A eulogy for my beautiful grandmother

A mother. A wife. A friend. A neighborly companion. Throughout her life, Dorothy fulfilled all of these roles and more. To me, she was Gramz – with a Z. My beloved grandmother.

In a world that always seems to move too quickly, Gramz slowed things down.

Her tendency to pause played out literally and figuratively. There was that time when we watched “Bridget Jones Diary” and Gramz — hard of hearing and not very good at understanding British accents — kept asking me:

“Wait, what did Bridget say?” “What just happened?” I had to pause the movie several times to explain it to her. At the time, it annoyed me. Now I wish I could keep hitting the pause button.

And then there were the times when she and I would sit for hours, often at the kitchen table, and talk about work, life, and relationships. Her presence created a safe haven for me, a space where I could laugh, vent, and cry free from judgment.

The first time I remember crying in front of her was when my parents left on a trip to Nantucket. As they waved goodbye to me from the ferry, I yelled, “No, don’t go!” “Nooo!” I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. We never really are.

Gramz scooped me up in her arms and lifted my veil of tears.

Me with my paternal (left) and maternal grandmas. They've both been so good to me.
Me with my paternal Gramz (far left) and my maternal grandma, who is 87 and another important person in my life.

“We’ve got the whole week together,” she said, a big smile on her face. “We’re going to make it a fun week. We’ll go to the beach, and eat ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, and go to that playground you really like.” She came to understand my little world.

Children are highly attuned to what each adult in their life can provide them, and I knew early on that my grandmother could give me stability. As a child, I found comfort in her calmness, peace in her presence.

When I was 11, my mother passed away from breast cancer. As the weeks, and months, and years passed, Gramz helped raise me.

She lived with me and my father a few days a week and she cooked all the meals my mom used to make. She wanted to add consistency to our uprooted routine. She stayed by my side when I struggled and never gave up hope. She listened and gave me advice that I still hold close to my heart.

“You get back in this life what you give,” she’d always say.

Since finding out about Gramz’s passing, I have been thinking about the intricate bond between granddaughters and grandmothers — a bond that has been a defining part of my life.

When my mom died, my grandma became the hub around which the whole wheel revolved, the stitching that held together the patches of our family quilt.

She was a reservoir of advice, a strong-willed woman who proved that when we lose someone we love, when we think that feeling of emptiness will never go away, someone else often steps in or enters our life to fill the void and ease the pain.

Gramz teaching me how to make her delectable stuffed peppers.
Gramz teaching me how to make her delectable stuffed peppers. My cousins and I hope to turn her recipes into a cookbook.

Gramz, who grew up during the Great Depression and sometimes went to bed hungry, never wanted her family to feel empty. She nourished our bellies, our minds, and our hearts – with her home-cooked meals, her wisdom, and her love.

She learned how to cook from her Italian mother-in-law and came to develop the same Italian accent when describing the food she made: pasta e fagioli, pizzelles, lasagna with ricotta cheese.

She couldn’t eat the majority of meals she made. She had celiac disease — meaning she couldn’t eat “wheat, rye, barley or oats,” as she’d say, in that order. Still, she made pasta and pizza and bread for her family (and would occasionally steal a tiny bite). That’s the type of person she was: selfless and hyper aware of what people needed to feel full and whole.

My grandmother felt whole when surrounded by family – her children, her grandchildren, her in-laws, her late husband Frank and, later in life, her partner Gordon. She continued to bless our family with her wisdom, patience, and unconditional love until her final days.

As I walked through her house this past weekend, I saw dozens of family photos, envelopes stuffed with prayer cards, and pouches full of Rosary beads. My grandma went to church regularly and volunteered at the church’s thrift shop. She bought most of her wardrobe from that thrift shop and easily became the best-dressed 92-year-old in Cape Cod.

When I was younger, I always hoped Gramz would live long enough to see the man I would someday marry. She did, and was incredibly fond of Troy.
When I was younger, I always hoped Gramz would live long enough to see the man I would marry. She did, and was incredibly fond of Troy. When I moved to Florida after college, she worried about me being so far away from our home in Massachusetts. Once I married Troy, it gave her peace of mind to know that I had a life-long companion.

In thinking about her faith, I was drawn a bible passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:

“For everything, there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is wanted.”

It was my grandmother’s time. Knowing her, she would want us to remember that as people are plucked from this earth, new seeds are planted, and new flowers are forever blossoming. The regenerative cycle of life helps us grow; it keeps us grounded.

Gramz touched each and every one of us in this room. When I think about her impact, I think about one of her favorite movies — “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In it, an angel-in-training named Clarence gives a dispirited man named George Bailey a look at what the world would be life if he had never been born. At the movie’s end, Clarence gets his wings and George realizes his impact on this world.

Our world would be much different if Dorothy hadn’t been here. She was the best gift we could have received, and having surely gone to Heaven, she will continue to bless us with her generous spirit. Knowing Gramz, she is probably already working hard as an angel in training, and is well on her way to getting her wings.

It seems fitting that Gramz’s name was Dorothy, which is Greek for “a gift from God.” Dorothy was that, and so, so much more. May her beautiful soul forever live on in our hearts and minds, and may her memory nourish us all the years of our lives.

I turned this photo of me, Gramz, and my dad into a pillow and gave it to Gramz last Christmas. She loved it and took it to the rehab facility where she stayed for several months before passing away. Here’s a voicemail recording of her thanking me for the pillow. It’s comforting to hear her voice.
I turned this photo of me, Gramz, and my dad into a pillow and gave it to Gramz last Christmas. It was the last photo I ever took with her. She loved the pillow and took it to the rehab facility where she stayed for several months before passing away. It’s now on my bed at home. If you click on the audio clip below,  you can hear a related voicemail she left me and Troy on Christmas Day.

My journey from a 3-year-old sprinter to a marathoner

 I’ve heard people say that runners like to run away from their problems. As a lifelong runner, I’ve always run toward something — a goal, a relief from stress, my mom’s arms.

My penchant for running started at a young age. Shortly after my 3rd birthday, my mom signed me up for youth track and field. Every Monday night throughout that summer, she took me to the high school track, where the town held 50- to 400- yard races for kids ages 3 and up.

I hardly knew what it meant to run a 50-yard dash when I started.

“When they say ‘on your mark, get set, go, run as fast as you can until you see me,” Mom would say. “And don’t look back.”

“But why?”

“Because it can slow you down. Just run straight down the track toward me. … You’ll get a free ribbon at the end!”

“Ooo! A ribbon?!”


Mom, a lover of all things free, seemed just as excited as I was.

I lined up with the other three-year-olds, as we jumped up and down, clapping our hands and waving at our parents.

“On your mark … get set … goooooo!”

We’d run down the track, our elbows brushing up against each other, our little bodies weaving in and out of the track lanes like free spirits rebelling against the straight and narrow. Some of us turned around, confused as to what we were doing. Others would stop in the middle of the track and sit down. Plop.

I kept going. I still didn’t know exactly why I was running, but I knew what I was running toward. My mom was always at the finish line, waiting to embrace me with open arms.

“Go Mal, Go! You can do it! Come on, honey, you’re almost there!”

I’d run into her arms and she’d swoop me up and give me a big hug. Then she’d wave my ribbon in the air. At that age, in my pre-perfectionism days, I didn’t care what place I came in. I just enjoyed running, and finishing with the promise of a ribbon. Over the years, I earned more ribbons and became more focused on coming in first.

Around the same time Mom started taking me to the track and field races, she took me to watch the Boston Marathon. It became one of our annual traditions.

Mom at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass
Mom at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass

Every Marathon Monday, we’d get up early and pack sliced oranges, jellybeans, and water bottles to hand to the runners. My voice and little hands were always sore by the end of the marathon from all the cheering and high-fives.

“Go! You can do it!” my mom would yell.

I’d copy her and yell the same thing.

Mom had a fascination with watching runners, especially marathoners, but she didn’t actually like to run. She was more of a power walker — the kind that’s hard not to poke fun at. With a determined look on her face, she’d extend her arms in an exaggerated manner high above her head, and stretch out her legs as far as they could go. She’d charge down the streets of our tiny town, decked out in fluorescent workout gear. When I joined her, I had to run to keep up.

I'm lucky to have a lot of photos of me and my mom.
I’m lucky to have a lot of photos of me and my mom.

Mom was healthy by most people’s standards. But her healthy lifestyle wasn’t enough to prevent her from getting breast cancer.

She was diagnosed when I was 8 years old. Even when she was really sick, she still took me to the marathon. In 1996, on the 99th anniversary of the Boston Marathon, she told me that she’d be better the following year.

“We’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary together, Mal. It’ll be a special day.”

Mom had a mastectomy and was in remission for a brief period of time, which made me optimistic. But the cancer soon came back in her other breast. One day, she looked in the mirror, tilted her head and asked: “Mal, do you think I’m beautiful?” She had one breast, no hair, and yellow skin from the cancer, which had spread to her liver, her bone-marrow, and her brain.

“Of course you are, mommy.” I truly believed she was, but as I said it, I remember doubting my own beauty for the first time. Wrapped up in a package of perfection, I never realized the ugly truth about being perfect: you can’t be. I tried to control life’s blemishes and blunders, which became more prevalent in my life the sicker Mom got.

Playing pretend was one way to escape. When you’re a little girl and your mom is diagnosed with cancer, you try to tell yourself that she’ll make it, that you can wave your fairy princess magic wand and make her all better. You believe her when she tells you she’s a brave soldier in a battle, that she’s the Little Engine That Could, that even though she’s lost all her hair, one breast and 35 pounds, she’ll survive.

“I think I can, I think I can. … I know I can, I know I can.”

She was living out metaphors that, depending on whether or not you were playing pretend, suggested an ascension toward recovery or, more realistically, toward Heaven.

Mom met mortality on February 9, 1997. Forty-two days before the 100th Boston Marathon.

Too soon.

That night, all I wanted to do was go to bed. The hospice workers and my grandparents were gone by 7:00 p.m., leaving me and Dad in a house that no longer seemed like home. He turned on the TV just in time for the start of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Canned laughter ensued. I wondered how people could be happy when it seemed the whole world should be sad.

Skipping dinner, I went to bed feeling empty. I pulled the covers over my head and stared into the darkness, hoping I’d wake up to find that what had happened that night was nothing but a bad dream. I pretended things were fine and told myself not to cry.

“Erase it from my mind, erase it from my mind,” I whispered, scratching my head and repeating a refrain that I often said when something bad happened. I didn’t know that, years later, everything I had temporarily erased would leave such a lasting mark.

“Do you want to talk, Mal?” Dad asked.

“No. I just want to be alone.”

Dad turned off the light. I peered out from under the covers, hoping he’d still be there. He kissed me on the forehead and stayed by my bed in silence.

This photo was taken two days after my mom died. I was 11.
This photo was taken two days after my mom died. I was 11.

Mom wasn’t there to tell me she’d be ok, so I tried to be ok for her. I went to school the day after she died and told my sixth-grade teachers that I was fine and ready to move on. Two days after her death, I went to my sixth-grade Valentine’s Day and wore a smile the whole time. In photos, I looked like I was trying to be as proper and as poised as possible.

“Dad,” I said after Mom died, “I want to write a eulogy for Mom’s funeral.” “Eulogy” was one of those big words that I had heard Dad talk about behind closed doors. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, hoping I’d never have to hear one about my mother.

And yet, at age 11, I wrote one about Mom and read it at her funeral, composed and without tears. The eulogy, all 480 words of it, was my attempt to comfort everyone else and perhaps convince myself that all would be well. Part of it read:

“Everything happens for a reason, although that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.

“This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold. She’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God. She is now in Heaven — a place where she truly belongs.”

I remember feeling disconnected when I read the piece — confused as to why I felt the need to write about my mom’s death in a Hallmark kind of way.

At the time, I thought I was strong. I wanted to seem brave, but inside I was slowly falling apart. I scrambled to pick up the pieces, wishing I could run away from it all. I kept picturing the Runaway Bunny from the classic children’s tale that Mom used to read to me.

The bunny fantasizes about what he’ll do if he’s free — he’ll become a fish in a trout stream; a circus performer on a flying trapeze; a crocus in a hidden garden. His mother tells him that, now matter where he goes, she will find him and bring him home.

“If you run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

I had no mom to run toward, no mom to run after me.

Children who lose a parent between the ages of 6 and 12 have an especially difficult time with death, research has found. They’re old enough to understand what death means, and yet they’re too young to know how to best deal with a profound loss.

I remember telling others around me that I had come to terms with my mom passing away. I drew pictures of dozens of smiley faces, as if to suggest I had moved on and was happy. But when I wrote in my journal at night, I wrote about my mom in the present tense on tear-stained pages. This co-existence of acceptance and denial is what Sigmund Freud called “splitting the ego.” In some ways, it’s a coping mechanism.”

Here’s one of my happy drawings, created during one of my lowest points
Here’s one of my happy drawings, created during one of my lowest points

The more I thought about mom’s death, the more I felt like I had lost all control. As much as I wanted to bring Mom back and stop my little world from changing, I couldn’t. Looking for something I could control, I started to focus on my food intake. Food didn’t taste as good as it once did, and didn’t fill me up the same way Mom’s home-cooked meals did.

I thought that if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, I could live life in a standstill. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, then people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, the one who needed their love and attention. I’d be special.

I wanted to revert back to a time when Mom, Dad, and I were all happy, like this time when we were at Disney World. … My dad has always been so supportive.
I wanted to revert back to a time when Mom, Dad, and I were all happy, like this time when we were at Disney World. … My dad has always been so supportive.

Hope Edelman, author of “Motherless Daughters,” writes about this phenomenon, saying some children identify with an earlier stage of maturity as a way of keeping their Mom’s memory alive and avoiding the finality of death. “The result,” she writes, “is an adult who retains some characteristics of an earlier developmental time, one who feels as if a piece of her were still ‘stuck’ in childhood or adolescence. To this daughter, ‘growing up’ feels not only like a mystery but also a practical impossibility. She’s still too wedded to her childhood.”

Edelman goes on to say that “when a mother dies too young, something inside her daughter always feels incomplete. There’s a missing piece she continues to look for, an emptiness she keeps trying to fill.”

I always felt empty, emotionally and physically. Restricting my food intake didn’t help, but it gave me some semblance of control. So I kept on restricting. And I ran — a lot. Running became a way to obsessively burn calories and lose more weight. All the while, I limited myself to foods like green beans, carrots, and cottage cheese. Common foods for people with anorexia.

Caroline Knapp wrote about the cottage cheese curse in her memoir “Appetites”:

“Cottage cheese, of course, is the food God developed specifically to torture women, to make them keen with yearning. Picture it on a plate, lumpy and bland atop a limp lettuce leaf and half a canned peach. Consider the taste and feel of it: wet, bitter little curds. now compare it to the real thing: a thick, oozing slab of brie, or a dense and silky smear of cream cheese. Cottage cheese is one of our culture’s most visible symbols of self-denial; marketed honestly, it would appear in dairy cases with warning labels: THIS SUBSTANCE IS SELF-PUNITIVE; INGEST WITH CAUTION.”

I fell into the self-punitive trap and kept losing weight. At my worst, I was 66 pounds, running as fast and as much as I could, and consuming no more than 400 calories a day.

Still, I wanted to lose more weight. There’s a tendency among anorexics to equate skinniness with perfection. The problem is, no matter how skinny anorexics get, it’s never skinny enough. Marya Hornbacher, author of “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia” once wrote: “We turn skeletons into goddesses and look to them as if they might teach us how not to need.”

My battle with anorexia led to four hospitalizations, two month-long stays in a psychiatric unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a year-and-a-half-long stay at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for troubled girls in Massachusetts.

The hospitalizations stabilized my physically, but they didn’t address all of the emotional and mental issues under the surface. It wasn’t until I went to residential treatment that I really started to make connections between my mom’s death and my eating disorder. My counselors there helped me realize that by trying to sprint through the grieving process, I had paved the way for a painful marathon. Slowly, I began to make better choices to the point where I was healthy enough to leave in-patient treatment and live at home with my dad.

After missing three years of school, I returned to my high school junior year and joined the cross-country team. Running on the team felt empowering; I was running not because I wanted to burn calories but because I had always liked running. I met some of my closest friends on the team, one of whom remains my best friend all these years later.

I listened to my body and ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. It seems so simple — to just listen to your body — but it’s complicated when you have a history with eating. It’s so much easier to focus on food and your body than it is to feel.

Freshman year in college, I started to slip back into bad habits. I wasn’t restricting all the time like I did when I was younger; instead, I was secretly binging one day and restricting the next.

Several women struggle with this same type of distorted eating. Because it doesn’t fall under the category of “anorexia” or “bulimia,” it’s more often categorized as “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS. (How’s that for a vague categorization?) Symptoms include night eating syndrome, chewing and spitting out food, purging, binging, repeated patterns of binging and restricting, and even picky eating.

The International Journal of Eating Disorders says EDNOS — which is themost common eating disorder in the U.S. — is “often a way station between an eating disorder and recovery or, less commonly, from recovery to a full-blown eating disorder.” A 2009 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that more people die from EDNOS than from bulimia or anorexia.

This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to identify the symptoms of (and subsequently treat) bulimia and anorexia. When you’re bulimic, people start to notice when you repeatedly go to the bathroom after meals. When you’re anorexic, people see that you’re losing weight and get concerned. In my case, my weight has more or less stayed the same, making it easier to mask my disordered eating habits.

When you’ve struggled with eating, you develop weird habits such as cutting up food into tiny pieces or picking it apart
When you’ve struggled with eating, you develop weird habits such as cutting up food into tiny pieces or picking it apart

Recovery is possible, but elusive. And it’s hard to define: Does recovery mean you’re “all better,” that you never worry about your weight and always listen to your body? Does it mean you’re able to eat three meals a day? Does it mean you’re at your ideal body weight?

So often, recovery and sickness are set up as two extremes. People assume that if you’re no longer “sick,” you must be “recovered.” I’ve realized, though, that many people who struggle with eating disorders or milder forms of disordered eating are somewhere in between recovery and sickness.

They’re in the middle place.

Aimee Liu, author of “Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives,” says that many people experience the “half life” of anorexia when on the road to recovery. They struggle to define it because it’s so nuanced. Those who are in this middle place “recover nutritionally and suspend the behaviors of starving, bingeing and purging. But the self-criticism, self-abuse, perfectionism, judgmentalism and restrictive mindset persist.”

I try to remind myself that it’s important to make progress in the middle place — a spot where it’s easy to get stuck.

Progress isn’t always about food. Sometimes it’s about making ourselves vulnerable enough to be loved. After years of dating and being hard on myself when none of the dates turned into relationships, I found a man (on Match.com, no less) who made me feel loved and beautiful. Troy knew about my issues with eating but instead of abandoning me because of them, he sought ways to help me. Being with Troy made my eating issues less of a secret. I couldn’t hide my weird eating quirks as much, and I could no longer pretend I was “perfectly fine.”

It’s hard being in a healthy relationship with a man you love and an abusive relationship with a disease you loathe.

Marrying Troy in October 2013 was a huge turning point for me; over the past year, I’ve moved closer to recovery than I have in the past five years combined.

Me and the love of my life.
Me and the love of my life.

Marriage made me think a lot about my mom, and it forced me to face the reality that I was closer than I’d ever been to becoming a mom.

I kept thinking about my future kids. I didn’t want to pass along my bad habits, and I wanted to be healthy enough to have kids in the first place. Even though I have an incredibly supportive husband, I knew I needed outside support to be able to move forward in my journey. So I researched therapists and finally found one I liked. She specializes in eating disorders and understands how complicated they can be.

“You’re going to get better faster if you take a team approach,” I remember her telling me early on. “Let me recommend a nutritionist for you to see.”

I cringed at the thought of seeing a nutritionist. The last time I saw one, she seemed more interested in selling me protein shakes than in helping me.

“When you get the urge to binge, just drink a protein shake,” she said.

If only it were that simple. Binges aren’t just about a physical hunger; they’re about an emotional hunger that stems from years of self-denial.

The nutritionist my therapist recommended turned out to be an amazing fit. She, too, specializes in eating disorders and has helped me redefine what it means to be strong and healthy.

I’ve always been good at keeping secrets, and maintaining the “happy, healthy girl” perception.

It’s easy to hide behind perceptions — to pretend you have it all together when inside, you’re crumbling. The crumbly part of life becomes your secret — one that you don’t want to share for fear that people will look differently at you, judge you, or stop loving you. Vulnerability is a bitch, and a blessing.

My physique and cheerful demeanor are deceiving. I’m a runner and a vegetarian who, for the most part, eats only healthy foods in front of others.

“Oh Mallary doesn’t want any of those. Are you kidding me?” a coworker once said after hearing someone offer me Hershey Kisses.

Of course I wanted them. Who doesn’t want a Hershey Kiss? But I agreed with my coworker and said, “Thanks for offering; I don’t want any, though.”

I’ve found that the foods we turn down (but secretly want) in public are the foods we turn toward in private. The chocolate that I won’t let myself eat in public is the food I crave, the food I hide and hoard.

I’ve always liked sweet treats. Especially ice cream.
I’ve always liked sweet treats. Especially ice cream.

My therapist and nutritionist have pushed me to be more open about what I want, and to not let my disordered eating habits steal my desires. They’ve understood when I’ve slipped up and have helped me strive for progress, not perfection. They’ve taught me to treat my body with kindness instead of cruelty. To thank my feet and runner’s legs for carrying me so far.

They’ve also challenged me to think more deeply about why I’ve restricted and binged for so long.

Geneen Roth, who has written a lot on binge eating, says that “during the first few bites, and before we get dazed by overeating, everything we want is possible. Everything we’ve lost is here now. And so we settle for the concrete version of our lost selves in the form of food. And once food has become synonymous with goodness or love or fulfillment, you cannot help but choose it, no matter how high the stakes are.”

The truth is, food never loves us back. When we stop trying to fill ourselves with something tangible, like donuts or French fries, we discover that there are other ways to feel full. To feel loved.

Over the past year, I’ve been developing other ways to find nourishment. I’ve slowly realized that when I eat a lot one day and deprive myself of food the next, I’m setting myself up for a binge-restrict cycle that can last for days or weeks.

The danger of this cycle has become clearer to me over the past 18 weeks, which I’ve spent training for my first marathon. When I told my therapist and nutritionist that I had signed up for a marathon, they raised their eyebrows.

“Are you sure you want to run this? You’ve made so much progress lately. Training could cause a setback in your recovery.”

“We will support whatever decision you make, but we think you need to consider the risks.”

I was well aware of them.

I knew that running a marathon could make me obsessive about exercising and losing weight. I could fall back on old behaviors that I’ve tried so hard to distance myself from. I could relapse.

I was willing to risk it, though. Part of me wanted to train for the marathon to prove that I could, as a sort of fuck you to eating issues that have affected me for the past 17 years. Training, it seemed, would be a test to see if I could exercise more and stay healthy enough to maintain my weight. It would be a test to see if I was willing enough to give my body the fuel and care that it needs.

Before we get better for other people — our parents, our partner, our children — we need to get better for ourselves.

Marathon training has helped me do that in unexpected ways.

There were times during my training when I wanted to quit. Nerves sometimes led to sleepless nights. I’d toss and turn, wondering: “What have I gotten myself into? I don’t think I can do it.”

Still, I kept running.

Celebrating our first anniversary in October 2014.
Celebrating our first anniversary in October 2014.

My husband Troy helped me every mile of the way. He listened to my concerns, pushed me to eat, and told me he had faith in me. He became my number one cheerleader. Every time I ran a long run on weekends, he’d meet me three miles before the finish and ride his bike alongside me. He’d cheer me on, give me high-gives, and tell passerby: “My wife is training for a marathon!” They’d usually slip in a high-five, too.

“Strong, confident woman!” he’d say, repeating the motto he always recites to help me feel better about myself.

Some days, I had to run on very little sleep. Other days, I had to run at odd hours on unknown paths. Up paved hills. Down wooded trails. Beside the ocean. On treadmills overlooking beautiful views of a city skyline. On treadmills in hotel gyms that were more like windowless hovels. I ran rain or shine. In 85-degree-weather. 26-degree weather. Brrr.

Throughout the course of my 18-week training, I traveled for work, weddings, holidays, a bachelorette party, and a funeral. I took 10 trips — to Cape Cod, San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Boston, D.C., Fort Worth, New Orleans, and Austin — and ran in all but one of those cities.

I could have made excuses to skip runs or take days off. But I kept running.

I told myself I didn’t want to focus on my pace, but the more I ran, the more fixated I became on running faster. I told my therapist how hard it was for me to not push myself toward perfection.

I’ve tried for so long to be perfect in all aspects of my life — mainly because I’ve always thought my mom wanted me to be perfect. Whenever I made a mistake, she yelled at me and made me feel guilty. When she died, I told myself I needed to be perfect; it was my warped way of holding onto her.

“What if your mom really didn’t want you to be perfect?” my therapist asked me not long ago. “What if she just wanted you to do well?”

“Then why did she yell at me whenever I did something wrong?” I asked.

“I wish I had an answer … I do know, though, that when we’re kids, and our parents yell at us like that, we think it means that they want us to be perfect.”

I had never considered the possibility that Mom didn’t want me to be perfect. Maybe she just had a bad temper and I misinterpreted it.

“If you let go of the idea that your mom wanted you to be perfect, maybe you’ll feel less inclined to hold onto perfectionism. Let go of that and hold onto the gifts she gave you.”

During my long runs, I kept going back to what my therapist said. “Let go of perfectionism, hold onto the gifts…”

At first it was hard for me to remember the gifts Mom gave me. But the harder my training got, the more I thought about the connection between my mom and running. All those track meets. The ribbons. The marathon outings.

Those were some of the greatest gifts Mom gave me. She not only gave me a passion for running; she gave me the confidence I needed to do it.

“Go Mal, Go! You can do it! Come on, honey, you’re almost there!”

During my last long run, a 22-miler, I tried running toward the good memories and away from perfectionism. It wasn’t perfect; I still worried a little about my time. But it felt freeing to let it go. To let it be.

At the end of the 22-miler, I felt happy and accomplished. And nauseous. I was surprised by how sick I felt. I thought I had stuffed my face the day before in an attempt to carb-load.

Groceries I bought during my carb-load trip
Groceries I bought during my carb-load trip

I wrote down everything I ate and showed it to my nutritionist. She added everything up and estimated that I had eaten only 1,540 calories — not even enough for a non-exercise day. At first I didn’t believe her. Was she trying to trick me? But the more I looked at the numbers, the more I started to put things in perspective. All those days when I think I’ve binged and eaten too much, I probably still haven’t eaten enough.

My nutritionist reminded me that I need at least 1,800 calories for a regular day, plus 100 extra calories for each mile I run.

She set me up with a carb-load plan for the three days leading up to the marathon and said I needed to eat 500+ grams of carbs and aim for 3,000 calories per day. She said she was proud of how well I had been doing and knew I could do it.

“If you’re going to run like a crazy person, you need to eat like a crazy person,” she said. “You’re an athlete. Take care of your instrument.”

This comic, recently published in Runners World, makes me laugh. … Don’t worry, cupcakes, I’ll be back soon
This comic, recently published in Runners World, makes me laugh. … Don’t worry, cupcakes, I’ll be back soon

I went to the grocery store after my appointment and bought graham crackers, Fig Newtons, Swedish fish, fruit, frozen yogurt, bagels, spaghetti. All the stuff I love but rarely let myself eat.

During these last three days leading up to the marathon, I’ve tried to stick to my plan and combat worries about weight gain.

They’re still there. Thoughts about losing weight have inevitably popped up throughout my training. But instead of feeding into them or suppressing them, I’ve challenged myself to be open about them.

For as much as I’ve thought about weight loss, it hasn’t been a motivating factor while training. I’ve realized throughout the past 18 weeks that I’ve been more focused on feeling strong during my long runs than on losing weight. I spent so many years feeling physically weak when I was younger; I like feeling strong — and healthy.

As I run through Walt Disney World on marathon day, I’ll be thinking of my mom. I’ll remember her love for cheering on runners, and her big hugs at the end of the 50-yard dash races. I’ll embrace her legacy of bravery and strength.

I’ll be her Little Engine That Could.

I think I can, I think I can. … I know I can, I know I can.

26.2 miles closer to recovery.

Update: Mallary finished the marathon at 3:48 — placing in the top 2% of female racers. More importantly, she felt strong during the run and crossed the finish line wearing a smile and happy tears.

How the media can do a better job recognizing the complexity of Cassidy Stay’s loss

I’ve been struck this week by the media’s coverage of Cassidy Stay, the 15-year-old girl who lost her parents and four siblings in a tragic shooting last week.

Cassidy, the lone survivor, was shot in the skull but pretended to be dead until the shooter — her ex-uncle — left the scene. She suffered a fractured skull but was soon released from the hospital.

It’s understandable that the media would be drawn to Cassidy’s story; it’s a story about survival, about a young woman who is doing seemingly well in the wake of a life-changing tragedy. But I worry that the coverage has prematurely assumed Cassidy is on “the road to recovery.”

News organizations have used the “road to recovery” cliche because Cassidy used it herself.

“I am feeling a lot better and am on a very straightforward path to a full recovery,” she said during her family’s memorial.

She put a positive spin on her family’s death, saying: “I know that my Mom, Dad, Brian, Emily, Becca and Zach are in a much better place, and that I will be able to see them again one day.” Quoting Harry Potter, she said: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” She ended her talk by smiling, raising her arm in the air and saying, “Stay strong!

Though Cassidy cried at the memorial, the media tended to focus on her “Stay strong” pose and on her positive demeanor. Her talk, and the media’s coverage of it, made it seem like she was dealing well with the tragedy and moving on.

I didn’t see any coverage that recognized how tremendously difficult loss can be for children — let alone a child who has lost six family members all at once. And I didn’t see any coverage about the challenges that children in this type of situation face — survivor’s guilt, depression, denial, etc. Instead, I’ve seen one-dimensional coverage that has relied on cliches: “road to recovery,” “stay strong,” “beacon of hope,” “Harry Potter loving hero.

I’m moved by Cassidy’s story not because of the hopeful spin the media has put on it but because she reminds me of my younger self. I will never know what it’s like to lose both of my parents and four siblings in a shooting, but I know what it’s like to lose a mom at a young age. Cassidy’s talk at her family’s memorial reminded me of the eulogy I gave at my mom’s funeral.

When I was 11, my mom died of breast cancer. I wrote her eulogy a day after she died and read it at her funeral without shedding a tear. The eulogy read like a Hallmark card:

Robin, my mother, was a pure angel who was sent to us by the Lord Almighty. Her everlasting wings brought her here on Earth to us and brought her back up to Paradise. My mother, why she was a wonderful, loving, and sincere person. She was a person who was put on Earth to take away our deepest sorrows, worries and hurts. And truthfully that is exactly what she did.

My mother was a mighty strong fighter. She was a brave soldier in a battle. She was a hiker climbing a steep mountain, a mountain with rough, rigid rocks. And she climbed those rocks with a strong wind blowing against her. She climbed those rocks often with difficulty, and sometimes with no difficulty whatsoever. Yet the wind was just too hard to take, and it thrust her to the bottom of the mountain. 

We all have to realize that even though Robin can not be seen physically be the human eye, she can be seen and heard with our hearts. Whenever you feel that you would like to speak with my mother or just tell her how much you love her, all you have to do is find the doors to your hearts and open them, and she will be right there. In fact, she is watching each and every one of us right now, at this very minute. Her spirit fills this room that we are in.

We all know that this is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives and that life goes on. For some of us right now, our courage is scattered around here and there in various places. Yet it is our responsibility, for our own good, and for Robin’s sake, that we take our hands and gather all of those pieces, big and small, to form our courage. For I know that this is what my mother would want us to do, this is what she would do. 

Everything happens for a reason. Although, that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness. This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold, she’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God, she is now in Heaven. A place where she truly belongs. 

At the time, I thought I was strong.  I didn’t realize that true strength comes from being vulnerable, from expressing sadness and anger and confusion. Hiding these feelings only delays the grieving process and can lead to more problems later on. No one ever told me that grieving is good, even life-saving.

As journalists tell follow-up stories about Cassidy, they should be conscious of complexity — the complexity of death, loss, and grief at such a young age. You can do this by adding some context — such as a quote from a child psychologist who specializes in grieving, or highlights from research that’s been done in this area. (There’s lots of research on children and loss.) You don’t want to assume that the child is going to face challenges; at this early stage, you just want to point to evidence acknowledging that this type of situation is extremely difficult, even if the child’s words and actions suggest otherwise.

I hope that as time goes on, Cassidy’s story will lend itself to being an authentic Restorative Narrative — a story about a person or community that has demonstrated resilience in a tragedy’s aftermath. Right now, though, it’s too soon for her story to be restorative. Too raw. Too cliche.

Recovery is a journey and a process of discovery. It’s filled with twists and turns, speed-bumps and ditches. Good journalism recognizes this.


Posting new work on MallaryTenore.org

Hi readers!

I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to blog lately, but I’m keeping up with my writing as part of my role with Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh). The best way to follow my current work is on my website, mallarytenore.org. I still hope to publish personal essays on my blog as time allows.

Until next time,


7 things I’ve learned about wedding planning

It’s hard to believe that Troy and I are getting married in just 10 days. As the planning comes to a close, I wanted to take time to reflect on what I’ve learned about planning for a wedding:

1. The planning doesn’t really end until the day of the wedding. A lot of people have recently asked me, “So, are you all done planning?” Far from it. I still have a lot of little things to do — trying ribbons on wedding programs, printing place cards, wrapping bridesmaids gifts, etc. These things will get done, though. And if they don’t, the wedding will still go on.

2. Wedding magazines are fun to read, but they can be overwhelming. They’re filled with lists of do’s and don’ts, and they make it seem like you “have” to do a lot of things and follow a lot of traditions. As it turns out, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to! Your wedding is your day, and it’s an opportunity to create your own new traditions. If you don’t want to have favors, don’t. Consider making a donation to a special organization or cause in the guests’ name instead. If you don’t want to have a traditional wedding cake, then serve cupcakes, or cookies, or tiramisu. The more you personalize your wedding, the less caught up you get in thinking that certain aspects of a wedding are “mandatory.” The book (and related blog) “A Practical Wedding” is a great read for brides who want to take a practical approach to wedding planning.

Counting down the days to Oct. 19!
Counting down the days to Oct. 19!

3. Figure out what matters to you most and then splurge on that and save on the rest. The cost of a wedding can climb quickly if you’re not smart about choosing your vendors. Rather than spend a lot of money on “the best” vendors for everything, figure out what you are willing to spend more money on. Maybe you want to splurge on a more expensive photographer because good wedding photos are especially important to you. Maybe you want a killer dress, so you decide to spend a little extra on one. On the flip side, maybe flowers aren’t as important to you, so you decide to buy them at the farmers’ market instead of hiring a florist. Or maybe you could care less about seat covers and pretty linens, so you choose to forgo them. Prioritize!

4. Delegate the planning. Most married guys I know were not very involved in planning their wedding. Since I’m not one to conform to gender roles, I asked Troy to help out. I gave him a couple of tasks, such as booking a block of hotel rooms for out-of-town guests and booking our limo service. I also asked for his advice along the way. I wanted him to feel included, but more importantly, I wanted the planning to be a shared experience. Troy may not have had an opinion on whether I should have rust-colored asiatic lilies or peach hypericum berries in my bouquet (!) but he did care about our first dance song and helped me choose one. Sometimes it helps to think about what your fiance is most interested in. Is he really into music? Ask him to book the DJ and help pick out songs. Is he a foodie? Ask for his help finding a caterer. It also helps to have a fiance who’s calm. Troy has kept me from freaking out too much during the final planning stages.

5. If you can afford it, hire a day-of wedding planner. Troy and I hired one, and it’s one of the better decisions we’ve made in the planning process. Even though she’s a “day-of” planner, she has helped a lot along the way — by giving me her opinion when I’ve asked for it, sharing advice and suggesting vendors. The day of the wedding, she will be at the reception hall to make sure all the vendors arrive on time and are where they’re supposed to be. (We had to hire vendors for catering, liquor, linens and more, so there’s a lot to keep track of!) She’ll also clean up the reception hall after we leave and will bring the floral arrangements, gifts, etc. back to our house the night of the wedding so we don’t have to worry about it. It has given me peace of mind to know that someone will be at the reception hall to make sure everything comes together; it’s one less thing I have to worry about the day of the wedding!

6. Go for a trial hair and makeup appointment. I didn’t want to look like an overly bronzed clown on the Big Day, so I scheduled trial appointments a few weeks before the wedding to test out different styles. It was reassuring to meet with my hairdresser and makeup artist ahead of time to explain what I wanted. The hair stylist learned that she’ll need more time to do my hair the day of the wedding, so I adjusted my day-of appointment accordingly. And when the makeup artist started to get too adventurous, I asked her to tone it down a bit. Now when I get my hair and makeup done the day of the wedding, I’ll know exactly what I want and so will the stylists.

7. Take time to think about what a special time this is in your life. It’s easy to get caught up in planning, especially at the beginning and right before the wedding. Remember that no wedding is perfect. Sometimes the imperfections make it more memorable. What’s important is that you and your fiance are making a lifelong commitment to be with each other. Think about the significance of that event and remember that this is one of the most special days of your life. Embrace it.

Taking on a new job as managing director of Images & Voices of Hope

After six years at The Poynter Institute, I’m leaving to take a job as managing director of Images & Voices of Hope (IVOH) — a nonprofit dedicated to highlighting how the media can be a force for good.

The job presents a lot of exciting opportunities, and it will help me reach some of my longer-term goals. As managing director, I’ll be responsible for growing IVOH’s digital audience and social media presence. I’ll also get experience in three key areas: partnership-building, event planning and fundraising. I’ll work closely with IVOH founder Judy Rodgers and the organization’s board of directors, which is made up of a talented group of media thinkers, including Roberta Baskin, Jon Funabiki, Connie Schultz and Michael Skoler.

The position enables me to continue doing the editorial work I love, while developing business skills that are necessary to run an organization. I’ve often thought about running my own media-related organization, or starting an editing/publishing company, so this job moves me closer to those aspirations. IVOH has been in need of a full-time managing director who can grow it and take it to the next level, and I’m eager to be that person.

Came across this quote the other day and it seemed fitting. (Via zenpencils.com)
Came across this quote the other day and it seemed fitting. (Via zenpencils.com)

While overseeing IVOH’s website, I’ll have creative freedom to write and publish stories that show how the media can connect communities during times of tragedy, restore hope in what’s been lost, and have a positive impact on society. Given the growth of sites like Upworthy, along with studies that say people tend to share “less mean” news, I think there’s a real opportunity for IVOH to play a role in this space. I also think there’s value in IVOH and other organizations that focus on what’s working in the media, rather than dwelling on what’s broken.

On a deeper level, IVOH’s mission really resonates with me. I’m drawn to the idea of showing how the media can have a positive impact on society. Recently, IVOH began exploring “restorative narratives.” It’s a genre of storytelling that shows how stories, film, art and even advertising “expresses empowerment, possibilities and revitalization.” As I’ve given more thought to the restorative narrative genre in recent weeks, I’ve realized that the memoir I’m writing — about losing my mom at age 11 and struggling in the aftermath — is very much a restorative narrative.

My new position will give me a little more free time than I’ve had — to finish my memoir, start taking yoga classes, run, and spend more time doing other things I enjoy outside of work. I equate this new job with happiness, good health and professional growth.

I’ll be working from home, which will be an adjustment. Troy and I aren’t in a position to move right now, though, so the ability to work remotely was appealing. My fiance Troy has graciously agreed to let me turn his man-cave into a home office (!) so I’ll have a designated work space, a room of my own. The room, which is above our garage, has a full bathroom attached to it. It’s both spacious and cozy, and it lets in a lot of natural light.

I’ll be traveling a decent amount in this new position, which I think will help combat the loneliness I may initially feel when working from home. My first trip will be to Santa Cruz, Calif., where I’ll be attending a retreat put on by the Whitman Institute, one of the organizations that has long supported IVOH.

Deciding my next steps wasn’t easy: I had a choice between staying on and becoming editor of Poynter.org, or leaving to try something new. I’m grateful for mentors who listened to me and gave me thoughtful advice when I needed it most. I’m also fortunate to have a fiance who has supported me throughout this whole process.

As I grappled with my decision, I reflected on how many amazing opportunities I’ve been given at Poynter: I started my career at the institute and have moved up the ladder at Poynter.org. I’m currently managing editor of the website and have acted as interim editor for the past six months, since my former boss left. I’ve taught social media sessions in Poynter seminars, developed my writing and editing skills, and learned what it takes to be a manager/leader. And I’ve been lucky to work alongside gifted colleagues who care deeply about journalism.

I initially thought I’d stay at Poynter because it seemed easier than having to deal with the fear of disappointing my colleagues. But I had to listen to what I wanted and recognize my tendency to hold onto what’s familiar.

As my dad told me earlier this week, sometimes we have to let go in order to grow. “Being brave is not being without fear,” he said. “It is simply being able to manage your fears and not let them manage you.” To excel professionally and personally, we have to be brave enough to take risks that will enable us to take on new challenges, meet new people, and find fulfillment.

More and more, I’ve realized I’m ready for a new kind of fulfillment.

I’ll stay at Poynter through the second week of October, and then I’ll take a break to do some final preparations for a very special day — my wedding! Troy and I are getting married on Oct. 19 and then taking a two-week honeymoon in mid-November. After that, I’ll be starting my new job. I’ll also become an adjunct faculty member at Poynter, which means I’ll teach at the institute a couple of times a year and occasionally write for Poynter.org.

I’m excited for my next steps, as a bride-to-be and a journalist. It’s a new beginning.

Making progress on my memoir

photoSome good news: I’ve finished a rough draft of my memoir.

For the past few years, I’ve written several personal essays in hopes of eventually writing a memoir. Since getting some in-person inspiration from one of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, I’ve spent the past year researching, reporting and writing my book. One of my former editors is now reading and editing it. Once I get feedback from her, I’ll make some changes and then send it to an agent.

It feels liberating to have finished a rough draft and to have made so much progress on a goal that I’ve wanted to accomplish for more than a decade. The memoir is about the difficulties I experienced after losing my mom at a young age, and the lasting effect they’ve had on me. It centers on three key themes that intersect in a lot of ways: food, loss and love.

Between writing my memoir and working long hours, I haven’t had as much time to keep up with my blog lately. I’ll be posting memoir updates more regularly, though, when I have new information to share.

If you want to get a better sense of what my memoir’s about, read these personal essays:

How losing my mom led me to neglect a hungry heart

Why I’ve struggled with eating for so long and how I’m learning to let go

Why we turn to food when we’re stressed and what we can do instead

My not-so-easy response to the question: ‘So, why did you become a vegetarian?’

Spotting signs from loved ones who have died

Learning to heal from the loss of my mom, struggles with food

Mother-daughter song stirs memories of happier times with mom

Last night, my boyfriend slipped a ring on my finger …

Planning a wedding without your mom

Planning a wedding without your mom

Every day, I think about my mom. Sometimes I’ll look in the mirror and see a resemblance — the same high cheekbones, the same thin lips. Or I’ll hear a song she liked and start singing along to it.Love shack, baby love shack!

Other times I’ll see material things that remind me of her — her old eyelash curler, which I admittedly still keep in my makeup bag. The crosstitch she made that’s now hanging in my home office. The small sterling silver bracelet she once wore that I now wear every day.

Mom died of breast cancer 16 years ago this Saturday. I was 11 when she died — old enough to tell her about my first crush in the third grade, and old enough to go dress shopping with her just before my first middle school dance. I never got to ask her for dating advice, though, or tell her about the night in October 2012 when my fiance Troy proposed.

I’ve gotten used to Mom not being here for the big moments. But a wedding without a mom is different. You can’t help but feel the loss. You can’t go wedding dress shopping with her or ask for her opinion while planning for the big day. (“What do you think about this venue? … “Should our floral centerpieces be short or tall? … How do you think I should address the ‘we-can’t-invite-everyone-even though-we-wish-we-could’ situation?”) It’s not to say I’d even ask my mom all of these questions if she were alive, but I’d like to know I could.

Weddings aren’t just about brides and grooms; they’re about mothers and daughters. Mother-daughter traditions make way for assumptions that pop up in wedding magazines and in conversations with acquaintances; it’s in our nature to assume (and hope) that if you’re a young bride-to-be, you must have a mom.

On more than one occasion, people who don’t know me well have said something to the effect of:

“Your mom must be so excited for you! Are you going to go wedding dress shopping with her?”

“Actually, my mom passed away when I was younger,” I kindly tell them.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Then, they switch to the bridal party — something seemingly more fun.

“Who’s going to be in your bridal party? Your sisters?”

“Actually, I’m an only child.”


Cue the awkwardness.

These conversations are a reminder of what I don’t have. But they’re also an opportunity to think about how I can incorporate what I do have into the wedding: memories.

I’m going to put one of the costume jewelry pins my mom bought me on my bouquet, and see if the priest who’s marrying us will say a prayer for her during our ceremony. I’m also going to ask our DJ to play “Love Shack” during the reception. “Everybody’s movin,’ everybody’s groovin’ baby!” (As for the lack of sisters? My cousin and close friends make up for that.)

My dad and I can’t help but think of Mom when we talk about the wedding. Recently, he found Mom’s wedding dress in the attic of my grandma’s house. It had been there, wrapped neatly in a box, for nearly 30 years.

“It still looks brand new,” Dad said. “It’s yours if you want it.” I contemplated wearing it, but decided I want to shop for my own dress. It’s possible I could take a piece from her dress — some lace or ribbon — and add it to my own.

The last time I was home in Massachusetts, my dad showed me their wedding album. As I flipped through the yellow-tinted pages, I held my camera up to the pictures. Snap, smile. Snap, smile.

“Wow, look how beautiful Mom was — and how skinny you were!”

“Yep,” my dad said, a look of nostalgia in his eyes. “Mom really was a beautiful bride. You will be, too.”

Ever the sentimentalist, Dad got an emotional look on his face. He went on to tell me about his special day with Mom and how right it felt. Then he reached for a wedding CD he had made me. He stuck it in his CD player and skipped to no. 2 — Paul Simon’s “Father and Daughter.” “I thought this would be a good father-daughter song for us,” he said. As we listened to it, he started to cry.

I’m gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you’ll always know
As long as one and one is two wooo
There could never be a father who loved
His daughter more than I love you

I wish Mom could have been there with me to hug my dad — and poke a little fun at him. I wish she could be here to help me do all the stuff that moms are “supposed to do” for weddings. But she can’t, so I have to find other ways to fill the void. I know that on the big day — October 19, 2013 — Troy and I will be surrounded by people we care about; family members, friends and coworkers have all offered to help us plan and celebrate our wedding. I feel lucky, and loved.

For as much as I think about the past, I get more excited when I think about my future. Troy and I have a lot to look forward to as a married couple. We’ll carry on some of the pastimes we’ve shared with our families and start our own traditions. We’ll share new experiences — and we’ll create new memories, together.

Here are some photos from my mom and dad’s wedding album. (You can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Pretty mom.
Mom, the beautiful bride. I love how elegant her dress looks.
Mom and dad.
Mom and dad.
First dance. (No, they didn’t dance to “Love Shack.”)
Mom and her bridesmaids. (That’s my aunt, second from the left.)
Mom and Dad with my maternal grandparents.
With family.
Mom and Dad with my paternal grandparents.
Gramz and my late grandpa (or Pop-Pop, as I used to call him). The height difference is striking. I know my Gramz would like to be at the wedding, but her health has declined. (She’s going to be 90 in March!) I’m keeping my fingers crossed she can make it.
Grandma and Grandpa. Gramps died about 10 years ago. Gram is alive and well. Just this week, I talked with her by phone about the wedding. “What kind of dress are you thinking of getting, Mal? A topless one?” she asked. “Well, I’m sure Troy would like that,” I said, jokingly. “But I think you meant to say a ‘strapless one’!” Whoops. We couldn’t stop laughing.

Planning a wedding — and a life together

When I started wedding planning the first week of November, I thought it would be easy to find affordable venues that we both liked.

It turns out, planning a wedding is more complicated than I thought it would be. My fiance Troy and I looked at several different venues that we both liked. We were pretty sure we were going to get married and have the reception at a hotel in St. Pete; we had asked the hotel’s wedding coordinator to hold a date for us, and told her we were ready for a contract. I was so happy with how things had progressed that I (prematurely) announced on Facebook that we had found our ceremony and reception venue.

When we got the contract, Troy and I cringed. We hadn’t factored in the service fees and tax, so the total amount was far more than we had anticipated. We agreed it was too much for us to pay.

And so the search for venues continued.

For two months, we visited and considered a variety of venues. Then, we decided to look into the church that I go to — St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. I’ve always envisioned getting married in the Catholic Church. Troy’s not Catholic, though, so we hadn’t seriously considered it as an option. We assumed the Church would make him convert or go through several pre-marital classes. But the requirements aren’t nearly as rigorous as we thought they would be. Troy assured me that he would be OK with getting married in the Church, so we booked a date: October 19, 2013. (It just so happens, that’s “Sweetest Day.”)

The St. Petersburg Women's Club, where we're having our reception.
The St. Petersburg Women’s Club, where we’re having our reception.

We then thought we were going to have our reception at my workplace, but just a few days ago we realized that the space isn’t big enough. I had made wedding dress appointments last week but ended up canceling them so I could start searching for reception venues again. Just about every place I visited was already booked on Oct. 19th — except for the last place I visited — the St. Petersburg Women’s Club. It turns out, that was my favorite venue of them all.

Oct. 19th was the one date that was still open in October and November 2013, so we booked it. The Club is a historic landmark, and it’s right on the water. It’s old-fashioned inside, but I like that aspect of it.

It’s a relief to have a ceremony and reception spot. Now, planning seems more fun. I just created our wedding website and have started booking vendors — a d.j., photographer, caterer, etc. I’m trying to take everything one day at a time so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming. It helps that I’ve been on vacation and have had more free time than usual.

Troy’s been my voice of reason through it all. He’s calmed my nerves when I’ve started to get worried, and he’s been so good at listening to my ideas for the wedding and offering his input. He’s also agreed to help out with certain aspects of the planning.

I’ve quickly learned that wedding planning can become all-consuming if you let it. So, I’ve been trying to be level-headed about it. I’ve created a budget and have been researching vendors that are both reliable and affordable. I have no desire to spend lavish amounts of money on one day; I would much rather spend money on our life together.

I’ve been heeding advice from Meg Keene’s of “A Practical Wedding,” which has great ideas about how to plan a meaningful and affordable celebration. She offers creative ideas for how to approach the big day, and explains that it’s not necessary to follow every.single.tradition. (There are so many!) Keene writes:

“You should focus your planning on things that make you feel delighted and alive. Because if what you are able to give your guests is yourself in your purest form, if you are able to lead them by joyful and relaxed example, then you are giving them the greatest give you can give. Your wedding will be one for the history books — not because it was the prettiest party anyone has ever seen, not because you played by all the rules and hit every single mark, but because it was so real, so true, so indescribably full of joy. Remember what your wedding is: a celebration. It’s a reason to rejoice. And it’s as simple and as complicated as that.”

If you focus on the joy, rather than getting caught up in a million little details, your happiness will be contagious. A wedding day should be one of the best days of your life; but it’s really just that — a special day. The more important part is the life that you and your partner will share together afterward. I can’t wait for that part.

Related: How Troy and I got engaged

Getting more opportunities to teach (& learn)

December has been a busy month of writing, editing — and teaching. My priority at work is Poynter.org, but I try to teach on the side when I can. I find that my reporting informs my teaching and vice versa.

After I teach a session, I often write a related article. Similarly, I refer to articles I’ve previously reported/written when I’m teaching. This is especially helpful when I teach social media sessions; rather than just talk about different social networking tools, I can draw on my reporting to show how other journalists are using these tools and then share related tips.

Just before my talk at Providence College. (That's my college's "Veritas" -- aka "Truth" -- seal; it's all around campus.)
Just before my talk at Providence College. That’s my college’s “Veritas” seal that’s all around campus. Seeing as it stands for “Truth,” it seems like a fitting seal for a journalist.

In the past week, I’ve had a few different teaching opportunities: I gave a talk at Providence College (my alma mater) about how young journalists can make themselves marketable; I taught a social media session in a Poynter seminar for newsroom editors; and I coached a group of Tampa high school students on how to improve their school newspaper.

Whenever I teach at Poynter, I read the seminar participants’ evaluations to see what they thought about my presentation. A lot of times, participants will say, “This was great! I didn’t know about X social media tool. I learned SO much.” Other times, they’ll say, “It was good … but I already knew how to use all these tools.”

That’s one of the challenges of teaching social media — trying to reach people who have really different levels of familiarity with social networking sites. I’ve taught groups that include people who don’t know how to tweet and people who tweet every day on top of using Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr. How do you accommodate everyone? I try to keep the sessions pretty advanced so that even the participants who are already well-versed in social media can learn something. And I always try to introduce the group to one new tool (like RebelMouse) that they might not be as familiar with.

One other piece of feedback I got from the Poynter session I taught last week: “She was too quiet.” That line stuck with me because it speaks to a deeper issue involving my self-confidence. When I’m confident and at ease, it’s easier for me to project my voice. But if I’m nervous or doubting myself, I tend to mumble and get quiet. I realize this about myself, but I don’t always know how evident it is to others.

Hearing this feedback reminded me that I need to stand up straight (enough with the slouching!), speak up and trust that I know my stuff. I’ll practice later today; at 4 p.m. ET, I’m leading a Webinar for GateHouse Media. Should be fun!