Traditions, Christmas Trees & Anxiety

I am the sort of mother who reads parenting books like novels. At every stage I researched and read everything I could to make myself the best mother possible.  I left nothing to chance, and I followed most of the advise of the day to the letter.  Our home had strict schedules, and for many years we sat down to dinner, all four of us, at six thirty  p.m. sharp, there were extensive bedtime rituals, and holiday traditions that did not waiver.  I put my children, their happiness and well being first in every situation, including creating and nurturing a stable and happy marriage. 

For the past dozen years I’ve had two Christmas trees, one in each symmetrical Bay window facing the street of our home.  My predacessor was the original owner of this beautiful traditional house and for thirty years she had a tree in each window.  When I moved here my neighbors, who had grown up in my town, and then moved back to raise their own families, would repeatedly mention to me that I needed a second tree as the house always had two Christmas trees.  One in each window.  My second year in the house I acquiesced, and from then on, the family room window had the tree with colorful lights and the Kid decorations including the school craft ornaments, and the living room had white lights and the more formal glass and keepsake ornaments. 

Today, the rooms are dark.  There are no trees at all. It’s December 20th and there is not one Christmas ball to be found.  The house sitter comes and goes and the alarm is set. I’m in Truckee with the Tahoe tree which is decorated with a collection of snowmen. But it has been moved. It’s no longer in the living room, but in the dining room. My younger daughter insisted on this, and honestly it makes me anxious to not see it in the same place it’s always been. 

Of all of the parenting advise I learned reading so much through the years, the most important and useful was to teach the children to tolerate anxiety.  I did this on many occasions, but mostly by signing them up for classes and camps where they had no friends. I know this sounds cruel, but because of it they have friends from all over the Bay Area, many from the UC Berkeley Gifted Science Camp where they took physics and human anatomy in grade school.  Due to this and many other factors, I have created fantastically independent girls who are quite fearless in most, and especially new, situations.

I am starting to realize, that I am the one who craves the traditions and clings to the outmoded ideals of the past.

So now, I am learning from my own confident and modern daughters, how to step into the future without anxiety and fear. 

At the end of the day, the trees in the windows are not as important as we think. 

The unexpected is the new normal.  I am loosening my grip on the past and am ready to move into the magical unknown of the future. But for right now, I am enjoying just the present.  The snow in the trees, the bright winter blue sky, and my dog at my feet by the fire. 



As a prideful person, it has taken courage on my part to allow others to help, support and love me through this painful experience.  When I became aware of the analogy that my refusing help was like having a child that wouldn’t allow you to love it, I was finally able to open up and let others help me.  I grew up believing to ask for, or God forbid need help, was a weakness, and when it was offered it was to be politely refused.   So, when my friend Julie who is a spiritual teacher and healer called to ask if I wanted to do an exercise to release my husband, in this new spirit, I agreed.

The same is true for my colleague at UC Berkeley who reached out and offered to be my business coach.  We met two years ago, when she hired me to teach in UC’s International Program for Entrepreneurs.  I immediately accepted her help as there is no one more experienced to help me launch my company at a very high level than her.

I had a very intense week last week, and then everything happened on Friday.  I had a follow up phone call with Brigette regarding our Monday session, and then Julie showed up to do the releasing exercise, this was followed by an annual lunch with my college friends Sue and Kim.

Earlier in the morning, I had talked to Brigette about the excitement and fear inherent in giving up what is safe for something we love.  She told me, as we climb the mountain in our life to our highest goals we cut through the undergrowth and finally at the top of the mountain we have a choice.  We either trust in our wings or we make the sickening choice to go back from where we came.  For me this would be as a Product Marketing Consultant in San Fransisco, seriously not a bad life, but unlike my work, the death of my husband gave me no choice in terms of going back from where I had come from.  As much as I’ve lamented and replayed all of the memories of our 22 years together, nothing I could do would bring him back.  If I could rewind my life and place myself in 2009 and change the course of the past seven years, I would.  It’s not that I choose not to go back down the mountain, the mountain is no longer there.

After hanging up with Bridgette, Julie and I started the releasing process.  I took four pictures of the happiest times with my husband, the ones that represented the person I loved the most.  One was of him when I first met him, one of us together when we were dating (above), the next one of us after we were married and and another of him at our older daughter’s seventh birthday party (below).

I took a cord and tied two knots at each end, one for me and one for him.  Then I cut the cord in the middle and said a prayer to release both of us.  Julie and I were both crying.  We walked to the park with his half of the cord and I wrapped it around a branch of the tree my daughters used to climb when they were little.

The girls had a system for climbing this tree and they named each branch they used to get to the top.  And being a tree climber myself I trusted their ability, and allowed it, even though my wiser mom friends threatened to call the fire department to get them down.

At the time I thought of this tree as the place my daughters found their courage, so it felt the appropriate place for his cord to fly away.

The song that plays when I get in the car is Fly, by Maddie and Tae, and the lyrics go like this:

Keep on climbing though the ground might shake

Just keep on reaching though the limb might break

We’ve come this far don’t you be scared now

Because you can learn to fly on the way down

You won’t forget the heavy steps it took to let it go

Close your eyes and count to ten 

Hold your breath and fly…

Over the weekend, I went skiing.  The past few weekends I’ve had trouble skiing, as my boards would chatter and slip out of control on the icy trails.  In fear I would revert to my bad habits of the Mount Bachlor years sitting back on my 185 K2’s, forgetting everything I’ve learned over the last nine years skiing Tahoe and training as a ski instructor at Northstar. 

If you want to be pushed skiing there is no better way than to ski with ski instructors on their day off. On Sunday, with dread, I followed the expert Dory down the mountain. And finally, it all came back, I bent low in my turn feeling my edges dig deep into the icy snow and I was again in perfect control. 

It felt like flying. 

Love, Snow & Meyer Lemons

Having lost my own father at nine years old, I am uniquely qualified to guide my own daughters through the after math of the sudden death of their father in July.  I remember my own childhood’s depressing holidays and father daughter dances, tea parties and even Dads week-end at OSU as excruciatingly painful at worst, and awkward at best.  Being a strategic person, I am always thinking ahead to triggers and events where I can protect my children and soften the blows of what can’t be avoided, and to completely avoid what can be silently sidestepped.  While, I also understand that adversity is a critical component of human development and growth, there really is a breaking point, and teenage girls are simultaneously terrifically tough and terribly fragile.

At my husbands funeral when I spoke, I asked that when people see us, at school or around our small town, that all they have to say is, “I don’t know what to say…” and I informed them that we don’t know what to say either, but it is better to say something, than nothing at all.  In some ways, I think those words have given people permission to approach us.  I am hugged in grocery stores, on the street, at school and anywhere and everywhere I go.  I often hear, “I’m just so sorry, Sydney,” as I am wrapped in the arms of one of my friends or many acquaintances.   All of this is very supportive and helpful.  So, I would recommend that someone send this message loud and clear to friends and family after a death.  I can’t imagine how sad and isolated I would feel if people avoided me and felt uncomfortable talking to me, or my children.

At home in Moraga, I have a Meyer lemon tree that is abundantly fruitful and as gifts I cut the limbs and leave the entire branch with it’s fragrant leaves, and the lemons attached on the doorsteps of my Truckee neighbors when they are in season.  It’s such a nice surprise for them to come home to a branch full of fresh ripe lemons while the snow is falling.

On this last trip it was so cold, I had to deliver them in person, so the fruit wouldn’t freeze on the doorstep.  I was having a difficult day, being flooded with memories of other holidays skiing and cooking Thanksgiving dinner at the cabin, so when my neighbors opened the door, and their entire family hugged me I started to cry.  They were so sweet and comforting to me.  I can’t imagine not having this.  But, I also believe that I have allowed people to love me.  Perhaps it is my age, or just having learned to allow the good things in life to come to me without too much drama, but I have been loved and supported through this experience in ways that I could not have foreseen.  It has taught me so much about love, life and the magic of letting love in, and how important it is to keep our hearts open and to see the gifts that present themselves in even the most tragic of moments.

There is beauty to be found in both the light and the shadows of this world.  It is the contrasts that make life so beautiful to me, in the same way the senses are awakened to the juxtaposition of a branch of sweet Meyer lemons found on a snowy doorstep.

New Memories With Old Friends

The Village at Northstar Tahoe, Truckee California 

It goes without saying, the holidays can be the hardest time for families that are grieving a loved one.  We are no exception and our time in Truckee has been bitter-sweet.

First of all, of the many family memories I have of my husband and children, the ones that I cherish most, involve snow.  I have loved nothing more than a day spent on a mountain and then coming down to share some apres-ski with my family and friends.  Or maybe, that isn’t really true, from the time I started skiing, I loved the entire ski experience, from packing the car, to the road trip, to unlocking the cold cabin door, and starting a fire, and waking up in the morning to snow.  All of it.

However, yesterday, as I came down the mountain and walked through the Northstar Village I was very nostalgic for all of the days my family skied together, then relaxed next to the fire with warm drinks watching the children ice skate, and the deep winter day disappear, and the stars come out against a black and velvety sky.

Luckily, this year as we mend our hearts and begin to move on with our lives, we are surrounded by the best and dearest friends imaginable.  And we are as the Beatles lamented long ago, getting by with a little help from our friends.  And the strategy that I enacted in July, when I promised my children that nothing would change, and we would go on as before, and that consistency acted as a cast on a broken bone, or in this case a broken heart, and would help us all to heal has proven accurate.

So, for those of you who are grieving remember to honor the traditions of the past, and to keep the lines of communication open.  I’m happy that my strategy has worked so well, I see my children smiling.  I see them laughing.  And I am both surprised and deeply relieved.  I can feel the healing process beginning as we make new memories with our old friends.

With love and gratitude thank you to those who have helped us along the way.

Mid-Moutan Northstar at Tahoe






Machiavelli & Mastering Change

Central Valley, November 2016
Several years ago a friend of mine had to move abruptly to Chicago for her husband’s career.  She absolutely did not want to go, nor did her three children. But, I remember clearly her telling me that she had to be fine with it, because if “the mother” is fine, than the children will be fine.  This little nugget of wisdom helped me on numerous occasions when falling apart presented itself as a reasonable, if not entirely, predictable option. 

    From the beginning, I’ve been prepared to guard the wellbeing and mental health of my children at all costs.  I think of it as protecting the castle, and I’ve revisited the classic writings of Machiavelli in recent days to assist me in this effort.

    In Machiavellian fashion I will do anything and everything to ensure my daughters not only survive, but continue to thrive.

    And one of the components of mastering this type of change, as a mother to daughters, who predictabky imitate and emulate their mother, is to model flexibility and adaptability, and my own ability to tolerate anxiety and overcome adversity.  Therefore, it is crucial that I think of and address my own happiness and well being. 

    In fostering my own emotional stability and mental health I symbiotically care for my children, so in the face of adversity I’ve reached out to my many friends and colleagues, my two brilliant attorneys and accountant, and most recently I’ve hired a business coach, Bridgette. 

     “A wise prince should choose wise men for advisors, and allow only them the liberty of speaking the truth to the prince, and only on matters about which you ask, and nothing else. But you should question them about everything, listen patiently to their opinions, then form your own conclusions later.”

    – Machiavelli 

    Blessings and thanks to those who have helped me along the way. 

    The Gap

    Drawing by my friend and neighbor Alecia Larson

    As many people know, I am a fairly religious person. I grew up in the Catholic faith that is the hallmark of my Irish lineage. My mother and grandmother went to mass daily and I would often meet my mother at noon to pray the rosary with her. As a child I prayed every night before I went to sleep and as an adult I pray before my feet hit the floor every morning.  I prayed to find the right person to marry, I prayed for success in my work, I prayed for a home and a baby of my own, and later a family to love and care for. And all of my prayers were answered. 

    Over the last few years as my family began a major shift, I prayed for God’s will because I could not foresee the outcome of my life at all. All I knew was that I had to employ perfect trust. When I would become overwhelmed by all of the changes ahead, I would place myself squarely in the eye of the storm, where it is perfectly silent and still, and allow it to rage around me. 

    During these intense moments I would take a deep breath and empty my mind of all of the fearful thoughts that plagued me and allow a gap where God could come into my heart and do his work.

    In the days after my husband’s death I would do this frequently and afterwards I would have perfect clarity on what was expected of me, and I would prioritize accordingly. 

    As things become easier and I find myself laughing again, my prayers are now of gratitude. I am thankful for what remains of the beautiful life my husband and I built together. I am thankful to see my children not just surviving, but thriving.  

    Although, I have a vision for a happy future, I no longer plan too far ahead.  I live in the present, and leave my life in God’s hands, which is where it belongs. 



    We own a beautiful house in Tahoe, it’s 2,450 square feet and built by a builder out of Santa Cruz, the ceilings are solid cedar and the cabinets were lovingly handmade of alder by his best friend, the counters are hand polished black local granite and the floors solid cherrywood and heated by copper.  

    We call it the cabin, but it is much more than that.  All of the windows are made by hand in the Sierras of solid wood. The craftsmanship alone is exquisite, and we hired a decorator and she made the home beautiful.

    The house looks over the Martis Valley and Northstar ski resort. We can see the snow cats at night, but mostly it is silent here.  The walls are 12 inches wide by law in the Tahoe basin, so with the silent radiant heating system and twelve inch walls and double paned windows a person could sleep through an intense snow storm and wake to six feet of snow. I’ve done this in Truckee and in life metaphorically, but that is another post…

    Since the sudden death of my husband in July, I go there as much as I can.  Tahoe can be very healing and is known as a spiritual place.  It is also the scene of our happiest memories making it a mixed blessing to be there.

    As many of my close friends know, the last few years were not the best, but it is still important to remember the good times, and they were spent there, so being there is intense and bitter sweet to say the least.

    Recently, I was there with my sailing friend and business partner Andrew Lacenere and his girlfriend Lara, and they offered to cook my daughter and I dinner.

    We sat in the kitchen and drank Italian wine and they made us the most beautiful eggplant parmigiana (Andrew holds an Italian passport), and I realized this is the new normal. 

    The sky was inky black and I walked Polly beneath the stars and could hear the music playing and Siena and Lara laughing…

    I can see this is my future, and regardless of the past, I am blessed by my dear friends, my children, a warm fire, music, good food, and the star filled sky that never changes. 

    Emotional Atomic Bomb

    I’ve lost both of my parents, and several friends, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional atomic bomb that the sudden death of my husband caused.  I am still pulling shards of glass from my heart.

    In the past, I had heard that divorce is like a death, but death doesn’t allow you to sit next to each other at a soccer game, and negotiate who will pick up from the Homecoming dance. Although, divorces can be devastating, they don’t leave your children permanently fatherless.

    As I walk along this path, I think I should be doing better than I am, that so many things shouldn’t bring me to tears.  But at the same time, this is the person who held my hand when I had a baby. We spent twenty five years together, most of them good.

    Recently, the girls like to hear stories about their dad, my daughter asked me what we talked about when we were dating.  I told her, we talked about everything, but what I remember most was the sound of his voice. He had a very slight Texan accent and a very soft way of talking, and he was wicked funny in an unexpected sort of way, one that you had to wait for. The girls have this same sense of humor.

    So, maybe it’s ok if I’m taking my time getting over this.  It’s going to take as long as it’s going to take.

    Enduring Friendships

    Whistler Canada

    I remember Susie White coming to my dorm room with a monster cookie from the Superette in Corvallis.  It was raining and she was wearing a blue rain coat, Levi 501 jeans, and the L.L. Bean duck shoes we all wore.  She told me she had chosen me as her little sister in the Alpha Phi house. 

    From the beginning, no two people could have been less alike, but we got along like a house on fire.

    In highschool, I spent most of my lunches by myself in the Art Department practicing Caligraphy. I went to an experimental highschool where it was perfectly acceptable to skip classes and paint for three hours.  Which I often did.

    My big sis was the opposite, so much so that I believe she was the Alpha Phi social chairman for all four years. 

    She was a spark plug, and I was an introvert who liked to stay up all night reading, but this was about to change. As Sue’s little sister, I was quickly swept into her hurricane of fun, and I went willingly.

    We had many adventures together in her Dodge Dart.  One Christmas Break we drove it to Whistler Canada to ski. We were so poor back then, we had to pool our pennies just to go.  In the years to come, Sue would have a Porsche, and even a Ferrari, but nothing would compare to that trip.

    On a recent Saturday, Sue picked me up in her BMW and we took a road trip to Napa. And it was like nothing had changed and we were exactly the same people we had always been.  The years melted away, and time stood perfectly still. 

    It was completely magical.  

    Oregon State University – Sigma Alpha Epsilon

    Fairwinds Harvest Party, Calistoga California 2016

    Calistoga, California 2016


    Even though, I’ve been through so much over the last few months, I am grateful for my life.

    I look at my healthy kids, and feel there is nothing more I could ever ask for that could bring me more joy and peace, and be such a blessing to me.  

    Fortune has favored me in so many ways; with my family, many friends, work I love, my safe neighborhood and gracious home.  

    But most of all, I am thankful for my good health.  I have always been someone who appreciated my body.  Even when I was a young girl I found my hands, and eyes and my physical abilities amazing.  I was a treeclimber when I was in grade school, then a sprinter and hurdler in highschool, and a skier and so much more. 

    As I watch people I love struggle with illnesses, and after the sudden death of my husband to his undetected heart issue, my own good health is not lost on me. And I guard it and protect it daily. 

    When my husband died I knew I had to take care of myself.  I needed to sleep, rest, pray, and exercise.  I walk my dog and my neighbors dogs, often on the same day, and spend sometimes two hours a day outside, and I notice the seasons and the beautiful Magnolia trees that line the streets of Moraga. I walk in the open space behind my house. I am so grateful and blessed for all of the beauty around me.

    Yes, bad things happen sometimes, but the leaves fall and new leaves arrive in springtime. This is what we all learn.  We experience the seasons, and spring without fail arrives. 

    Love and blessings to all.