The first snow.

We were promised an honest-to-god snowstorm to usher in this Chicago winter.

And in the beginning, it looked like it might happen. My sister and I had plans for a lady date; we met for a glass at Mark's new wine bar and snacked on a beautiful cheese board.

We walked out of Appellation onto a bustling Clark Street, as flurries were just beginning to form. Suddenly, there was snow — and I was 6 years old again: I jumped up and down on the sidewalk, yelping with joy at the prospect of a fleetingly perfect blanket of white. I didn't care who noticed.

We dusted off Harry Connick Jr.'s Christmas album, singing along to "Sleigh Ride" with huge, giddy grins on our faces, doing the same dances in our side-by-side car seats we do every year. Innocence in familiarity.

We stood outside the car on a quiet side street, not more than a yard apart, trying to capture our first-glimpse-of-winter glee, catching snowflakes on our tongues. My jeans were wet to mid-shin within a half-block.

I didn't care.

Silhouettes of snowflakes drifted past the basement windows of Architectural Artifacts as we shopped around our first holiday gift market. We sipped dark, bitter beer and touched everything on display; I bought a stack of white-frosted gingerbread men packed in cellophane, and gifts for my father and sister-in-law.

I looked back wistfully at a thousand treats I could have bought for myself.

The drive home was lit in creamsicle fluorescent hues. Heavy, wet, Hollywood-potato flakes clung to branches that haven't yet shed their leaves. When I parked, one was so heavy it sagged toward the ground, blocking our street.

I plunged into a heavy sleep last night with dreams of waking up to giant white drifts across the alley.

But the clouds today can't choose between soaking rain and fat snowflakes, creating a mix that's sending neighbors running from door to door. Galoshes versus snow boots. Umbrellas versus knit beanies. Red leaves versus white flakes. Fall versus winter. Heavy gloom versus…beautiful weightlessness.

I woke up with a yearning for coffee, brewed in the red pot that's taken up permanent residence on the counter after months in the recesses of a cupboard. I brewed a pot — with beans from a shop in Savannah, where we spent last weekend in just our shirtsleeves — and poured the first of my three cups into my favorite earthenware mug.

Mark and I ate a huge breakfast, watching Mother Nature's indecision from our apartment's radiator warmth. I am somehow at peace for the first time in weeks, listening to Adele's "25" on repeat, and wanting to write until my fingers are numb.

But just as I find my groove and the mix outside finally decides to turn to cascading white sheets, it's time to venture out into our Chicago snow globe and see what awaits us in the world. So l'll close my eyes for a moment, listen to the hum of my laptop and the rumble of the Brown Line just outside…and pray I can summon this stillness again when life offers another opportunity to enjoy it.

4 client service lessons from my grandfather

I put off writing this for a long time; I can't honestly say why.

Maybe because it felt strange to tie something so 9-to-5-ish about Grandy, whose obituary read like a résumé but whom I mostly remember sitting with my little sister as a child, sculpting Play-Doh shapes and chanting a made-up song: "Let's make a pumpkin-head! Unh! Unh! Unh!"

The things that stick in our minds, eh?

Anyway, I wrote it: a blog post for Landscape Leadership's Culture blog, which I've basically been charged with keeping updated. It's called 4 Client Service Lessons From My Grandfather, and I'm really proud of it.

Because like everything I write, it's 100 percent authentic, 100 percent me. Now with a professional twist.

 

 

Two days on the Cape.

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Squinting at my screen in the morning light, I noticed specks on my sunglasses, a fine dust of sandy dust and salty sea spray from yesterday's trip to the beach. The water was almost warmer than the cool, heavy air; we stayed for about 20 minutes, until the whipping wind exhausted us. Rains came across the Cape last night while we slept, taking the oppressive humidity and angry skies with them. A cool breeze blew through the open windows around 7 a.m., waking me only long enough to pull the quilt up over the chambray sheets and just under my chin; I hunkered down under the covers for another blissful hour of sleep.

When I gave up on sleeping, the house Mark's family has rented for years was still quiet, though everyone was awake — probably had been for hours. I padded down the hall to say good morning, the wood floors still tacky from the lingering dampness in the air.

The kitchen was already clean, despite the disaster we'd left in our wine-buzzed wake the night before: Mornings in Harwich Port keep the Dish Fairy busy with dozens of dishes from dinner the night before — including too many wine glasses to count, even for just five of us.

Yesterday afternoon, after three dozen Wellfleets — fresh from the harbor across the parking lot, shucked on the raw bar next to us moments before they arrived on our table — and two bottles of sparkling wine, we floated across the street to Mac's seafood, where we bought day scallops, tuna belly, swordfish, salmon, all fresh that morning.

Mark, his dad and I were in charge of dinner, with Barney on the grill and the almost-weds working with our haul from the Provincetown farmer's market that morning: a plum, balsamic and ground cherry sauce for the scallops; ears of grilled corn slathered in butter, salt and pepper; an arugula and heirloom tomato salad topped with fresh goat cheese sliced like mozzarella di bufala.

As we prepared and feasted, we opened bottle after bottle of wine, each more special than the last. Mark's parents now drive each year from Illinois to Massachusetts, a most precious cargo of cellar stowaways in the backseat of their minivan.

Every night on the Cape is some version of this parade of indulgence, with a rotating cast of characters both culinary and human. A couple of days from now, another couple will join us; when Mark and I return from our long-awaited overnight on Martha's Vineyard, his brother, sister-in-law and their daughter will be settled in to finish out the week.

The skies over our home for the next week are clear this morning, with a few cotton-candy clouds drifting aimlessly past the tall trees of the backyard.

The real calm before the storm precedes this afternoon's Bears season opener, which we'll spend huddled over a single television at a sports bar in Yarmouth. For now, we sip cups of coffee and read our Kindle books silently, sports highlights blinking and murmuring on low across the room. I came outside to eat breakfast, enjoying as few minutes of solitude and dipping into another chapter of Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." (I've been reading it for the past year and a half or so, and I'm determined to finish it during this trip.)

In a few minutes, we'll pile into the minivan and head to Pirate's Cove for a pre-game miniature golf match. I will lose, handily; Mark and his father will duke it out for another year's championship title. The trip will be filled with traditions like this.

It's hard to believe this is only the third year I've joined my future in-laws on their annual vacation. Cape Cod feels just as familiar to me — as much like home — as Door County does from many childhood visits with my own family.

Forth Chicago and letting go, 4 years later.

In summer 2013, Lisa Guillot, the incredibly talented designer who made my website all pretty and Paige-like, invited me to be part of a "seasonal salon" she and two other women were hosting. It was called Forth, and it was my introduction to a group of women I'm humbled to find myself among every day. Collectively, we are creatives — writers, designers, photographers, Etsy shop owners — single women, mothers, of all ages and from throughout Chicagoland. I met our wedding photographer and good friend, Kelly Allison, through Forth (she's one of the three founders), too. The third founder is Julie Schumacher, a gorgeous person and kindred spirit if I've ever met one.

Earlier this month, they approached me to write a blog for the Forth website about my seemingly constant back-and-forth between full-time office work, freelance writing, entrepreneurship and everything else I find myself doing. Of course, I said yes.

It went live today…

Click through to forthchicago.com to read the post.

T minus 2 months.

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Two months from tomorrow, Mark and I will be married. Holy shit.

Ill-fated cornmeal pancakes

Even a month ago, October 18 felt like worlds away.

And suddenly, we're choosing the song for our first dance (it's perfect), thinking about where our friends and family will sit as they eat and drink to celebrate the start of our new life together, waiting for our invitations to come back from the calligrapher.

I vowed a long time ago not to become the kind of bride they make television shows about. And for the most part, I haven't. Because more than I'm looking forward to the wedding — which I'm sure will be the best party I've ever attended — I'm more excited to be married.

This morning, we woke up and went our separate ways, briefly: I biked to the grocery store for blueberries and bacon; he brought home coffee from the café down the street, turned on the radio and filled the sleepy apartment with morning life.

I made ill-fated cornmeal pancakes (blech) and bacon — at least there was bacon — while 93 XRT's Breakfast With The Beatles played over our hand-me-down record player.

And as our wedding day inches closer, I'm more and more enamored with this real-life preview of what our marriage will be like. Put simply: We have fun. Even on a cool, overcast Sunday, going through the day with him at my side is a joy.

We are weird. We are gross. We make each other laugh endlessly. And what's more important — in a world so backward it'll make you cry if you catch it in the right light — than laughter?

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We are in love. We love each other. Two different things, both equally important. Not every day is white sand beaches and crystal-blue water, but I've never gone to bed angry. And that's not nothing.

Mark and I have been together for two and a half years, and I've barely written about him or about us. And it's not for the lack of things to write about —  but in past relationships, I've believed I had something to prove, to myself and to the world. So I wrote and wrote and wrote.

They say you just know when you've found "the one."

I guess it's true.

This morning, a good friend posted a link to the blog of a woman who'd just officiated a friends' wedding. Her charge was one of the truer, lovelier things I've ever read about marriage.

Mark and I will be faced with a lot of choices in our marriage. Some will be simple, like whether to have that fourth slice of pizza and finish the entire 16-inch pie, leaving us without the leftovers we'd halfheartedly intended. Those are easy choices. Of course we'll eat the pizza.

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Others will be more difficult. Like whether to have and raise children. It's something I waffle on every day, and something we've talked about many times already. There are so many factors weighing on that eventual decision, and not just that we'd ultimately have to give those last two pieces of pizza to our child instead of eating them ourselves. (Or order a bigger pizza. Lord; more choices.)

Our life together won't always be a walk in the park: The pancakes won't always be perfect; the choices we make mostly won't revolve around pizza. But I can't think of anyone I'd rather face the misfortunes and tough choices with.

Two months until the first day of the rest of our lives.

I can't wait. 

But in the meantime, I'll savor the days of this countdown.

Memories like fireflies.

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Robert HayesWe sat in a horseshoe of high-end furniture on the brick patio of my grandparents' house, the one they moved into just before my little sister was born. Gam sat in the center — equally composed and frazzled, ironclad-strong and fragile — flanked by my stepfather, mother and sister on one side, my aunt, her adopted son and me on the other side. We sipped ice water from stemless wine glasses that sweetened onto flowered cocktail napkins in the humidity.

She wore tailored black pants and a white linen jacket with a mandarin collar, set off with a brightly colored dragonfly stick pin: prim as always, but absent a bit of her luster and polish. The light started to leave her eyes, I think, the day she found out about Grandy's cancer.

He tried to fight it — tried everything, from medications and radiation to chemo — but the treatments only succeeded in weakening his body further.

When we saw him at Christmas, he was a physical shell of his formerly robust, barrel-chested self. In years past, he'd already be dressed in pressed pants and a casual button-down, the morning paper already half-devoured, by the time our pajama-clad crew arrived to open presents on Christmas morning.

This past year, he wore a robe like the rest of us, with soft drawstring pajama pants I imagine were the only thing he found comfortable anymore. What little hair he had left was reduced to an ashy down, sparse on his head.

But his eyes still twinkled — mischief and wisdom and wit still clawing their way to the surface through his broken body — and his voice, when he spoke, still echoed all the same.

That Christmas morning's celebration was a little more somber, and echoingly quieter. Instead of the big brunch, we left early to make room for an afternoon nap and all the attending difficulties life with someone dying of cancer inevitably brings.

Grandy had written my sister and I a Christmas poem every year for as long as I can remember. He was a master of the cutesy art of iambic pentameter, and it was impossible not to crack a smile, or giggle a little, when reading the poem aloud to the room (as we were always asked to do).

There was no poem for us this year, but on the table, wedged between the lamp and Gam's glasses case, was a plain piece of white printer paper folded in thirds. He'd written her a poem entitled "Our Last Christmas."

 

robert hayesIt seems, in the six and a half years since I moved to Chicago, my soul has blackened and shrunk; few things make me cry anymore. But I cried when I found the poem. (I didn't even read it; the title was enough to break my heart.)

I cried when I found out he'd died that morning in February: I was on the Brown Line to the Loop when my mother called, and I knew as soon as I saw the caller ID what I'd hear on the other line. I day drank and wore myself out running around town that day.

And I cried when I came home that weekend afterward, though not when I expected I might. I'd been dry-eyed, all smiles, when we arrived at the airport and when we went to the house to give hugs to our newly widowed grandmother. But as I padded aimlessly through their pin-drop-quiet house, his imprint still pressed into his easy chair but the smell of his pipe already beginning to fade, I started to tear up. And somehow, the sight of his Mercedes sedan in the garage, shiny, clean, dark and forever without its driver, is what brought the house down.

Grief is a funny thing.

 

robert hayesGam began the afternoon with the story of why we were there. Grandy had said, when he got word that he had four to eight weeks left, that he wanted a funeral only if everyone sat and sang nothing but Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson music.

Gam said they'd compromised and agreed on a small family memorial gathering, where we would sit around and say nice things about him. And that's what we did.

We read letters Gam had received from friends and former colleagues both before and after his death. I read aloud from his autobiography a bizarre history of the cars he'd owned throughout his youth, as well as the tale of how he'd scandalously sold his 1935 lemon to his "buxom and very pretty" Spanish teacher, so he could upgrade to a "late-model beauty" of same manufacturer.

Then we sat in our quiet little horseshoe — his wife, his daughters and their small families — and looked through photos of him doing what he loved, trading fond memories and sage adages he'd shared.

I tried to put words to my own fond memories, but in the end, I didn't have much to say. My memories of Grandy are suffused with his wisdom, ooze with his stoic warmth, but lack form. My memories are hazy and vague, but they're all vividly focused in that twinkle in his eyes.

robert hayesI remember my pleasant surprise at him occasionally picking up the phone when I'd call. I remember his patience every time Gam interjected into a conversation, and the way he said her name.

I remember him gleefully sabotaging our family Christmas Eve craft every year. I remember his lung-crushing hugs, and the dirty-sweet smell of his pipe emanating from his basement office.

Barely, I remember him at the helm of his boat, never doubting he could steer us back to shore.

And I'll remember him now, too, in the warm, gusty breeze that ruffled our cocktail napkins that afternoon, and the nightfall glow of the lightning bugs along the walk I took to clear my head that night.

I've never gotten close enough to catch a firefly in my cupped hands, but off in the distance, they blink and flicker with the essence of everything that's lovely about a Kansas City summer.

My black heart may not cry for him again, but it'll be impossible not to smile.