Susanna Shetley

Website URL: http://www.zealousmom.com Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Growing up, my family had an abundance of cats running amok. These were the days before spaying and neutering were common occurrences. We all know what happens when there’s no protection against the passions of nature, so inevitably we had a feline family much bigger than our own. 

Each time a litter was born, we would keep a few kittens and give others away to neighbors or friends. I remember my sister and I feeding many a kitten with a medicine dropper, making cozy beds for them out of Avon boxes and towels, and nursing those with parasites back to health. She and I also created a pet cemetery in the woods behind our house where we would hold a memorial service and bury the cats or kittens that passed on. 

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Though my parents were both teachers and worked second jobs to give my sister and me all we needed, they never put travel on the back burner. Their mentality was “less stuff, more experiences.” We always had a used station wagon and a modest home but we never sat still very long, and for that I’m forever grateful. 

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Are you a lake person or a beach person? I always thought I was a beach person, but now I’m not so sure. 

I’ve written about my childhood beach trips before and with it being July Fourth week, nostalgia is more paramount than ever. As a little girl, Independence Days were always, always spent at Ocean Lakes Campground in Surfside Beach, just south of Myrtle. 

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During a divorce, one person is required to move out of the family home. After months of rigmarole and this and that, I decided that person would be me. No one particularly wants to leave the place where children grew up and memories were made but then again, it’s easier to cope with the emotions when you’re not constantly staring at wedding china or knick-knacks bought on summer vacations. 

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It’s high stakes testing week for students and educators in Haywood County. This is my 9-year old’s first year taking an End-of-Grade test and he is very nervous about it. When I was teaching, I remember this time of year looming ahead like an ugly, stressful punctuation mark to a well-constructed, creative sentence. 

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Watching my two little boys get excited about summer vacation makes me reflect upon my own childhood summers. Both my parents were teachers, so the countdown to that last day of school was a significant family event. 

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Last week, I went to a conference in L.A. with 800 other moms who tell their stories through creative outlets, whether it be blogging, writing, photography, video or social media. Flying out on Wednesday, I was feeling significant mom guilt about leaving my boys and indulging in a conference in sunny California. 

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Certain memories or events in life stand out as paramount, like a utopian experience that seems more like a movie than reality. This past weekend was one of those for me. Over 24 hours spent running in the backwoods of Western North Carolina bolstered my faith in humanity.

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When life turns upside down, we have options. We can sink into the darkness and find comfort in substances and risky behaviors. Or we can search for the light, wherever that may be. 

Coping with the death of my mom and divorce during the same time period was almost debilitating. My two little boys got me through the first stretch. I had no choice but to wake up every day and put on a smile. Some days I merely went through the motions of being a mom, and that was enough to stay afloat. 

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Growing up, we had a little blue and white camper at Ocean Lakes Campground in Surfside Beach, South Carolina. It was our go-to place for every vacation. 

My parents were teachers with second jobs, so we didn’t go on too many extravagant trips during my youngest years. When I got older, we traveled more extensively. We went to New York City a couple of times, took a three-week cross country trip, and went to Hawaii and Europe, among other things. 

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Recently, I spent time in the tri-cities of Rutherford County, N.C. Spindale, Forest City and Rutherfordton make up this trifecta of small towns nestled in the foothills.

Our first stop was Copper Penny restaurant in Forest City. While we were waiting on the rest of our group, I noticed the hardwood floors and tin ceiling and felt a familiar pang of nostalgia, a longing for something I never had and that’s now impossible to experience. 

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I didn’t go to church growing up, but my parents were the godliest people I knew. They were giving, compassionate, selfless, honest, humble and forgiving. They exemplified the true qualities of “people with faith.” 

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My life is starting to even out. And while I’m happy about this, a peaceful, comfortable life doesn’t offer as much column fodder as a melancholy, tragic one. 

Five years ago, my mom found out she had breast cancer. Then a year after that, when she was in remission, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. It was complications from multiple myeloma that ultimately took her life. 

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I’m not a snob. In fact, I’m more of a bleeding heart. But when it comes to beer and coffee, I’m admittedly a bit of an elitist. 

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There’s a road in Waynesville called the homeless highway. It runs from Frog Level to Hazelwood and during any given week, you’ll see folks walking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The end points of this beaten path are The Open Door and Haywood Pathways Center, two establishments offering physical and spiritual nourishment to weary souls.

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While standing atop a black diamond run at Beech Mountain last weekend, several thoughts crossed my mind.

It’s been a really long time since I’ve done this.

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I have a tattoo on the inside of my right wrist that says, “Everything ahead of me.” I got it at a time when I felt so bogged down in an ever-present mire, life felt like quick sand. From my mom’s death to a marital separation, it was one traumatic thing after another.

The only way I could get through a day was to think of a happier, more optimistic future. Seeing the words printed on my body was a constant reminder.

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My dad called the other day and said he had a fun Christmas surprise for my boys. Knowing my dad this “surprise” could have been anything. This is the man who gave my older son a fake zippo lighter when he was 2 years old. When you popped open the top, it said, “Get ‘er done.”

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Growing up in Weaverville and living in Waynesville, I’m very comfortable with small town Christmases. I wouldn’t know how to do Christmas in a big city, although I love the thought of trying. Traditions are a big part of anyone’s holiday, but in small-town America where visions of Norman Rockwell permeate the psyche, traditions seem paramount.

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Holidays are all fun and games until death and divorce happen. Then they become an aching headache, if a person lets them. My goal is to ward off that headache by any means possible.

I’ve been throwing around ideas for this column over the past week. Thanksgiving is the obvious choice. It’s impossible to write about this day in the same manner as two or three years ago. I remember writing a column back then titled “Surviving Thanksgiving.” It was a light, humorous piece suggesting activities to entertain kids while the adults cooked, drank wine, watched football and conversed about holiday shopping.

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Over the past couple years, this column has been a sounding board for me. I’ve written about everything from coping with my mom’s death to getting a tattoo. But one major life woe I’ve kept mostly to myself is being separated from my husband.

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In less than a week, I’ll spend Tuesday evening traipsing the streets of Waynesville watching two little boys knock on doors and end the night with bags full of sugary candy and gum. I’m a bit of a health nut and try to keep yucky ingredients and coloring out of my children’s diets, but on Halloween, I push my additive/preservative paranoia aside to be a spirited parent and embrace the evening’s wicked vibe.

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Last night I read Harold and the Purple Crayon to my 5-year-old. He sat wide-eyed with an expression of intrigue as we learned about Harold drawing an imaginative world with his crayon.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a crayon or a pen or a pencil and create a world that’s easier or happier? It certainly would. But that’s not the way real life works.

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I’ve always been prone to bouts of melancholy. I’m not sure if it’s a writer thing or a woman thing or just a thing with my own physiological make-up. These emotional phases once bothered me. I identified them as “depression” or “life stagnation.” But, in recent years, I’ve learned to settle into these moods of mine.

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Reuniting with my big sister never seems to be an easy jaunt. Whether she’s traveling to North Carolina or I’m visiting her in D.C., one of us must journey almost 500 miles to get to the other.

But despite distance and tight budgets, we’re good about making it happen.

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During the 1970s, my dad spent some time in prison. For over three years, he taught GED prep classes at the old Craggy Prison that still stands barricaded on Riverside Drive in Asheville. I’ve always known he taught inmates, but only recently have I become intrigued about this time in his life.

Something about losing my mom at a relatively young age has made me latch onto everything my dad says. Both my mom and dad lived tragically enchanting lives worthy of movie plots. I know bits and pieces of their many stories, but not enough.

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I’m entering a new phase of motherhood.

Since becoming a mom in 2009, one or both of my boys have been completely or quasi attached to my apron strings, so to speak. Whether learning the ins and outs of nursing, making homemade baby food, changing diapers, pushing a stroller, fastening a car seat, reading board books, managing colic, bandaging chubby knees, putting on tiny socks and shoes, or creatively potty training, I’ve been in full-blown mommy mode for over eight years.

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My mom loved fresh flowers. It was a fun routine for my dad, sister and I to pick up a bouquet from Ingles or Trader Joe’s or whatever supermarket we happen to be visiting. Her face would light up when we walked in the door holding a rainbow of petals. She would smile to herself while arranging the flowers just the way she liked.

Over the past year in the wake of my mom’s death, I’ve written a lot about her and my grief in this column. As I stumbled along, month by month, trying to remember and forget at the same time, life and work propelled me forward.

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Since my mom’s passing almost a year ago, my dad and I have become very close. Without her here as our anchor, we’ve relied on one another. I now talk to him about things once reserved for my mom or sister.

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I call myself an adventurer.

While I do love to travel, adventuring isn’t just about experiencing new places and seeing new things. In my mind, a true adventurer works to find novelty and excitement in the seemingly mundane, in her everyday surroundings.

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As I write this column, my two little boys are rummaging through LEGO bricks bickering about who needs which piece, KIDZ BOP Kids is playing on Pandora and eggs are boiling on the stove for egg salad sandwich lunches. 

This is my summertime work setting.

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When you’re a kid, there’s something magical about hotel pools. 

I’ve written before about growing up in a dance studio. Some of my fondest memories of dance competitions and conventions are the hours spent splashing and laughing in the hotel pool after all the formal events were over.

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It must have been a mom who coined the adage “time flies.” I swear it feels like last week when I was a seventh-grade teacher having contractions in the Waynesville Middle School cafeteria and barely making it to the hospital before my water broke.

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I’ve tried hard to keep grief out of my columns lately. There’s only so much melancholy and broken-heartedness readers can take when reading the weekly paper over a cup of coffee. But with this Sunday being Mother’s Day, I couldn’t help but write a little about my own mom today.

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At 37, I’m still sorting out what I want to be when I grow up. 

When I was 8, I sent a children’s book to a publisher in Raleigh. Last Tuesday, I submitted a children’s book to several publishers. In between those two submission dates, I have been a waitress, sales associate, school psychologist, English teacher, essential oil distributor, instructional coach, social media manager and writer.

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Ever since I left for college and began talking to my dad on the phone regularly, he’s answered my call with “Hello, darlin’.” I’ll never tire of hearing his deep voice say those two words. Conway Twitty isn’t the only country singer I grew up knowing intimately. In my childhood home on Village Court in Weaverville, we had an antique RCA Victrola (floor model). You walked in the front door, up a flight of stairs and it was right there. I can still see it clearly in my mind.

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I’m severely under-acquainted with the Midwest. 

My older son has a game on his Kindle that asks him to identify certain states or place them in the correct location on a map, and it’s the Midwest that always stumps me. Is that Kansas or Nebraska? And is that one there Illinois or Iowa? What do Missouri and Minnesota even look like? Which ones borders Canada? Are the Dakotas considered “Midwestern”? You get the picture.

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It’s not my proudest accolade, but I spent a significant portion of my childhood in a pageant dress. 

The doctors told my parents they were infertile, so when they surprisingly had two little girls after 13 years of marriage, they were ecstatic to say the least. My mom was an only child and lived a rather sheltered childhood. My grandmother suffered from mental health issues, so my grandfather did the best he could to offer my mom opportunities, but he was protective of his daughter and also quite frugal, so her participation in extracurricular activities was minimal.

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My favorite time of day is quiet time. Every morning before the hustle and bustle of the day begins, before I turn on my laptop or check social media on my phone, I spend at least 30 to 45 minutes in stillness with my thoughts, with God, with the whispers of the universe. It’s become a daily ritual for me, and one that’s a lifeline. 

My quiet time began in earnest when my mom passed away last August. After saying good-bye to her, I realized the only way to truly grieve was to be alone. While I appreciated and still do appreciate encouragement from friends and advice from those who’ve had the same experience, true healing began once I embraced solitude. Only then were the memories clear, my new reality processed and the tears raw.

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I was in the Disney bubble for seven days straight, so it was rather depressing driving home with the daily grind looming up ahead. A blogger friend of mine coined this discombobulating experience “re-entry.” I’m sure you’ve experienced it yourself. An amazing vacation, a weekend music festival, a holiday vacation from work. “Re-entry” is when you leave that happy façade of a world and return to reality.

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We leave for Disney World this weekend. 

I should be more excited, but with all that’s going on in our country, I’m feeling a bit uneasy about life. It’s hard to get giddy about something as seemingly trivial as Mickey Mouse when refugee children have nowhere to go and our country is imposing travel bans.

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Since my mom’s passing in August, many people have given me books and resources to help with the grief. They’ve all been helpful in different ways, but there was a passage that struck a chord in my heart and has been on my mind continually. 

It said, “When you lose a parent, you lose your past; when you lose a spouse, you lose your present; when you lose a child, you lose your future.”

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After three months of internal darkness and coping with grief, this past weekend offered some soothing reprieve. Over the years, I’ve realized I’m a person who desires to see the world but adores her small town. For me, a place like Waynesville is a perfect home base, a haven to recharge.

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Don’t worry. This column isn’t about the election. There’s plenty of that going on elsewhere.

With that being said, I really appreciated Hillary’s slogan during her campaign. Stronger together. I like when a couple simple words unite to make an impact.

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I recently wrote a blog post about September being the worst month of my life. One day seemed to awkwardly stumble over the next with no rhyme or reason emotionally or logistically. I was in a grief-induced fog, feeling a lot of anger and isolation, just basically trying to take each day in its singular form and not worry about what was to come.

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Lately I’ve been hanging out at The Open Door in Frog Level and I have to admit, it’s my new favorite joint in town. After my mom passed, I began to feel overstimulated in traditional settings like ballgames, street festivals, and even crowded restaurants. All the noise, clanging, and happy sounds were so discordant with my melancholy; I would leave feeling exhausted and agitated.

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For a week I’ve been thinking about what to write in this week’s column, and very little clarity came until today. Traditionally, I love writing about anything. A new business in town, my son’s homemade Halloween costume, a great book I’m reading, the crispness of orchard apples, an upcoming trip.

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Not long ago my front porch was a barren, pathetic place with a few pieces of hard, wooden furniture, zero greenery and an all-around lack of comfort. Throughout the summer, I’ve worked to make it much more, and since the passing of my mom almost a month ago, it’s become a peaceful sanctuary for me.

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There are only a handful of life experiences that result in a definitive before and after. I now know that losing a parent is one of those. 

My mom passed away on Sunday, Aug. 14, after a three-year battle with cancer. While she had been sick a long time, her death was unexpected and sudden. The week before she passed, she took my two little boys to the North Carolina Zoo. We knew she was getting worse, but she was fighting and still responding to some of her treatments. We thought she had much more time left in her. 

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I’ve always felt this in my gut, but I’ve learned with keen certainty lately that things we think matter actually don’t matter at all. And not only do they not matter, but they pull our thoughts, attention, and emotions away from the parts of life that do matter.

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