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A week ago when the stress of realizing the following–that I have not been healthy since January, that I am overworked, that I never have money, that I have headaches every single day, that I don’t sleep well because of crazy amounts of steroids and all of the aforementioned–I felt as I usually do, on the verge of cracking into little pieces. When I can’t find immediate solutions to any of these, and more often than not I can’t, I look for small and quick doses of happiness in the form of escapes, if anything just to have happy memories to balance out the less than happy ones. I grabbed a similarly-feeling friend and went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Cherry Blossom Festival, one of those jaw-dropping explosions of sights and smells that reminds you that all is not bad, that not only are these blossoms bursting forth, but I am here to see them, ignored work and responsibilities notwithstanding.

By the time I got home to Manhattan, my head was throbbing, and throughout the night I’d wake up feeling the same. The next morning was the first that I noticed the blood literally drained from my face as I remarked to someone, “I don’t like today.” I put on makeup so that even I wouldn’t have to look at me and tried to go back to sleep. When my phone rang and I saw that it was my mom, my intuition kicked in: this won’t be good. My grandma on my dad’s side had passed away that Wednesday morning at the age of 92. It was then that I cracked. And cried about her, and being sick, and everything else I felt weighing down on me, just as I was feeling that a mere feather could crush me.

As I dragged along too much luggage and one needy little air plant, I was thinking that while I was not happy to be going home under these circumstances, I was happy to be going home, desperately in need of home and a break. Driving across Pennsylvania was the usual scenery of mountains, now green and dotted with red buds and I felt that sense of exhaling that comes with leaving New York, like I can finally breathe. That feeling of finally being by myself that I wish I didn’t love so much.

I read and re-read a letter my grandma wrote to me two years ago, in response to one I had written to her, inquiring about family history, something I regretted not keeping up, as she was hard of hearing, but so good at writing and remembering. It had that anachronistic feel to it, the parts about my great-great-grandfather leasing a forest and making charcoal in Italy, owning a theater, butcher shop and shoe store there, and chucking it all when he realized his employees were stealing. Later in the US, she writes: “For 2 years I ran the store myself and took care of four small children. My dad was in Florida. My sister was in Connecticut. My brother was in Korea. Your dad was 2 weeks old when your grandfather went into a sanitarium.” I really wish I had kept writing. Seeing different photos of her at the funeral home only made me wish this more. Pictures of her looking 1940’s glamorous, playing the trumpet, smiling at the camera.

Among the tears and familiar faces and unfamiliar faces at the funeral home, I met one of my aunt’s friends, Jim Hughes, a retired Child and Family Studies professor and friend of Fred Rogers, the latter of whom of course lived and worked in Pittsburgh as well. He had heard about my “work” endeavors (and my sister’s!) from my aunt, and I’ll never forget hearing him say, “I’m convinced that people like you must have had an unbelievably creative childhood.” I went through some of my “work” experience, saying that I had never done a 9-5 desk job and hope to keep it that way. He said, “Well, I have yet to do that too, so it’s possible!” That got me thinking: not that I’m unaware that I had a “creative childhood,” but I do take it for granted sometimes, that we were always making things, creating, building, baking, going on adventures, gardening, hiking, exploring. That, “can we make our own playdoh?” or “can you teach me how to sew a purse?” or “can we make jelly from scratch?” and every other variation were always answered with a “Yes.”

My sister and I went through some of our childhood things–primarily coloring books, notebooks and toys–and got into fits of laughter over seeing the particularities of our personalities via crayon markings and the like. My sister was incredibly diligent and perfect in all of her drawings, colorings and sketches, to the point of being…anal? Maybe. (But they were all amazing!) She was admiring her detailed seashell pictures when I ran in with one of my coloring books, where I crossed out images of Bert and then randomly pasted pieces of paper on other pages. I thought her stamp collection, perfectly organized and arranged, of course, was still something to be made fun of, until I found evidence of my own OCD tendencies…I mean, systematic ways of being creative. One good example: a birthday party I planned, probably around the age of 10 or 11, where I wrote down the names of everyone coming, menu ideas sometimes accompanied by drawings and cookbook page numbers (and divided into categories of “Dessert,” “Snacks, and “Drinks”), everyone who could conceivably eat cake (i.e. I subtracted small children who didn’t have teeth), and then I drew out a picture of my cake and exactly how we would have to cut it in order to feed everyone with a good-sized piece. Whoa.

On top of that, I found really detailed “work schedules” based on soap operas we used to watch, that broke down every (pretend) day into meetings, photo shoots and such, down to the minute. Also, wills that I had written and then “voided.” What I didn’t find but remembered is how I played “school” in the basement and actually wrote out grades (percentages) for my pretend class, for every single subject and did all the averaging at the end of the semester for each student. So much math! And that at some point, I wrote out this really complicated plan in the event of a fire: I made lists of exactly what I would take out of the house, if I had so many number of minutes (5, 10, 15, 20), taking into consideration where I was in the house at the time and how badly the fire was, and prioritizing based on all these factors. The plan fails to take into consideration the fact that, well, if there was a fire, I’d probably be running OUT OF THE HOUSE? And not searching for these lists and abiding by them. Um, yeah.

Long story short, with this flood of memories came a flood of ideas about spending more time in Pittsburgh, writing down stories, learning about family recipes, teaching my cousins how to crochet, or in other words, surrounding myself with the people who helped make me who I am. It was one of those, “Wow, my family is amazing” moments. I felt somewhat renewed going back to New York because of this, and yet utterly spent at the same time. I understood perfectly when one person said to me, “There is such tiredness in your face” and another said, “There is such energy in your voice.” Perfectly.