My birthday twin

I turned eighteen on my father’s forty-first birthday.  Every year on March 6th, he would say the same thing to me: “You were the best birthday present ever.” When my sister Beth and I were teenagers, we dubbed him “J,” a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life


My task: use a simple object as a prompt and “free write.” Allow the writing to go where it wants to go … When I began writing yesterday afternoon, I had no idea I would end up writing an essay about my father. I give this same advice to the students I coach through the college admissions process … in the beginning, just write and see what story emerges.

I turned eighteen on my father’s forty-first birthday.  Every year on March 6th, he would say the same thing to me: “You were the best birthday present ever.” When my sister Beth and I were teenagers, we dubbed him “J,” a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Beth and I were into nicknames then, called our mother “Madre,” why I can no longer remember. J was short for John Boy, the earnest eldest son played by Richard Thomas in the 1970s TV series, The Waltons. I guess our J reminded us of John Boy—honest, solid, kind, optimistic—or maybe Beth and I were just being smart alecks.

My dad died too young, a couple of months after my fiftieth birthday, his seventy-third. He had lived with Parkinson’s disease for twenty-two years. He’s buried in Montauk, New York, where my mother still lives. I visited his gravesite this Monday, after another burial, the dad of my good friend Christine and her three siblings. Their father, Jack, eighty-seven, had lost his wife to cancer many years ago. Jack loved to stand at the top of the bluff of our neighborhood beach, fishing pole on shoulder, checking to see if “the blues were running.” My dad liked to do that too, or fish from his friend Lou’s boat, or dig for clams in Napeague Bay. He’d come home and cook linguini with clam sauce, opening those clams with determination, despite his limited dexterity.

The man loved to cook, and he loved to eat and garden. And he loved his wife, his daughters, his four grandchildren. He’d get all choked up as he exclaimed about Will, Patrick, Rob, and Claire. Wow, if he could only see them now.

I miss him. Birthdays are different now.

On my eighteenth birthday in 1979, J probably wrote “You were my best birthday present ever” in a card, enclosed in the airmail package that also contained the silver “Happy 18th Birthday” pendant pictured above.  I was an exchange student that school year in Knutsford, a small town halfway between Manchester and Chester, in northwest England. Went to the local pub on March 6th and drank my first legal beer. Didn’t get carded.

I did get carded, however, in late March 2000, on opening day of what was then known as Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), in Houston, Texas, where the Astros played. In most cases, this would have been flattering at age thirty-nine, but that day, the first the ballpark was open, I was not flattered.  I didn’t have my driver’s license with me.

The well-meaning employee, her first day on the job, as it was for everyone, refused to serve me. I refused to leave. I had waited twenty minutes in line for that beer! I pulled off my baseball cap, showed her a few gray hairs that had sprouted. I pointed to the crow’s feet on the edges of my eyes. She wouldn’t budge. I asked to speak to her supervisor, who took one look at me, and said: “It’s okay, you can serve her.”

I probably told my dad that story, and I’m sure he chuckled. He was my number one fan, told me I was beautiful. And I felt beautiful when I was around him.

I made it to his bedside two days before he died. His eyes were shut when I arrived and never opened again until he took his final breath.  “J, I’m here,” I said when I entered his bedroom, saw him lying peacefully in his hospital bed. He lifted his head ever so slightly, pursed his lips, and tried to kiss me. I leaned over and he did.

His final offering to me.

John Joseph Mullen, March 6, 1938-May 20, 2011.

My birthday twin. A life well lived, in love.



Small objects, big stories

A small red silk bag caught my eye. I unsnapped it and found these pendants—ones I had acquired from age eighteen through my mid-forties.

jewelryboxThe other day, I sorted through my jewelry box. Found lots of costume jewelry I rarely wear anymore. Time to donate to my church’s weekly rummage sale.

Then, a small red silk bag caught my eye. I unsnapped it and found these pendants—ones I had acquired from age eighteen through my mid-forties.

I spread them out on the floor, not sure what I would do with them. But being a writer, I knew there was meaning to explore. This morning, as I ran 5.4 miles (!) home after leaving my car at the repair shop,  I thought about the pendants again. Soon, memories, connections, and stories flooded in. Each piece was an entry point into one of the chapters of my life.

The birthday when I was an exchange student in Knutsford, England. The silly nicknames my sister Beth and I had given our parents, inscribed on the back.

The bent nail from the Habitat for Humanity blitz build during Super Bowl XXXVIII, Houston, Texas, 2004. That crazy morning when my spouse and I had to be at the build site, and one son had a wrestling match and the other had an admissions test at the same time. To top it off, we had just moved ourselves, and that morning I couldn’t find a single darned #2 pencil in the entire house.

As I made the turn for home today, I knew what I wanted to do. I’d write a short essay about each pendant—they would be my prompts, like the ones students use as jumping-off points for their college admissions essays. I’d cradle each pendant in my palm and see where it took me. And like the students I work with, I’d do it in 650 words or less.

This is going to be fun!



Find Your Spark!

sparkHigh school juniors: Are you already dreading the thought of having to write college application essays? Do you worry that you won’t have anything to write about? That you don’t have a story?

Stop worrying. You DO have a story worth telling. We all do. The key is discovering your spark—the part of you that makes you YOU!

Here’s something you can start doing NOW! Buy a small notebook or create a note on your computer or phone.

Begin thinking about your most positive qualities. Are you creative? Do you love to dig deep into a subject? Are you a good listener? Funny? A loyal friend?

If you have trouble coming up with ideas, ask your parents. Ask a friend or two. See what they say and what rings true to you.

Then in your notebook or on your phone, begin to list some stories—some specific moments in time—that SHOW those positive qualities in action.

Congratulations! You are on your way to finding your spark and finding your story!

Next week:  More tips on Finding Your Spark.

It’s all about the stories

  • “I love your stories.”
  • “Your stories touched me right here,” she said pointing to her heart.
  • “Your story about your grandmother brought me back to a deep and painful memory about my own grandmother.”
  • “I can just picture your father saying that on the beach.”

None of my fellow worshippers mentioned my erudite theological reflection; no one complimented my scriptural exegesis; and no one was wowed by the sophisticated metaphors I crafted for my first ever sermon, preached this past Sunday at the Montauk Community Church.

It was all about the stories. A story about my father embracing his life, even near the end of a 21-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease. A story about facing my fears and finally getting up on that stand-up paddle board. A story about my grandmother’s zest for life and the abundant bowl of creamy mashed potatoes she regularly encouraged me to eat.

The stories are where we find connection; where we find kindred spirits; where we find comfort in recognizing that we are not alone.

As I continue to write my memoir, counsel college application essay clients, write grant proposals, and coach other writers, I’m going to keep reminding myself and my clients that it’s all about the stories.