Let Freedom Ring

When I was a kid my family spent every 4th of July at my Auntie Margie and Uncle J’s house. Uncle J would unfurl the American flag from the top window of their classic Craftsman house, then he’d fire up the BBQ while Auntie Margie and her two sisters prepared food in the kitchen, telling stories and chortling about life’s absurdities—especially the challenges of raising a gaggle of kids.

Auntie Margie had six kids—three boys and three girls, all whom I adored. Mom had us four kids and my other sweet auntie, Katie, had a small brood herself, with three girls and a boy.

We were a tight clan, especially on the 4th of July, when a blaze of cousins, and later, second cousins, would find all sorts of ways to get into mischief. If we weren’t sneaking food or running around my aunt and uncle’s one-acre property, we were throwing walnuts or crabapples at each other, lighting fireworks, starting water fights or playing Marco Polo in the swimming pool. Grandma, our no-nonsense pillar of dignity, would sit in a woven lawn chair taking it all in, trying not to chuckle at our antics, but always being betrayed by her twinkling eyes.

Photo of our family 4th of July

Photo of 4th of July silliness. Auntie Margie, Grandma, Auntie Katie and Mom

I loved everything about our rich family 4th of July tradition, from Credence Clearwater Revival playing in the background to the photograph we took every year in which everybody lined up and said, “Cheeez” for posterity.

Photo of Family 4th of July

One of our later 4th of July gatherings when my cousins and I were grown

The other thing I loved was knowing exactly where I’d be every Independence Day. It felt comfortable and predictable.

The fact of the matter is that it was the only place we could be. That is if we wanted Auntie Margie to be part of the celebration.

You see Auntie Margie suffered from agoraphobia.

Agoraphobia is a mental disorder that affects 3.2 million people. According to Medicine.net, it’s defined as:

“A fear of being outside or otherwise being in a situation from which one either cannot escape or from which escaping would be difficult or humiliating. It is a subset of panic disorder involving the fear of having a panic attack in such environments.”

Panic attacks often involve intense fear, disorientation, rapid heartbeat, dizziness or diarrhea, and sufferers may go to great lengths to avoid situations which may trigger them. In severe cases they may become unable to leave their home or safe haven.

There are a number of theories about what might cause agoraphobia, and like other mental disorders, it’s usually triggered by several factors–everything from genetics (it tends to run in families) to repeated exposure to anxiety-provoking situations to things like alcohol or cigarettes. It’s twice as common in women than men, and usually occurs between 20 and 40 years of age.

Auntie Margie’s case was severe. She literally did not leave the confines of her one-acre property for more than thirty years. No, that’s not a typo. Thirty years.

Before you start envisioning creepy images of Howard Hughes or some socially deranged person, you should know that Auntie Margie was the farthest thing from that.

In fact you’d never know she had a mental illness. She was up on all the news, pop culture, and music. She was a voracious reader. She wore make-up, painted her fingernails, hosted fancy Valentine’s Day gatherings, had a fantastic sense of humor and was wildly creative—a painter, gardener, seamstress, craftsperson, woodworker, house designer. Most of all, she was a superb actress.  She never talked about her struggles and in fact, acted as if her life was just like yours or mine.

Photo of three sisters

Auntie Margie (left), Mom, and Auntie Katie in one of Margie's beautiful gardens

I loved Auntie Margie deeply. She was like a second mom—somebody I felt a connection to from an early age—especially after living next door to her for the first six years of my life. We laughed and talked in her kitchen, and we played games like Boggle and Uno. She French braided my hair, sewed me dresses, and let me help in her garden. I always felt special when I was with her, even if we were just shooting the breeze and eating cucumber sandwiches under the apple tree in her backyard.

Auntie Margie’s agoraphobia haunted me though, especially as I got older. I wanted to get her help. I wanted to break her free of her chains.

I wanted her to see the beach again. I wanted her to eat buttered popcorn with me at the movies. I wanted her to be wrapped in the magic of an art supply store. I wanted her to be able to get her hair done at a salon and have lunch with her sisters somewhere besides her kitchen.  I wanted her to go for a drive in the country or breathe fresh mountain air.  I wanted her to be free.

So what stopped me from getting her help?

Fear, plain and simple.

My mom warned me over and over, “If you confront her about it, she’ll never speak to you again.” Mom and I argued about this more than a few times. “How could we NOT get Auntie Margie help?” Mom loved her sister more than anything, but she was paralyzed by fear too. So was the entire family. Margie’s agoraphobia was the elephant in the room nobody talked about, even though everybody wanted to do something to help.

Her husband, a World War II veteran, and a man of extreme honor, carried the burden of her illness for more than three decades. I will always consider him a King Among Men because most husbands never could, or would have endured what he did. It’s impossible to imagine the range of emotions he must have felt all those years, but he stuck by his wife and kids in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.


And then after thirty-two years, one day, by some miracle, Auntie Margie left the house.

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The Dance of Parenthood

Most of our friends and family were shocked when Jeffrey and I decided to have a baby, and even more so when they discovered it was Jeffrey’s idea.

With Jeffrey zipping around the world much of the year and me running our busy photo agency, and also partaking in deliciously selfish activities like marathon running, having a baby never felt like a reasonable idea.

But on a cold January evening, in the middle of celebrating my 37th birthday over a romantic dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, Jeffrey took a long sip of wine, smiled at me mischievously then simply asked, “What would you think about starting a family?”

I nearly fell out of my chair.

We’d been together for over thirteen years and this topic had never once entered our conversation. We both knew our unpredictable lifestyle would be challenging for raising a child. When Jeffrey asked though, goosebumps formed on my arms and liquid pearls of happiness rose in my eyes as I staggered under the weight of this tender, life-changing moment.

All I could choke out was, “Yes,” in a half-breath as my hands flew up to my mouth in disbelief. It was a spontaneous reaction for which I had no control, but everything about it felt right. Jeffrey looked dizzy as he reached over the table and kissed me. Then we both burst into laughter and raised a toast to the insanity of this idea.


Well, here we are nearly a decade later, still delighting in the insanity of this idea, and even more so, the person this idea produced.

Sweet Olivia just turned eight years old, and as we celebrated our spunky and sensitive girl whom Jeffrey likes to say, “was born with two scoops of sugar,” we reveled in the notion that life’s most outlandish ideas often become the best. Originating in the heart instead of the mind, these irrational ideas often inspire us to learn a new, and sometimes-difficult dance, which pushes us to a whole new level in life.

As parents, Jeffrey and I have been swirling, dipping, tripping, gliding, sliding, and waltzing from the moment Miss O was born. Our love for our daughter has produced choreography filled with the highest highs and the lowest lows as we’ve experienced every emotion imaginable: love, tenderness, awe, delight, fear, frustration, pain, pride, exuberance and exhaustion. And like most parents, each time we’ve finally mastered one tricky step, we’ve been thrown a new challenge to keep us on our toes on this ever-changing dance floor of parenthood.

Jeffrey and I are nowhere near perfect parents—in fact those kinds of people scare me—but one thing for certain is that in this great big ballroom of life, I have the most steady and dedicated dance partner anybody could ever hope for. And for that, I am grateful.

As we hold onto Olivia’s hands and let her dance on our feet, she is learning to create her own moves—ones that will inform her life when she’s eventually ready to launch out on her own into this big, creative world which is filled with endless adventure.

Who knew this dance of parenthood could ever be so exquisite?


Photo of my mom when she was at the beach

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then clearly I don’t need to say a thing.

But I will.

In honor of my mom, on what would have been her 77th birthday, I’m breaking every blogging rule out there and going “off topic.” Forgive me for this indulgence, but here’s to the beautiful person who brought me into this world and helped make me who I am today. Her spirit, love of life and knee-slapping laughter will always be carried deep in the crevices of my heart.

Photo of my mom when she was a young girl

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