Tech Fast: Keeping Clarisse

IMG_1145I gave my 7th graders an assignment called “Tech Fast” to complete over the holidays.  It’s a rite of passage for the middle-schoolers: for two days, students are to live without technology of any kind—no cell phones, no computers, no music, no television. In the season of giving and receiving, news of the assignment was not received all that well, but the kids came back in January, still alive, having completed the Tech Fast, looking much like they did when they left before break.

The intent was not (despite what some of the 7th graders believed) to torture. We had just read Fahrenheit 451, a book that loudly depicts the potential hazards of overuse of and dependency on technology. I had never read it before teaching it this year; I had always believed that Bradbury wrote the novel as a reaction against McCarthyism and censorship. But Bradbury explains that his book stemmed from something less political, from something more personal. Fahrenheit isn’t about what happens when governments decide what people should or should not read. It is about what might happen when free people with access to every book imaginable, make the conscious decision not to read.

Bradbury’s main character Montag is married to Mildred, who sits all day with “seashells” in her ears, listening to her television “relatives” endlessly talk of nothing from the three walls of screens surrounding her (constant, deafening noise, chatter, lights), and all Mildred wants is for her husband to buck up and buy that fourth wall. Mildred can’t hold a conversation. Mildred can’t think a creative thought, and when she does stop long enough to think, she attempts suicide. Mildred is one of a slew of hopelessly sad depictions living in a dangerously familiar future society.

But Bradbury’s Clarisse, Montag’s neighbor, is a young girl who fully participates with the world around her. She asks questions and initiates discussions. Montag hears laughter move across the lawn from Clarisse’s house—a hearty, relaxed, natural laughter, coming from a lit home, not one darkened at night so folks can better view a screen. “Montag heard the voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.” My students were drawn to Clarisse immediately and understood it—right away—that Clarisse is the person to be. We talked about what it means, to talk. And better yet, what it means to listen.

During one lesson I brought in my iPod and played Miles Davis, my choice of jazz representative—an example of culture counter to the mainstream 1950’s society Bradbury was criticizing. Students listened to songs from Kind of Blue, and as they sat, they wrote reactions in their journals describing the “back and forth,” “weaving,” “dynamics,” even “tension,” in the music they heard. Jazz is like talking, we all decided.

And when you really talk, when you sit down to have a conversation, there is potential for pause, for volume, for conflict and tension, for resolve, for back and forth, for storytelling.

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When I was in high school, my friends knew the rule, and if they were new friends, they figured the rule out pretty quickly: Whatever you do, don’t call my house between the hours of 6 and 7 pm because you are not going to like the way you feel if my mom answers the phone. I experienced Empathy Embarrassment–guilt grated like the Parmesan on my spaghetti–as I witnessed my mom curtly informing said “friend” that he or she was calling during dinnertime. The hour was sacred at the Regan household, the time when we all–at whatever age and stage, if we were living under my mom’s roof—would sit down together, to eat . . . and to talk.

I learned to love the time and rely on the talking. Our tiny, circular kitchen table was the place and still is. Even today I can picture my parents sitting there together just before dinner, snacking on cheese and crackers, sipping wine, retelling the moments of the day. My mom did her best advising at that kitchen table: she persevered, counselling us through teenage angst and young-adult worry. And my dad, he continues to tell the greatest stories from his spot at the table, his hands resting on the crossword or wrapped around a coffee mug.

My kids get to listen to my dad now, which is lovely to witness: Pop-Pop’s one to break into instantaneous song. He’ll narrow in to talk to one of my girls and I’ll get to see her eyes widen with delight. It honestly does not matter that I’ve heard each story countless times before. I welcome the tales, like I comfortably toss on my favorite pair of pj-pants at the end of a long day. The weaving and reweaving, the giving and taking: there’s not a lot better as far as I’m concerned.

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It’s nice that I grew up that way, as did so many others.  As parents, my husband and I are trying to prioritize reading, creativity, outside play, all that good stuff. It’s also nice that the fate of humanity is not resting on my shoulders because I was obsessive about watching The Voice last fall and so were my kids. If Blake Shelton and Adam Levine were to somehow start talking to me directly from three surrounding walls at high volume, I have to say, I would not be unhappy. My husband and I have agreed more than once that it would be fun to have beers with Blake and Adam. So there are times, I do feel a little Mildred coming on.

And there are Mildred’s out there: There are people who need to turn off the television. There are people who need to read a book. This is real.

What I find to be real as well, as I teach my 7th graders, is a genuine feeling of hope. Granted, I teach just a slice of humanity, I understand, but if I am to generalize about “kids these days,” I conclude that all is not lost. In an earlier project, I asked students to write about an object that symbolizes them in some way, and they wrote about soccer balls, pianos, skateboards—not many if any wrote about an Xbox or a Wii.

The Tech Fast, yes, it challenged them, but it did not bury them. They took to their sleds; they played board games with their siblings; they talked to their parents. They resoundingly agreed that the Fast didn’t change their lives all that much: no one picked up a new language or discovered anything astonishingly new about herself. Using less technology simply allowed the kids to do more of something else.

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It’s just that “simple” that I want to appreciate and I can when I visit my old home: I feel a little more Clarisse coming on. It’s what can happen when I surround myself with people I love. We talked: my dad, my siblings, my in-laws. We faced each other around kitchen tables, high-topped counters, and comfortable couches. We told stories, sang songs.

We went for walks, hit a museum, read books.

I use Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and so do some of my students. So too will my own kids, I’m fairly certain, unless new takes over “old” by then.  Right now I am here at this computer.  Pandora plays softly.  I need and appreciate technology.

But sitting around a childhood kitchen table reminds me that instead of looking for the next best thing on Pinterest (or whatever the gadget or Website), I also need to value what it is that I already know–what’s embedded in me, what’s been passed on.  Bring back a cookie recipe from my mother’s hand-written card, flip through an old songbook and teach my girls to harmonize to Moonlight Bay, just like my mother did, and just like her mother did before.

Tell an old story.  Talk and talk and weave and talk some more. Light up the house. Laugh until it hurts.


Mo and Me

The Olympics are over and Mo Farah and I are tired.  For two straight weeks I was up late watching people win medals. 

I am spent. 

I was full-on invested in the London Olympics this year, A to Zed.   Could not resist the media pull, and it was Ryan Seacrest, for goodness’ sake—I watched anyway.  I was cheering for Phelps.  I was sad for Jordan, elated for Gabby.  Loved the bit when that little Katie Ledecky started the 800 meters “too quickly” according to those close-talking announcers.  Missy Franklin, Serena-all-giddy, Allyson Felix.  David Boudia out-of-nowhere.   It was fun.  But there was a lot of water polo.  And if I hadn’t caught the opening and closing ceremonies, NBC would have had me believing that the Olympic participants were all US residents.

Maybe that’s why I liked the Mohamed Farah story so much: British Somali, crazy fast at the finish, wins at home in front of a princess, his big-disbelieving eyes, trademark move—arms in the shape of an “M” on the top of his head.  The fact that Rupp, his training partner and friend, won silver in the 10,000 meters was icing.  And at the end, on the track, when Mo hugged his daughter.  Come on. 

Before the race I said, “Wow!  10,000 meters.” 

Caroline said, “What?” 

I said, “They’re gonna be running for a while.” 

Lexi asked, “What time are they going to go home?”

I thought, they’ll certainly be going home a lot sooner than I would be going home if I were running this race.

 But it didn’t come to me until after Farah’s victory that a 10,000 meter race is, well, a 10K, and I sometimes run 10Ks.  In fact, I had fairly recently run one on June 2–the Zooma in Annapolis. 

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There were stark differences between the Olympic 10K and mine. 

Mo and his pals were running quickly.   His race began.  There was a commercial break.  Then three laps left. 

If my Zooma had been televised, there would have been pledge breaks for fundraising purposes, a 1-800 number flashing on the bottom of the tv screen, Ed Asner and Gavin McCloud cameo appearances.

While I did technically “train” for my run, much of the race-day preparation involved creating an iPod mix featuring 34 songs.  The average American song length is 4-minutes, so I was comfortable entering the “race” with 136 minutes of fresh music to get me through.  The first song?  I kid you not, Linkin Park: “Waiting for the end to come, wishing I had strength to stand”… spinning guitar, teasing piano, pounding drum, driving. me. methodically. forward.

It seemed like it took all morning.  This was my day’s event.  I got there at 7 a.m., and afterwards, it was lunch-time.  My husband and daughters met me at the finish like I’d been abroad. 

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I was at my in-law’s last weekend.  The Olympics were still pulling us all in, but I managed to get out for a jog.  I felt I had barely exercised since June 2—my summer opening ceremony—and now the closing, a few laps around the local track. 

I couldn’t help but think of Mo.  I couldn’t help but be him.  Nearby workmen painting a shed didn’t seem to notice my speed but I was fast. 

I’d actually spent more time untangling my iPod earbuds than I did running, but I finished.  I walked a victory lap.  I tested out trademark moves:  an “M” for Mommy on top of my head?  Usain’s lightning bolt? 

Lexi had come downstairs that morning, her hair freshly combed, a clean dress on, and I noticed as I followed her into the kitchen that she was slowing down a bit.  She looked away from her dad and grandma who were seated at the breakfast table.  She pushed her hair behind her ear, smiled slightly, poking her tongue to the side of her cheek.  Then she made her entrance.

That’s her trademark move, I thought.  Of course.  She’s been looking for Princess Kate on the telly for a fortnight.  She’s got this.  She can’t help but be the princess.

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The London Olympics, the first my girls will remember—upon reflection, that is why I’ve been so invested this year.  Criticism and cynicism aside.  It’s been an experience watching talented kids compete, with great success or not, with my own girls, developing interests, asking questions, processing,  sitting right there on the couch beside me. 

I had missed what Bob Costas said about Phelps not marching in the Opening Ceremony.  Lexi explained,   “Because he’s swimming with his friends tomorrow and he doesn’t want to be sleepy.”

One morning at their Grandma’s the girls woke up kind of late and groggy.  Caroline whispered to Lexi, “Let’s play the Quiet Game—you’re the United States of America and I’m Maryland.” 

We worked through that one….quietly; she decided on USA vs. Russia. 

Still deciding on our trademark moves.


Jogging Memories

I could do this with my eyes closed, this jog around Wayne, Pennsylvania, though I’ve lived away from here half of my life. A step onto the front porch, and it could be any year, the trees are lush and big; the June heat thumps, even early in the morning. The two dogwoods in the front are gone, due to a recent storm. A burly maple fell from across the street, sparing my dad’s house by inches, but the front hedges and the dogwoods did not fare as well. There are no bushes on the side either to separate our lawn from the lawn of my dad’s “new” neighbors, who’ve been there at least five years. We needed those bushes when we were growing up next to “Ginny,” the old lady who threatened to shoot our golden retriever if he crossed onto her property, which he did often. Dan and Matt would play football in the front and purposefully toss the ball over the hedges, then make diving catches through them. It was not the dog that Ginny had to worry about—but she knew that; for some reason she just couldn’t threaten to kill the boys. We had a lot of action in the backyard, too, but the front seems a more poignant place, I think, as I stretch to touch my fingers to my toes: the place of prom picture posing, of chats with neighbors. It’s where I would sit to see my brothers coming home from big league baseball games, to see my dad coming home from work. It’s where my college-graduate sister stood, carrying a backpack bigger than she, before leaving for Europe. When my mom was home with hospice care before she was completely bed-ridden, she asked me to lead her to the front door. She sat there in her wheelchair, quietly taking in the view.

Sidewalks are a little worn, though that crack at the foot of our driveway—the one that would get skateboards airborne—has long since been repaired. A turn left would lead me up a small hill to the old bus stop; but a turn right is the running route, and my feet start mechanically in that direction. Two houses down from Dad’s is the big tree carved into a bear, the tree which was just a tree when I was growing up, but is now a 15-foot Flyers fan—an orange hat perched on its head—and a big favorite of the Lenehan girls when we take walks around Pop Pop’s neighborhood. The teenager who lives there now mows my father’s lawn every Tuesday. The teenager, Tommy Walters, who lived there before him also used to mow my dad’s lawn. Tommy was a quiet kid with a quiet father and a lovely, loving mom, and on Mother’s Day years ago, he called home from a pay phone as he was dying from a knife wound.

Lisa lived across the way, and when we were growing up, we were rarely separated. I’m not sure what I contributed to the relationship, but she had a Barbie and a three-speed bike. We often swapped bikes: hers for my single-speed, which by now may be en vogue, but back then, at least for me, having more of anything was better than having less. As I run by the military academy parking lot, I see the small wall I flipped over while road-testing Lisa’s three-speed. I may have totaled her bike, but I’m sure at the time the focus was on me and the “calamity” involving the “great wall”—at least that’s where I would have demanded the focus to be. My brothers called me “Bratty” for substantiated reasons.

I am heading towards the middle school, across Lancaster Avenue towards Aberdeen, the road to freedom, the road to Mary Kate’s house. We gossiped, spent our parents’ money tying up phone lines. We passed notes in homeroom. It was all wonderfully safe and cliché. Matt had a nickname for her as well, and as I was sifting through old letters in my childhood room, I found written in my brother’s scrawl on a scrap piece of paper a phone number next to the name “Mary Brat.” The school is unrecognizably new—no more roofed walkway attaching two aged buildings. Once when I was an 8th grader I was waiting for the bus outside of the main building when I saw a girl I thought to be my friend Sandra nearing the annex. I yelled something sassy about her questionable choice in outfit (maybe it was a dress-up day?) and realized only when she turned around looking bothered that it was not Sandra. That may have been an initial moment of adult awareness: I should keep some thoughts to myself…and get my eyes checked.

The public library across from the middle school looks the same on the outside; though built in the 1970’s, the building is still too modern a place to be attractive. I remember a summer reading contest when I just bled books. If I could have spent my middle school years in the library or at the piano, I would have. But the mean-girl stuff was an ever-present concern, and I was not always at the receiving end, I’m afraid. I was a worrier, a bit of a follower, some of the things I’d like my Caroline and Lexi never to be. I remember success in the classroom, though—a project in math involving a slab of wood, nails set in a geometric pattern, and colored yarn. Of course English: I spent hours working on one of Mrs. Santee’s projects, sitting in our backyard sketching a robin, observing blades of grass, identifying cumulus clouds, writing poetry. It is no wonder Thoreau struck a chord in college. It is a wonder listening to Caroline repeat Shel Silverstein’s “Sleeping Sardines” by heart and seeing Lexi at work on “Melinda Mae.”

I’m circling the town of Wayne, rather than heading into its hub. I like the perimeter. There were kids who’d hang out in town, but I always went there with purpose: for slices at Real Pizza, for a movie at Anthony Wayne, to Kaleidoscope to buy stationery or the Paisley Shop to buy post earrings. WaWa is now so close I can smell the Amoroso rolls, as I again approach Lancaster, heading back towards North Wayne. I am stopping to pick up coffee for Dave and me, so once I cross the street, I’m free to walk, but I sprint to the finish in case there are any old boyfriends around. I leave WaWa, a sweaty mess balancing two massive cups of caffeine in a 4-cup carry tray.

The last time I was in the Baskin Robbins to my left was when cancer had destroyed much of Mom’s appetite, but in true Regan form, she still loved her ice cream. We left the house for a root beer float and then a pedicure, and we happened to see Mrs. Walters at the nail salon. I’d not seen her in years. She looked older and sadder, but then again, so did I. I felt like since we used to go to her Christmas party each year, since I used to babysit her kids, that I should explain to her why my mom was now so thin. I should tell her how sorry I was about Tommy. But the moments passed, and she left, and Mom and I came home from the last outing we ever had together.

True Value, next to Baskin and Robbins, is now South Moon Under, but the hardware store served a higher purpose by connecting me with my future husband. I worked there half a summer in college, inventorying paint among other things, and a neighbor of mine walked in one day to buy a gallon of Smoky Mauve exterior. He told me I could make a dollar more an hour painting houses and that’s all he needed to say. I quit before we completed our conversation and was enjoying prime tanning, listening to WMMR, and taking long lunch breaks before I could say “Phillips Head or Flat Blade?” The only person obstructing my way to a stress-free summer was the foreman, Dave Lenehan, that guy from my swim club and church who had attended a neighboring high school. Mom said something about him having a nice family because she played tennis with a friend of his mom’s, but Dave was a tad too attentive to his job to get a lot of attention from me. He was not unfriendly and kind of cute, so I married him 15 years later.

He must be in desperate need of coffee by now, I think as I cross North Wayne Avenue for the sidewalk under the train tracks. The walls beneath the tracks are smooth and black like tar; I’d forgotten. The thought of touching them was always slightly alluring, and when I did, I found them to be dry and cool, not slimy like they looked. When I was feeling brave as a child, I would avoid the street altogether, opting for the tunnel path underneath the tracks. Rumors of dead-people buried, smells of urine, darkness, and sounds of approaching trains all triggered imagination, which would without fail, cause me to quicken my pace when I took the tunnel. I am close now: past John’s Market, where hoagies flow; past the big evergreen where neighbors would gather to sing Christmas carols; up the street that winds with the crooked creek. Two more blocks to Dad’s, and the coffee’s still warm.

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As we leave to return to Annapolis, Caroline walks off of the front porch slowly. She and Lexi had collected leaves and pinecones for Pop Pop and left them in a pile on the porch. She eyes them now then turns around and raises those blue eyes up to scan the house before her. She grabs my hand: “Oh, Mommy, this is such a beautiful home. Why does Pop Pop live here all alone?”

When my mother was first gone, I shared the same concern, but I feel differently today. There was nothing solitary about my morning run. I had plenty of company. My dad reads the paper; he goes to work; he cooks a pork chop; he watches the Phillies; and I’m sure there are moments when he feels alone, possibly lonely, but I understand why he stays put. He’s easy to locate on Woodland Avenue. Memories know just where to find him.


Cleaning House

Whenever I go home to Philly, I find something old in my dad’s refrigerator. This time around, it was yogurt. Expiration date: March 2009. It was Thanksgiving. I scowled, made fun of him, told him I’d rather not hospitalize my girls, made fun of him some more, and eventually dumped the goo into the sink. He muttered, “What can happen to yogurt anyway?” and I shook my head, feeling sorry for this man who keeps old food in his fridge.

He’s actually doing just fine. He’s been taking care of his house on his own for these seven years, since my mom’s been gone. And he’s always taken care of us. Though he’s from a family of lawyers, he has spent his professional life in education. He knew right from the start that he wanted to teach. Who really knows what they want to be when they grow up? My dad did at age 20. 40 years as a college professor, and he still talks about his students with humor and respect, as if he enjoys going to work each day. He spent his younger years playing sports and will be the first to tell you how good he was at quarterback and point guard. He follows Philadelphia and Villanova teams with intense interest, but he’s forgiving—he doesn’t lose his mind when his team loses a game. He’s a patient fan, a patient man. When my siblings and I were growing up, Dad would get a certain angry look that we called “The Face.” When my dad was about to blow, one of my brothers would make snide verbal note of “The Face,” and Dad would inevitably break, accepting it was just much easier to laugh it off. He tells funny stories; he has funny friends. He sings a lot, and he whistles—as a kid, I always knew when he was home from work.

Despite all of this, I can find the good in most everyone I know, but in those I love most—like my dad—I sometimes chip away at the not-quite-good-enough. Poor guy. I’ve been doing it to him for years. So when I was last home for Thanksgiving, I gave a cursory glance towards the newly paved driveway; I appreciated the renovated master bath; and I acknowledged his attempt to keep plants alive—but I wouldn’t let the old yogurt die.

Then, I took the two-hour drive back to my own messy house.

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On the first Sunday of Advent, I sat in my hometown church between my dad and my daughter, Caroline. She was relatively entertained by softly knocking her knees against the pew in front of us, so I was able to catch a few lines of the sermon. The priest was suggesting that we clean our houses. I thought it was a little funny that he was going there until I recognized—from somewhere in my distant, distant past—the use of metaphor, and I attempted to stay focused long enough to see this thing through. We probably would be attentive to our homes, yes, as we cleaned and straightened and organized for the holidays. But what the priest encouraged us to do as well, was to ready ourselves—our minds, our hearts—and clean up the inside spaces, so that we could welcome all that Christmas represents. Do some interior de-cluttering. Make room for love.

Though he meant metaphorically, I also thought I’d take the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas to tidy our place up a bit. Sanitizing the soul is one thing, but it couldn’t hurt to organize the Tupperware drawer, right? I thought the priest was really onto something—a clean, quiet approach to Christmas—but I also thought that in order to prepare for the birth of Jesus, it would be helpful if I, quickly, became a much better person. I would do it all—but contemplatively. I would get my shopping done without spending a lot of money. I would forego the Biggest Loser finale and instead spend time reading a book on the couch, occasionally glancing up at the Christmas tree because that’s why the tree is there, to enjoy at night, rather than chastise during the day when it’s blocking all natural light from entering the living room. I would get those holiday cards together early, and then spend time writing actual notes, connecting with my faraway family and friends. After all, it’s only once a year that I check in with some of these people—the very least I can do is put pen to paper and sign a name.

If I were to lose my mind completely—if that were to happen—my guess is that I’d be shopping around for institutions starting . . . right about now, during this time of year. It’s so cliché—like setting a horror flick at night in a deep, dark forest. Peter Benchley set his scary story on a beach in the middle of a bright sunny day, and when Jaws snatched its first bikini-clad victim, that freaked us all out with originality. That’s the kind of crazy I would like to be. I’d prefer to go nuts on a Tuesday in April. But, I’m a lemming when it comes to increased anxiety levels during this season of lights and giving. I can see it in everyone else’s eyes at the mall: stress, confusion, disbelief. I was walking with Caroline and Lexi through a parking lot the other day and a woman was screaming into her phone, “That’s beside the point, what are you trying to say to me????” She was ripping mad. Thankfully my girls looked at her strangely, like they’d never seen a lunatic yelling loudly before.

I’ve begun to feel a slight tightness in my chest, and for some reason, I’ve started barking at Dave in response to any question he may have for me. As my to-do list triples in size, I contemplate the use of spreadsheets in order to get my literal and figurative houses ready. Meanwhile, homemade holiday projects pop into my periphery, floating around like sugar plum fairies: Yet-to-be-framed photos of the kids; cute (but still, concrete) stepping stones for the grandparents; an as-yet-unused “World’s Best Cookie Press.”

I’ve scoured the earth for a purple doggy because it is the only thing Lexi wants for Christmas. I have not yet found one. There’s that tightness again. My left eyelid is twitching.

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This morning, instead of putting out an All Points Bulletin for a purple doggy, I turned on my iPod. I defy anyone to stay stressed out while listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” I danced—socks gliding, butt shaking, hands waving—the best I can. (And in my own kitchen, without anyone watching, that’s some good dancing!) Cleaning house while Stevie’s getting down and dirty—probably not what the priest had in mind, but I snapped out of my holiday funk by getting funky. We’ve got to do what it takes to make room for what’s important. Room enough to answer Caroline’s “Mommy, how ‘bout a snuggle?” with an “Absolutely”; time enough to count hugs with Lexi: 1 to 20, and 1 to 20 all over again; space enough to bundle up the girls, take a walk downtown, and point at all of the sparkling lights on the boats, on the buildings, and in the sky.

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At Thanksgiving dinner, Dad said grace. He had us all with him: kids and grandkids. He had a gorgeous meal in front of him and great wine. He didn’t have his wife, but he was gracious just the same, thanking God for our many blessings. He added, “If you don’t mind, we’d really like to keep it this way.”

My dad, he’s always found a way to get through. He just gets there most of the time—to optimism, hope, calm, resolve, faith, patience, and ultimately, to happiness. He finds that place. He’s been tidying himself up for as long as I’ve known him, uncluttered and wide open with love, with room to spare. And I am so proud of him, for doing what he has done in the space my mom has left behind.