Family, Friends, Personal

We all need a Shelia!

I had a sweet experience last week visiting my mom’s friend and neighbor, Shelia, who was my mom’s walking partner for over 30 years.

Mom and Shelia

Now, I’ve had some good walking partners but never one with that kind of consistency or longevity.

Thirty years of walks five days a week is remarkable — especially with someone who is not just your walking companion but your confident, counselor, and cherished friend.

My mom and Shelia covered a lot of territory over the years — in actual miles and in ideas, words, and heartfelt sharing

I visited Shelia to gather some of her memories of my mom, knowing she would have a unique perspective on her as a long-time friend.

Shelia invited me into her living room and as we settled in for a good visit, I turned on a voice recorder and started asking her questions. I wanted to know everything — what was Mom like as a friend? What were her priorities in life? What funny experiences did you have together? What would you say were her strengths? How did she get through her many trials?

I wanted to know as much as I could in the time we had together.

Not only did I learn some good stories about my mom, I felt like without even trying, Shelia welcomed me into the warm, intimate space of their unique friendship.

I actually felt sad to leave because I didn’t want the sweetness of that experience to end. I’ve always known Shelia to be wise, spiritual, creative, and smart, and I’ve appreciated her role in my mom’s and my family’s life. But while sitting with her in her living room, I felt some of what my mom must have felt to have her as a friend, and the word that kept coming to my mind was “lucky.”

My mom was one lucky woman to have had a friend like Shelia, and Shelia was lucky to have had a friend like my mom.

While I might not have a Shelia that lives around the corner that I can walk and talk face-to-face with every day, I have many other friends that have walked the miles with me.

I walked for years with my friend, Laura, in Virginia. After we both moved, we were sad that our walking ritual had to end. We too covered a lot of territory — not just on the paths and streets of Northern Virginia but in each other’s lives.

When she and her husband were called to serve a three-year mission for our church, I went to hear them speak before they left. As I approached Laura to tell her goodbye and wish her well on her mission, her husband stopped me and said, “If I were you, I’d just walk out that door, go to your car and leave.”

What he meant was that he knew it was about to get ugly, and I should just cut my losses and leave before Laura and I broke down in messy tears. We survived the three years, and now we are surviving the thousands of miles between us, but the fiber of the friendship is still there, and it gives me a little taste of what it might have been like for my mom and Shelia with their long history as walking partners.

Every morning, at 5:45, they met at the corner and canvassed the town, and as they walked, they talked about everything on their minds and in their hearts.

As Shelia told me her memories of Mom, I realized she knew everything about our family. There were no secrets between them. She knew every heartbreak and every triumph in my mother’s life – down to the oft-repeated detail that I was my mother’s hardest child to raise.

I told Shelia I couldn’t understand why my mother thought I was so difficult to raise. Shelia kindly said, “Well, with children like you, sometimes mothers want to say, ‘Hey, I’m the mother here!”

How could this child be difficult to raise? I mean, really…

Oh, so that’s what she meant…

She said my mom was more than a friend to her. “Sandra was a friend, neighbor, sister, mother, and therapist all in one.”

Not only did they share all their secrets and help each other through their challenges, they had some interesting encounters, like the morning Shelia was attacked by a white owl or when they were almost charged by a deer, or when my mom had some choice words to say at and about barking and unleashed dogs on their walking routes.

She reminded me of my mother’s obsession with neatness. She didn’t like anything to be out of place – her house, her yard, even her hair. She had a short, pixie cut and had to rush to her hair dresser Helen as soon as she felt the slightest bit of growth changing her neatly coiffed style.

Mom hated litter of all kinds. It just made her blood boil. Shelia said as they walked, Mom picked up all the stray bits of trash she saw along the way, and again, probably used some colorful words to describe the despicable people that would dare leave their garbage on her beautiful streets.

She felt a special kind of ownership of Main Street after working on Main at several places over the years — 224 clothing store, Town & Country home decor store, The Book Mark, and the Chamber of Commerce.

As she would say, it “irritates me right to death when they don’t take care of Main Street.” So, when Shelia and Mom walked on Main, Mom felt compelled to pull weeds, and deadhead flowers, and even leave reminders to water the plants!

She didn’t like seeing a dead plant through the window of one of the stores, so she made up a sign that said, “Please water your indoor plant.” Then, she taped it on the store door.

She told Shelia she was going to bring a little shovel and some gardening tools to clean things up along their walk. Shelia said, “I drew the line there, and said, ‘Sandra, we’re NOT doing that.” Shelia was so glad when Mom finally dropped that idea.

She did, however, make up awards for beautiful yards, and leave them on the porches of homes along their travels. She never missed a beautiful garden, a pretty porch, or a well-trimmed lawn! Even when I went home to visit, she would take me on a walk and make herself right at home showing me someone else’s yard.

I thoroughly enjoyed being wrapped in the warmth of Mom and Shelia’s lifelong friendship, and could only imagine what it must have been like for the two of them to see each other daily and “solve the world’s problems,” as my mom always said.

I called my daughter, Annie when I got home, and told her about my experience. She said, “Mom, we need a Shelia!”

As we talked, we realized we have wonderful friends, but our Shelias look different. Our friends are not always living next door or across the street — especially for 30-year stretches. And, our communications are different — more texting, or communicating through social media instead of walking together five times a week.

But, we sure envy and admire the Shelia-Sandra 30-year friendship ideal!

When my mom died, Shelia came to her viewing with a flower arrangement inside of a walking shoe. That said it all. It was a simple, beautiful symbol that captured a friendship that covered a lot of miles and a lot of life experiences.

A perfect symbol of a friendship that covered a lot of miles

Jane Fonda said, “Friendship between women is different than friendship between men. We talk about different things. We delve deep. We go under, even if we haven’t seen each other for years… It’s my women friends that keep starch in my spine and without them, I don’t know where I would be. We have to just hang together and help each other.” 

Shelia and my mom were the starch in each other’s spines, and isn’t that a treasured gift?

Who are the friends in your life that put the starch in your spine?

My visit with Shelia reminded me of the friends who have been and still are my “starch.” They may not fit the Sandra-Shelia standard of meeting at the corner at 5:45 ever day for 30 years but they surely have walked the miles with me.

I was reminded of some of my starch-like friends last week — one that talked to me from across the country about the challenges of parenting adult children, and then getting together with a group of cherished friends I met during my freshman year at college. We are all still walking the miles with each other.

So, thank you Shelia for welcoming me into the sacred space of your friendship with my mom, reminding me of her fun personality, strengths, and wisdom; and for reminding me of the value of friends.

Oh, and for teaching me why I was so difficult to raise, I think I get it now…

Personal

Aging Mindfully

While walking with my friend Keri last weekend, I told her I’m struggling to accept the fact that I’m getting old.

“We’re not old,” she said. “We’re sixty-three and that is not that old.”

The key phrase that jumped out at me was “that old.”

Old, yes, but not “that old.”

I told her I’m trying to embrace aging.

Trying is the key word here.

Until now, I’ve been in outright denial about it.

The pandemic, however, has done an excellent job of reminding me that I am in the “vulnerable population.”

I’ve decided to try harder to gracefully glide into the golden years even though 63 is “not that old” and it doesn’t feel that golden.

My friend Stacy has been telling me we need to “age mindfully.” I’m not even sure what that means but she has been dealing with aging parents and believes we need to be realistic about what’s ahead and have a plan for how we want things to go when we hit certain, shall we say, “milestones?”

A Psychology Today article defines aging mindfully as “aging in a way that doesn’t deny the negatives of getting older but doesn’t blow them up either.” Instead, the author recommends turning the mind to the benefits of aging with “realistic positivity,” which is defined as “seeing and accepting what is—both inside ourselves and in the world—and then shifting our focus to what we would love.”

If I’m going to have to age, which apparently is inevitable, I’m going to opt for the realistic positivity approach.

You may think this is not a revolutionary thought but coming from a woman who thinks she’s a solid 10 years younger than I really am, this is a big step.

I blame others for making me feel old — like the CDC with all that vulnerable population talk. (Aren’t you so sick of the CDC? We went along for years hardly knowing it existed and now, we can’t get through a day without hearing several mentions of it.)

And I certainly can’t forget what I’ve labeled “The Parable of the Irises,” which is a story about that time I ruined my shoulder while GARDENING from pulling out stubborn iris bulbs.

My doctor kindly pointed out that the chances of tearing a rotator cuff are commensurate with your age. If you’re 50, you have a 50 percent chance of it tearing. If you’re 60, you have a 60 percent chance, and up it goes as you age.

So, there’s a helpful piece of aging trivia for you.

I’ve done some deeply embarrassing things during my age-denial phase.

Like the time I ran into someone who claimed we went to high school together.

“No way,” I thought. “We are not the same age. We absolutely did not go to high school together.”

And then — I can’t believe I’m sharing this story — I said these words: “Oh, maybe I went to high school with one of your kids.”

Yes, I did.

I said that.

As soon as the words fell out of my mouth, I felt completely embarrassed and all the blood vessels in my body felt like they were on fire. I wanted to run and hide and never come out again.

My family slinked away in utter humiliation, slowly backing up as if they didn’t know me.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson through that experience, but that would be a lie.

I have been going to a water aerobics class (good therapy for the shoulder) and I told Doug that it’s a class full of oldsters – people who are there to soak and socialize, not exercise.  Then, one day, a lady asked how old I was and after I told her, she spritely said, “Oh, so you’re just six years older than me!”

I think this is called age dysphoria, a condition when people don’t identify with their chronological age.

Scientists claim that 60 is the new middle age. We know that can’t be true because how many people do you know who have lived to be 120?

So, maybe I can blame the scientists, aging experts, and the media for my age denial because they’ve contributed to this idea that I’m much younger than I really am.

Since I’m choosing to age with “realistic positivity,” I need to see and accept “what is.” That is going to require some work.

I also need to focus on what there is to love about this stage of life. The truth is there are so many things. One of them is apparently not caring about what other people think which frees me up to write things like the time I thought I was the same age as my classmate’s child.

Friends

Gregoria Korologos: 87 years was not enough of you

One of my best friends in the world died Monday morning, and even though she was 87 years old, lived the fullest, most fascinating life of anyone I know, and was completely physically worn out, I still feel like she died too soon.

Even 41 years of friendship with the one-and-only Gregoria Korologos wasn’t enough.

I was a young professional on Capitol Hill working for U.S. Senator Jake Garn from Utah when I met the legendary Greg — the proudest Greek, truest American, and most loyal friend I’ve ever known.

Wearing a Kelly green linen suit with matching espadrilles, she was a striking presence with her then- jet black hair, deeply tanned Mediterranean skin, and signature fuchsia lipstick.

She was a powerful, intimidating woman with her booming voice, big personality, style, sophistication, and unmatched humor. My friend MaryJane called her a supernova — an apt description for a woman who was a rare, bright star.

Greg had just been hired as the senator’s new office manager. She wasn’t technically my boss but.. well, she thought she was everyone’s boss. She was older, wiser, and more politically savvy than most everyone else, and she believed we all worked for her.

As the assistant press secretary at the time, I was rushing to finish a press release for some reporters who were waiting in the hall when I heard a loud, long, repeated buzz on the office intercom. (Remember this was in 1980!)

I knew it was Greg because she was the only one who “buzzed” with that kind of drop-everything-and pick-up-the-phone-NOW urgency.

“Hello,” I said hesitantly.

“Get you’re a*# back her NOW,” she ordered.

I walked back to her office, wondering what could be that important.

When I entered her office, she was pounding away on her typewriter, and without even looking at me, she shoved a dollar bill across her desk and said, “Get my coffee — black.”

I was stunned.

Did she just order me into her office with such urgency so that I would get her coffee?

I wasn’t even sure how to respond, but then, probably stupidly, said, “If you want to ask Curt (the press secretary) if he’d rather have me stop writing this press release so that I can go get your coffee, go ahead.”

Then, I turned and walked out of her office.

When I told Curt what had happened, he said, “Well, you might have just ended your Senate career right there.”

Yes, we all thought she had that much power.

A few weeks went by, my job remained intact, and we steered clear of each other. Then, she buzzed me again on the intercom — with her signature style as if it was a life and death emergency, and when I answered, she said, “Wanna go out for a belt?”

“A belt?”

“You know, a drink — like a Tab or whatever Mormons drink!”

I agreed to go, wondering what kind of evening I had in store. We went to the American Café on Capitol Hill and it was an absolute riot like all interactions with Greg would turn out to be. We chatted and laughed for hours. She regaled me with her endless supplies of hilarious, entertaining stories, and we became fast friends.

After we heard the news on Monday morning that Greg had died, Doug asked me if I could imagine what my life would have been like without her.

The question brought me to tears.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

She has been part of every large and small thing that has happened in my life from the time I was 22-years-old — “a kid,” as she always said.

“Your mom might have raised you through childhood, but I raised you in Washington,” she said. There is so much truth in that statement.

Our Capitol Hill lunch bunch — the official Utah State Society with President Korologos at the helm

So, when I think of her not being part of my life, I am filled with immense sadness but also gargantuan gratitude.

How did I get so lucky to cross paths with her?

After that first annoying “buzzing” on the office phone, I never wanted to miss one of her urgent calls because they were always full of surprises like the time she called me and said, “Pack a bag. We’re going to the World Series!” And off we went to New York City to watch the Yankees and the Dodgers — a memory we always savored.

She had a code phrase for playing hooky at work too. If it was going to be a beautiful, sunny day, she’d call and say, “get your gear!” That meant, Joanne, Greg and I were taking a sick day and heading to Rehoboth, Delaware beach for sunshine, Dolly’s caramel popcorn, and shopping at her favorite stores.

Greg taught me to appreciate a handwritten, personal thank you note, a thoughtful gift, and the importance of always returning a phone call. “You’ll never make it in Washington if you don’t return every call,” she said.

She taught me to be a generous tipper, how to navigate around a congressional reception, how to cook and eat an artichoke, appreciate Greek pastries, festivals, and certain choice Greek words! She introduced me to high-end fashion brands I’d never heard of like St. John, Ferragamo, Gucci, and more. She took me in my first limousine ride and said, “Act normal like you do this every day! Don’t let anybody know you’re from Springville, Utah! and that you’ve never been in a limo!”

We went to White House events, Orioles games with front row seats right behind the dugout (Thanks to the generosity of her brother, Tom), Washington National’s games, birthday luncheons, Christmas dinners, Cherry Blossom Festivals, and more. We went to space shuttle launches, election night parties, Junior League Christmas events, St. Patrick’s Day parades, Kennedy Center productions, and even to a palm reader who shocked us both by how much she knew about us.

Greg ready to get a baseball in case one of the players rolled one across the top of the dugout

One night we were in Georgetown, and we walked past an ATM. She asked what it was, and I told her what it was and explained how it worked. “Are you serious? A machine on the streets that spits out cash?” She tried it over and over just because she couldn’t believe it.

There never has been and never will be anybody like Greg again in this life.

As our Garn office Chief of Staff Jeff Bingham said, “There are just so many things I could say about Greg — all of them superlatives and yet still so inadequate.” So absolutely true. She made an indelible impression on everyone she met.

Oh, how I will miss this one-of-a-kind woman

Rest In Peace, Gregoria, my forever friend. I will look forward to seeing you on the other side which surely has already become a more exciting, fun place now that you’re there lighting up its every corner.

I can picture you now holding court with everyone you know, taking your place as heaven’s most popular, entertaining angel, keeping everyone rolling on the floor laughing in the celestial aisles in the skies.

I can hardly wait to see you again because even at 87, you were too young to die.

If you knew Greg or even just knew of her, I’d love to hear your stories. If you knew her, I know you have stories, and I know they are unforgettable because she sure was…

From my Bookshelf

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse

I heard about this book on the Today show and ordered it immediately because it just oozed with sugary sweetness and nuggets of simple yet profound wisdom.

Hoda Kotb said it moved her to her core, and as she interviewed the author, I couldn’t resist ordering it right then.

It’s a gift book, a treasure — the kind you want to gift to yourself, hold close to your heart, and then share with others.

The author, Charlie Mackesy, shared some readers reactions to it, including one from a family whose 90-year-old father has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t even know them anymore. They said the book helped them emotionally connect with him, which was something they missed.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

The book is not just a syrupy story, it’s collection of wisdom, a piece of art, and a little timeless treasure.

It captures the love and wisdom of four unlikely friends — a boy, a mole, a fox, and a horse.

Here are a few gems:

I’m so small,” said the mole. “Yes,” said the boy, “but you make a huge difference.”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Kind,” said the boy.

“What do you think success is?” asked the boy. “To love,” said the mole.

“What do you think is the biggest waste of time?” “Comparing yourself to others,” said the mole.

“Isn’t it odd. We only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy. “Help,” said the horse.

“Asking for help isn’t giving up,” said the horse. “It’s refusing to give up.”

“Sometimes,” said the horse. “Sometimes what?” asked the boy. “Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.”

See what I mean? Don’t you want to just savor each word and sentiment?

Each little jewel could be a blog, an essay, a book, or a stirring speech.

Thank you, Hoda, for introducing me to it, and thank you Charlie for writing it.

Let’s just sit with this one bit of loveliness for another minute…”What do you think success is?” asked the boy. “To love,” said the mole.

I want that to linger in my mind for a good long while, and enjoy feeling successful because I love.

Personal

COVID Chronicles

Doug and I tested positive for Covid over the holidays.

Our symptoms started out quite mild — feeling tired, a little achy, a small cough, and a scratchy throat.

We went to be tested just to be on the safe side.

The next day, we received our results. Doug tested positive and I tested negative. We had the same symptoms so I was quite sure I had it. Then, later in the day, I received another notice that I tested positive, followed by yet another message that my test was negative.

I made a few phone calls to clear up the confusion and finally was told that my test was absolutely positive, which explained my worsening symptoms.

We weren’t sure what to expect from the famed COVID, and we honestly wondered what our experience would be like. We know of people who have died, others who have been hospitalized, and some who have reported they’ve never been sicker in their lives. Then, we know many who contracted it and had very mild symptoms and some who had no symptoms at all.

So, we weren’t sure where we’d fall in that spectrum.

Just before we were diagnosed, we were notified that a sister-in-law who had the virus ended up going to the hospital, Then, she was told she probably wouldn’t make it through the night!

We were shocked and devastated that it progressed that far so quickly.

Miraculously, she made it through the night for which we are all so grateful. But she spent several weeks in the ICU and is just barely being released to go to a rehab center. Her struggle is not over.

With that on our minds, we checked in with each other repeatedly… how are you? Any changes? Are you better or worse? Do you have a fever? Are you hydrated? Have you eaten? Are you breathing okay?

We are so grateful for our friends, neighbors and family who checked on us regularly, brought us meals, shoveled our driveway, delivered our groceries, dropped off Advil, hot soup, bread, and so much more.

We both had all the classic symptoms. I lost my sense of smell and Doug lost his sense of taste and smell. Over three weeks later, Doug still can’t taste or smell although he is making progress.

I think what surprised us the most is that the symptoms linger — especially the fatigue. We felt a gentle lift of the symptoms after the two-week marker but the fatigue, aches, and pains hang on and randomly reappear. Just as we start feeling like we might be moving out of COVID land, we experience a little setback, which we understand is quite common.

We had a few sobering conversations and asked each other some questions we never thought we’d be asking.

What if things turn south fast? Are we ready for that?

What if we have a sudden decline, have to go to the hospital, and get the news, like our family member, that we likely won’t make it through the night? Are we ready for that? Are our affairs in order?

While we honestly never really felt in danger of that, we couldn’t help but wonder.

We thought about all the people who have died during this pandemic and all of those who have had much more serious battles than ours. Did they see it coming?

The one thing we know is that despite what people say, Covid is real. It’s miserable, and it’s worth taking all the precautions necessary to avoid it.

My daughter, Sara, came to drop off groceries for us one afternoon. She rang the doorbell, left the groceries on the porch, and then walked back to the sidewalk in front of our house. We opened the door, picked up the groceries, and waved to her from the entryway of our house. We were all in masks and more than six feet apart.

That moment was a poignant one for me. I felt like I had stepped into the footage of a news program like so many we’ve seen of separated family members.

I hate COVID and all the chaos, confusion, heartache, loss, grief, sickness, fear, anxiety, and isolation it has brought into our world. But at the same time, I want to embrace the lessons I’ve learned from it and I hope that when it’s all over, I remember them.

In one of our conversations, Doug said, “This has been a wake-up call on so many levels, hasn’t it?”

Yes, it absolutely has been a wake-up call. But the question is what has it awakened? How will we be different now?

Since this virus hit me right after I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, I’ve had a lot of time to think — too much time to think, actually.

One of the things I learned is that I need to build a better boat.

Let me explain…

I’ve discovered a few holes in my boat…

Kenny Chesney sings a beautiful song called Better Boat. Here are the lyrics:

I ain't lonely, but I spend a lot of time alone
 More than I'd like to, but I'm okay with staying home
 My how the last few months have changed
 I'm smilin' more despite the pain
 I breathe in, I breathe out
 Got friends to call who let me talk about
 What ain't working, what's still hurtin'
 All the things I feel like cussing out
 Now and then I let it go
 I ride the waves I can't control
 I'm learning how to build a better boat
 I hate waiting, ain't no patience in these hands
 I'm not complaining, sometimes it's hard to change a man
 I think I'm stronger than I was
 I'll let God do what He does
 I breathe in, I breathe out
 Got friends to call who let me talk about
 What ain't working, what's still hurtin'
 All the things I feel like cussing out
 Now and then I let it go
 I ride the waves I can't control
 I'm learning how to build a better boat

I hope that I can build a better, stronger, more resilient boat to help me ride the waves I can’t control a little bit better. I also hope I can trust God and let him do what he does and not lose faith.

What about you? What has your COVID experience been like? I’d love to hear your thoughts.