Happy Birthday Alice!

To begin the new year with a fresh start, my mother, as has been her tradition, set out to buy new white T-shirts and underwear for my father. In with the new and out with the old, as they say.

Her task brought her recently one weekday afternoon to the nearby K-Mart. After several minutes searching and unable to find the right size, she asked two workers passing by for some help. The two nice employees told my mother that this was not their department but they would find someone who could help. One stayed back with my mother and the other left to  search for someone who knew more about Fruit of the Looms and the like. As they waited, my mother and this man-from-another-department continued to search through the rows. Still not having any success in finding the right size, he suggested that my father might like another color other than white. He assured her that most men don’t even wear white anymore. But my mother insisted that only white would do.

“He’s old  school?” he asked. My mother said, yes, her husband is definitely old school. In the course of conversation, as they continued their search, my mother asked this nice man what department he actually did work in.

“Maintenance,” he said.

My mother left the store laughing. And every time I think of the maintenance man diligently helping her look for my father’s new underwear, I do, too. But the story is classic Alice Flynn in so many ways. People like to help my mother. They always have. She goes to a yard sale and the next thing you know the owner of the house is loading up his truck to drive two towns away to deliver the furniture my mother had just bought from him. “It’s no big deal,” they will tell her. Even if it is a big deal. She is warm, approachable and also open to accepting help. To me, this story also is a wonderful reminder of how my mother is more than willing to laugh at herself and find humor in the every day.  Who knew a quick trip to K-Mart could offer so much potential for amusement?

Yesterday we celebrated and toasted Alice Flynn’s 80th birthday. How lucky is this family to have her? How lucky  is everyone, really, who knows her.

Special 80th birthday lunch on Cape Cod to celebrate Alice. My mother is wearing her new wool wrap straight from Ireland from the Kelly girls and my father is demonstrating his New England Patriots pride.


To honor Alice yesterday, we played a special themed trivia/Jeopardy game. The team that consisted of my sister Kathleen and my nephew Joseph were the big winners. I have shared a few questions here if you would like to play along, too. (Answers at the bottom).

1.Where was Alice Kelly born?

2. What was the name of Alice’s dog growing up?

A. Goldie

B. Brownie

C. Daisy

D. Charlie

3.What country has the highest percentage of redheads?

A. Ireland

B. Scotland

C. England

D. U.S.A.

4. Alice has never been to a …

A. Boston Bruins game

B. Boston Celtics game

C. Boston Red Sox game

D. Boston Symphony Orchestra concert

5. If Alice won an all-expenses-paid trip to one of these four destinations, which one would she chose?

A. Cruise to Alaska

B. Hawaii

C. Ireland

D. San Diego, California

6. What’s bigger in total square miles: Hingham (her original home) or Yarmouth (her current home)?

7. What percentage of the world’s population has red hair?

A. 4 percent

B. 2 percent

C. 6 percent

D. 3 percent

8. What is the official flower of Massachusetts?

A. The lilac

B. Mountain Laurel

C. The Mayflower

D. Hibiscus

9. This famous redhead has appeared on more TV Guides than any other celebrity?

A. Ann-Margret

B. Ron Howard

C.  Lindsay Lohan

D. Lucille Ball

10. What house would Alice consider her all-time favorite?

A. Hingham (South Pleasant Street)

B. Pembroke

C. Prudence Island

D. Yarmouth

E. Kingston, NH





(1. Hingham. 2. B. 3. B. 4. B. 5. C. 6. Hingham. 7.  B. 8. C. 9. D. 10. C.)





The Big 5-0


Back in 1967, after five years of trying to get pregnant, my parents knew that the prospects of having a second child were slim. In fact, they had begun the process of adoption when my mother happened to catch a segment of The Mike Douglas Show as he interviewed a prominent Boston ob-gyn by the name of Dr. Lynch. She right then picked up the phone to make an appointment. That second opinion eventually gave her a second child, then a third and a fourth.

This photo of me and my mother looks like it was taken in 1935.

Growing up Dr. Lynch was almost this mythical figure to me. I don’t remember meeting him, of course, but I knew my parents always felt they owed him a great deal of gratitude. And I clearly do too.

Turning 50 is a funny thing. I feel like I am supposed to have the direction of my life figured out by now, or possess some other deep insights. Perhaps, there would be ambitious goals to announce. Honestly, December 13th kind of felt like another day, a good one, but nothing profound.

I will say I have noticed as I get older that I feel a deeper sense of appreciation and love for the people in my life who always have my back. As for Alice Flynn, she’s had my back longer than any of them. The occasion of my recent birthday seemed like a good opportunity to thank my mother for being the leader of my cheering section from the beginning.

Here I offer a few pieces of evidence:

For my fourth-grade play, I was cast as Snow White. It was not a musical, which may explain one of the key reasons I was tapped for the leading role. A few weeks into practice I came down with a brutal case of bronchitis and missed school for a week. The teacher, apparently worried about the fast-approaching opening and disappointing our audience of kindergartners, decided she must select a new Snow White. I learned about my replacement when I returned to school. 

My mother didn’t think that was fair, not one bit. I had already memorized all the lines. She went straight up to school and asked to meet with the teacher. In the end, we had two plays with two separate casts. I was Snow White in one, Doc in the other.

No photography exists of my award-winning performance.

It’s funny because I don’t remember it not being 100 percent normal to have two plays with two casts. No one made me feel badly. My mother said she was perfectly reasonable in her request. The teacher apparently agreed with her reasoning.

Cowl necks are back in style.

Back in seventh grade, a boy I liked told my friend that he didn’t like girls with freckles. I was devastated. I told my mother that I wished I was prettier. She told me that if you are too beautiful, you don’t develop into a complete person because the world is reacting only to your looks. It’s more important, she said, to develop a personality that people find beautiful. The advice certainly made me feel better at the time. However, I have since met women who are stunningly beautiful with amazing personalities, which my mother conveniently forgot to mention was a possibility.

Shortly after starting my first job as a newspaper reporter, I got into my first car accident. It was what they call a “courtesy crash.” Someone stopped to let me out, but it was a two-lane highway and the person in the other lane didn’t also stop. I drove my parents’ old Ford station wagon right into the side of this brand new Volvo station wagon. The female driver was not exactly understanding. She was kind of mean, actually. I called my mother as soon I got home (pre-cell phones) and started to cry. I was so sorry, I told her. I will pay for the repairs.

“This is why we have insurance,” my mother said. “Don’t worry about it.” End of story.

Fixer-upper is one way to describe our first house. To paint a more accurate image, you should know we had to hire the folks at Trauma Clean to treat the mold in the basement. Picture the movie ET where the crew in white haz-mat suits descends upon the scene. Sort of like that. We bought the house “as-is,” which means we also had to get rid of everything inside.  My mother, always the optimist, was sure we would find something of value in the garbage bags and cardboard boxes haphazardly stacked in piles in the living room, the basement, the bedrooms …

So there we sat, side by side, for hours upon hours, sorting through old papers – wedding announcements, love letters, sales invoices, phone bills. We sifted through old clothes, bags of hair curlers, broken appliances. We never found any money, jewelry or shares of old stock. There was a life-size paper cut-out of Mr. McGoo and some old wooden Hood milk crates, which we still have some 17 years later.

My mother took this picture of my husband, Paul, carrying me over the threshold of our new home.

On April 1, 2001, one month after the closing, we finally moved in. Before she left, my mother picked some early forsythia blooms from the back yard and placed a vase on our freshly painted mantle.

After the birth of our first daughter, I didn’t want my parents who were waiting outside to come into the delivery room, not just yet. Sarah had been rushed to the special care nursery after swallowing meconium. We were scared. I wanted to be able to tell my parents that she was fine and protect them from needless worry. We were still waiting for some news when my mother came in. She told me that I had forgotten that she wasn’t just worried about her new granddaughter. She was worried about me. She picked up a brush on the side table and began to smooth my matted hair. 

A month or so after my brother, Tommy, died, my mother and I made a trip to their nearby Trader Joe’s supermarket. She wanted to pick up a few things, including some American cheese to make burgers for my dad for dinner that night. We couldn’t find any. When we asked about it, a pretentious worker told my mother that they don’t tend to carry American cheese in this store. My mother sheepishly whispered to me that this is more of a place to buy Brie or Camembert. I was steaming mad and feeling fiercely protective. Without my mother knowing, I asked to speak with the manager. She apologized, and agreed this worker’s tone/attitude was unnecessary. I then proceeded to join my mother waiting in the checkout line. After a few minutes, the manager walked over with two bouquets of flowers and presented one to each of us.

I felt vindicated, and knew exactly how my mother must have felt after the Snow White incident.


Just Ask Alice, Take 2

On Saturday we continued our Mother’s Day tradition of giving several hours of manual labor to the woman who went into labor for us. We weeded, edged, pruned, raked, transplanted and schlepped 25-pound bags of mulch. To be fair, my sister Kathleen is the only one who actually transplanted and pruned and I spent more time pushing the wheelbarrow. She was the brains and I was the muscles of the operation.

One of these years, we are going to take my mother out for brunch on Mother’s Day. Maybe even schedule a manicure or pedicure like I hear other people do. For now, we are lucky that we (my mother included) can still get our hands and feet dirty.


Dirty, tired and happy.  


IMG_2277 (2)
Tom Flynn served as the supervisor, of us and the visiting turkeys.


After our work was done, I once again found time to ask my mother a few questions about her life. And once again, I learned a few things I never knew. I also discovered that my older sister Kathleen had a habit of gently leading the witness on occasion.

ME: If you could meet any one person, living or dead, throughout the course of history, who would it be?

ALICE: Hmmm. That’s a hard one. (A minute of silence.)

KATHLEEN: Why don’t you come back to that one, because that one needs some thought.

ME:  OK, true. What was your first paying job?

ALICE: I was a clerk at Baker’s Five and Ten in Hingham Square. I think all my sisters  worked there at one time. Mr Baker was such a wonderful man and the job was just mine when I wanted to have it. We didn’t have an awful lot of money but I think I probably had the best Easter basket in all of Hingham because Aunt Eileen was in charge of the candy,

ME: Did you have any nicknames as a kid?


ALICE: No, I didn’t. Not really. A lot of my friends in high school called me Kelly.

KATHLEEN: I remember you saying the kids in the neighborhood used to call you Red or Chicken Legs or something like that.

ALICE:  Well everyone called me Red. And Bunky Kehoe used to sing, “Does your mother know you are out Ceceila?” because he knew my middle name. It used to bug me terribly.

ME: What bad thing did you do as a kid that your parents never found out about?

ALICE: Well, I think they found out about it. I was with Jackie Welch smoking cigarettes at Molly Kelleher’s across the street. She had a huge bamboo patch so the kids would all go in there. The reason I knew they found out about it is because my father made me smoke a cigar as punishment. It was awful. That’s why I never smoked. I was the only one who never smoked.

ME: Are you usually late, early or right on time?

ALICE: I would say right on time. But Dad wants me to be early.  Last Sunday when we went to Mass he announced he would wait for me in the car. We got there so early I could finish my tea in the parking lot.

ME: That’s been the story of your whole life. Who was your first crush?

ALICE: Probably Charlie Enos. He was my girlfriend Beverly’s boyfriend and then she broke up with him so he asked me out. I was probably 14. Then my brother Jack stepped in and said, “Dad I don’t know if I would let her go out with him.” He always did that. Whenever I wanted to go out with anyone, he would say, “I don’t think so Dad. This one’s wild.”

ME: Tell me about someone you really admire.

ALICE: I really admired Michelle Obama. I admired the way she raised her kids when they were in the White House. And my mother. I always admired my mother. She was such a strong person. She was understanding, reasonable. She knew how to do everything.

ME: Name your three favorite foods.

ALICE: Haddock, lobster and anything butterscotch or lemon. Is that too vague?

ME: No, but it’s four foods.

ALICE: OK, anything lemon.

ME: Tell me about something you regret. 

ALICE: Not going to college, I always did. (My father yells from the other room: “Going out in a boat in Hingham Harbor with her boyfriend and the idiot didn’t have any oars.”).

ALICE:  That’s true. We were right in the path of the ferry coming in from Boston. Someone had to tow us in. I told my father afterward what happened and he said, “Get rid of that one.”  

ME: You just got a free plane ticket to travel anywhere. You have to leave now. Where are you going?

ALICE: Ireland. I would go back in a heartbeat.

ME: Can we go back to the first question. Just think who is the one person you would you want to go out for a coffee or tea with?

ALICE: Well I couldn’t if they were dead.

ME: No, Mom, you would travel back in time.

KATHLEEN: Can I give a thought I had?  What about JFK?

MOM: I met him once. We went to a dinner when he was running for Senate. Let me think about it and I will call you tomorrow.

The next day.

ME: Did you think of anyone? There is no wrong answer.

ALICE: No. I am going to pass on that one. I was up at night thinking about it and I just couldn’t think of anyone.

This is not Watergate. Or FBI-gate. This interviewer is content to suspend my line of questioning. But I would encourage anyone to ask some of these questions to a parent, or spouse, or your own children. It’s funny how just when think you have heard every story, you learn a new one. And that’s a special gift in and of itself.


Birthday traditions

Alice Flynn celebrated a birthday on Friday. I won’t say which one, but it is not a milestone year. Next year will be a milestone year. (Hint: rhymes with Brady). Maybe we will throw a big party. Stay tuned.

My mother with her brother Jack. She was a cute kid. No wonder why her five older brothers and sisters doted on her.  

Growing up, my mother’s mother (Nana Kelly) would mark the occasion of her birthday by making a hot water sponge cake. This year, I decided to honor the tradition with an old recipe shared by my cousin Sharon, who is a pretty amazing family historian.

As I have mentioned before, I like to cook but my skills are limited. My mother and I joke that more than three ingredients puts a recipe into the “complicated” category for me. I also like to bake, but I tend to bake brownies and banana bread by following the directions on a box. I think it’s still baking if you have to add eggs. My daughter Elizabeth says that is not really baking if it’s not from scratch. Technicalities. She’s such a stickler.

This sponge cake recipe, though, did require baking from scratch. I also had to take a late-night trip to Target to buy a new bundt cake pan and a flour sifter. (Didn’t I get these as bridal shower presents? Where did they go?)

I woke up early Saturday morning to bake the cake in time for my sister Kathleen to bring to my mother on Cape Cod. (We celebrated her birthday the week before and took my mother to see Hidden Figures, which is inspiring, if you haven’t seen it yet.) Around 6:30 am, I discovered my can of baking powder had expired. I found another one hidden in the cabinet, which was also expired, back in 2014. Then a third can (I kid you not) also expired. As I said, I don’t bake in the traditional sense that much.

All expired. Tip: Clean out your pantries people.

A quick trip to our neighborhood supermarket that opens at 7 am and the first crisis was averted. I also had to separate the egg whites from the yolks, four times, which is a queasy undertaking for me so early in the morning. But whipping egg whites into stiff peaks is great fun. I want to do that again. Meringue recipes anyone?

The beaters are a yard-sale find thanks to Alice Flynn. 
My fancy new sifter. Who knows what next adventure we will take together?

The cake took one hour to bake. I warned my husband and daughter not to make any loud banging noises and cause the cake to collapse. I am not sure if that really happens, or is more of something I saw watching Lucille Ball or Mary Tyler Moore, but the concern justified my decision to sit and drink coffee instead of unload the dishwasher as I waited for the timer to go off.

As soon as the masterpiece came out of the oven, I jumped into the car to drive to my sister’s house a half hour away. It smelled delicious. Later that afternoon my mother, father and sister all confirmed it tasted delicious too. I told them it wouldn’t hurt my feelings and I could handle the truth if it was really otherwise. But they insisted.

Before they took a slice, my mother sprinkled the cake with confectioners sugar and placed it upon a blue glass pedestal serving plate to improve the presentation. Have I mentioned that she makes everything look better?


Just like she did as a little girl, my mother celebrated her birthday in church by having her throat blessed by a priest in honor of the Feast of Saint Blaise, and then enjoyed the sponge cake that her mother used to make. It was a nice re-creation of a memory for my mother, and the making of a special new one for her daughter.

Here’s a video directed by Kathleen Kelley of my mother blowing out her candles. My favorite part is watching my father struggle with the lighter and hearing my mother suggesting, subtly, under her breath that “Matches work.”



Loafing around

Most of us encounter smells and tastes and sounds that immediately transport us back in time. We don’t even realize it, but there we are. If I catch a whiff of Old Spice, I am a 10-year-old girl again, talking with my Papa Bill seated in his fake leather yellow recliner chair and listening to talk shows on his AM radio  If I hear the song Purple Rain, I am with Beth Storey, a high school friend, driving around in her muscle-type car and singing at the top of our lungs. And if I take a bite of my mother’s homemade molasses bread, I am on Prudence Island. Just like that.

My mother’s homemade bread is actually not my mother’s recipe. It came from Kay Sullivan, the wife of my father’s first cousin Bob. Since my father was an only child, Bob and Kay were more like an uncle and aunt to us. The Sullivan family (two parents and eight kids and always a dog and cat, and sometimes a pig) lived next door to us for many years. Kay was one of my mother’s most trusted confidants.

My mother was 34 when she moved to Hingham to help take care of her father-in-law. She didn’t want to move into my father’s childhood home. She had three children under the age of 10, with another almost on the way. And let’s just say the house, built in 1727, needed some work.

Papa Bill in our kitchen. (My mother added the blue burlap wall-covering way before anyone heard of Martha Stewart.) 

My mother tells the story of coming to visit shortly before they moved in and finding Papa Bill seated in the kitchen with bowls and buckets strategically placed around the kitchen floor to catch the rain coming through the roof. “Well, we have a little problem Alice,” he said.

Kay embraced my mother from the very beginning. My mother says Kay was a more easy-going parent than she was and she tried to follow her example and roll with the punches better. What I remember most about Kay is her laugh. She had a hearty laugh, the kind of laugh done with conviction. My mother and Kay used to take walks together. Not so much to improve their physical health, but more their mental one. It is important to have people in your life you can vent to without judgment, especially when you become a mother and feel overwhelmed, which happens on occasion. My mother said she had that with Kay.

Now back to the molasses bread. Kay came to visit my mother on Prudence Island and spotted an old-fashioned bread maker in our shed left by the previous owners.

A bread maker like the one my mom used. (Thanks Google images.)

My mother thought it was an ice cream maker. Kay said she had a recipe that my mother could use to test it out some day. And so she did. Many, many times in fact.

My mother would often enlist our help in kneading the dough before it went into the oven. We were supposed to get out our frustrations as we punched. I can remember pounding the dough with my fists, “Mr. Keating, why did you give us so much homework?” and thinking I was the funniest person to ever walk the planet.

Our kitchen on Prudence Island was tiny. The laminate-covered counter where my mother did all her cooking measured probably 3 feet across; that may be generous. But my mother cooked amazing meals in that tiny space with an antiquated gas oven. She didn’t need high-end stainless steel appliances. Her “can-do” attitude was her secret ingredient. It always has been.

My favorite way to eat the molasses bread was hot out of the oven and covered with my mother’s homemade blackberry jam, made from picked berries growing wild on Prudence Island. You know the scene toward the end of the movie Ratatouille when the dour food critic takes a bite of the vegetable dish referenced in the title? The flavors trigger a flashback to him as a sweet little boy, standing in his mother’s kitchen, soothed and loved. Homemade molasses bread is my ratatouille.

These days my sister Kathleen is the keeper of the recipe, so to speak. She often hands out loaves of molasses bread as Christmas presents to grateful friends and relatives. When she was first married my mother gave her an old-fashioned bread maker for Christmas. She is a talented cook and she  recently agreed to help show me the steps. I would share her recipe, but Kathleen tends to tweak/improvise and I would be afraid I might miss a step. But if you ask nicely, I bet she would make you a loaf.

The most important ingredient.
My niece Clare provided moral support via Facetime from her college in Maine.
Adding the flour to the molasses. BELOW Waiting for the bread to rise and then getting ready to knead (or vent frustrations out on) the dough.
The bread ready to go into the oven.
A beautiful golden brown color. Pay no attention to that dirty oven.
Elizabeth enjoys the delicious finished product for breakfast. We repeated this routine every morning for a full week. (Note our retro kitchen floor and the hand of my husband Paul reading The Boston Globe, delivered every morning. Is that retro now too? Gulp.)

NOTE: My original intent was to spend one year living more like my mother but I have too much left on my original list. I think I might need two years. Maybe three.

The salt-air antidote

The Annual Fall Frolic Road Race sounds like a happy event. Frolic, after all, means cheerful and playful. Merry, even. At the 2 1/2-mile point of this lovely community event held on a recent Sunday morning,  I wasn’t feeling so cheerful. I was fading, pretty fast.

My 14-year-old daughter/coach Elizabeth, sensing my slowing speed and hearing my heavy breathing, delivered a perfectly timed pep talk. “Mom, right up here, you will be able to see the ocean for a little bit. Take in the view. You got this.”

I am not sure my pace increased, but I smiled. All my life my mother has advocated the restorative powers of the ocean, for the body and the mind. Now Elizabeth preached it too.

Smiling with Elizabeth, before the race. Photo by Mary Muckenhoupt Roy.

My mother is right that most problems seem smaller, or at least more manageable, after a long walk on the beach. Some of the more challenging conversations I have tackled with my husband have occurred with the ocean as the backdrop. Many more times, though, we look at the ocean and hardly talk at all. We grab a coffee, the newspaper and park our car near the water. Together we are momentarily humbled/quieted/comforted/inspired (sometimes even all four).

I consider myself very lucky to live near the ocean. To and from work every day, I drive across the Beverly-Salem Bridge and I’m greeted by this view. Most days I try to take the time to look at it.


Sometimes I spot a brightly colored lobster boat on route to check traps, or a snowy white egret. In those moments, I feel calmer, even if it’s fleeting.

My mother Alice grew up one block away from the ocean. Hingham Harbor was her neighborhood playground. She swam between the boats, skipped rocks from the beach and fished for smelt with her father. To this day, she loves the tingling feel of salt water on her skin. She regularly takes walks along the beach, bending over to pick up shells and pieces of interesting driftwood. Practically every day on Cape Cod, my parents take a drive to look at the water.

“The ocean soothes me. It always has,” my mother said the other day. “There is something about the sound of the waves and the seagulls and the smell of salt air. It’s a calming thing.”

And since we can’t always be at the ocean, the women in our family line our kitchen window sills with found sea shells and sea glass and hang paintings of sand dunes on our walls, or we fall asleep to the rhythmic sounds of crashing waves emitting from plastic noise machines.

On a recent visit to New Hampshire, I bought a stack of four coasters a high school boy made from pieces of driftwood that he had found on beaches in Maine. Alice always recognized the many uses of driftwood, and I thought she would appreciate this boy’s creativity and entrepreneurship.

The sign placed next to the driftwood coasters.
The coasters in use at home.

I think we are genetically drawn to driftwood in this family. Two years ago, as a Christmas gift, my niece Mary-Kate gave us a piece of found driftwood that she turned into a candle with the help of three shells from Prudence Island. It rests on our fireplace mantle.



Against our side yard fence is a giant L-shaped piece of driftwood that Elizabeth found on Crane Beach in Ipswich many years ago. I think she was 8 years old at the time. The driftwood was big and heavy and wet and I thought we should leave it there. She disagreed: The Leighton family should, of course, keep a piece of driftwood shaped like the letter “L.” Elizabeth, I learned many years ago, is hard to talk out of ideas she thinks are good ones. This is one example but I could produce dozens more.

With her typical (at times maddening) combination or determination and stubbornness, she dragged the thing almost a mile back to our car. She propped the driftwood up against our fence, where it has remained ever since.

Testimony to the powerful pull of the ocean is found a few steps outside our side door.





Woman on a mission

Soon after moving to Cape Cod some 16 years ago, my mother started making her rounds on the very active yard- and estate-sale circuit. Typically, Alice would read the newspaper classifieds on Fridays and then map her route for early Saturday mornings. She had a trusty map book and quickly learned to distinguish which streets had the nicest houses and therefore, would be most likely selling the better stuff.

Today she lives with the fruits of her labor.  My parents’ dining room table is a yard/estate sale find and so is the pull-out couch on the porch and their  wicker bedroom set. The list is long and impressive.

And as her reputation for landing great deals grew, my mother often shopped with a list of things her children and grandchildren were looking for. Our living room still holds the two end tables and coffee table she found for us. My bedroom dresser was a yard-sale find. So was the pine armoire in our basement. Even our potato masher came as the result of my mother’s savvy and persistence.

Alice is very good at seeing past the junk and honing in on the worthwhile merchandise. Not me. I tend to get overwhelmed by all the stuff on view. An abundance of clutter makes me uncomfortable. And I definitely struggle with the bartering that is an accepted part of the yard-sale practice. You know,”Will you take 50 cents? Will you take a dime?” JUST PAY THE POOR PERSON THE PRICE ON THE COLORED STICKER FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!

In the spirit of living more like Alice, I decided I should give yard sale-ing another shot. My niece Mary-Kate was also moving into a new apartment and in the market for a few household items, so the timing was right. My daughter Sarah was game to come along though she is more of an online shopper than the serendipitous kind. We set out on a steamy summer Saturday afternoon in search of bargains.

Let’s just say our first stop was more miss than hit.

I did not see anyone making any offers.

Though we did score a $100,000 Pyramid DVD Game for $2.


And Mary-Kate found a plastic drying rack for dishes in excellent condition. She was clearly happy. Mary-Kate is definitely more like Nana than me. She is patient and can see treasures amidst all the junk


.After a few yard sales, we happened upon an estate sale. For those unfamiliar, an estate sale is when heirs decide to sell the entire contents of a house — from silverware and bowls in the kitchen cabinets, to tools and fishing poles in the basement, to coats and shoes in the closet to sheets and pillows on the bed. You can even sift through the junk drawer or the backyard shed and discover items with little price tags. Personally, I find it a little sad to see an entire life on view to strangers. But great deals can be had.

We figured the owner of this house was a doctor of some sort based on all the books about reconstructive surgery and an assortment of glass jars labeled for cotton balls and tongue depressors for sale. He was also a hunter with a collection of skulls, including a baboon and an antelope, and he really enjoyed his trips to Hawaii. Mary-Kate bought a few things, including a glass measuring cup and a beautiful fish-shaped platter. I bought a small plate with a duck on it because ducks remind me of the house where I grew up.

We also hit The White Elephant in Essex, Mass., voted the “Best Antique Shop on the North Shore” two years in a row by Boston Magazine. Mary-Kate successfully negotiated with the owner to reduce the price of a sweet little green chair by $10. If you can get past the musty smell, it’s a fun place to walk around.



Last weekend we visited the Cape and had no plans to shop anywhere but The Christmas Tree Shop. But then we saw a yard sale sign with Alice in the car and decided to make a quick stop. We were with the master, after all.



I bought four white bowls, a perfect depth for pasta, for $2. My mother said that was a good deal. (These was no bartering.) And we bought a chaise lounge chair for $5. (Alice said they don’t make them this sturdy anymore. Although my husband testing it out does not look all that comfortable or secure here.)



Elizabeth found a very cool pair of old binoculars in a leather case. There was no price tag. When asked, the nice lady running the yard sale said she could have them.


That is one of the positive things about the yard-sale experience. You often end up talking to nice people. Or at least my mother always does.

I do have two favorite Alice Flynn yard-sale stories. Early on in her bargain-hunting career, my mother went to a yard sale a few towns over with her mother, her sister Honey, Honey’s mother (my adopted grandmother Mimi) and my sister Kathleen, who was around 2 years old. The gang bought so much stuff my mother couldn’t fit it all in the car. Undeterred, my mother found a place in the woods to hide the wrought-iron chaise lounge chair she had purchased. The next day she returned with my father to retrieve it. “We found it. But it took a long time,” says Alice. “Your father had more patience back then.”

One Saturday shortly after moving to the Cape my mother spotted the tell-tale indication of a yard sale —  a lot of cars parked in front of a house. She pulled over and proceeded to walk up the driveway. It didn’t take long to realize there was, in fact, no yard sale at all. The crowd had gathered for a family reunion. The host came over to my mother and put his arm around this nice lady he assumed was a distant relative. My mother, with a face as red as her hair, sheepishly told him she had made a mistake. The man invited her to stay for the cookout anyway. “I got out of there as fast as I could,”she says.

Like I have always said, my mother can make friends with anyone.



Life gets in the way

If you have to pick a bill to be delinquent on, this would probably be the worst one. Somehow we fell three months behind in our $30 monthly sponsorship of a girl in Haiti. My excuse: We got mailed a new credit card after the Target security breach and I never provided the nonprofit organization with our new number. They sent polite notices and I still managed to forget to pick up the phone and call.

Then one day I did. I apologized quickly and profusely to the kind man who answered the telephone. I explained how I had meant to call. I was really sorry. He interrupted me politely with the following words: “It’s called life.” And I immediately felt such relief. I even wrote the sentence down on a sticky note and taped it to my bulletin board. Yes, “It’s called life.” Thank you for understanding. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we don’t do what we want to do, or should do. And then we can be pretty tough on ourselves.

This is my long-winded way to explain the absence of any blog post since Mother’s Day. Our oldest daughter graduated from high school in June and I think our family has been preoccupied with all the events and emotions this rite of passage brings. Work has been busy, and the weather has been too nice to sit at a computer on weekends. These are all excuses, of course. My mother told me not to worry about it. She understood we had a lot on our plates. You’ll get back to it when you are ready, she assured me, as she always has.

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Sarah and my mother after her recent high school graduation.

On Sunday, like my mother did back in 1985, we brought our daughter to the University of New Hampshire to begin freshman year. My mother recently told me she felt nervous and a little horrified as we pulled up to the eight-story Stoke Hall dormitory for my drop off. She remembers seeing people throwing empty beer cans from top-floor windows. I honestly don’t remember that, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen from time to time. (I did once see  a mattress pushed out of a top floor window.)

My room assignment was what they called a built-up triple, meaning three people squeezed into a room for two. Back then we didn’t have Instagram and Facebook to scope out our roommates ahead of time. We didn’t text to coordinate comforter colors. It wasn’t until move-in day that I first learned one of my roommates really, really liked Jimmy Page of  Led Zeppelin, after she hung up a huge poster of him shirtless. She learned that I liked Michael Jackson. I also hung a poster. Mine was of a dancing Snoopy and Woodstock with the line, “Braces are cool.” I thought I was cool. Cringe-worthy, I know. She probably wanted to speak to the RA about a room re-assignment that day.

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Me, far left, with a bad haircut, in a dorm room near the end of my freshman year. (Sorry Amy, if you see this, your head was cut off in original photo). 

I don’t remember a tearful goodbye when my mother left. She remembers crying all the way home. “You were only 17,” she told me this morning. “I didn’t want to leave you.”

UNH move-in day went smoothly for our family. As my husband, Paul, said, “I don’t think it could have gone better.” Elizabeth climbed up on the top bunk to help Sarah make her new bed and hang pictures. Her roommate and her parents could not have been any nicer. A polite sophomore engineering major helped us carry up a few boxes, and told us there are always games on the TV in the first-floor lounge. It’s a big basketball dorm, he said. Sarah loves watching basketball. All good.

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The Leighton family on move-in day. 

Like Alice, I cried on the way home. To be honest, I am still sad and feeling a little unsettled. We all miss her a lot. The house feels a little empty without her dirty dishes in the sink (or on the counter and coffee table). In one of her many pep talks, our daughter Elizabeth reminded me that UNH is only an hour away. We will see her before long. It is all true.

I must say I am happy about the opportunity for her to meet new people and embrace new ideas. My mother recalled how all four of her children came home from college with new thoughts about the world, some of which surprised her. In many ways, that’s the point of the whole experience. It’s exciting to think what lies ahead. 

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One of the new wildcats in the UNH Class of 2020.


Happy Mother’s Day

A nice lazy Sunday brunch somewhere cozy would be a much easier way to celebrate Mother’s Day. But what my mother really wants every year is the gift of manual labor. So our tradition is to weed, rake, edge and mulch around her house on Cape Cod the day before Mother’s Day, with her getting dirty right beside us. I still laugh at the memory of my brother grumbling under his breath, sweat drops pouring off his forehead, as my mother suggested we return to the Agway store for the third (maybe fourth) time to buy just a “few” more bags of mulch. It’s hard to disappoint Alice.

My mother and I yesterday after our work is complete. See that beautiful edging?

This year I added a new tradition and decided to interview my mother with some Oprah-like questions as we rested our weary limbs. I think I know my mother very well, but I learned a few things. I also confess I committed some cardinal sins of interviewing and tried to influence some of her answers. I laughed a lot and cringed a little as I listened to the recording this morning. Here’s an edited version of the conversation complemented by some of my favorite photos of my mother.

Me: What’s the most important thing that your mother ever taught you?
Alice: I would say mostly to always be kind to others. Nana was a very kind, thoughtful person. That’s what comes to mind first.

My parents with her parents, John and Elizabeth Kelly.

Me: What is one of your best childhood memories?
Alice: When I was 13 or 14 at Christmas and I received a record player. We didn’t receive big gifts in our family. My father went out on his own and bought me this record player after my mother had bought all the gifts. And knowing it came from him was very special. I think I had everyone crying because I was so surprised. I know Aunt Eileen was crying. He hated listening to that kind of music, but for him to go out and buy that was a very important thing for me.

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My favorite picture of my mother, about 1980, guitar in hand. My cousin Ed’s painting of the Prudence Island lighthouse is in the background.


Me: What’s the bravest thing you have ever done?
The biggest undertaking I ever did was going to Europe with my friend Marie McLaughlin for 12 days and going to three countries I didn’t know anything about. I had never been away from Dad that long. We never traveled apart. But I had this opportunity to go with Marie’s school and Dad encouraged me to go.

Me: What do you consider your greatest strength?

Me: You think so?
I guess you don’t think so.

Me: I think you can be an impatient person. I think your greatest strength is empathy, always trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. But, huh, so you think you are patient?
Alice:  I guess you really don’t. (She laughs.) I think I have also always had a way of laughing at things. I can laugh at myself, as long as people don’t laugh at me; they laugh with me. I think my brother, Jack, helped me to be able to do that. He would tease me and we would laugh a lot together. Looking back I can picture a lot of laughter in my life, there is sadness, but laughter too. OK, move on.

Me: See, you are impatient.

She has always been all legs.


Me: Name one place in the world you would still like to visit?
Alice: If I won the lottery, I would want to take everyone back to Ireland. But I have seen a lot. I have been lucky.

Me: Name something you think is better about the world today than when you were growing up.
Not much. I think so much is harder for kids now. But I also think any older person kind of forgets all the bad things and kind of thinks everything is better back in the good old days. I think one thing that’s better today is the emphasis on preventive medicine and how people are now living longer.

(Interruption hollered from the other room: “Red Sox lost two in a row to the Yankees.)

Me: What makes you smile consistently?
 Your father. He does, he makes me laugh. We do laugh at the same things. And my grandchildren.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom. You always say you were very lucky to have the mother that you did. That’s another way I am living like Alice. Thank you for, well, everything.


I’m laughing with you here.


NOTE: The drawing at the top I made for a Mother’s Day card in 1983. The shamrocks are a nice touch, I think.


One good thing about April 15

Fifty-five years ago today, Alice and Tom Flynn tied the knot. Most Americans think of the Internal Revenue Service deadline when they hear the date April 15. I think of my parents.

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Outside St. Paul’s Parish in Hingham, Mass, April 15, 1961

As the story goes, my father first spotted my mother while taking the train from Boston to Hingham. He noticed her red hair and asked a friend of his who also knew my mother to share some details about this gal. The guy knew her name was Alice Kelly and she often went to a dance with her friends on Saturdays nights. A few days later my father showed up and asked her to dance, even though my mother was dancing with someone else at the time. He did not have all the social graces back then, or now. But my mother fell for this freckled-face guy from South Hingham who made her laugh and liked to ice skate and fish and take walks on the beach.

When I was a kid, I used to wonder why my mother would ever jump in the car and ride to the town dump with my father and a station wagon full of trash. As a parent, I now know it was probably to get a break from her four kids. But I also know  that she genuinely enjoyed his company. My parents like to be together, always have. If my father went clamming, my mother was by his side to point out the shells she spotted poking out in the sand. If my mother went to a craft fair to sell her flower arrangements, my dad was there to load and unload the car, and count up the profits. They have shared many adventures together, along with five houses and four kids. They are still having adventures.

On a recent private tour of Boston’s New England Aquarium, which my father helped build as a union pipefitter almost 50 years ago.

Today, they returned home from a short anniversary celebration stay at a hotel on Nantasket Beach, which is where they had their wedding reception many years ago. The venue was called The Showboat and it was destroyed in the Blizzard of 1978. I always liked the wedding photo of the happy couple at the head table that shows my mother holding a sign, “Under New Management.” On their recent trip, they managed to walk the length of the beach a few times, and at night they left their balcony door open a crack to better hear the waves and smell the salt air. They like the same things. Always have.

Showboat S.S. Mayflower Nantasket Beach
Showboat S.S. Mayflower Nantasket Beach

Like Alice, my wedding anniversary is in April, one week later, on April 22. When selecting our date,  I liked the fact that we would be married the same month as my parents and also the fact that our chosen venue would be a lot cheaper in April than the summer months. With forsythia blooming, the grass greening and the sun growing stronger, April is a month of so much promise. Seemed like a good month to start a marriage.

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Glen Magna Farms, Danvers, Mass., April 22, 1995. Photo by Amy Sweeney.

Twenty-one years later, I can honestly say that if my city had a dump, which it doesn’t, I would jump in the car to take a ride with my husband anytime, even if the car smelled of trash. Because, like Alice, I married someone who I like to be around, pretty much anywhere.

This year my father gave my mother an anniversary card, which she described as perfect. The front reads as follows:

The moment I saw you I knew we’d fall desperately in love, get married and have kids … (open the card)  …  And drive each other crazy for the rest of our lives.

Sounds about right. Happy anniversary Mom and Dad!