Memories of Madeline

Me as a baby. My grandmother's hands are holding me on either side.

Me as a baby. My grandmother’s hands are holding me on either side.

From the time I was six years old, February 15 has been a melancholy date on the calendar because it marks the anniversary of losing the only grandparent I’d ever known: my maternal grandmother, Madeline Cauterucci. Readers familiar with the back story of Water Signs already know that my main character’s name, Madeline Rose, is derived from my grandmother and my mother (although in the story, “Rose” is also the family surname). The circumstances surrounding her death and my mother’s decision to leave me at home with a babysitter rather than attend her viewing and funeral led to a very interesting resolution to my panic and anxiety disorder much later in life. I blogged about incorporating this real-life experience into the book a few years back:

Which brings me to perhaps the most controversial element of the book, which is also an event straight out of real life. While still battling panic and anxiety disorder — in spite of embracing just about every known remedy from prayer and meditation to Yoga and exercise — I bumped into a very interesting woman at a monthly business/networking meeting. Trained in what is known in military circles as “remote viewing”, she was in reality what most civilians call a psychic — and many Christians a “handmaiden of the Devil”, although upon first sight, she looked like just another no-nonsense businesswoman.

When Maddy meets Ann Claire in the novel, it’s an accurate retelling of my own experience. Thus, when Ann accurately calls out Maddy’s guilt for “leaving behind a middle brother who is handicapped” (my brother Ralph who is in-between oldest son, Mark, and youngest son, Paul), and notes that she is still “in mourning” for a grandmother who’d passed away over 20 years prior, it’s an example of fact that has only been fictionalized marginally. I might have changed the names and altered the descriptions a bit, but the basic events are 100% true, including the fact that Maddy awakes one morning — six months after a private reading with Ann — to discover that for the first time in years, her head is clear, her stomach is calm and that the black cloud that seemed to relentlessly hang over her head has completely dissipated:

I believe I’ve had such a close connected to the woman I called “Nanny” even after she left her earthly body in 1974 and crossed over the the other side because of the circumstances of my own conception and birth. I was not a “planned” pregnancy (although I am grateful everyday for Catholic, pro-life parents). In fact, news of my existence could not have come at a worse time for my mother and father, who were struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over the heads of their four children. Having been blessed with at least one girl, my mother was happy. My father was a new resident and even given the fact that he would go on to a successful surgical career, nothing was guaranteed at the time.

Me at around 18 months.

Me at around 18 months.

Then a month after receiving this unexpected, earth-shattering news, my mother’s father — husband of Madeline — had a sudden heart attack and died. Having been very close to him, my mom of course was devastated, adding even more stress to the pregnancy. My grandmother subsequently spent all of her time in mourning. Until several months later when I was born on March 14 and gave her a reason to smile again. Ok, maybe that sounds a little self-serving but from all accounts, I was like her little “doll.” She was constantly bathing me, dressing me up, fussing over me and just loving me the way a devoted grandmother would.

Although I was a young child I’ll always remember her warm smile, happy-go-lucky personality, affinity for Lawrence Welk and adherence to all things feminine in the form of skirts and blouses, regular hair appointments, dresses, and matching pearl and/or gemstone necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I ever once saw Nanny in a pair of slacks. Like my mother, she was a consummate lady in terms of fashion and sensibility.

After my grandfather passed away, Nanny lived with my wonderful Aunt Emma and Uncle Al but frequently made visitations to our house where she’d stay with us for weeks at a time. One the night of February 14, she and I curled up on the couch to watch a movie called Ryan’s Daughter — something she’d talked excitedly about for days. My parents had gone out to visit a friend who’d been in the hospital so it was just Nanny and my four siblings in the house.

The movie had barely begun when she suddenly succumbed to heart failure, although as young kids we had no idea what was going on — just that it was incredibly frightening. Nanny began shaking violently as her body temperature dropped, prompting us all to run around gathering blankets, make her hot tea

Nanny (middle) with her friend Angie (left) and my Great Aunt Emma enjoying a vacation together.

Nanny (middle) with her friend Angie (left) and my Great Aunt Emma enjoying a vacation together.

and comfort her as best we could while my oldest brother called our parents. Having been diagnosed with diabetes several years earlier, I’d later learn that this was not an unexpected event. I remember Nanny being in and out of the hospital for treatment of various diabetes-related complications and watching her administer scary-looking insulin needles into her arm every day — always with a smile on her face. The woman never complained about anything, at least not in front of me. But even at a tender age, I’d vowed to myself that I would never get that awful disease and suffer the same fate of daily insulin injections. And thanks be to God (and dieting + exercise discipline) I’ve thus far managed to keep that promise.

It’s hard to describe the sheer terror and helplessness I experienced as little girl that night. Watching my beloved grandmother struggle for breath and for warmth while we all did our best to remedy a futile situation is a memory that will be with me forever. I vaguely recall an ambulance coming to take her away and subsequently receiving the devastating news the next morning (delivered gently by Dad with Mom by his side) that Nanny had “gone to heaven.” In response, I ran out of the room crying. Some time later, my mother gifted me with Nanny’s engagement ring, left to me in her will. Since becoming an adult and having it sized down to fit my finger, I’ve never once taken it off, except to clean it. When I made my Confirmation at the age of 12, I took the name Madeline in her honor, although I remember making that decision in anticipation of being confirmed someday in the future soon after her death.

As a child and adolescent, I had no idea that decades later at the age of 30 I’d be engaged in a battle to overcome panic and anxiety disorder partially caused by a lack of closure with my grandmother’s death. Or that it would be a psychic I’d bump into a monthly women’s social meeting who would make that diagnosis and suggest holding my own private ceremony to honor her memory and to ask her spirit to let go of me just a little. This woman strongly sensed that Nanny’s

Me (left), Mom and  Carolyn on Easter Sunday, 1970.

Me (left), Mom and
Carolyn on Easter Sunday, 1970.

presence around me was a bit too suffocating and that I needed to gently find a way to assure her it was ok to release me.

I followed this woman’s advice, lit some candles, said some prayers and thanked my grandmother for loving me so unconditionally. Then I told her how much I loved her and asked her to continue to hang around me in spirit — just not as intensely because it was affecting my ability to fulfill my own God-given purpose.

Not a day has passed since February 15, 1974 that I haven’t thought of Nanny, if only briefly. Her loving presence, her warmth, her smile, her sense of humor and her appreciation for the simple things in life will never be forgotten. Nanny lived a good and happy life if not an extravagant one. She raised four kids, suffered through the loss of a son during World War II and dealt with a myriad of diabetes-related health issues. But she did it all with grace and always with an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life: playing cards with her friends, spending time with family, going to the movies, cooking, shopping and being the strongest influence on my life for my first six years on earth.

Thanks for the memories, Nanny. You are loved and missed always but I know I’ll see you again someday.

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Five Minutes with the Word: Fruitfulness

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it pro­duces much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Have you ever seen a seed ger­minate? While it is in the soil, the skin encasing it splits open. Next, the seed itself splits in two, and the stem and root unfurl. Gradually, the seed grows smaller as it nourishes the new plant. Eventually, the seed disappears altogether. If you were to look at the plant after a while, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell what the seed looked like.

What a wonderful image this is of the spiritual life! Like a patient farmer, God is always planting seeds in our hearts, waiting for them to “die” so that they can bear fruit. Each season has its own seeds that need to die—parts of us that need to break open so that new life can come forth. As children, we may be bear­ing the fruit of obedience and trust.

As young married couples, we may be learning to pour our lives out as we start a new family. And as sea­soned adults, our fruit may be that of more active involvement in our com­munity or church.

Again, like a wise gardener, only God knows which seeds need to sprout for each season. It’s no use trying to double guess him. And there’s no need. After all, he knows what he is doing!

Try something different in your prayer today. Look back over your life, and try to identify times when a “seed” had to die so that God could bring something new into your life. Ask yourself: “Well, I survived, didn’t I? And I’m better off for having gone through it, aren’t I?”

Now, having reviewed your past, see if there is something that God wants to do in your present. He is never finished with us! There’s always more that he wants to give us—if only we will let him bring life out of death!

Pray: “Lord, I want to bear fruit for your kingdom! Help me to shed my comfortable shell so that I can grow in ways even I can’t imagine!”

Are you in position of having to start your life over? That’s where I find myself these days, which is why this particular meditation has so much relevance. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to take a personal inventory of the past, bless the experience and discover why God has placed me in this current situation. I’ve been having trouble allowing the seed to die, as this meditation reminds us is necessary to bear new fruit, but I am looking forward to letting go and finding out what God has in store for this next phase.

If you’re in a similar situation, perhaps we can do it together and share our experiences.

Have a blessed Sunday!

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The Secret Shame of Hoarding

This is not an easy post to write for many reasons. Mainly because I would never want to tarnish the memory of my magnificent cousin Maris Lee DiGiovanni, who passed on to her eternal reward on December 23, 2011, to the shock of my entire family.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this story needed to be told, in the hope it may be of help to someone who is either dealing with a hoarder in their life or struggling with this difficult mental disorder themselves.

Although Maris had always been a vital part of my life — a mother figure, a big sister, a best friend — I never knew she harbored a deep, dark secret, one that compelled her to “ban” my entire family from entering the two-story, four-bedroom colonial she shared with her husband Al for nearly 30 years. In fact, until about a month ago the last time I’d set foot in their home was Christmas Week, 1983 when I was still a young teenager and Maris had invited us all for dinner.

Move the calendar ahead to a summer day in 2003. I was visiting from Florida and had plans to check out the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia with Mom, Maris and my sister Carolyn, whom we were meeting downtown. At the time, Maris didn’t have a car so Mom and I picked her up at her place. Not surprisingly, she was waiting for us in the driveway when we arrived, but my mother threw her a curveball when she politely requested to use the bathroom.

“Oh no! You’re not setting foot inside my house, you’ll have a heart attack!” Maris frantically responded.

“But Mar, I take a diuretic, I need to go!” my mother pleaded.

“I will direct you to the nearest restaurant,” my cousin offered.

We ended up driving to a diner so my mom could use the facilities.

Maris, me, my sister Carolyn and my mom Rose in Boca Raton, 2007.

As crazy as it sounds, even though all of these things should have tipped us off to the severity of the problem, we never gave it much thought since Maris and Al would always travel to wherever the latest family gathering was taking place. At best, we’d chalk it up to the embarrassment of messy housekeeping, owing to the fact that the childless couple each worked and had an active social life.

As long as they delighted us with the pleasure of their company, who cared where we were?

Furthermore Maris, a former model, always presented an impeccable appearance — from her perfect make-up application to her designer shoes to her stylish outfits adorned with just the right accents. Accompanied by a gregarious personality that lit up a room, a gorgeous smile that took your breath away and a melodious laugh that never failed to brighten your spirits, it was no wonder we never fully grasped the emotional turmoil that was bubbling beneath the surface.

But in the aftermath of her shocking death, we’d soon be slapped with that cold, hard reality.

My mother, sister and sister-in-law were the first to enter the home that had tragically transformed from a welcoming haven to a little house of horrors in the years we’d been banned. Knowing it was probably tormenting her spirit that her secret was about to revealed, the three women offered a solemn “Hail Mary” on the porch before entering the doorway. Their goal was simply to find an appropriate gown, jewelry and shoes for her to wear at her viewing.

It took them three hours to accomplish the task.

Beautiful Maris Lee DiGiovanni, November 22, 1946 - December 23, 2011.

And though they’d described the scene in great detail, from the boxes piled high to the ceiling, to the clutter devouring just about every space in each room to the clothes hanging from every bedroom doorway and thus blocking access, it was hard to completely visualize and comprehend. While I understood that none of these women was prone to hyperbole, I just couldn’t fathom the deplorable conditions they described.

That is, until I finally set foot inside the house in the days following Maris’ funeral.

Upon entering, my jaw literally dropped to the floor. I stood in the foyer, surrounded by columns of stuff ranging from storage boxes to department store shopping bags to unopened purchases (dishes, flatware, coffee pots, etc). When I looked to the living room on the left side, the only open space I could see was the three inches between the pile-up of clutter and the ceiling.

Proceeding straight into the kitchen was a nearly treacherous feat, as there was junk everywhere, including the floor. The kitchen island, table, countertops and every flat surface were all stacked high with things my cousin just couldn’t part with — even trash in the form of old peanut-butter crackers, candy and other food items.

Upstairs, it was a claustrophobia sufferer’s nightmare. Once you managed to follow the narrow pathway up the cluttered stairway, a deliberately shrunken hallway awaited — suffocated by columns of seemingly endless shoe boxes. I could barely stand it for more than a few minutes after determining that my family’s description of the doorways and bedrooms had been tragically accurate.

For several days, my mother and I diligently worked at the house, trying to make a dent in a task that seemed increasingly insurmountable. Each time I would enter, I’d be overcome with a sense of overwhelming despair. Only by forcing myself to focus on a narrow portion of the job and assigning myself a specific goal (e.g. “Today I am going to forge a path from the foyer to the coffee table in the living room”) could I keep going.

As I plowed through a room like a human bulldozer I took delight in throwing away garbage, an act that for most of us is a normal part of our daily routine. Amid the ruins, I must’ve rescued 50 shopping bags filled with unopened purchases dating as far back as the 90s in addition to unopened purchases like table cloths, Mikasa wine glasses and a variety of Lenox (dishes, salt & pepper shakers, bowls, etc) . I helped my cousin Al donate truckloads to a local church thrift store and brought carloads of good items back to my parents’ home, where they were distributed to family members.

And that was just from the living room and dining room.

Each day when I’d return to my parents’ home after working hours in Maris and Al’s I’d immediately throw my dusty clothes in the laundry and take a long, hot shower to wash off the dirt and dust. If only it was as easy to eradicate the palpable pain, sorrow and anguish emanating from every square inch of that four-bedroom colonial — from the basement to the attic and from the garage to the living spaces. Nothing I’d ever seen on ghost hunter shows was as disturbing as what I experienced there. As the physical manifestation of a tortured heart, mind and soul that house shocked me into the reality that beneath the exuberant persona of a loving, generous, accomplished and fun-loving woman lurked a lonely little girl who’d never come to terms with the losses in her life.

As an only child, her parents’ deaths had hit Maris even harder, and Al traces the origins of her compulsion back to that time period 30 years ago. For most of my life, I’d taken the gift of four siblings for granted; seeing Maris’ house reminded me of the blessings of having three brothers and a sister, other human beings with whom I share a family history. As horrific as the inevitable day will be when we will have to endure the same loss, at least we’ll still have each other (at least I hope that’s the plan since we never know when we’ll pass away). I only wish I’d known Maris had been hurting so badly while she was still alive; I may not have been able to get her over her compulsion but at least I could have been more sensitive to her trauma.

Funny, I’d never even heard of the A&E program Hoarders until I’d started sharing this experience with other people. And after watching a few episodes, I could easily relate to the frustration of the family members and the desperation of those afflicted with this mental disorder. To call it a difficult challenge is an understatement, and there’s no guarantee that even if Maris had been willing to get help it would have been successful in ridding her of this complicated problem.

Still, it makes me sad she refused to try — even at her frustrated husband’s urging. Consequently, for most of their marriage, their lifestyle entailed being out of the house as long as possible every single day. Instead of being a haven to escape to after a long day at work, it became a prison from which to flee each morning. The normal activities we take for granted — eating dinner at the kitchen table, sitting on the couch to read or watch TV, inviting friends over for coffee — were simple pleasures unavailable to Maris and Al. That this was a prison of Maris’ own making only underscores the severity of the problem. As I said, even if she had sought professional help, there’s no guarantee it would have worked.

If you have a loved one who’s a hoarder or are struggling with the compulsion yourself, there are no easy answers. In the aftermath of Maris’ unexpected passing, my eyes have certainly been opened to the prevalence of the problem and its detrimental and oftentimes devastating effect on human relationships. I continue to pray and help my cousin Al as he works through the arduous process of decluttering and cleansing his home, comforted by the fact that Maris is in a better place, emancipated from the jail of negative emotion and reunited with those she loved in this lifetime. Rest in peace, Maris.

Do you have a hoarder story to share? I welcome you to post them in the comments.

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Memories of Maris Lee

Maris Lee DiGiovanni, November 22, 1946 - December 23, 2011.

For my family and me, Christmas 2011 was a somber season marked by the sudden and unexpected passing of my dear cousin, Maris Lee DiGiovanni.

Maris became a member of our family when she married Al (our oldest cousin on my dad’s side) in a ceremony that featured my then 6 year-old brother Paul as ring-bearer. And while the word “cousin” is an accurate descriptor of her relationship to my siblings and me, it is wholly inadequate. Because for us, Maris was a second mom, a big sister and a best friend — all rolled into one beautiful, amazing and radiant package.

The old expression about lighting up a room could have been coined with Maris in mind because the moment she entered a doorway, she electrified the atmosphere with her unbridled exuberance, infectious laughter, remarkable love of life and genuine interest in everyone in attendance. She exuded a special kind of energy, rooted in her deep devotion to her Christian faith, unshakeable belief in the Lord and her dedication to His commands and His people.

As such, Maris never failed to reach out to those in need — whether they were family members, co-workers, friends, church congregants or even strangers. If you needed to talk, Maris would patiently and actively listen; if you ended up the hospital she’d show up with colorful balloons; if you asked for advice, she would offer her best.

And yes, she also was breathtakingly beautiful, as evidenced by her crowning as “Miss West Oak Lane” in 1965 and her subsequent work as a model for New York City hair shows and as a teacher at a Philadelphia modeling school. Yet in spite of her stunning outward appearance, Maris never behaved liked a spoiled “diva” or a self-absorbed princess. In fact, she eventually gave up the superficial world of modeling in favor of marriage, family and a mainstream job as a production control manager for the Budd Company.

Possibly because she and Al never had children of their own, they showered my brothers, sister and me with all the love and devotion a good parent demonstrates toward their offspring. No matter the occasion, Maris consistently found new and innovative ways to make it memorable, whether they were babysitting us for a weekend or celebrating a milestone like a First Holy Communion.

Maris kissing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, 1972.

From the time I was a little girl, Christmas Eve had always been synonymous with Maris and Al, beginning with the years her Uncle Reuben would dress up as Santa Claus and hand out presents to all of us kids and our neighborhood friends. As we grew older, our Christmas Eve festivities transitioned into sharing a seven-fish dinner, attending mass together and exchanging presents just among Maris, Al, my parents and siblings (somehow we managed the discipline to wait until Christmas morning to tear open the rest).

No one put more thought into gift-giving than Maris. Like everything else she did in life, she’d pour her heart and soul into finding the perfect, unique purchase for every person on her list — a task no doubt made significantly easier due to her sincere interest in others and their interests and hobbies. Although she gave me many beautiful things over the years like jewelry, clothing, accessories and all the other “girly” items befitting a former model, the present I remember most is a blank, hard-bound, embossed journal in which I penned my “first” novel at the age of 9. On the first page, she’d written a lovely note about how she believed in my dream of becoming a successful writer and hoped that her gift would inspire me to pursue it.

Al and Maris, partying it up.

Speaking of writing, Maris literally had the most magnificent penmanship of anybody I have ever known. Even as a grown adult, I’d get excited whenever I’d retrieve the mail to find a brightly colored envelope bearing her distinctive handwriting — because it was a sure bet that there would be an inspiring personalized message inscribed below the standard Hallmark greeting. Maris never just signed her name to a card; she always wrote something meaningful inside. And she never missed a birthday or holiday.

Possibly because she was an avid lover of life and all of its most celebrated traditions. She was also passionately patriotic, a trait we have in common. But no matter the holiday, you could always count on Maris to be dressed to the nines in the appropriate attire.

Memorial Day? Independence Day?

She’d be decked out in red, white and blue, from her earrings to her outfit to her sandals to her perfectly manicured toes.

New Year?

Al as "Father Time" and Maris as "Baby New Year."

Well, she wasn’t above dressing as “Baby New Year” and surprising us all at a family party when she showed up with my cousin Al as “Father Time”.

On Independence Day 1980, I was barely a teenager and very excited about spending a weekend away from home with Maris, Al and her mother Marie at their condo in Wildwood, New Jersey. It never mattered what we did or didn’t do; just being in Maris and Al’s company was more than enough because they were like two big kids who made every activity fun and memorable. Whether we were riding the waves in the ocean, playing miniature golf on the mezzanine level of their building or indulging in an ice-cream sundae from Duffer’s, every moment was special because they cared so much about making me happy.

Even though I was a pretty low-maintenance kid.

Thus, in spite of the exceptionally thick fog on that unforgettable 4th of July Maris insisted we travel to Cape May to see fireworks against Al’s protestations that it would be a complete waste of time. But as was typical, Maris won the argument, so off we went. We never actually “saw” fireworks that night — only vaguely colorful auras in the sky — but we certainly did hear them!

Maris, Al and me visiting CityPlace in West Palm Beach in 2001.

Fast-forward to August 1996, the first of many memorable visits Maris and Al made to South Florida. On this particular trip, they bookended two full weekends, the better to travel to places unexplored when I was off from work. In spite of the hot temps and high humidity (did I mention it was summer in South Florida?), Maris insisted we partake of every tour offered in Key West to fully take in its history and ambiance. She was, after all, a person of insatiable curiosity who wanted to completely absorb and experience the uniqueness of every place she traveled. Poor Al just wanted to get to a beach.

After the wonderful Key West Duck Tour, I remember wandering around the Hemingway House, struggling to take in the words of our educated tour guide while I fought the urge to pass out. At one point, Al and I both had to lean against a wall in one of the rooms to maintain our equilibrium; Maris meanwhile,  managed to remain perky and put-together as she listened with rapt attention. But luck was on our side despite our lack of foresight in making any sort of lodging reservations and against pretty formidable odds, we ended up at a gorgeous, fully renovated B & B notwithstanding the fact that it was Lobsterfest weekend.

Maris and me at my brother Paul's rehearsal dinner, 1990.

But flying by the seat of your pants was an integral part of the adventures of Maris and Al. The following weekend in Marco Island, not only did we manage to find a room at the Marriott, but thanks to my good gene pool, also a great deal. As we stood behind the counter, attired in casual shorts and flip-flops (having just come from the beach), the clerk inquired if I was in fact, Maris’ daughter and mentioned that “kids under 15″ stay free. Bear in mind, I was 29 at the time and almost incredulous that anyone would mistake me for a teenager. As if reading my mind, Maris elbowed me discreetly, lest I blow our cover and increase our room rate. In the end, I went along with the charade that I was their “kid”….which really wasn’t quite a stretch since they always treated me that way.

Over the years, Maris, Al and I experienced many Florida attractions together from theKennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach to CityPlace in West Palm Beach and Mizner Park in Boca Raton. A few years ago, they surprised me for a very special birthday by flying down with my sister Carolyn and my brother Mark in an arrangement orchestrated by one of my very best friends Theresa. I’ll never forget how she basically coerced me into coming over to her house one Friday night even though I was insisting I didn’t feel well and wanted to stay home. Turned out, she was calling me on her cell on the way back from the airport where she’d just picked up Maris, Al, Carolyn and Mark. The best gift I received that year was walking into Theresa’s home and seeing them all there waiting for me.

Maris, me, my sister Carolyn and my mom Rose in Boca Raton, 2007.

I could write an entire novel filled exclusively with memories of Maris (who I immortalized as “Daphne” in Water Signs), and perhaps one day in the not too distant future, I will find the discipline and courage to do it. It took every ounce of determination I had to muster the strength to eulogize her alongside my siblings at her funeral service last month but she deserved the very best send-off we could offer. I  pray that we all made her proud.

I am deeply grateful to God for the privilege of having Maris in my life and although I will miss her for the rest of my days on earth, I know she’s in a much better place. Rest in peace, Maris Lee. You will always be remembered and loved.

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