Old Age is creeping up on me. She will, God-willing, knock on my door in a few years. Beyond my desire to live a simple and contemplative life, is the wonder of what I will become. Already, I sense my tendency to stiffen and settle, to give way to a negative outlook. Instead, I’d rather keep stretching, stay flexible, and learn to go with the flow of life.
Will my body and spirit succumb to the stifling effects of gravity and pain? Or will I find the strength to keep growing and bending with the wind? I don’t want my heart to close but to stay open like a willow tree, sharing grace and beauty in the place God plants me. I pray my trajectory of 58 years has not taken me too far afield of the accepting, compassionate old woman I wish to become.
With The Woman in the Willow, I was free to try on my character, to create a drama exploring her choices. I wrote my novel, in part, to search for the sage in me, the woman who ages with grace and wisdom. My fiction asks,
Can an old woman flower and flow, despite her heart’s instinct to tighten and close?
Christine Dente delivers a moving story about a woman struggling to forget her traumatic past by hiding away in her backyard haven. The Woman in the Willow offers an exquisite invitation to engage in life’s flowering and flow despite the heart’s instinct to tighten and close.
Catherine Hathaway has no intention of letting another child into her life.
Retired schoolteacher Miss Hathaway longs to be left alone inside her beautiful backyard garden. Just because the new family next door includes a precocious but lonely five-year-old named Tazzy, doesn’t mean the 70-year-old woman must open her haven or her heart to the neglected girl. Catherine is having enough trouble, losing her balance and her vision, without the disruptions of the unsettling memories that the child provokes.
Catherine’s 8-foot fence keeps her precious dog Percy safe in the yard but can’t keep Tazzy out. The spirited child finds a way through the unlocked gate, drawn by sweet Percy and the enchantments of the backyard garden. When she appears with suspicious red marks on her arm and other signs of abuse, Catherine spies on the family, convinced that the single mother is abusive like her own mother was.
The mysterious willow tree hovers throughout Catherine’s story. A refuge from her past, it is now the crown jewel of her garden. Waving from the creek’s edge behind Catherine’s home, the enchanting tree has a life and story of its own.
Memories of the sister she lost and the mother who left her sweep Catherine toward her destiny with the willow, the river, and the child she must find to save her life.
Can this disenchanted old woman rise from the flood of grief and loss?
Will she find the spirit of God moving among the ferns and birds of her haven?
What part will the willow play in transforming Catherine from the woman she is into the one she wants to become?
Journey with Catherine in her search for growth and flowering in old age.
The young man sat in his truck in my neighbor’s driveway, laying on the horn. No one came outside, so he kept beeping. Five minutes of this and I’d had enough. I stepped out my front door and made a knocking fist sign to the kid in the drive.
He rolled down his passenger window, leaned toward me, and said, “I’m trying to get my friend to come out.”
I sighed and frowned. “Could you try knocking — or texting, maybe?” I was mad.
Just then my husband’s car arrived in the cul-de-sac and we greeted one another in the garage.
He said, “What was that about?”
I explained my frustration at the teenager’s obnoxious horn. Later, as we made dinner, he chided me, suggesting I pick my battles more carefully. He was right. A beeping horn in the middle of the day was the least of our trouble.
When the new family moved in next door, a mom and two teenagers, it was like watching a bad movie. Especially at night.
A variety of humans and vehicles passed below our bedroom window. Trying to ignore the nighttime disruptions, Scott and I turned up the volume on our Netflix and resisted spying through the blinds.
Two years ago, when these neighbors moved in, they were hard to miss. Their house angles in like the rest of the homes on our circle and their driveway slants close to our second-story bedroom window. Scott and I and the nearest families welcomed them and introduced ourselves to the lady of the household. I’ll call her “Cathy.” We had high hopes for this new relationship. She was friendly at first but distracted. Though we learned her name, she didn’t absorb ours.
Backstory: We have lived in this home for 22 years. The previous people were terrible to live beside: barking dogs penned up between our houses, dogs let loose at 5 AM to terrorize morning joggers, decaying vehicles in the driveway, etc. The final insult was the ranting man blaming us for the sheriff’s department depositing their belongings on their front yard. After years of reaching out to that family, we were glad to see them go.
Certainly, the new owners could only be an improvement.
In the weeks following their arrival, “Cathy” shared with us a part of her traumatic and tragic story. We connected and commiserated. Over the next few months, our interactions became intermittent, a mix of positive and negative. As their first year stretched into the next, she and the kids averted their gazes when we sought a natural hello across the yard or out at the mailboxes.
These small disconnections weren’t the worst of it. Many bizarre middle-of-the-night and early morning shenanigans aroused a lot of anger and sleeplessness for Scott and me, causing us to consider moving away for the first time ever.
More to the Story
Now, in a good movie, the trailer sets up a predictable plot without revealing its twists. For example, the preview for Phantom Thread tells a believable tale: a quirky older man taking advantage of a young, naïve woman. But this dressmaker’s story unfolded to reveal complicated histories and relationships motivating the characters. A triangle of adults using and abusing their separate and shared dysfunctions.
As in life, the personalities in the film are multidimensional. On the surface, the dress designer discovers a beautiful creature to display his amazing creations; the young waitress in the country restaurant discovers a man who will display her on his arm; the spinster sister who runs his business displays her domineering jealousy. Their deeper designs, unknown even to themselves, appear for the audience first.
In this way, the developing story among the man, the woman, and his sister exposed a mixture of not-so-simple ingredients that led to a complex tale: (Spoiler Alert here, if you haven’t seen the movie)
The artisan dressmaker wasn’t just a selfish man using a woman for his ends. He was also a conflicted, mother-afflicted soul who had given much of his emotional and personal power to the whims of his older, competent sister.
The sister wasn’t just a jealous and controlling woman who waited to get this young woman out of the home and their disrupted lives. She was a woman with a history of loss and learning to live with an eccentric, unpredictable, selfish artist who was also her brother.
The young woman was much more than a naïve, attention-seeking natural beauty. She discovered and wielded her own power in the game of who-needs-who. Her warp and woof surprised me most in the materials she used to get what she wanted from the man.
All were villains and victims. I related to them and found compassion for each.
Which brings me back to “Cathy.”
Finding Grace for Neighbors
By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.
A glimpse of the woman next-door triggers annoyance. And judgment.
Oops. There I go again, making her life about how it affects me. I notice her garbage, her friends, and a thin slice of her lifestyle. What I do not see and sadly forget, is her history, her heartache, her humanity.
Like a character in a bad movie, “Cathy” remains one-dimensional to me — until I let the story unfold.
A first glance tempts me to frown and shake my head. A second look reminds me there’s always more to the drama. If I search for the third lesson, I see that I am a villain and victim in my own story. My humanity and heartache inform my relationship with the woman living beside me. My garbage may be well-hidden, but it’s there and has a smell of its own.
Someone more famous than Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that I shouldn’t judge unless I wanted to be judged in the same way.
My neighbor could tell herself stories about me based on a cursory glance out her front window. She does not know me, but if she gave me grace, she’d imagine I had suffered as she has. She might even walk across the lawn, offer a smile, and ask, “What’s your story?”
Please comment in the section below and let me know your tale of Finding Grace for Neighbors.
As a grubby little tomboy climbing trees, I longed to be seen.
“Watch me, Dad!”
He didn’t see me because he wasn’t around. My mom was always there but the “Bad Dad” impact seems to override a lot of the “Good Mom” effect.
Once when he was there, I had run crying to him because my kitten was trapped between two tool benches in the basement. As I remember it, (sorry, Dad, if my recollection is wrong) he rushed with me back downstairs to rescue the trapped cat. When he saw how she had gotten her head caught and was not hurt, he laughed and lifted the poor little thing up and out, showing me how easily I could have done it. I had made a stupid mistake and he teased me about it.
I think I dimmed the light in my heart a little that day, afraid to risk the feeling of exposure and vulnerability. After that, I grew smaller, wanting to be invisible for a while.
Then came middle school and high school and I cried ‘watch me!’ to all the boys willing to look my way. Exhilarated to be noticed, I clambered up the pedestal which displayed the gold plate inscribed: “talented, pretty and smart !” I got good at balancing up there. Whenever I came crashing down, I climbed back up and fell again many more times.
What Women Want
Have you seen the movie called What Women Want?
I like it because it’s about how people, how women, hide their vulnerability, their true selves. It’s a story that makes us imagine what would happen if we could read each other’s thoughts.
Mel Gibson plays a typical male chauvinist (do we use that description anymore?) who runs an advertising firm. After a strange event involving a hair dryer, nail polish, and lightning, he wakes up able to literally hear women’s thoughts.
One of the minor characters in the film is a mousy office worker who gets stepped on and ignored all day long. She is nondescript and sad but no-one notices. Mel Gibson’s boss character doesn’t even know she exists in his workspace until he hears her thoughts in passing. Her perspective of life in the office surprises him as he recognizes her mute cries for help. She wants to be seen.
Her scenes, including the one where the boss discovers she’s been missing and goes looking for her at home, remind us to be attentive to those overlooked people in our lives. People so unassuming and ordinary that we see right through them, like an old shower curtain just doing its job. This actor made me think of all the quiet characters in my periphery whose thoughts might shock me if I could overhear the stories swirling there. Their vulnerability is hidden by invisibility.
What We All Want
On the other hand, we all know those other characters who stand out and rarely get missed. The confident, beautiful women who seem to have what every woman wants. The men with unquestioned charm and confidence. Picture the models in fashion magazines displayed on every page. Imagine the actors and artists and entrepreneurs interviewed before the camera. The powerful ones unafraid to voice their thoughts, able to stand tall in front of us all.
We put these types on pedestals and tell them how much we love them. We do it because we hope their fairy tale lives are true and we want to believe in them.
Of course, it’s not all castles and happy endings. When their worlds come crashing down, the surprise lasts only a moment because we know these posed and powerful are just like us…fragile, unsteady. Their vulnerability is hidden by the brave part they’ve been playing.
What I want
I want you to think I’m smart, talented, and pretty. But I also want you to see through my masks and tell me you really see me and love me.
What’s funny is how we do a disservice to one another by refusing to see through the masks both types wear: the hidden characters and the pedestal people. Vulnerability is scary.
I am always worried about what they will think of me. How can I imagine that they are not more focused on what I will think of them? Crazy.
Every once in a while, I glimpse a freedom in which I am completely vulnerable and unselfconscious. Sometimes when I walk my dogs in the neighborhood or meet friends at a restaurant, I forget to care how my hair looks or what my clothes say. Other times, I don’t worry about saying something dumb or being less than special. In those moments, I am neither magnificent nor unremarkable. I am alive and loved in the world.
I still want to be seen.
As a not-so-young-anymore person, I do not want to get lost in the crowd. Yet I also sense there’s a peculiar freedom that comes with being ordinary. Have you felt it?
Aging teaches lots of lessons about being ordinary. As I have gotten older, I realize I can hop down off of all my pedestals. I can stop posing to be noticed.
On the other hand, I can step out of the crowd wearing some crazy outfit and wave wildly to my family and friends. I am becoming free to be exactly me!
See Through Me
I wrote this song, See Through Me, because I can relate to being in both positions of vulnerability: the invisible girl and the pedestal girl.
When others see through me as just another face in the crowd, I trust those who love me to notice everything about me.
When I’m feeling proud and tall, I trust those who love me to see through all of my posturing and love me for who I truly am.
When I do fall, I know they’ll gently lift me up again.
— If you are like me, your parents were far from perfect.
— If you are like me, you’re realizing that you have much less control of how your kids turn out than you thought.
When you’re in the middle of raising kids, trying to provide food and a roof, not to mention an education, how do you do it well?
All the parenting books you read can’t get under your skin enough to scrape out some deeply ingrained flaws. Will you transmit them to your kids? Are there any parenting essentials you’re missing?
You probably already know this but here goes:
Great parenting begins with the parents’ relationship.
3 Relationship Essentials
You can do a lot to become a great parent and mitigate the effects of your imperfections and ignorance about child-raising. You can:
DEAL with your history
WORK hard on your marriage
Make GRACE the guiding spirit of your home
Take an honest look at the baggage you’ve individually brought to the marriage relationship.
After that, share with each other what you’ve discovered.
Now that you’ve acknowledged what you’re both dealing with, let grace find its place in the center of your relationship and home.
Let me tell you a very short story. I recall one tender moment when my dad hugged my mom and she hugged him back.
I was maybe 8 years old. My heart wanted to explode with joy and a sense of well-being in that moment. It had nothing to do with me but I still remember them in the dining room doorway more clearly than many other memories I have.
It was a rare show of love and acceptance between my parents. If they had cared for each other this way on a daily basis, my childhood would have been a completely different story. Their broken relationship impacted me more than the hundreds of parenting mistakes they made.
But where did their brokenness come from?
My mom grew up with some family dysfunction which she never dealt with as a child or as an adult. My dad had his own traumas and personal impairments which he tried to drown in alcohol. They brought these hidden forces to their marriage, which was a train wreck waiting to happen.
At the start, Mom and Dad had very few tools for maintaining their relationship. With 3 kids in quick succession and Dad’s desire for autonomy not going anywhere, their break-up 13 years later was inevitable.
Forty years after the fact, I am still feeling the effects of that crash.
Long Story Short
If you are like me, you’ve seen a lot of marriages going off the rails. Maybe yours is one of them. You may think the kids in these situations are too young or too busy to be affected by carefully hidden flaws and faults. We may hope they don’t notice the broken parts of us driving us toward total derailment.
But they did. And they do.
From the outside looking in, others sometimes spot the problems in the relationship long before the parents do. Hard to miss the disconnect between the story they are telling and the way they are living. Their body language says more than their words. Likewise, his extra drinks and her bitter jokes make us want to brace for impact.
Children riding on this crazy train know something is wrong, too. They may be too young to register in cohesive thoughts but their bodies and souls know it. Their cells vibrate in the fear and anger frequencies of Mother simmering in the kitchen. Father’s baloney smells up the house whether he’s selling it on the phone or right there in the living room.
If you are like me, you’ve had or have a few blindspots of your own in parenting.
My husband and I have 3 grown-up kids who’ve told us what it was like to be on board when Dad and Mom were conducting their lives like crazy people.
Some of the disconnects? Too much fear in the decision-making. A little too heavy on the helicopter parenting. Not enough practicing of what we preached. Just a couple of dumb thirty-somethings acting like we knew everything.
As a homeschooling mom, I’d thought my nurture plus their “perfect” education would equal all kinds of easy for them. Turns out they borrowed some of my baggage and even added some pieces of their own. No magic formulas.
Notwithstanding the personal flaws we must own apart from our parents’ influence, what hope do we have with so much history to overcome?
1. First Parenting Essentials: Name and Release Your Elephants
Your number one priority is to DEAL with the forces that have shaped you. Each marriage has two individuals who bring some baggage to the bedroom, living room, and kitchen.
When we acknowledge and name the elephants in the room, they begin to shrink and find their rightful places. Then we can send them on their way to a sanctuary for worn-out animals.
My husband and I each lumbered into our relationship encumbered with our fathers’ alcohol addictions and our mothers’ anxiety. It took us awhile to begin dissecting and dismantling their effects even as we were raising our three children.
Recovery groups, counseling, bravery, and honesty gave us the traction we needed for growing up as grown-ups.
(I offer a small disclaimer: our work is never done. I think I will be working on growing up until the day I die.)
2. Next Parenting Essentials: Get to Work on Your Marriage!
The saying goes, if you are coasting, then you’re going downhill.
How parents relate to each other is of utmost importance. If kids know Mom and Dad are solid, they walk their own paths with a bit more confidence. If kids can trust the love Dad and Mom have for each other, they are likely to trust in their own ability to love and be loved.
But we married people know that stress and time can jangle the nerves and loosen the love we once had for each other. We are going to have to work at it if it’s going to last. No matter what the movie stars say, I say we’d better get some good tools for the long haul. Gotta keep the wheels greased because the friction is inevitable.
Get counseling. Ask hard questions. Tell hard truths and don’t be so defensive!
You’ve got this because people have been making marriages work for a long time. Find those people and ask them how it can possibly be done! Put lots of tools in your marriage tool box and then use them.
3. More Parenting Essentials: Grace is a Superpower
GRACE is essential for any lasting relationship. It is impossible to have a good marriage and solid family life without that 5-letter word for getting more than you deserve. Gifts for the bratty. Kisses for the prickly people.
The reason for hope even if you think you’ve already done too much damage:
— Grace is a superpower.
— Grace works forwards and backwards, bending and softening the boundaries of space and time.
— Grace hangs out with other commendable characters like Mercy and Humility.
“I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” “I forgive you,” and “I love you” are their constant conversation.
These 3 characters can mend a multitude of wrongs. Their love steps back over time boundaries and transforms what once was bad into the shape of a blessing. They move magically through space, waving wands that heal wounds and turn scars into touchstones for others.
I have a friend whose 25 year marriage should have been history 10 years in. Her name isn’t Grace but it should be. Her response to his adultery, after her initial shock and anguish, was an attitude of “let’s start over from here.”
Instead of condemning him and leaving, my friend stayed. She offered forgiveness and grace in huge quantities. She began to look at her part in the mess. And together, they began the slow and painful work of sifting through their baggage in the wreckage.
Grace, mercy, and humility permeate their home to this day because together, they found — and still find — a way to stay. This has had an immeasurable impact on their children.
End of Story
If I had refused to look at the sickness I brought to my marriage 30 years ago, would I be married today?
If I had refused to compromise and not let my husband’s needs and desires soften my hard edges, where would we be now?
If I had let resentment and un-forgiveness simmer in my kitchen, would the smell and stench have overwhelmed the entire household?
Yes, our kids did get some of the brokenness their mom and dad brought to the relationship. However, the honesty we brought to our struggles, the work we did separately and together, and the grace we gave each other on a daily basis were like fresh layers of blacktop. They smoothed over some of the roughest bumps on the road.
It’s OK if you are already in the midst of parenting. Even if your kids are grown, there’s hope because it’s never too late to work on relationships. Being honest and humble with our grown up kids keeps the door open for unexpected graces to drop by.
Here’s what I’m saying: Great parenting is not easy, pretty, or tied up in a lovely bow. But it’s good, solid, and strong. Like a sturdy train on a steel track with a gentle grade.