An Open Letter to All the Men who are Not My Husband (Well, almost all!)

Now, more so than ever before in my lifetime, I am beyond, blessed with female friendships. In my younger years, the loss of my mother at such a young age made bonding with other women difficult and tenuous at best.

Today, my women friends mean the world to me. My sister-in-law and my nieces, a beautifully renewed and blessedly restored relationship with my step-mother, and the addition of my son’s fiancé and her female family members have all been most welcome injections of estrogen-based love in my life.

I’ve written before about how important these connections are to me, how hard I’ve worked to cultivate these friendships with these amazing, empowered, resilient women and at my husband’s urging no less with those fateful words, “Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.” So, now. Now, I have these friendships, these bonds, where expression of emotion is valued, where it actually contributes to the health of the relationship. Wow! That has blown my hair back!

And, then, there are the men in my life. For many, many years, I was the rare girl surrounded by a family full of males in various stages of maturity; my dad and his lifelong friends, my uncles on all sides, my brother and all of his friends, my husband, his brothers, my father-in-law, my son and his passel of friends. I fondly call it boy-world, and I am a card-carrying, lifetime member of the boy-mom club.

Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that this is not some sort of treatise on the differences between men and women, if such a thing even exists. I am strictly sharing my experience. Period.

So, let me explain. Living in boy-world and becoming a boy-mom, I found that I had to be a little tougher. My skin had to be a little thicker. Open, emotional expression just didn’t carry weight in that world. Please don’t get me wrong. We certainly had two-way communication where we shared how we felt about subjects, but the men in my life just didn’t commonly use the language of emotion that is so skillfully wielded by the women I know and love. It’s not at all that I couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to be emotionally expressive. It’s just that I found that it wasn’t productive. It didn’t move conversations or situations forward. So, I adapted. I adapted my style of communication, the way I expressed what I was feeling.

Honestly, I used to love it when Paul or our son would complain about me (yes, really!), would shoot each other knowing looks when they were using an extra measure of patience with one of my big ideas, or would lovingly joke about my little eccentricities or quirks.  To me, it meant they loved me fully, me and all my imperfections. It was a great comfort for me, a bit of a perfectionist, to know that I didn’t have to be perfect in order for them to fully love me. They got me. They completely accepted me, and took joy in me.

All of this to say, I am so thankful for all of these men in my life, too.

I love that my son now offers me wise counsel. I have sought his input on numerous occasions in the last two years since his father passed away. He never flinches. He never fails to tell it like it is and protect my best interest.

And so, so many other men in my circle of family, friends, neighbors, church family, and colleagues have stepped in and stepped up to help me over and over again. It feels good to seek and receive their assistance and guidance when needed; like when the hot water heater quit working, when the garage door broke, when the dryer vent needed replacing, when a hurricane blew out the porch screens, when I needed advice on how to handle situations. And, then, too, when my emotions were too high, and I needed an objective point of view to help me sort things out, or when I needed protection from others who were trying to take advantage.

I value their honest feedback (you know who you are!), their words of encouragement (you know who you are!!), the challenges they’ve presented me with (yes, you!), and even their gentle correction when my perception was in error or I was just plain wrong (thank you, that would have been a huge mistake!).

I.am.thankful.

I can certainly, absolutely take care of myself. I know that now, but thankfully, I don’t have to. Not all of the time anyway.

Malia

The cookie post…as promised!

I’m ready to start cooking again. This is a huge step for me. I have to confess, however, that again is a stretch because Paul was always the cook in our household; great big breakfasts, warm soups and stews, casseroles, meat and three, salads, and rich desserts. Since Paul passed away, I have had little interest in food let alone cooking. I have resisted, outright refused to cook anything, because, well, that’s not my job. No, I’m not doing that. That’s Paul’s job. It’s not my place. That’s what he loves to do; arms crossed, pouty face, forehead furrowed making the shape of the number 11 right between my eyebrows and a stomp of the foot for good measure.

When Paul and I met, all I could do in the kitchen was scramble some eggs and wash dishes. As a child, I was a picky eater. My family still gives me a hard time and tells stories of my epic, picky eating escapades. They love to tell the story of how my grandmother would prepare these enormous Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, and my mother would sneak off to the kitchen and make me a cheese sandwich because that, literally, was all I would eat.

Paul was a wonderful cook and encouraged me to try all kinds of foods. In general, I really appreciate food and enjoy trying a wide variety of cuisines. Paul made trying new things an adventure. He made it fun! He introduced me to foods from cultures around the world, something he developed an interest in when his family lived in Japan during the 1960s. We loved to try new and different restaurants, some fancy but most them not. We were always delighted to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in some back water town serving up unique and delicious dishes. Meals were more than just sustenance. They were a heartfelt, shared experience full of stories, smiles, laughter, sometimes arguing, and good old fashioned conversation about the world and our place in it.

I do believe Paul got his love of and knack for cooking from his mother. She is also an excellent cook. Some of the most warm, joyful memories in the life of our family are set at Paul’s parents’ kitchen table. Love was passed around the table alongside piping hot bowls of home cooking; everything made-from-scratch as they say. Many of the dishes that Paul made for us he learned from his mother, and some of them his mother learned from her mother. His mother’s family were upcountry, subsistence farmers descended from early, English and Scottish settlers to the Carolinas. They either raised or grew everything they ate, mostly chicken and pork, beans, and summer vegetables like corn, peas, squash, butter beans, and tomatoes. This is where Paul picked up his love of gardening, too. He was a green thumb to be sure, and we enjoyed home grown vegetables from Daddy’s garden for many years.

I am sure to many of y’all cooking is just a normal part of everyday life. It might even be a chore, but for me, cooking again for my family and myself is a growth goal, a milestone in my grief and healing process. It’s also a way to memorialize my husband both for myself and future generations. There are just certain meals and dishes made in our family that will forever remind us of Daddy’s cooking. My son was really pleased when I told him I was ready to start cooking, even more so when I told him I was going to cook Daddy’s entire catalog, all the best loved meals he made for us throughout the years and that I would document it with photos and recipes. He said, “Oh, Mom. It’s a time capsule.” Yes, sweetheart, it is.

I keep promising cookies so here we go…I figured I would start this cooking adventure with Paul’s signature cookies. He made these every year during the holidays, a dark chocolate twist on the traditional chocolate chip cookie. They are rich, delicious, and different. Disclaimer here:  I’m not sure where Paul found this recipe. It was not his recipe and is not mine. We just always called them…

Those dark chocolate cookies that Daddy makes.

1 bag 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips (Paul liked the Ghirardelli brand best!)
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Melt the bittersweet chocolate chips and butter together in a double boiler.

I don’t own a double boiler so I improvised (a pot inside another pot that was filled with water), and it worked just fine.

Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until thick and stir in the chocolate mixture.

Combine the flour and baking powder and stir into the chocolate mixture. Finally, gently stir in the semi-sweet chips and walnuts.

Cover the mixture and place in the freezer for at least an hour.

Set oven to 375 F. Use a greased cookie sheet or line with parchment paper or foil. Bake 12-14 minutes or until a shiny crust forms on top.

***

Speaking of kitchens. I was in the kitchen with some friends of mine recently, a couple who have been married for a long time. They a both wonderful people and even more wonderful together. As conversations go sometimes, there was disagreement between them which became a little argument, maybe not even an argument, just bickering really. As they were going back and forth across the topic, I faded to the background and just watched, marveled really, and listened and smiled and wondered a) how many times Paul and I bickered like that, b) what a privilege it is, and c) that I would give anything to have an argument with Paul even over something trivial.

It’s interesting. I didn’t have a Pollyanna attitude about it. I didn’t feel the impulse to provide the staid, old chestnut, advice on the subject. I didn’t feel compelled to tell them to stop arguing, stop taking each other for granted or admonish them with ‘Does it really matter? It’s a petty argument’ and ‘Let it go!’ No, what I wanted to tell them was to enjoy it. Enjoy every aspect of the other person and the relationship. Disagreeing with someone you love is a privilege and a gift. Sharing yourself, your whole self, your thoughts, feelings, and opinions especially when they are not in congruence with your partner is a privilege and to be highly esteemed. What I really wanted to say was, “Well done. Carry on. Argue it out, and love each other well before, during, and after.”

Share everything, especially with those you love, Malia

Ding! Times Up? The Challenges of Being a Widow of a Certain Age

A man gave me a compliment……and I fell apart. It wasn’t untoward. It was actually a very nice compliment, but it wasn’t just that. I want to make sure I describe this compliment accurately because it has everything to do with my reaction to it. It wasn’t “Nice dress” or “Your hair looks great today” or the casual “Hey, beautiful” or even the dreaded cat call. It was a compliment with an encouragement. I had just been to a workout, and in passing, the man said I “looked great” and whatever I was doing I should “keep doing it”. See? Nothing to it. Right? I thanked the man, wished him a nice day, got into my car, and dissolved into a salty sea of my own tears. They came hot, heavy, and plentiful, and I felt ridiculous.

My body has only ever belonged to my husband. I don’t mean belong as in a possession or property. I mean belong in the sense that I was suited or matched to Paul. That with him I was in my rightful place. He was my home. I was part of him. I was his missing rib. In Mark 10:8, this relationship is described this way, “And the two shall become one flesh; so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” One flesh. Exactly. Marriage is the emotional reintegration of the flesh to the original configuration of man created by God. I am finding it hard to think of myself as a single being.

I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that in my previous posts. I teach middle school, and middle schoolers are not known for their tact. Anyway, one of my eighth graders recently asked, “Hey, Ms. Dunn, you gonna get back in that dating game?” The world ground to a halt, screeching and crunching on its axis. I expelled an audible breath of air like I had just been punched in the chest. I literally had no response for that. I was lost for words, and that is rare.

Recently, I was shopping with an elderly family member, a man. Another man in the store approached us and briefly spoke with me. Moments later my family member said, “Malia, that man was flirting with you!” The tone in his observation implied two things: a) that I was somehow unaware of the flirtation, and b) incredulity that I did not respond in kind. My response to my family member’s comment was a hearty “Hmph” and “Phssh”. To that he added, “Come on, you’re still a good looking woman.” Suddenly, I felt like I had an expiration date stamped on my forehead. The implication of the entire exchange was that I should consider another relationship quickly while I am still viable. Do you feel like punching someone in the nose right about now because I do! I mean what the hell?! What fresh, new kind of hell is this where I better get on with it before I am no longer marketable?

All of these are pretty overt examples. I could provide countless more examples of the subtle pressure that exists in conversations with friends and family about the brother whose wife died last year, the friend who never married, and the single, church member whose name comes up over and over and over again. Enough already. When I ignore or politely decline these suggestions, these advances really, I inevitably get this response, “But you’re so young. You’ll find someone else.” For the life of me, I am not even sure what that means. I am not even in contact with a universe where that makes sense to me. I mean I understand people who remarry. What I don’t understand is how it’s somehow a foregone conclusion related to my age, or how a relationship with someone else will provide some kind of relief to those who love and care about me. I know people mean well and want me to be happy, but again this means that people think I can’t be happy or fulfilled unless I’m in a relationship or married?? This leaves me feeling confused and hurt as if I am not sufficient on my own. Is this the way it is for all single people or just widows of a certain age? Is there a constant, subtle pressure on singles to find someone? Uugggghhhhhh.

Just a few weeks before Paul died we were out together, and we saw a friend of ours whose wife died of cancer two or three years ago. He was with a lady. They were holding hands and smiling warmly at one another. I was surprised. It looked awkward to me. No, it didn’t look awkward. It felt awkward, out of place, out of time. It stirred feelings in me that made me uncomfortable. Our friend and his wife had been young sweethearts, married for more than 30 years, and were utterly devoted to each other. You never saw one without the other. Later, on the car ride home, it was still bothering me so I talked to Paul about it. I said it was so strange to see our friend with someone else. I was having trouble reconciling it. I told him it seemed disloyal. Paul disagreed. He said he was happy for our friend, and that it was right for him to share his life with someone else if it made him happy. I grabbed his hand and held it tight. I told him I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to do the same if and when I was ever in that position. Paul said, “Well, that’ll be something you have to decide for yourself, but I think it’s fine.” The rest of the car ride home was very quiet, uncomfortably so. Did I ask Paul about it because on some deep level I wanted his blessing? Did his response represent how he really felt, or was he already taking care of me and my future?

I have no idea what the future holds. I do know that I place no expectations on myself one way or the other in terms of dating or marrying again, and I need others to do the same, to have no expectations or to assume what I will do. I am enough, and God’s grace alone is sufficient. What I have, what I don’t have, what I am and what I’m not, where I am in this place and time, it’s all God’s grace, and it is sufficient for me.

2 Corinthians 12: 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Peace, Malia