. Eventually, he started to use heroin.

We assume that when he died, he thought he was using heroin, but he was in fact using Fentanyl. It is 100x more potent than morphine, and 50x more potent than heroin. When you die from Fentanyl, there is very little chance of resuscitation. You die almost immediately. It looks almost identical to heroin.

Jamie was an advocate for his mental health struggles for a long time. He wanted to champion his diseases; he did not shy away from telling people about them. However, he never divulged to us his battle with addiction. Being that addiction is a family disease, we were in complete denial and couldn’t see the truth right in front of our faces.

Perhaps if the stigma didn’t exist so heavily around addiction, he would have come to us. Maybe he would still be alive.

After his death, many friends have come to us with similar stories of mental health and addiction struggles. In the light of the opioid crisis, it has never been more important to shatter the taboo. To see just how bad the crisis is, take a look at these graphs: https://goo.gl/SgsfMo

As I said in my eulogy, “If you are struggling, if your family member or your friend is struggling, tell someone. Reach out. Ask how can I help. Suggest resources, share experiences. Just show up. If you know someone who is clearly an addict, speak up. Tell their mother or their siblings. Tell their friends. Tell someone.”

I miss my brother with every breath that I take.

We can not let this continue to happen. We have to #shatterthetaboo and build a community of people who help each other through this crisis.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, the resources below may be of some help to you:


You can also reach out to local health providers, as laws are changing daily in regards to opioid treatment, prescriptions for suboxone, and safe injection sites.

You don’t have to go through this alone.

Click below to see Morgan’s powerful eulogy: