Once again I celebrate my own personal Thanksgiving today – regardless of whether Simon Cowell would find it “a bit indulgent.” For today marks the second anniversary of my surgery.

So I vow to spend a little time today reflecting on life and personal growth over the past year. I suppose the measure I use is how fully I follow the revelation I awoke with in the hospital: create a life – don’t simply exist and wonder “what if?” If Year One was putting the pieces in place –deciding to up and move, making the move, getting started in a new community – Year Two has been spent making a home for our family and getting settled. It’s been a journey I’m mighty glad I’ve decided to take.

What does it mean to be settled in the community? Well, for me, moving into our new house was the final piece of the puzzle. We finally have a home. Until then I constantly felt like a fish out of water, like I had been living in someone else’s house, a house that didn’t reflect us as a family. The neighborhood was snooty and pretentious. The house was too small for us to be able to entertain family and friends the way we’d always been used to and was important to us. Our stuff remained packed in boxes because we didn’t have room to unpack it. (My Nana always said, “Home is where your stuff is,” and I heartily agree.) We couldn’t cook or shop for groceries the way we always had because the fridge and freezer and pantry were too small and most of our kitchen appliances and cookware had to live in the garage. I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to create the life that made our family comfortable and happy. People were always saying, “Oh! You live in the Paliotta’s house!” And in a sense we were – the house always felt like it was filled with some other family’s memories and traditions. Perhaps because we’ve always lived in new homes since we’ve been married, we were decidedly not good at taking someone else’s house and making it our own. I remember when the trees bloomed in our magnificent backyard last year, I told my sister I felt like the people whose house we were “borrowing” were probably so sad to miss the springtime beauty they had appreciated every year and it was so nice of them to let us admire it. Irrational for sure, but a true gauge of just how much our house wasn’t our home and how off-kilter we felt as a family.

So while we were striving endlessly to get our residential issue resolved, I spent my time creating a presence for us in the community – in a sense our bigger home. And on that count, I’d say it was a very good year. I’ve met loads of new acquaintances and established a few dear, dear friendships. I’ve gotten actively involved on boards and committees and produced work I’m extremely proud of, including introducing a program at the temple that attracted almost 400 people to the premiere event and has garnered exceptionally positive feedback. Folks know me and the family by name at the places we frequent. I’m “Andrea” or “Mrs. Reiser” or “Ben’s mom” or “the lady with all those boys.”

Why is that such a big deal? Because I’ve managed to do it entirely on my own, and not on the merits of being “Pat and David’s daughter.” Proud as I am –and always will be – to be Pat and David’s daughter, or Claire and Sol’s granddaughter, no one here knows who the heck the Cohens or the Whites or the Samdperils are and subsequently judges me pale by comparison to the three beloved, talented, philanthropic generations who came before me and served as pillars of the community. Like being able to start with a new house and decorate it the way I want, moving to a community without expectations has given me the freedom to fully explore who I am and the liberty to do what I want to do the way I want to do it. Life here was a blank canvas and I’m painting it in a way that I find beautiful and rewarding. Here we’re the Reisers. And I’m actually Andrea!

Back in RI, I swear it was like being one of those Russian nesting dolls, stuck living in smaller and smaller boxes. We were put in a certain box because we didn’t live on the East Side. We were put in a certain box because we had a big waterfront home. We were put in a certain box because of our politics and sometimes our religion and because we didn’t play golf and join the club. We were put in a certain box because we didn’t necessarily support the same organizations as our forebears. How many times back in RI did I find myself with a stunned, almost dumbfounded nominating chair on the other end of the phone after I politely declined a volunteer opportunity at an organization where my mom had been active? Maybe that’s just what naturally happens in an insular community where families have been entrenched forever. Believe me, I have nothing but the highest respect and admiration for the legacy of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, but there was precious little opportunity for me to break that mold and do it my way, and it was stifling. The masterpiece had already been created; there was no blank canvas left over for me to make my own painting. And for better or for worse, I have my own style and taste that I want to express.

It’s ironic, because that’s not consciously why we moved. But in retrospect, that’s precisely why we moved. We didn’t realize things could be different until we took the leap, gave it our best shot and succeeded. We blend in better here in so many respects, ultimately allowing us to stand out for the things that we choose to stand out for, rather than for what we have or who people expect us to be.

Of course had I not such glorious examples set for me by the Cohens and Whites and Samdperils, I would not be the wife, mother, friend or community volunteer I am (again, for better or for worse!). Like I told my dad the other day, perhaps my sister’s and my destiny was to “go regional” if you will – and spread the family sunshine. Missionaries of Cohenism!

Two years in, and I’m still waking up every morning with the same mantra: create a life – don’t simply exist and wonder “what if?” Might not work for anyone else on the planet, but for me it’s made all the difference. And today, like every day, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to literally change my life in so many ways.

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