After Grief and Loss: Princess Mommy and the Grandbaby


2013 was a horrible year for me as a case of pneumonia ended up leading my mother to require a medical ventilator that she did not authorize, even though afterward doctors said she could recover.  Her removal from life support and subsequent death was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life, and something I’m still processing.

2014 was not much better.  Although I took a memorial trip with my daughter in my mother’s honor, the minute I returned, I had to break down my parents’ home and move my father to a new environment in order to help him adjust to being a widower.  The work was extensive, exhausting, and disruptive to whatever serenity might be available to those in deep grief.

We all have similar trials of one kind or another.  The trick is how to hold on–how to endure during the hard times, how to move forward and when.

In much of life, if we can just get through the storm, somehow a rainbow appears.

One day, somewhere in the mix of so much upheaval, my step daughter-in-law invited my husband (her father-in-law) and me to be present at the birth of her (second) child.  Since their first daughter had been born to her and her husband (my adult stepson) years before (long before I entered the family), I felt especially surprised and honored to be included. At the time, we weren’t at all anticipating any new grandchildren.  Also, until now we hadn’t grown very close to my husband’s children, primarily because there had been some unwarranted distance in the family.  At last, this was an opportunity to improve our relationships.

This baby is my husband’s fourth grandchild, following a second grandson born several years before–the same month that my husband’s first wife passed away after an extended illness.  When I entered the scene, there was plenty of ongoing grief still happening in my husband’s family, which I accepted with compassion. Even before losing my own mother, I understood that sorrow doesn’t always make for the easiest transitions.  But then there was the break down of my husband’s family homestead, a few moves, and mounting anger by family members who were not ready for all the changes.  I, of all people, got it.

Through it all, I was not exactly welcomed by all of my husband’s family members.  This was obviously an additional source of heartache for my husband, who also found himself caught in one unanticipated storm after another.  It seemed at the time that no one was being empathetic to anyone’s plight.  We felt we finally had little choice but to let everyone adjust on their own timetable.  At least we hoped that everyone would adjust.  Even without the challenges of being blended, families can be complicated.

With family tension still thriving, my husband and I were nevertheless excited to join his son and family.  We prepared for the big day and left in the dark of night to drive hundreds of miles for the birth of this first grandchild born to our marriage.  In the end, we would be utterly amazed by the healing delivered with this baby, a granddaughter–the baby sister to my husband’s firstborn granddaughter, now a teenager (in pre-school at the time of her paternal grandmother’s passing).

If we can just get through the storm, somehow a rainbow appears.

The thing that intrigues me about the rift in my husband’s family is both how unnecessary it is and also how the mother of this first grandchild of mine (my own children are not parents yet) has risen to the occasion to create a solid and nurturing environment for her child.

t-shirtIt is as if she did some hard thinking, made some tough choices (hopefully with the aid of her husband, my husband’s firstborn son) and emerged from it all with good sense, like the regal queen that she is. “Princess Mommy,” I call her affectionately.  “Glamma,” she refers to me, as I joyfully accept the task of bringing the glamour…the sprinkles and the sparkles (both literal and metaphoric).  It is fun, because together we make it that way.  We share so many joys now.

This is an amazing shift that my step daughter-in-law created in our family–accomplished simply by making the choice to include me.  A shift I alone could not secure.  By including me, she provides both of her daughters an additional set of grandparents, her husband a renewed relationship with his beloved father, and endless opportunity for the family to grow healthier.  “Family is Everything” the graphic on her family wall displays.  These are words she has chosen both to display AND to honor.  Clearly, she recognizes that “family” often extends beyond blood, beyond DNA–and not just to in-laws, but to in-laws through re-marriage.  Surely this could not have been any less an adjustment for she who loved her mother-in-law, who honors her husband’s grief, than it would be for anyone else in the family.  Yet somehow, she decidedly made this leap.  In so doing, she also created a new relationship for herself, a new support system for her parenting.  She includes me, and in turn, I am her biggest cheerleader.  This is also remarkable because we have different talents, some differing interests, and almost completely different politics. We overlook any and all differences seemingly with ease,  find common ground, and have even become good friends.  In fact, we both make all of this work profoundly well.  It’s amazing what a cooperative spirit can bring about.

orange chair

I have one sister-in-law like this, and if you have one, too, you know what a blessing it is of which I speak. Our daughter-in-law’s inclusion has fostered a friendship between herself and me that feels ideal.  She stays connected and texts me frequently.  She sends pictures of the baby, which make me burst with glee.  In fact, it feels like I go into some sort of withdrawal without them.  I am crazy about this kid!  I am always thinking about her and her sister; I have become quite attached to both.

We visit now as often as possible, spend holidays and birthdays together–and when we can’t do so, I send gifts, cards and letters to the girls who look forward to receiving them.  We’ve got a sort of rhythm going, and together we had the best time sharing the baby’s first Christmas and first birthday–for which I designed the decorations (shown partly in these photos).  We have genuinely developed a rapport that is a gift to us all — one where we can talk comfortably, laugh readily, plan and execute, and where we treat each other with sincere love and respect.


Above all else, I am amazed at how connected I feel to this new grandbaby.  It truly feels as if she is my own.  And she represents to me not only that rainbow, but indeed the sunshine that comes after so much stormy darkness. She is like the mythical phoenix bird rising from the ashes, helping to revive my fallen spirit–and for that she will always hold a special place.

Indeed, I feel privileged to be one of the adult stewards of her well being.  I want her to thrive and be joyous…to know beyond question that she is loved and valued by many, including myself.  I want to encourage her to read and think, to love literature, and maybe even to write.  Why not?

o n e
Perhaps this happy turn of events gives us all something to consider.

Some people like to defy definitions and/or fight their role in a family.  Some people insist on rebelling, on forging a new way, on walking their own path.  There is certainly a lot to be said for individuality…

Yet, it seems that when it comes to family, if everyone would just do his or her part, the family would thrive.

Unfortunately (and probably far too often), some people work to create harmony, while others feel compelled to cause disharmony.

If you feel you cannot create family, perhaps at least you can understand why.

Here are some questions to consider about family relationships:

  •    Where do you fit in your family?
  •    Are you a harmonizer, a peacemaker–or are you trouble-maker, a divider?
  •    Who are you rejecting (and why)?
  •    Who are you including (and why)?
  •    What action can you take to improve your family dynamic?
  •    What is beyond your control?
  •    How much time will it take for you to embrace a fully functioning, nurturing family?


“We do not heal the past by dwelling there;

we heal the past by living fully in the present.”

— Marianne Williamson

© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved

Beyond Family Conflict

family is everything

via Google images


How many dramas can you count in your family?

By dramas, I mean those petty differences that grow to full-out rancor.  You know, the kind that leave you not speaking to someone or not wanting to, dreading holidays and birthdays, possibly wanting to pull somebody’s hair (if not your own), perhaps moving across the continent.  You know, something notable.

You hear the stories all the time.  It seems that no family is immune. Everyone has someone they just cannot get along with or won’t get along with, for whatever reason.

blog nasty people

via Facebook images


Some people seem to thrive on creating havoc, generally for reasons that seem arbitrary and unfair. Some unfortunate families are even cursed with more than one such instigator. To everyone’s dismay, these flawed characters create flawed relationships that uncomfortably reach beyond just trying to remain civil with the perpetrator.  All too often the damage incited is irreparable, which can adversely affect family dynamics for generations.

This sort of discord is such a common phenomenon that by now you’d think there would be websites called Adopt a Family or Find a New Daughter-in-Law.  

I recently met a mother who told me about another woman who was making her daughter’s wedding planning a living hell. The troublemaker turns out to be her daughter’s future sister-in-law; so, two women marrying two brothers. Already both, the woman I just met and the mother of the future grooms, have taken up armor against the accused malcontent, while dubbing the ill-fated husband-to-be as complacent–“whipped,” in the typical way that many men who marry such vixens get labeled.  You can already see where this family is going even before it gets started (insert OMG emoji).

In the news this week, the deceased singer Whitney Houston’s only offspring, Bobbi Kristina Brown, continues comatose from rumored domestic violence by her not-quite-legal spouse, while in a nearby hotel Bobbi Kristina’s visiting relatives broke into a bloody brawl that left one family member needing stitches.

In another news story this week, Rosie O’Donnell is leaving The View again–this time amid rumors of a second divorce with teenagers and a small child needing her at home, along with reported strife between O’Donnell and co-host Whoopi Goldberg. Some people just can’t catch a break (or give one).

Beyond the obvious reasons, I am not sure why so many women consistently sabotage one another–or how they have succeeded to do so through the ages.  Yet, as a stepmother and the only daughter in a family of married and divorced siblings, I unhappily acknowledge that family drama is no stranger to me.  In one way or another, it seems we are all heirs to some measure of family turmoil.  Some families even have men creating the drama–it’s really not gender-specific.  People lash out.  People create harm.  People get hurt.

breathe blog

As one of the grown-ups now in my own family, I think of the children who know and understand little about the chasms that lurk behind and around them.  Surely someone must think of the children.  Family strife begets family strife, and usually all we are teaching our children by our own conflicts is how to argue, how to hate, how not to get along.  We all must have boundaries, of course, but we also can’t exactly ignore the scores of children who do not know a grandparent, an aunt or uncle–their own blood, because of something someone said or did at some occasion now a distant memory to all.

Why do we complicate life, when it could be so simple, so easy?

When trust is forever broken by the egregious behavior of one misguided, self-centered, out of control lunatic, everyone ends up feeling at least a little crazy.  So how do we compose ourselves and maintain normal when the cray-cray comes to call?  The answer, it seems, has to be one of focus.

focus blog

“Align your focus with the solution,” yes–but sometimes, as many of us have learned, the knot only becomes more gnarled the longer we try to untangle it.  Those of us who have tried our hearts out know that strife does not end simply because we want it to.

The focus, then, and true cause for celebration must reside in those family members capable of participating in a healthy way.  When someone in any family honors the dynamic simply by cooperating–by welcoming and even accepting new family members and personality differences; by averting trouble instead of causing it; by not being divisive and petty and small, but instead by contributing in a positive way–they become an actual hero in that family.  Note:  A family really can never have too many heroes.

Think about it.  What one does, says, contributes, and encourages makes all the difference.

Where in the great family paradigm do you fit?  Are you a lover or a hater?  A contributor or a complainer? A gossip or a supporter?

Are you misunderstood, misread, respected, or avoided like the plague?  If so, by whom–and why?

One of the important factors toward emotional well being is to know your place; another is to honor your own personal beliefs.  Are you true to yourself?  Can you be true to yourself without disrespecting others? In the following quotation by Zig Ziglar, where has your family journey left you?

family post blog  zig ziglar

If you could, what change would you bring about in your family?

What hope are you yearning for on the road ahead?


As we each endeavor toward a greater good, every family success is worth noting.  In my next post, I will share with you the grace of one of my favorite family members.


 © Debra Valentino, all rights reserved

Culinary Adventures with a South Indian Flair

Rich and I have been looking for good Indian cuisine ever since we dined at a little restaurant next to the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.  It was at Masala that we both fell in love with the spicy, savory, exotic and varied flavors of the spices mostly unfamiliar to us.  So when we recently had an opportunity to experience southern India hands-on via a cooking class in the city, we did not hesitate to join.

Although my husband likes to cook and bake, and we often cook together, we had never before taken a formal cooking class like this.  Beyond the requested bottle brought along (we chose San Pellegrino) we weren’t sure what to expect.  All we knew was that the dish or dishes would likely contain common Indian spices, such as cardamon, cayenne, turmeric, cumin, and curry.

I had also learned from a friend of Indian descent that the trick was in the amount of each spice used and also in the process of blending each spice together with the food.  She said she didn’t know how her mother kept them all straight in so many different dishes, but that without measuring, her mother always seemed to know exactly how much of each spice to use…and that this was the trick she marveled at, the way to master Indian cooking. This friend claimed that she somehow never got it right–no matter how many times she herself tried to replicate the dishes she watched her mother repeatedly prepare throughout her childhood.  While I felt empowered by this information, I obviously knew upfront that this new kind of cooking was going to be a challenge.  I decided I would dutifully follow the recipes provided, and save Creative Cooking 101 for another day, in the confines of my own kitchen.

We were divided into groups of five, given four separate recipes, including one for Lentils With Coconut Milk, Lentil Wafers (Pappadam), Cabbage Thoran, and Gulab Jamun.  Two of the group members were responsible for two of the dishes, while the other three (my group) were responsible for the other two. We made things easy by having the first two group members create the first two dishes listed, and our group (my husband Rich, a man named Scott, and myself) create the other two–the Cabbage Thoran, which is a vegetable stir fry (generally served with steamed rice), and Gulab Jamun, a common deep-fried fritter for dessert.

Other than the recipe provided and some occasional assistance, the groups were pretty much on their own. We began as instructed by perusing the recipe, trying to match ingredients to the spices just introduced–I had never seen fresh curry leaves before, nor cardomom. Then we were on our own, and it was interesting to see how the new environment revealed how much we take for granted while cooking independently. Plus, following this foreign recipe felt to some extent akin to trying to read the manual in order to assemble some complex, head-scratching widget.

Indeed, we shuffled about initially, not knowing exactly how to proceed, who should do what, and the extent of each cook’s responsibility.  As the men conversed, I considered how to begin.  The first thing that came to mind probably originated in a high school cooking course that’s no longer offered.  I instructed the men to begin by assembling the ingredients and then measuring them accordingly.  That way, we would have what we needed when we needed to add it.  In the meantime, I left to wash the head of cabbage, then returned to pat dry and shred it, only to discover later that my idea of shredding was a bit coarser than another group’s, which I thought looked better.  This bothered me, but first the instructor and later the internet seemed to favor my slightly thicker version of “shredded.”  The difference appeared to be in how much time each of us spent slicing the cabbage before proceeding (unless the other group used a grater that was unavailable to our group).  A minor variation, but a somewhat distracting one when you’ve never seen the dish you’re trying to prepare.

After the cabbage was prepared, I recognized the following cooking process as familiar.  This brought me some relief and as we proceeded I found myself suddenly relaxed and confident.  Long ago, when I was an economically-strapped graduate student, I used to survive all week on a head of cabbage.  With a touch of oil, I would sauté the cabbage (which, come to think of it, I shredded quite thinly back then), then season it with a bit of minced garlic, salt, pepper and on occasion, a touch of oregano or basil, whatever spice was on hand.  I called this dinner.  Often.  The sautéing process for the Cabbage Thoran was the same that I thought I had invented out of desperation in the 1980s.

I marvel at the number of spices used in Indian cuisine.  I counted ten (10) just for this cabbage side dish.

In the end, perhaps a bit ironically, Rich and I both felt that the recipes provided at this cooking class leaned more toward too little rather than too much spice.

So, as we begin to cook Indian food going forward, we expect to make adjustments as needed.  I’m sure it takes a while, too, for one’s palate to adjust.

Here is what our group’s Cabbage Thoran looked like while it was cooking:


Here is how it looked at serving time (complete with curry leaves and quartered jalapeño peppers):

cabbage thoran

The Pappadam made by the other group members:

The primary dishes–Cabbage Thoran, Lentils with Coconut Milk, Pappadam:


Here is the Gulab Jamun, rolled and ready to deep-fry:


Gulab Jamin, prepared:


We found the main dishes to be pleasantly easy on one’s digestion.

Although we didn’t learn any other significant tips worth sharing, and the recipes we received in class were family recipes exclusively shared by the leading chef, it appears that most recipes on the internet for these dishes are quite close to the those that we prepared.

The class was fun and especially worthwhile because having knowledgeable staff and experienced cooks nearby helped extend us both beyond our comfort zones.  Also, while neither of us had ever prepared Indian food before, we are already considering joining a second class, this one an even more ambitious, nine-course meal.

I’m looking forward to cooking with new flavors.

Here is a recipe for chai tea that I want to try next:

“Dad’s Official Chai Recipe”
2.5 cups water
1 cup 2-percent milk (soy or almond milk)
1/4 inch grated fresh ginger
4 pods of cardamom
1 tea bag (he swears by Orange Pekoe Tetley tea)
3 tsp sugar


IMG_0589© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved