Mourning & Gratitude

Mourning & Gratitude

Every now and then it hits me. She’s gone. I will never see her again. I will never hold her hand with those arthritic knuckles that made them resemble gnarled tree branches, misshapen and yet beautiful. I will never get another email from her containing silly videos or stories or photos and it is during these times that I feel both overwhelming gratitude that I had a mother whom I loved deeply, and unspeakable pain that grips my throat and clenches my stomach. That she went quickly and did not suffer is something I constantly remind myself.  Still it’s tough. She was my mom. It is a loss unlike any other that I’ve experienced.

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn in life is to hold two seemingly opposing ideas and/or feelings and allow both to be true and valid.  I miss her and am grateful she went quickly, yet there are times when I am overwhelmed by the pain of losing her.

Mom and Richard at her birthday party

Over the years this idea of two opposing forces has taken shape; a person I love has views I hate, yet I can still love them.  Someone does something hurtful, yet I can forgive them.  I do something hurtful and so I must make amends and then do the painstaking work of learning to forgive myself. And on it goes. Two seemingly opposing things held in each hand, both are true, even though upon first look they seem to cancel each other out, they do not.  They co-exist and in that co-existence there is peace.

This is what I’ve learned.



My Mother: Paula Zurcher 1928 – 2021

My Mother: Paula Zurcher 1928 – 2021

The above photograph was taken by John Kelly.

My mother. My beautiful, complicated, brilliant, sensitive, compassionate, loving mother.

Mom at our cabin on Red Mountain

She was the middle daughter of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. Years ago the Aspen Times wrote a profile about my mother, entitled, Their Generation: Paula Zurcher had front row seat to Aspen’s transformation.

Mom speaking at the Aspen Institute’s celebration of her parents

But none of these various articles capture the impact my mother had on those she loved. My mother was a force. She was one of those women who was a beautiful blend of fierce intelligence, wit and passion.

Always elegant, no matter what she was wearing or doing, and oh, so much fun!

My favorite story regarding my mother was when I was pregnant with my first child. I reached out to her asking for advice. She wrote back saying that she had given this a great deal of thought and then wrote, and I’m paraphrasing now, that the best any of us can do as parents is to love our children, tell them, yes, but more importantly show them, daily how much we love them and one day they will forgive us. Fierce, brilliant, funny, passionate, check, check, check and check. And wise. She was so very wise.

Mom reading to her grandson, Nic

During covid my mother sent videos, articles, stories and photographs, often silly, usually funny, always interesting to help cheer her recipients of whom I was one. I often shared the things she sent me on this blog, using the title, Sh*t My Mother Sends Me. Often those posts were among the most popular and that made her, and me, happy.

With her cousin, Peter Nitze and one of my favorite photographs from my wedding in New York City, December 2000

In July of this year I went with my son to visit her. She was frail, but her fierceness was undiminished. When I arrived, having lost the ability to speak, she typed, “It’s been too long.” I promised her I would not allow that much time to pass again, unaware that it would be the last time I saw her. I told her about my upcoming trip to Africa that my husband and I were about to embark on mid-August to celebrate my 61st birthday. Africa held a special place for both my parents and the art and stories of their travels surrounded us when I was a child.

Mom and Pop

Richard and I left for Africa on August 13th. Shortly after, I was told she was failing. Complications related to aging and a life well lived, it became increasingly clear that she would not live much longer. I took to calling in the evening and my sister would hold the phone to her ear so that I could tell her of our African adventures. She died August 27th at 5:30am surrounded by love and her children at home, just as she wanted.

Me holding my son, Nic with my beautiful mother

Mom, you showed me how to love and live life with courage, humor and compassion. You led by example and did exactly as you instructed me to do, so many years ago, when I sought your parenting advice. I grew up knowing I was loved. You showed and told me how much you loved me and as a result, no matter what challenges I have faced, every day was a little easier because of you.

Mom and me


Death & Perspective

Death & Perspective

When COVID hit New York City over a year ago now, death was no longer an abstract idea. People we knew were getting really, really sick, a few of them died, a few are still not 100%. When the mobil morgue parked just blocks away from our building to handle the overflow of dead bodies, it marked a turning point for me. This wasn’t some bit of horrifying news that I read or heard about, this was happening and it was happening all around me. At the time I was just starting my YouTube Channel and it hadn’t occurred to me to video tape the empty streets, void of cars and humans. I wish I had, but I didn’t.

COVID New York City

Once we had a vaccine and my entire family had been vaccinated, I decided it would be a good time to visit my mother and sister, neither of whom I’d seen in almost two years. It was wonderful to see them after so long. And of course there was the added benefit of being surrounded by dogs…

and flowers…

with lots of great places to take a little walk…

Death brings perspective. None of us are getting out of here alive. Our time is short and it seems to get shorter the closer to the end we get. All the more reason to enjoy things like this bee.

Or the brilliance of these red flowers…

Or the sound of the water rushing over rocks…

or being surrounded by people I love.

Our Nation Under Attack

When I was nine years old my father had a horseback riding accident, broke his back and almost died. He never fully recovered. Flashes of disparate memories are all I have left from that time. The beautiful gold cat pin my grandmother gave me with an emerald belly, ruby eyes and when I lost it years later, I felt a deep inexplicable sorrow that lasted for decades. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I realized I associated that pin with my father’s accident.

The visits to the hospital and the sickly, antiseptic smell, the sound of the rubber soled shoes the nurses wore as they approached his room, the sound of his labored breathing, the bright California sunlight in the parking lot of the Stanford Hospital, and the sense that nothing would ever be the same, these are the things I remember now when I think back to that time.

Nothing would ever be the same.

And it wasn’t.

In that moment when I learned of his accident, when I understood how serious it was, when I heard the words, “He might not make it” and “if he does, he’ll be paralyzed for the rest of his life” and all the other pronouncements made, then reevaluated and revised, and the realization that these doctors, whom I had believed knew everything, perhaps knew very little when it came to predicting my father’s future.

Much, much later, as an adult, I would again be reminded of how little people, even highly regarded people, actually know. These very people we are taught to admire, respect and believe are not always as they would like us to believe. After all they, like all of us, are human, fallible, imperfect and often far more complex than the stories we like to read and hear about. But most people want desperately to believe that things are simpler than they often are.

Yesterday, here in the United States people expressed shock and horror as we watched scenes of our capitol under attack. It was a gruesome reminder of how things that have been percolating for a long time can suddenly shift, how anger and resentment can propel people to behave in awful ways, how acts of violence are justified, how one side blames the other and then the other side retaliates and on and on it goes.

It’s easy to say we need to be kind to one another, but so much harder to put into practice.

A friend of mine, James Cone, someone I admired tremendously and who spent every Thanksgiving with us for many years until he died, once described to me what it was like growing up during the Jim Crow era in the deep south. He told me how he would watch his father leave the house each morning and each morning he would wonder whether this was going to be the last time he saw him. At the time I said, I can’t know what that must have been like, but I can try to imagine. I loved that man. He was a beautiful soul. I asked him once, while we discussed the rampant racism that continues to rip through this country, “How do we change this?” James said, “Love. The answer is always love. It has to be.”

What would James have said had he been here to watch our capitol come under attack? What would he have said as he watched all those people wandering around the Capitol building, knowing that had their skin color not been white, a very different scene would have played out? I can’t know for sure, but I will repeat what he once told me, not so many years ago.

“Love. The answer is always love. It has to be.”

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

When I was young, on December 24th we had a special Christmas eve dinner and then we would open our Christmas presents under the Christmas tree. If we were visiting my grandmother at her house in Colorado, we did the same. The only difference was that she had live candles on her tree and no one was allowed into the study where the tree was set up and that she decorated the night before, at least this is what I remember. I remember asking why we couldn’t help decorate the tree. But this is the way it was, a tradition my mother thankfully did not continue. Nearby there was a long pole with a wet sponge attached to it. This was to snuff out the candles and I’m guessing there must have been a fire extinguisher close at hand as well, but I don’t remember that.

My grandmother at her house in Aspen, Colorado

Later, once I lived in New York City, Christmas was often a time of enormous loneliness. My father was fragile and could not have any of us home for fear we would bring home some illness that he would catch, and so for many years I spent Christmas in New York city by myself. I remember one year taking one of my roommates, who was also spending Christmas in the city that year, to a Broadway show and afterwards standing out in the freezing cold, trying to hail a cab and wondering what we would do if we couldn’t get one. It’s funny, I cannot remember the show we went to, though I think it might have been A Chorus Line, the memory that stands out is how brutally cold it was. A decade later I spent another Christmas going to the movies and afterward ordered Chinese take out. I remember there were only three other people in the movie theater and one of those three was a homeless woman who brought a cart holding her possessions with her.

Cross country skiing in Aspen

And then there were the Christmas’s spent with friends and boyfriends, but it wasn’t until I had my own family that we began our own Christmas traditions, which often meant traveling with our children to be with my sister and mother in Colorado. Those were festive Christmas’s filled with lots of extended family, and friends. This year because of the pandemic we are staying put in New York City. We have a beautiful tree covered in decorations I’ve collected from all over the world and that I’ve made. Each ornament brings back memories.

I made over a hundred origami ornaments when pregnant with my first child. Obsessiveness is a companion I’ve always welcomed.

And then there was the year that I decided to make some pretty elaborate ornaments like this Santa Claus.

Another year I made felt houses.

And another year I made these little wool birds.

This can be a difficult time in the best of times, but particularly now because of the pandemic, so many are unable to be with family and friends. I am so grateful for my little family here in New York City, but it wasn’t always like this. I know many people are feeling the bittersweet sadness that can come with Christmas whether you celebrate it or not, and so to all of you, I just want to offer some love.

Wherever you are, alone or with others, I am thinking of my fellow human beings and wishing you a pleasant and peaceful Christmas. ❤️