Category Archives: Fabulous Ladies and Gentlemen

A regular column that shines the spotlight on Fabulous Ladies and Gentlemen. Nominations are accepted – message me!

Lovely Aunt Mary Gullo

My Aunt Mary made her transition this week.

I can only imagine her brothers and sisters, her husband, and the many who loved her just waiting to welcome her into glory.

From left, her brother (the deeply religious) Uncle Bud, her sister (the glamorous and fun) Aunt Helen, Aunt Mary (the baby of the family), my grandmother/her sister Edna, and her brother Dave, who had piercing blue eyes and was a great dancer and singer!

I needed to write about Aunt Mary because I couldn’t say a proper goodbye and my heart was full of feelings.

As a kid, I looked up to her daughters Carol Ann and Mary Beth because they were older and so much cooler than me. Our families often camped together in the summers, taking road trips to Point Sebago, Maine or closer by to Dutch Wonderland. Aunt Mary and Uncle Pete had a truck camper and it was so fun to switch to THEIR ride so we girls could play cards or talk about Bobby Sherman or David Cassidy during the drive.

Once camp was set up, there were so many memories to be made! Teenagers going to the pavilion to play pool (and letting me tag along); the smell of hibachi’s cooking burgers and communal dinners at the picnic table. Roasting marshmallows until the charred skin burnt the roof of your tongue.

Such happy times…before our world changed forever.

Aunt Mary was a central figure after my dad’s sudden passing when I was 10.

Our world was rocked and we were all teetering on the edge of this unknown new life without my father. My mother, suddenly a single mom of a 15 and 10 year old with a host of decisions to make.

In the midst of that madness, Aunt Mary came to stay with us.

I started to write “swooped in” but Aunt Mary wasn’t a swooper.

Her greatest charm was her calm, and oh, how calm was needed in our horrible storm of loss.

She left her own family for almost a month. Sat at our dinner table. Played the piano. Gently reminded us to have faith, without saying a word.

Oh, Aunt Mary’s presence at that pivotal time meant so much to us.

So pretty, wasn’t she? Aunt Mary was, for many years, a bank teller. My dad used to stop by her drive-through window in his mixer truck just to say hi when he was in the neighborhood. And he always used to sing the song “Cab Driver” because it included the line “drive by Mary’s place…”

The years passed and as happens when you get older, it’s easy to get caught up in your own stuff. I sure did.

I’d see Aunt Mary at family reunions in my teens and twenties. There’d be weddings (I’ll never forget Carol Ann’s in the garden at Smithville Inn) and funerals.

When her sister, my Aunt Helen, passed away, I was in the thick of church life and determined to take advantage of this opportunity to “preach the gospel.”

I asked to speak at the services.

Aunt Mary, in her calm and kind way, suggested that I could honor Aunt Helen without making a case for each person’s salvation. At first, I was confused. Aunt Mary was a devout Christian; a true believer!

It wasn’t until years later I realized that a true follower of Christ need not shove their version of the truth down anyone’s throat.

Aunt Mary embodied Christianity, because she embodied love.

She didn’t judge.

She was an accepting, sweet woman whose love deeply touched my life.

Many years after leaving the church I learned that she had breast cancer. All the memories of how she had been there for me and my family over the years washed over me and I made a committment to write to her every week.

I’d print out photos from Facebook or tell tales about my latest adventures in travel. Sometimes I’d just write to let her know she mattered and that I loved her.

The following year, I saw her at my niece, Deena’s, wedding. We had written back and forth preceding the wedding and she voted that I should go with the red dress, which I did.

At one point, she called me aside and said, “I’m all recovered from the breast cancer now, so you don’t have to write to me every week.”

I looked into her sweet, kind eyes and said, “Aunt Mary, I didn’t write because you had breast cancer. I wrote because I love you.”

And that happy ritual – sometimes not every week – but at least every other, has been a dear part of my life ever since.

I remember being a little afraid to write to her when my marriage ended. She – and all of my family – were “’til death us do part” kind of people.

Would she be disappointed?

Her reply?

“I’m proud of you, Brenda.”

Oh, Aunt Mary! Such healing words at such an important time.

I will miss you so much, yet know you are another angel watching out for me.

What a privilege to be your niece.

Aunt Mary is standing right next to my Dad – the third person from the right. Next over is my wonderful grandmother, her older sister, Edna. I don’t believe I was born yet!

I was torn about going to her services because she meant SO much to me.

Jumping on a plane isn’t something any of us do lightly these days, so I prayed about it. I felt her calm and loving presence say, “It’s okay. I know you loved me.”

My wonderful sister, Shirlee, represented our little family at the memorial. She told me that Aunt Mary’s favorite song was sung. Oh how lovely…she now walks in glory with her body and spirit whole…

How glad I am that I have no regrets; I left no words of love unspoken. She deserved them all while she was here to hear them.

A timely and true reminder…to shower the people you love with love.

I hope that you think of your own Aunt Mary…or someone who has marked your life for good.

And shower them with love this week.



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Meet a Fabulous Lady: The True Beauty of Edna Hartsell

It’s perfect that the week’s word, beauty, coincides with this planned post to honor my fabulous grandmother, aka Mom-Mom, on the week that would have marked her 111th birthday.

This is what I hope for; that, like my Mom-mom, my time on this earth would be so profound that over 100 years later it still warms the hearts of those I loved.

Edna Ernst Hartsell’s life was a tour de force. Long before independent women were in vogue, she was a career woman, and I still remember her lightening speed on an old, black manual typewriter, spitting out flawless pages (and making quite a racket!)

Edna Ernst was likely in her early 20’s in this photo, and my beautiful cousin, Tiffany, bears a striking resemblance to her.

Many weekends of my youth were spent at her home on Ewan Terrace in Vineland, NJ so my parents could have date nights. We loved learning how to clean (really pretty sneaky, Mom-mom, getting us to think cleaning was fun) and playing jacks or paper dolls on the huge front porch, which was a great gathering place for all of the neighborhood kids.

The best visits were when my sister Shirlee and me were joined by the Shaw Kids, my cousins Johnny, Eddie, Bruce, Debbie and my beloved Kimmy. (I was the baby of the bunch, affectionately called Brendie for many years until FINALLY, Tiffy and Pammie showed up.  By the way, do you see a trend?  Everyone except Bruce had an “ee” sound at the end of their name.  I wonder if he ever noticed that?)

On Friday night, it was pizzas and board games or those soft, snowflake rolls from Catto’s Bakery for perfect lunchmeat sandwiches and running around the perfectly coiffed yard to work off all of our carb and sugar-induced energy.  Because my Pop-Pop, the oh-so-handsome Robert Hartsell, was deaf, he didn’t accompany Mom-Mom to many outings (or maybe he just preferred to stay home and garden or cook amazing meals), so I was often her “date” for weddings as well as Tupperware parties, baby showers and a regular calendar of church-related events.

The Shaw kids! My dad and mom are the adults to the back left; my Aunt Joan to the far back right and Pop-Pop and Mom-Mom are in the middle back. Was that Tiffy she is holding? And did you guess that I am in the front right wearing those groovy rust colored bell-bottoms and thick leather belt? Boy, I wish I had never cut that long black hair…

On a road trip with Mom-Mom? You HAD to sing.  A long car ride felt like a Broadway show starring rousing hymns like “S is for Sunday School.”  There was the upbeat “Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul” and of course, “The Lord’s Army.” (These words are branded on my heart: I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery;  I may never fly over land and sea but I’m in the Lord’s ar-my.) Mom-Mom’s signature sound was to sing the base-line, “bum-bum-bum” style, adding a bit of sass and fun to our rolling revue.

Mom-Mom flanked by the two favorite men in her life, the dashing Bobby (my beloved Uncle) to the left and her husband, Robert L. Hartsell on the right. My mother, Edna Elizabeth (known as Bette) and her sister, my Aunt Joan is on the right. Movie-star gorgeous, aren’t they?

My Aunt Joan recalls that when my mother was born, Pop-Pop was on a Navy ship in California. Mom-Mom named my mom Dolores, a name she loved. A nurse came into her room at the hospital and asked what the baby’s name was. When she heard the answer, she gasped, “Do you want to bring sorrow to that child for the rest of her life?” Mom-Mom immediately sent out new birth announcements with the name Edna Elizabeth (her own name.) When Pop-Pop received the second notice, he thought they had had twins! He found out differently when he was able to call home.
But this does beg a question I wish to pose delicately: How could Edna be a better name than Dolores?
The name Edna is anything BUT beautiful. Yet because it belongs to my Mom-Mom, and my Mom, and my sister (thank you GOD not me), there is beauty in it.
Of course, my mom goes by Bette and my sister (Edna Shirlee) goes by Shirlee.  Can’t imagine why.
Getting back to memories, during World War 2, Mom-Mom would can everything in sight. Every three months, Pop-Pop would have a weekend leave and would tend to a huge garden.  The kids, Joan, Bette and Bobby, would weed it and the pantry would be stocked with green beans, peas, lima beans, corn, tomatoes, carrots and beets.  She would even make sauerkraut and grape and strawberry jelly.
Money was tight, but Mom-Mom always managed to take Joan, Bette and Bobby on outings like the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philly.  Recalls Aunt Joan, “We would get on the train in Lindenwold to Camden, then take the ferry across the Delaware to the foot of Chestnut Street. We’d walk up Chestnut to the Horn & Hardart restaurant where we could pick out anything for breakfast that we wanted. Mom would give us a handful of nickels and we would go hog wild in the machines. A whole breakfast back then was maybe 25 cents. One year my grandmother was in the hospital on Broad Street, so we went to visit her after the parade and went back to H & H for our Thanksgiving dinner. This was WWII so Pop-Pop wasn’t home. We went back to Camden on the ferry and went to see Snow White at a theater in Camden.”

There’s another post brewing about my wonderful Pop-Pop, who served our country in the Navy during WWII. Mom-Mom’s strength was born of necessity as the mom of three children whose father was often gone.

She continued that tradition of special outings with her grandchildren. Each year she’d take one of us to the big city, Philadelphia, to see the John Wanamaker’s light show.

No telling of Mom-Mom’s story could ignore two facets of her life: Her uncanny ability to coin a phrase and her staunch faith and loyalty to church on Sunday mornings.
If you’re ever at a loss for words, here are some Edna Hartsellism’s that perfectly say what you’re trying to convey: 
  • Need a nap? She’d say “I think you need a bipinsy wook.” (For the uninformed, bipinsy is pronounced BIP-in-zee.)
  • How to describe a sourpuss? “She looks like she’s wearing a turd for a breast pin.”
  • Her reply to, “What’s for dinner?”: Layover for meddlers and crutches for lame ducks.
  • Hot outside? “I’m sweatin’ like a bull.”
  • Bored with “Go jump in the lake?” Try “Go flop your tonsils.”
  • Caught farting? Reply, “Better an empty house than a bad tenant.”
  • Did you clean your dinner plate? I’ll call King William your uncle!” was Mom-Mom’s high praise.
  • Poor table manners, “I can’t take you to the Bellevue Stratford.”
  • Reply to “Where are you going?” “I’m going to Manayunk.”  (NOTE: We kids didn’t realize Manayunk was actually a real place; we just thought it was a funny word.)
  • Did something frustrating to Mom-Mom?  She’d exclaim: “Help me God!!!!”
  • Did you really frustrate her to the point of evoking a less than Christian response? “Now you made me sin my soul!”
  • Gazing upward to consider the answer to a problem? “You won’t find it in the ceiling.”
  • See someone lazy? They’re “Sitting there like the bells that never rung.”
  • What do you call the array of treats at a bakery? “Shleck.”
  • And, whenever you called for her, she would reply from somewhere in the house:   “WELL??”

Reading this list it is clear that Edna’s personality had a salty dose of sarcasm; however, her devotion to God and her church provided a sweet balance. 

For those of us who spent the weekend, Saturday nights were spent watching Lawrence Welk. We’d pretend her bathrobe was a ball gown like the Lennon Sisters would wear. She’d let us dance on top of her feet around her living room with our hair tied up in rags so we’d have banana curls on Sunday morning for church.

Church was non-negotiable. She was the queen of Sunday School (which meant we always got starring parts in the Christmas concerts.) When passing the collection plate she’d warn, “Thou God See-est Me.” This was meant to dissuade us kids from copping some of the coins when everyone else’s eyes were closed. Getting ready for church, she would take her pot of rouge and put red circles on her cheeks like clown make up. My cousin Pammy would giggle and she’d blend it in.

I remember wading in the ocean with her one summer and saying, “Mom-Mom, who owns the ocean?”

“God does.”

When my sister went to see The Exorcist and I couldn’t sleep, afraid the devil was going to get me, I called her.  “Mom-Mom, can I be possessed by the devil?”

“Not if Jesus lives in your heart.”

To this day, I remember how she would kneel beside her bed EVERY night to say her prayers OUT LOUD.  I’d always listen, to see if I could get any good dirt on the family (and to make sure she didn’t forget me.)

I didn’t…and she didn’t.

Her prayers completed, she’d groan to the upright position and finally climb into bed, saying, “Thank you GOD for this bed.”

I do the same thing now.

Not the prayers part (sorry, Mom-Mom.) But the exhausted sigh of “Thank you GOD for the bed.” And I think of my sweet Mom-Mom every night as I lay my head on my pillow.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I think she is pleased at how her brood turned out. Joan and Bette and Bobby turned into wonderful parents and raised amazing children, many of whom have children of their own (and beyond.)

Not one of us escaped the impact of her life, and for that we are all grateful.

Now for our regularly scheduled parting thoughts on BEAUTY, and the new Word of the Week:

I TRUST that we will have a beautiful week.

Love you!


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Compassion Wins the Day

I’m going to break with tradition and reveal the new WOW now: COMPASSION.

Nothing melts my heart like compassion.  Sometimes people make these little sounds of understanding, like a coo or a hum, and without saying a word they speak volumes.

I get you.

I understand.

I’m with you.

Compassionate people respond this way to matters both weighty and ridiculous. Whether  venting about that slowpoke driver who made you late – or an anguished dissertation about a disappointing relationship, compassionate people never make you feel judged.

They know that your feelings aren’t right or wrong – they’re just the way you feel.  

That’s the key, life-changing phrase that my friend Roseann always says.  But when she shared it with me the first time, I was taken aback.

Really?  You mean I don’t have to feel guilty for the feelings I’m having?  (When you come from a toxic church background, real human emotions are viewed as sins for which you need to repent.)

Roseann is one of the most compassionate people I know.  She’s on my mind particularly this week because we are together in Montreal, for the first time of what I hope will be many, sharing a speaking engagement and tag-teaming at the International Municipal Clerks Association’s annual conference.

Please don’t be mad at me, my friend. I couldn’t resist including the photo we took today!

Her brand of compassion? It comes with hot sauce and a kick in the ass if you need it.  If she thinks you’re NOT alright, she won’t let you off the hook until you come clean. If your heart is broken, she’ll let you have a moment or two of tears and then she’s all, “Chop chop!  What’s the game plan?  How can I help?”

She remembers EVERYONE’s birthday and anniversary – and even sends Shasta cards each year.

She’s sassy, tender, outrageous, funny, beautiful, brilliant, brave and her presence in my life makes me a better Brenda.

So that’s a little love note to my sister from another  mother!

Here are my parting thoughts on PATIENCE, why I think fearless living is a lie,  and onward to the new Word of the Week!:

Enjoy the fruits of compassion this week!



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A Fabulous Man: The Contented Markeith Price

My grumbles of discontent were stopped in their tracks this week as I encountered a very contented man who simultaneously maintains a champion’s internal fire to win.

My discontent was simply a product of VERY long days spent on my feet and a week away from my husband and puppy dog. Don’t get me wrong – my week at a work-related trade show was a thrilling success, but my body is used to being comfortably ensconced at my desk for hours on end.

I LOVED the ability to connect with our clients and make new connections (but even the ugliest shoes built for comfort were no match for a hard convention floor.)

Then I met Markeith Price.

Mind you, I had talked to him previously; he is one of the athletes who uses our product. His story is even more compelling because he participates in the Paralympics as a visually impaired track and field athlete, who just happens to own four US records and will be headed to Rio to represent our country in August.

Somehow a few e-mails and phone conversations didn’t convey fully who I was about to encounter.

When I received the call that he had arrived at the registration desk, I trudged the LONG length of the convention floor and up two flights to meet him.

I could tell who he was right away, wearing a US Team track suit and the presence of a champion. After I shook his hand and welcomed him, he said, “Lead the way…” and at that point he whipped out his cane to ensure the walk would be stumble free.

Because he carried himself with such confidence and had such physical beauty, it was almost a disconnect to see him walking with a cane. Or when seated at the autograph table, for him to put his cell phone one inch from his face so he could tweet and invite people to come and see him at Booth #2087.

Markeith at table

I had the chance to interview him later in the day, and he is one grateful guy. (Yes, gratitude is the bridge back to contentment, isn’t it?) Instead of grumbling about the condition that progressively stole his eyesight, he found his passion, his calling, his joy and has never looked back from pursuing his dreams.

I asked him, “How do you do it?”

Simply put, “I hear the gun and I GO.”

Boy does he go.  He flies!  It’s a ballet of speed and grace; a thing of beauty to watch.

He has made peace with the physical challenge he must live with but never has let it stop him from running toward his dreams.

I see a gold medal in Rio in his future.  He sees it too, though not with his eyes.

Markeith in color and ring

And I?  Found the spring in my step again, thanks to Markeith.

Here are my parting thoughts on CONTENTMENT and the unveiling of another word that embodies Markeith…

May we find our second wind this week and draw from the well of resources that are unseen (just like those extra miles available even when your tank is on E.)

Take the time to refresh your body so that it can catch up to the infinite wellspring contained in your spirit.

Have a beautiful week, everyone –



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Ode to a Fabulous Woman – and a Comforting WOW

The preamble to this week’s WOW is a tribute to my dear mother-in-law, Jeanne Viola, who went to be with God on Valentine’s Day.


Though I spoke about her on the video, there are a few more things to say.

She was a devoted Mother. (By the way, you NEVER called her Mom.  I slipped a few times and you could feel the sharp intake of breath around the table at the error!)

My husband, Duane, always sums it up this way, “She was always there for me.”

She held the family together like glue. Christmas Eve was a sacred family event for her.  She expected everyone to be in attendance, to be on time (she’d tell you if you weren’t) and to eat their fill of her world-famous stuffed calamari.

Duane would ask her to hide some of it just for him.  I bet the others did the same!

Even in her late 80’s, she purchased and wrapped presents for each of her children, their spouses, grand-kids and great-grandchildren.

She was one of the first aerobics instructors in the area, a belly-dancer, a truth speaker and the epitome of strength…but at the same time, child-like in her love for porcelain dolls, presents and parties.

Here’s more about my beloved Mother-in-law, and the new WOW:

Let’s all take comfort in the Presence of the Divine this week.

You may call it Energy, or the Universe…I respect whatever you may call it.  I’ve learned that my God is big enough and not at all touchy about these things.

May you be wrapped up in a soft and warm sweater of love this week.  And for those of you with broken hearts, may the Presence of love take you a step closer to healing this week.



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Airport Inspiration and the Word of the Week

As I de-planed in Charlotte with, thankfully, plenty of time to make my connecting flight, I made a pit-stop into the nearest restroom.

I planned the usual – a quick tinkle, hair fluff and lipstick application, then off to Terminal C.

Boy did I get far more than I bargained for, because this particular lavatory was run by a burst of inspiration named Patricia.

“Well HELLO and welcome to the happy zone!” she bellowed to everyone who entered her domain.  

“Come on in beautiful ladies!  You’re going to have a wonderful day!”

I scrambled to find any cash to stuff in her tip jar; her effusive joy in loving on complete strangers was infectious. I stuck around a little longer than necessary just to soak the love in.  Then, she burst into song.

I had to capture it. So for all of you who weren’t fortunate enough to be at the Charlotte International Airport, here’s Patricia:

Now we have Patricia whenever we need a jolt of joy!

I was also struck by how she took what some might call an undesirable job and made it her domain. She OWNED it, showered it with her own special sauce and  made peoples’ days, every day.

It’s all in the attitude you bring to whatever you do, isn’t it?

Thanks, Patrice, for helping me end this word of the week with a technicolor display of INSPIRATION.

Now, how about a new WOW?  Here we go…

Truth!  It’s a week to cut to the chase (but don’t cut anyone off at the knees.)

Being honest with ourselves and others is a path to freedom. 

Bear in mind that life doesn’t just offer hard truths. There are also soft ones, comforting ones, healing and happy ones.

May we find them all this week – and yes, let the truths set us free!



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Meet a Fabulous Lady: Mary Carver (and How to Support a Parent to a Special Needs Child)

When considering our WOW (Word of the Week), which is SUPPORT, I was thinking about the times I feel “at a loss” to be there for someone. Words sometimes feel trite, and when you haven’t walked in someone’s footsteps to really understand what they need, it can feel like you’re grasping at straws.

I reached out to two friends this week and asked them to share how they best receive support through the challenges they particularly face; challenges that are common in this world, but somewhat foreign to me personally.

My first feature is on my friend Mary Carver, who is one of the most impressive individuals I know. She is the mom of a special needs young man and she has spent more time in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms that a mom should ever have to…but she never fails to have a smile, is full of gratitude and says that while (of course) she would have hoped for  David to have a life like other boys without his challenges, he has been a huge blessing to her family and a tool for growth in her life and in the life of her marriage to husband Brad.

Brad and Mary were high school sweethearts and have the vibe of a couple that is both in love as well as best friends.  At age 30, she welcomed daughter Emily, now a  beautiful, smart as a whip young lady in college.  David was born three years later, followed by the athletic and adorable Caitlyn two years later.  Though much of what is written here is about David, we didn’t want to leave his sisters out because having a sibling with special needs requires unique strength and selflessness for the other kids in the family, too.

Emily and Caitlyn with their brother, David.
Emily and Caitlyn with their brother, David.

Mary sent me an e-mail on the topic of support and what it means to her. Here’s her story in her words…

David was born with congenital Cytomegalovirus (cCMV). I carried small when I was pregnant with him, had a few complications along the way, but was not prepared to hear those words when he was born. I had never heard of CMV.   Do me a favor and visit and educate yourself.

We were told to wait and see.

Receiving support is hard, especially if you live in a world where you want to control as many things as you can because you can’t control the one thing you want to.

David just turned 18, but he’ll always be a baby based on his abilities for self care and independence.  Having a special needs child causes me to look as well as interact in the world differently.   

My family is different. We have needs that get met individually, as a couple, and as a family…not always at the same time!  

Stages became permanent issues rather than temporary.  For instance, I would love to know how many diapers I’ve changed over 18 years. NOT!

You may be wondering, “Who is David?” Whether you knew him as he was as a child or as he is as an 18-year-old, he’s basically the same in many ways.  He loves to laugh and smile and play ‘made you look’ eye gaze games. He’s non-verbal.  He’s not ambulatory. He’s spastic quadriplegic. He’s incontinent. He’s smart. He’s totally dependent on others for everything, BUT he knows what he wants when he wants it and knows how to get it. He has this knack of gagging, which gets me running to him regardless of what I’m in the midst of doing.

Mary is an avid photographer; here is a collage she created of the many faces of David Carver through the years...
Mary is an avid photographer; here is a collage she created of the many faces of David Carver through the years…

His main form of entertainment is watching the TV. He loves animal shows, sport shows, cartoons, COP shows – a typical teenager in many ways, but yet not.   He likes learning about the weather. He uses a computer switch next to his head to interact at school to read along with a computer and he takes tests. He knows his classmates, he knows his family, he notices when I get a haircut.  He is easily distracted.

‘Pick up your head’ used to be common verbiage in the household and car rides for many years.  Thankfully David’s neck muscles have strengthened over the years so this is something very rarely heard mentioned now. Vacations become a chore because of everything that has to be transported from the house just to feed, change, and entertain one person.  

The family dynamic is stretched – affecting the siblings as well as the parents, some of this for the good and some of it for the bad.

For me, the best type of support has been from someone who can understand what you are going through.  Empathy is good and necessary, but when someone knows because they KNOW, it makes all the difference in the world. Finding a support group to identify with has been one of the sanest things I could have done for myself; I just wish I had done it sooner!   For my son’s condition, I have a Facebook connection with Moms all over the world who have children born with the same virus as David’s.  In addition, a few years ago I reached out to some of the Moms of my son’s special needs classroom and invited them out for wine and talk.  We’ve been drinking, eating and talking on a monthly basis since then…but mostly sharing the common challenges of:

  • Diaper changing a teenager and the ability to talk about pee and poop over dinner conversation
  • G-tube feedings gone awry
  • Unexpected hospital stays
  • Back surgeries that put you in a hospital for a few weeks
  • Going to work when you’ve been up most of the night trying to figure out what’s wrong with your kid when they cannot tell you anything besides crying
  • Planning for a future for your child
  • Being there for a friend whose son had passed away a few hours prior…

It’s therapeutic to talk to others and just to be there for someone.

Knowing you’re not alone in a world that keeps moving forward while you feel stuck in the present trying not to think of the future is reassuring.

The understanding of my husband and all he does to fill in the blanks of what I don’t do is beyond measure the best and most wonderful support.

Brad, Mary and David at a local baseball game.
Brad, Mary and David at a local baseball game.

Receiving support from outside the family requires an extra step of trust to let another soul into your life – the good, the bad and the ugly.

It’s much easier to leave everyone at arm’s length and only share bits and pieces of your life. The daily responsibilities of life get in the way.

And as we age and go through our fun menopause years (lol), personalities change to make this a whole different ball game sometimes!  Unfortunately, for me, it’s easier to interact on social networks. This is an area I need to work on obviously!

So when thinking about the word SUPPORT, here’s what I came up with from my perspective:

  • S=silliness and sunshine
  • U=understanding the no-sleep-for-days-but-still-need-to-behave-like-a-human mentality
  • P=patience for yourself, others and God
  • P=patience for yourself, others and God (worth repeating!)
  • O=others have it worse perspective
  • R=respect for the reality of potential and the reality of life
  • T=trusting others to relieve the burden when it’s just too much to bear alone

Mary and David.  The smiles say it all.
Mary and David. The smiles say it all.


Mary, first of all THANK YOU for sharing a glimpse into the life of a parent with a special needs child.  We can learn much from your strength of spirit, love and overall approach to life.

Here’s one of the biggest takeaways for me from Mary’s story – and I hope for many of the fabulous folks out there who read this today:  Seek out a support system.

Mary’s burden became easier to bear when she reached out and found a group of people walking in similar footsteps.  If you are a budding writer and want to be published, find others who have gone before you, who can mentor and support your dream.  If you’re clean and sober, seek out others who can help you be strong when your resolve weakens.

We all have our own particular brand of stuff.  But we don’t have to journey alone.

The other nugget that impressed me from Mary’s story was that her support group wasn’t just a mechanism to meet HER need.  It is an outlet for her to give back in a meaningful way as only someone who is “walking the walk” can.  And in giving back, doesn’t it always help to lighten our own hearts?

Finally, her beautiful honesty to say “it’s easier to keep people at arm’s length” is instructive to us all.  When you see that mom with a special needs child, make eye contact; extend a warm smile that can penetrate that invisible wall of protection.

Take a moment this week to show your support for a parent of a special needs child.  Let them know they are remarkable and to be applauded.

And for you, dear Mary, you never fail to inspire me with how you walk through this life with such grace and cheer.  Thank you for sharing your story to help us all be a little more mindful of our blessings and appreciative of those who walk in your shoes.

Please comment with a message of support for Mary or a shout out to a mom of a special needs child that YOU know…


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She’s So FLUFFI: Happy Birthday, Joan Shaw!

Brilliant, glamorous and oh so fabulous - we celebrate the very FLUFFI Joan Shaw on the occasion of her birthday.
Brilliant, glamorous and oh so fabulous – we celebrate the very FLUFFI Joan Shaw on the occasion of her birthday.

You recently learned about my fabulous mom, Bette – and now I’d like to introduce you to her big sister, Joan.  My Aunt Joan is a force of nature; a larger than life personality and a fighter.  She and I have always had a unique connection; perhaps it was that I was named after her (Brenda Joan), but I think even if we had not been related I would have been drawn to her sassy smarts and unique style.

Case in point, back when Bo Derek and the movie “10” were the rage, my Aunt Joan went and had her hair styled in cornrows.  And she wasn’t on vacation in Jamaica.  And she ROCKED them.

Her daughter, Kimberly (who I still and always call “Kimmy”) is the youngest of her five children, and she jumped at the chance to nominate her mother as a Fabulous Lady.  Here is her tribute, in her words (which I will salt and pepper with my two cents!):

One of the most amazing women I know is my Mom, Joan Shaw. Every boy at Vineland High School in South Jersey was in love with her; her piercing blue eyes and exotic good looks had modeling agents trying to recruit her.  There was always something “Elizabeth Taylor-esque” about her, but it wasn’t just her beauty that dazzled. She played the piano like a virtuoso and sang like a bird, but what put her over the top was a sharp intellect that led to a generous college scholarship offer.

Nope.  She turned her back on both of those opportunities when she met the love of her life, Gordon Shaw.  In fact, they married soon after her high school graduation.

From that point on, she devoted herself to her husband and home…and a growing family.  First Johnny, then Bruce, Eddie, Debbie and the baby, Kimmy – this was a house that was full of life and fun, in large part because Aunt Joan was so much fun.

Talk about chutzpah (and her ever-present optimism):  In 1960, when Kimmy was six months old, Joan entered the Miss Vineland contest.  That’s not a typo.  MISS Vineland.  And she won first runner-up!  (They couldn’t have picked her to win, you know, being a mother of five and all…)

There she is, the only Mrs. to ever almost win the Miss Vineland contest, surrounded by her brood of five (from left:  Bruce, Debbie, Kimmy, Eddie and Johnny).
There she is, the only Mrs. to ever almost win the Miss Vineland contest, surrounded by her brood of five (from left: Bruce, Debbie, Kimmy, Eddie and Johnny).

We Costello girls always loved to get together with the “Shaw Kids” – it was an instant party.

Six years later, her picture perfect life was about to unravel.  Gordon fell ill – and it was cancer.  At the very young age of 37 he passed away, leaving 32-year-old Joan with five children to raise.  The oldest was 13; Kimmy was just six years old.

Says Kim:  “Raising five young children by herself was never in her plans, but as a strong woman she succeeded in doing so and also adopted my little sister in 1975. She really had no experience in the working world except for a brief time at the telephone company, but being the optimistic woman that she is, applied and got the job as the first woman dispatcher at the Vineland Police Department in 1969. She then was sworn in as a special officer and proceeded to assist on raids where, as the only woman, was able to search the females being arrested.”

Angie Dickinson had nothing on Joan Shaw.  This "Police Woman" was the real deal.  Can't you see the determination in her eyes?
Angie Dickinson had nothing on Joan Shaw. This “Police Woman” was the real deal. Can’t you see the determination in her eyes?

As if it wasn’t enough to raise now six children and working full-time at the police department, she became a foster parent, often bringing home children that were dropped off at the station and considered to be incorrigible.  She tried (and succeeded in many cases) to give them the encouragement to become better, more productive individuals.

There are many who are not blood relatives that to this day call her “Mom Shaw.”

In 1981, much to her dismay, she was forced to apply for a position at the casinos to financially support her family.  At about 1995, she retired from the casinos but “sitting home” was not in her vocabulary. She went back to school and became a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant).  After once again succeeding at a new career, she was asked by her employer to seek certification as a med nurse (dispensing prescribed medicine to the residents.) She loved that job and even went back to her childhood and young adult years by playing the piano for the residents after dinner and leading a nightly sing along.

The music was always the old hymns from her youth; she even made song books for the residents who did not know the words. This job became emotionally overwhelming for her when her older residents started passing away, so she went to work for a nursing staffing agency until medical issues would not allow her to drive anymore. (Even after she lost her sight in one eye, she continued to drive back and forth. When a stroke took half of the sight in her other eye she decided that for her, and others on the road, driving was no longer an option. This was a hard transformation for her, since the inability to drive had taken her independence.)

She was so loved and appreciated by her employer that he would bring all the tools she needed to do her job from the house.

Aunt Joan is known for this phrase:  God never gives you more than you can handle.

Kimmy adds: “Over the years, there have been many trials and tribulations that might have mentally and emotionally crippled other women, but none of the hard blows that life dealt her over the years have ever stopped her from being one of the most amazing, optimistic women I have had the honor to know – and the privilege to call Mom.”

81 and full of fun!  If you want to make her smile, give her ANYTHING purple...and if she really likes you, she'll send you some of her homemade jams and jellies.  No one turns down an invitation to eat at Aunt Joan's.  She makes magic in the kitchen!
81 and full of fun! If you want to make her smile, give her ANYTHING purple…and if she really likes you, she’ll send you some of her homemade jams and jellies. No one turns down an invitation to eat at Aunt Joan’s. She makes magic in the kitchen!

On this, her 81st birthday, I honor my Aunt Joan – a fabulous lady who became tough by necessity, but who seems to become softer and kinder and more lovely with each passing year.  Her effervescent optimism and fighting spirit inspire me to “live up” to the name Joan.

Feel free to chime in and love bomb the amazing Joan Shaw!

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She’s So FLUFFI: Happy Birthday Bette Costello!

Mom as child
My wonderful, sweet-faced Mom, Edna Elizabeth “Bette” Costello. Not sure why she didn’t use the traditional spelling of Betty with a “Y” (but neither did I with FLUFFI.)

It is fitting that Edna Elizabeth Costello, a.k.a. “Bette”, be featured in our Fabulous Ladies series. First and foremost, she’s my Mom!  And second, today is her birthday.  She didn’t know that I was  writing this.  In fact, she still doesn’t quite understand what a “FLUFFI” is and while her willingness to adapt to an internet world is impressive, she still hasn’t found the website.  But she gets a pass, because for my 51 years on this earth, she has been an anchor, a support, an inspiration and a friend.

What makes Bette Costello fabulous? So many things come to mind, but what has always touched my heart deeply is how at age 37, when she received a phone call that changed the course of her life forever, she rose to the challenge and became everything her two daughters, ages 15 and 10, needed to survive the crushing blow.

The middle child of three, she idolized her glamorous big sister Joan and doted on the mischievous baby, Bobby.

The Hartsell kids bundled up for  a sledding adventure, with their Mother (never called Mom), Edna looking through the window.
The Hartsell kids bundled up for a sledding adventure, with their Mother (never called Mom), Edna looking through the window.

Her world-class worrying skills were honed waiting for Joan to come home from dates, watching the clock because curfew violations were not well received by Robert Lee Hartsell, whose military background spilled over into his expectations for his children.  (White glove inspections also led to world-class cleaning skills that made our childhood home an eat-off-the-floor, vacuum lines intact showplace at all times.)  And Bobby?  He lived to torture his sister’s propensity for fearing the worst by playing near train tracks – and when a suitor came to call, Bobby was known to bang on the bathroom door the entire time Bette was getting ready for her date, just to “get on her wild nerves” (just one of the Bette-isms that make her fabulous.)

She had her share of admirers, with that hour-glass figure and pretty blue eyes, but it wasn’t until a tall, dark and movie-star handsome Italian man was assigned to be her partner in the wedding of her friend Vivian and Frank Romano that she fell so hard her desire to not upset the apple cart was overshadowed by her need to be at Salvatore Costello’s side. It was the 50’s, and a good Presbyterian girl like Bette shouldn’t even entertain the idea of falling in love with a Catholic – and no church would marry them.  Also scandalous was that Sal was 15 years older than Bette, loved fast cars and was an avowed confirmed bachelor.  They broke up a few times, succumbing to family disapproval, but that Thanksgiving in 1955 he showed up at her family’s dry cleaning business and declared, “We have to get married.”

On a rainy day in December, they set off for Elkton, Maryland for a simple, civil wedding ceremony.

No church, no hoopla or dancing – but they bravely followed love and sealed the deal.  One of the greatest gifts Sal and Bette gave their kids was their obvious infatuation with each other – a romance that only grew stronger with the passing years. 

Va-va-voom!  One of our favorite stories growing up was when Sal took Bette to see the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, turned to her and said, "You should be *sigh*
Va-va-voom! One of our favorite stories growing up was when Sal took Bette to see the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, turned to her and said, “You should be up there on the stage. You’re prettier than them all.” *sigh* How could she help but fall?


I can still smell the scent of Brut and my Dad’s clean shaven face as he would whistle when Mom came out of the bedroom, all decked out for a night on the town.  Their date nights were legendary, as we kids were happily shipped off to the grandparents, and even on that fateful day he called just to say, “I love you.”

That’s why the phone call, just a few hours later seemed to be a cruel April Fool’s joke. But it wasn’t; after just recently given a clean bill of health, Sal’s heart fatally gave out, and all of a sudden, the woman who was used to evening gowns and cocktail umbrellas had to learn to fend for herself and raise her two devastated daughters, ages 10 and 15.  The timing was uncannily made worse by occurring just two weeks after her beloved father passed away from emphysema.

Would she crumble, overwhelmed by the grief? Thinking only of my sister, Shirlee, and me – she dug deep.  The evening gowns were replaced with the manufacturing gloves of a factory worker…her hands nightly ravaged by the hot plastic.  When the Atlantic City casinos opened, it was a form of salvation that allowed Bette to return to daytime work without a netted hat – and to ensure that her girls never did without.

We were well-dressed, given new cars when turning 17 and weddings (much sooner for Shirlee than me.) She put me through college and  bought (and paid off, mind you) her own home.  Never treating herself, she made sure that birthdays and Christmases were present-filled…and as we went off to pursue our lives, loving hand-written notes were a regular occurrence. I have saved these letters, chuckling at her warnings about germs and the inclusion of recipes that were her signature masterpieces (and my epic fails).

I have no doubt that my Mom's prayers played a big part in May 2, 2003 ever happening.  Doesn't she make a glamorous Mother of the Bride?
I have no doubt that my Mom’s prayers played a big part in May 2, 2003 ever happening. Doesn’t she make a glamorous Mother-of-the Bride?

For the lonely years as I watched my friends marry, Mom would pray (kneeling by her bed just as her own Mother was known to do) that God would bring me someone to share my life with. At age 39, when those prayers were finally answered, she threw herself into joy of the occasion and opened her arms and her heart to my husband, Duane.

The hardest part of following our dream to move to Florida was knowing that I couldn’t just plan an impromptu visit to meet for Sunday lunch at Harrison’s Restaurant in Mullica Hill (our halfway meeting place) or to wander around the local K-mart (for some reason, we always had so much fun doing that. And finally I was able to buy her anything she remotely expressed an interest in, despite her protests, but ultimate glee.)

Her response to our move was her blessing:  Life is short.  Follow your dream.  Enjoy every precious moment you have with your husband.

Three of us in Cape May
One of our many happy outings, this taken after a day of whale watching in Cape May.

We are an extended family – Shirlee and Tony, their grown children, Deena and David, Duane and me (and Shasta, for whom she always buys treats, though she detests dog hair) that genuinely loves and enjoys each other.

A family birthday dinner for Mom from a few years' back - Tony, Deena, me, Duane and Mom.  Where's David?  We think he had to work that day.
A family birthday dinner for Mom from a few years’ back – Tony, Deena, me, Duane and Mom. Where’s David? We think he had to work that day.


There he is!  We Costello girls have accepted the fact that Mom smiles wider when in the presence of David, her brother Bobby or her nephew Johnny.
There he is! We Costello girls have accepted the fact that Mom smiles wider when in the presence of David, her brother Bobby or her nephew Johnny.

We devour her homemade ricotta cookies, which are now a featured item on the menu at Deena’s Bliss Organic Ice Cream in Cape May.  We feed her addiction to Amish love stories  (she keeps a list of the titles she’s already read) and think that in a former life she must have lived among “her people” in Lancaster.  To this day, she never has a hair out of place, looks so much younger than her years and always smells of fresh laundry and perfume.  She weighs less than she did when she and Sal were dating, and avidly watches Court TV and Nancy Grace.

Bette wearing her Nancy Grace apron.  For years, she insisted that I looked like her.  I forgive you, Mom.
Bette wearing her Nancy Grace apron. For years, she insisted that I looked like her. I forgive you, Mom.

The people she greets at her latest job, handing out flyers for the optometrist at the Mays Landing BJ’s, comment on her sweet and friendly manner, and on a regular basis, her former co-workers from Harrah’s stop in, so happy to see their friend Bette.

My Mom has lived a life that makes her family proud. I know Sal looks down over his child bride and also smiles with pride, as does her Mother and Father.  I know the words she will hear (and hopefully for not a very long time to come) will be, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

But the words that matter the most right now are those we should not hesitate to speak while we can, and that is why I write this tribute to my beautiful Mom today.

I (gratefully) did not inherit the name Edna (thank you Shirlee, for coming first) but I hope that I can emulate her fortitude in tough times, her knack for making good decisions when faced with a choice, the selflessness to put others first, her ability to tell a good story and overall beauty.

My house will never be as clean as hers, my cookies will not taste the same and my figure will likely never be as svelte, but in the things that matter most, her legacy shines on.

Happy birthday, Mommy! (Even WAY into adulthood, we’ve called her “Mommy.”)

You are fabulous, loved…and the FLUFFIest of them all.

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She’s so FLUFFI: Meet Kathy Viola, Fabulous Lady

Within a nano second of proposing that FLUFFIs send in their nominations for fabulous women to be featured in this column, Colleen Viola texted me to suggest her mother.  Those of us fortunate enough to know and love Kathy Viola (yes, she is my sister-in-law and beloved friend) will cheer that she is having a moment in the spotlight today.  Read and be touched by the love and admiration a daughter has for her mom…

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” – Coco Chanel

There is this woman living among us, whom you may or may not know. She is sophisticated (except when she is determined to climb that tree in your backyard).


She even shows her rustic and patriotic side on occasion.  Fabulous!
She even shows her rustic and patriotic side on occasion. Fabulous!


She is strict (except when she lets her grandson have that second piece of cake against Mommy’s and Daddy’s orders).

Kathy with her first grandchild, Ben.  This little boy has Kathy wrapped around her little finger in the sweetest of ways.  She is never more beautiful when in the presence of her family - because love shines out of her like the sun on a perfect beach day.
Kathy with her first grandchild, Ben. This little boy has Kathy wrapped around her little finger in the sweetest of ways. She is never more beautiful when in the presence of her family – because love shines out of her like the sun on a perfect beach day.

She is fearless (except when someone walks into a room too quietly and startles her into a momentary episode of hysteria). Confused?  Not to worry; it’s normal!

Regardless, I am here to tell you that Kathleen Viola is a life force so strong and so bright that she exemplifies what it means to be a simply fabulous woman.

Kathy is a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and friend. And my God, does she throw herself so fully and completely into each of those roles.

See Kathy (far right) throwing herself into her role as "mother of the groom" at her son Stephen's wedding.  Her zest for life and love has filtered through this wonderful clan, as evidenced by this photo.
See Kathy (far right) throwing herself into her role as “mother of the groom” at her son Stephen’s wedding. Her zest for life and love has filtered through this wonderful clan, as evidenced by this photo.

As her daughter, I have always felt safe, supported, and loved.

For this, I am eternally grateful. But I am even more appreciative of the values and wisdom that my mom has instilled in me.

My education is boundless when I am with her, even though she may not know that she teaches me something new each day. Those of you who know my mom understand that she doesn’t always make things easy. I’ve heard many a tale about Kathy’s affinity for emotions from my dad, aunts, and their friends growing up. Most of these stories are about backyard skits, or practical jokes, or friends, or boys…and almost all of them involved tears. Don’t worry, Mom, I have a point here…

My point is that when Brenda asked for nominations for this spotlight, I was compelled to suggest Kathy as her first subject. I didn’t think about it; I just knew, in my gut, that I had to use this as an opportunity to let the world know about this fabulous woman.

And that’s one of Kathy’s lessons to me: don’t be afraid to surrender to a feeling.

Coco Chanel had it right, I think. She was right because although mom is classy because of her intellect and sophistication, she is fabulous because of her authenticity and passion.

Editors note:  It could be a hormonal surge, which happens regularly in these glory days of menopause, but my eyes kept tearing up as I read this.  What a beautiful tribute when your daughter (who is pretty darn fabulous herself) feels so deeply to write an ode to her mother. 

This is exactly the dream I had in my heart when starting FLUFFI.  That the love women had in their hearts for each other would find a place for expression – and in doing so, encourage everyone who reads.  I hope this post inspired you to think of someone who deserves their FLUFFIness to be recognized.  Please send me your nominations!


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