Going With the Flow

Flow Rider550

Need to absorb an important life lesson? Get it down on paper. I painted this watercolor to remind myself of the ease that comes with surrendering to the flow of life. For as long as I can remember, I have tried to manipulate events to get what I wanted. Career planning seemed a crucial part of directing my path as an artist. This process seemed to be working until the recession hit eight years ago. At that time, I couldn’t get an art director to look at my portfolio to save my life. Even my portrait commissions dried up. It became clear that all the listing, visualizing and pushing toward my goals wasn’t helping them to materialize.

During that frustrating time, the assurance in Matthew 6:33 came to me. “But you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things shall be added to you.” Translation: the Divine takes care of His children. For this to occur, all that’s required is to draw near to Him. After that, all of our other needs will be met. This was radical thinking for a wheel gripper like me, but I felt defeated enough to try it. Relaxing my hold and shifting my focus meant living where God lives – in the now.

Being in the now, means no longer trying to make things happen. I began letting problems work themselves out. I stopped trying to pry open doors that were nailed shut and began walking through the doors that were open. I discovered allowing God to be in control feels much better than trying to force solutions. To my surprise, my artistry was pulled in a direction that I never conceived of. I began writing (something I’d never done before) and illustrating a blog that now runs in the Huffington Post. My next step is to compile my posts into a book. It’s an undertaking that never would have come to me if I were still clinging to my “five year plan.”

Today the original “Going With the Flow” painting hangs in my studio.  It calls to mind the acronym for FROG – Fully Relying On God. I need to be reminded daily of the power of surrender. My little frog rider illustrates that truth perfectly. Like me, she has learned that it’s a waste of time to try and redirect the energy of life. Not only is the present moment missed but you’re too preoccupied to notice the gifts that lie around the bend. Relax and enjoy the ride. The current will take you to places that struggle never could.

Karli

My friend Karli was happy to model for the fairy in my painting.

Frog

The frog is based on this photograph by Gigi Embrechts.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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A Love That Never Sleeps

Now I Lay Me_low res_edited-1

In preparation for the birth of their baby, my daughter-in-law, Pam, asked me to make an image to hang in our new grandchild’s bedroom. She wanted the prayer Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep with a moon. After reading the prayer, Pam emailed to me I was happy it wasn’t the version I learned in my childhood:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

I discovered that variation came to the American Colonies via the New England-Primer, first published in the late 1600’s. For seventeenth century New Englanders, who had no knowledge of antibiotics, bacteria, or even simple hand washing, losing a child was a very real possibility. Parents were entrenched in the fear of hellfire and damnation so an invocation of protection for their children must have seemed like the prudent thing to do.

For me, being born in the 1950’s, the likelihood of not seeing a child reach adulthood was no longer a major threat. Yet many of us were still taught a prayer with instructions for God to take our souls in case we didn’t wake up in the morning. I never thought how menacing that prayer was until Pam sent over the newer version.

Today I’m happy to say many of us no longer have room in our lives for a harsh, punishing God. We believe our children and grandchildren are made in Love and will come into a world surrounded by a Love that never sleeps. It is good to evolve.

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My son Brian, and his wife Pam with there firstborn. Cameron is sharing his sucker with the new baby.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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A New Year – BE TRUE. BE YOU.

“We don’t realize that we are actually perfect just the way we are. We are born perfect, but spend a lifetime trying to be something we are not, and then feel inadequate for failing. Your only purpose is to BE YOURSELF, otherwise you will deprive the universe of who you came here to be.” ~ Anita Moorjani

The other day my son, Brian, told me that he wants our grandson, Cameron, to grow up and do what makes his heart sing. He doesn’t want “who he should be” imposed on his little guy. I found my son’s conviction so heartening. He already knows what’s taken me a whole lifetime to learn. Be who you are.

I was born into a world that already had perimeters and guidelines set into place to mold me. Being Catholic and female, left little room for my song to be sung. Add my parents fearful life-view into the mix, and I was a shell of the gift I was born to be. Needless to say, I felt stifled and unhappy. The harder I tried to fulfill others expectations the more empty I felt. Disillusioned and certain something was wrong with me, I began looking for ways to fix myself. Somehow what I was searching for in self-help books always alluded me. Today I see that what I really was seeking was permission to be myself.

I’ve set the intention to believe it isn’t selfish to love myself in 2016. I am going to stop criticizing my every move and allow myself to be me. I’ve come to the conclusion that loving who you are can only honor the Creator. Your uniqueness is no accident. Without your gifts and quirks there would be a hole in the tapestry of existence. Einstein was known for being a little peculiar but wrapped in his oddness was the ability to see things differently. What if he had stifled himself? The world have been deprived of his genius just like it will be deprived of yours if you keep the “real you” reigned in.

By being ourselves, we allow the Universe to work through us. Some may say, “But how can I do that when I don’t even know who I am?” The easiest way to discover the true you is when you’re making a decision ask yourself, “What would I do if I loved myself?” And then do that. A life lived this way is certain to take you to places you never dreamed of when you were holding yourself back.

This year when presented with a choice I’m going to ask myself, “Is this something that brings me joy or am I doing it out of obligation?” I’m going to check in moment by moment and really listen to how I feel. Once you start practicing this, you’ll be amazed by how many of your choices are not your own. It feels risky to quiet the mind and listen to the heart but doing so yields much joy.

This year, I am going to open myself up to having more fun. Trying to fulfill the world’s expectations is serious business and leaves little room for lightheartedness. I’ve resolved to ban self-help books from my library. I’ve decided I’m going to be reading for enjoyment. I am looking to be entertained not fixed. I will love my body and eat and exercise in ways that feel right to me. I am through with bowing to the standards imposed on women by advertisers and the diet industry.

Truly, the best New Year’s resolutions don’t come from the outside but from within. Many of us have tried for too long to make ourselves into something we’re not. It takes radical trust to believe that God knew what he was doing when he created you.

In working with the dying, palliative nurse Bronnie Ware, found that her patient’s biggest regret was that they wished they had lived a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them. I’m determined to never let that happen to me. When I reach the end of my days, I don’t want to be hit with the realization that I’ve lived someone else’s life. No, from this day forward the life I am living is my own.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Don’t Let Go of the Glow

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I have a young friend, Andrea, who inspires the heck out of me. One day she told me how happy she was with the direction her life had been going. She said, “Things are going so good, I don’t want to let go of the glow.” Don’t let go of the glow. I really liked that. It’s so easy to let negativity creep in and take over. That’s why it’s important to watch our thoughts and steer them in the direction of gratitude when they begin to get off course.

I’ve learned that I absorb the message of whatever I illustrate  so I promptly rustled up a couple of models (Andrea’s son Adrian being one of them) and got this drawing down on paper. The next week when Andrea mentioned she was intent on “keeping the glow going,” I thought, “oh no, get me some paper. Here we go again.”

*By the way, I am looking for a little asian girl, around age four, (my model in the above art is now too old) to base the “Keep the Glow Going” illustration on. I see her walking along a path carrying a paper lantern. That image has lived in my mind’s eye since I first wrote this post a couple of years ago. If you know of a little one that fits my description, please get in touch with me at sue@sueshanahan.com

Paper Lantern

 

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Dreams Take Care of Themselves

 

Click to purchase signed prints of  "Beach Dreams"

Click to purchase signed prints of “Beach Dreams

The above painting, captures the innocence of childhood and my love of Martha’s Vineyard. I have traveled to the island every summer for the last 17 years. It’s hard to write about its splendor without sounding cliche. Although there is much that is upscale on MV, there is also raw beauty woven throughout. All I can say is the President and his family vacation there for a reason. Illustrating a child worn out from play, slumbering on the beach, is my way of bottling the island’s magic. Just looking at this picture, brings me right back to the warm sand and soothing sound of the sea.

Beach Dreams was an illustration commission for a poem. I was given free reign on how I depicted it, so I drew from my own experience. Dreaming has always been such a big factor in my life. The little girl sleeping is my way of saying the more you relax into your dreams, the more you allow them to come to you. If given a chance, dreams take care of themselves.

Below Beach Dreams from conception to final art.

My model "sleeping"

My model “sleeping”

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

Watercolor wash

Watercolor wash

Adding the details

Adding the details

Final art

Final art

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

My Christmas Wish

Christmas in the Blue Room

Christmas in the Blue Room

You gotta have a dream,

If you don’t have a dream,

How you gonna have a dream come true? 

― Rogers and Hammerstein, Happy Talk

I have a goal I visualize every year in December. I want to illustrate the White House Christmas card. My dream took root when I received a Christmas card from the Clinton’s in 1994. They began sending them to me after I created a portrait of their daughter, Chelsea. The card painted by Thomas McKnight, grabbed hold of me and I thought, “I want to do that.” Since that time, during each presidency, I’ve submitted card concepts to the Office of the First Lady for consideration. All the rejections I’ve received have been gracious and none have deterred me.

If I can dream of a better land,

Where all my brothers walk hand in hand,

Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true? 

― Walter Earl Brown, If I Can Dream

The full color rendering above is my favorite holiday card concept. It’s entitled, “Christmas in the Blue Room.” That’s were the official White House Christmas tree is displayed each year. I drew it when President Bush was in office.I couldn’t resist incorporating the Bushes’ dogs Spotty, Barney, and their cat, India, in my illustration.  I love the idea behind this piece. America’s children gathered around the official tree speaks of the melting pot of souls that makes our land great. That they are hand in hand signifies unity. We are all one in this country. Children are born knowing that but it often fades when they begin to model themselves after the adults in their lives. My art shows the beauty in the contrast of our citizens. It speaks of the innate love for each other that we’re born with. As adults, how do we cross the boundaries of fear and intolerance to join together in peace and friendship? The quickest way to get there is through the eyes of a child.

 A sketch I did during the Clinton Administration. Family pets Buddy and Socks snooze under the official tree.

A sketch I did during the Clinton Administration. Family pets Buddy and Socks snooze under the official tree.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Plastic Has No Heart

Keeping it real: Three Friends in a Hammock © Sue Shanahan 2000

Keeping it real: Three Friends in a Hammock © 2014 Sue Shanahan

“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” – Amy Bloom

Lately, I’ve been conscious of a trend that makes my heart jump for joy. Have you noticed that more and more ordinary people are on TV and in the movies? For too long there’s only been room for Hollywood glamour. That standard was allowed to exist by a world that sought happiness from the external. As a young girl, I was indoctrinated and blindly aligned myself to that belief system. But not anymore. I, along with many others, have outgrown that life-view. Welcome tall, short, fat, thin, young, old and every color. Welcome me. Welcome you.

It’s hard to believe that when I began my career as an illustrator, I couldn’t find work because the people in my drawings looked too “real.” I was advised to stylize my children like the Gerber Baby because more women would relate to it. Can you believe that? I was exasperated by the assumption that only blue-eyed Caucasian babies were relatable. There was and is a place in the world for every mother’s child.

© 2014 Sue Shanahan

© 2014 Sue Shanahan

Fast forward to today. My illustrations, featuring children of all shapes, sizes and colors, are viewed as politically correct and affirming. Plastic surgery and the coloring of grey hair are being reconsidered by strong women in the limelight. The doors for self-love and self-worth are now open wide enough for everyone to fit through. We are fine just the way we are.

“When you’re always trying to conform to the norm, you lose your uniqueness, which can be the foundation of your greatness.” – Dale Archer

I would go so far as to say that embracing “who we are” is what helped launch Pharrell Williams’ song, Happy, into the stratosphere. That tune went nowhere until its video was released showing people of all ages, ethnicities, and body types dancing to it. To add to the explosion Pharrell’s fans posted videos from across the globe grooving to his song. Happy became a celebration of life and the beauty of humanity.

And what about Colbie Caillat’s song, Try? Its video blasts Photoshop and the unrealistic beauty standards put on women and girls. During the film, Colbie removes her hair extensions and her make-up bit-by-bit. At the end, what’s left is someone we can connect to. You see it’s nearly impossible relating to someone who’s body is decorated and molded. There is no heart in plastic. Being who we are is where our power lies.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

How can I be Plus Size and Invisible?

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I am a plus-sized woman. There is no hiding that. Although being large was the bane of my youth, at 58 I’ve come to terms with what is. I’ve spent a large portion of my life on a diet merry-go-round that only made me dizzy. It was a cycle of being horrified by what I saw in the mirror, restricting my eating and then slowly going back to my old ways and previous weight.

Sometimes I wonder, “What if there is no changing my body?” For years I’ve tried to shrink myself to a more acceptable size without any long term success. Could I be predisposed to be this way? That seems like a real possibility when I look at my family tree. I come from a long line of big women. I recently came across a photograph of my great-grandmother in the 1930’s. Her life was filled with hard physical labor and unprocessed food. She lived today’s formula for being slender. Yet despite all of that her body was fat, and I’m built just like her.

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“And I know my creator didn’t make no mistakes on me. My feet, my thighs, my lips, my eyes, I’m loving what I see.” ~India Arie, Video

Perhaps being ample sized isn’t optimal, but I’ve come to the conclusion that just may be who I am. I’m in the process of doing an, “I love myself” experiment. Instead of looking in the mirror in disgust, I bless my body. I wear the beauty of my ancestors. I affirm that my physicality is the perfect vehicle to manifest my life’s purpose. Not only do I have the soul of an artist, I have the fine motor skills to transcribe my vision onto paper. My eyes and brain work together perfectly to mix the subtle colors I envision for my paintings. My body is healthy and energetic. I have good skin and pretty eyes. Most of all, I’m grateful that it had the miraculous ability to grow and give birth to my three children.

So far my self-love experiment has been very healing. I’ve found the voice in my head is much more cruel than the outside world – for the most part. The other day while having lunch with a friend, I felt a sting from her words that I’ve experienced from others before. Lizzie (not her real name) revealed to me that she was worried about her daughter. She was afraid that her little girl would grow up with Lizzie’s sister’s metabolism and not hers. Lizzie, an effortless size four was horrified at the thought of her daughter ever having bigger hips and a curvier derrière. I assured her she had nothing to worry about and our discussion moved on to other matters.

When I returned home, I couldn’t shake my feelings of low self-worth. When Lizzy confided in me, she totally disregarded that I embody the destiny she dreads for her daughter. Instead of speaking up on my own behalf, I  pushed down my outrage. No wonder I felt bad. I couldn’t understand Lizzie’s unawareness of how her concerns would affect me. She was so considerate in other areas of her life. How come she couldn’t see the body I live in is what she considers a fate worse than death? In my silence, I had sold myself out.

“I have no right, by anything I do or say, to demean a human being in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him; it is what he thinks of himself. To undermine a man’s self-respect is a sin.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I remember watching the The View when it first aired. Joy Behar ridiculed Ted Kennedy’s paunch by showing a picture of him boating shirtless. Plus-sized Star Jones sat next to Joy as she got her laughs at the then senator’s expense. I couldn’t believe it. How could Joy not comprehend that the cruel humor she poured over Ted Kennedy washed over Star too? I left a message about Ms. Behar’s insensitivity on the telephone hotline The View had set up at the time. To the show’s credit, I never heard any of their hosts engage in that kind of crassness again.

Looking back, I wish I had had the clarity to stand up to Lizzie’s remarks that diminished me. This kind of of prejudice is oh-so-subtle but still hurtful. It is part of the overall marginalization of women of size. If it happens again, I will shed some light on how her lack of consideration makes me feel. I am no longer bound to a body standard that is eerily close to a Barbie doll. I want to be seen and appreciated for who I am. Being plus-sized does not mean I’m invisible or, deaf either, for that matter.

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My daughter and plus-sized me.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

I Once Knew a Girl who Gave Up Thinking…

Metamorphosis

The mind is a complete idiot. – Dr. David R. Hawkins M.D., PhD.

I have a young friend who never ceases to amaze me. When Andrea and I first met, I took her soft-spokeness as mousy. Inside and out, she seemed pretty ordinary. It didn’t take long for me to realize behind her quiet demeanor, was a girl of fire and spunk.

When Lent rolled around a few years back, Andrea’s priest told the congregation it wasn’t always necessary to give something up as a sacrifice. When preparing for Easter, he suggested that instead of depravation, Lent could be observed by taking on a practice that would be a blessing to the observer. Gathering with a group to study scripture or meditating each morning could also be a way to revere this high, holy time. And that’s when it hit Andrea, she would give up thinking for Lent.

When she first told me her idea I laughed. Give up thinking for Lent? How could that be possible? Don’t we need our thoughts to help move us through life? No, what Andrea was talking about was obsessive thinking. You know, the kind of thinking that gives you no rest. The kind of thinking that analyzes and tries to control every aspect of your life.

The last seven years had been rough for her. Pregnant at 17, she married her son’s father only to divorce him two years later because of a mental illness and drug abuse. After that, Andrea felt she had no choice but to move back home to her parents’ with their son Adrian. Living with a critical and condescending mother was less than ideal, but she needed help with her little boy. She saw no other way to keep her full-time job while working on a college degree.

Fear loomed large in Andrea’s life. She felt stuck and wondered if she would ever be able to give Adrian the life he deserved. Her ex-husband’s instability constantly disappointed them. Recently, he had checked himself into rehab, yet again, but she didn’t have much hope for a positive outcome. The gears in her brain turned around the clock with “what ifs.”

It was during this time the brilliant idea to give up thinking for Lent came to Andrea. She quickly learned she had to pay constant attention to her thoughts if she were going to be successful. In particular, her drive to work always signaled the wheels of her obsession to begin rolling. An hour later, when she pulled into the parking lot, she couldn’t even remember the route she took, her mind was so consumed. To unhook she began practicing being present by noticing her surroundings.

Andrea quickly discovered there was so much beauty in her daily drive she had never been aware of. It was spring. The flowers were blooming and everything was fresh and new. And the birds! She had never noticed the riot of their chirping. She began seeing hawks everywhere. She couldn’t believe she’d been so locked inside her mind that their majesty had gone unnoticed.

The more Andrea let go by staying in the now, the more she saw that everything she was fixated on resolved itself on its own. Maybe by relaxing her grip she was actually allowing God to work things out more quickly.

All will be revealed – not all will be figured out.– Mary Karr

I too have been held hostage by my brain. As of late, not knowing where my career as an author/illustrator is going has been weighing heavy on my mind. The publishing industry was turned upside down by the 2008 financial collapse and left me on the outside looking in. With the invention of electronic readers, the industry is now reworking itself in a way that makes sense with today’s technology. That means it’s harder than ever to get an editor to even glance at a submission. What to do? What to do? Should I continue to search for an agent, publisher or self-publish?

Lucky for me Lent is here and reminded me of Andrea and her bright idea. I took a cue from her and consciously gave up my need to analyze and force a solution. The moment I surrendered my thinking, peace washed over me and was immediately followed by the ding of an an email in my inbox. It was a note from a film company that wants to make a short documentary about my art. How cool is that? And with my mind out of the way, who knows what other miracles will be brought forth in my life. That Andrea is a genius.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Being Beautiful is Not a Profession

I learned very young that a woman’s power came from her looks. Specifically, my beauty, or lack there of, was how my worth was measured. The straightness of my nose and thickness of my eyelashes were important but useless if I wasn’t skinny. Tall and sturdy for my age, I took on the onus of “the fat kid” long before the title fit. My mother, with her movie star looks, was ashamed of me. She saw me as extension of herself.

My first attempt at weight loss was in the fourth grade. I had the brilliant idea of slicing my stomach with a razor and squeezing the fat out. Of course, I never could go through with it.  Every night as I lay in bed, the success of my day was measured by how little I ate. The obsession to be thin had already taken hold.

When puberty hit, my weight soared out of control. The pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. I looked at the models in Seventeen magazine and knew I could never measure up. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the models didn’t measure up either. They had been airbrushed to flawlessness in their photos.

When I turned sixteen, my mother typed a rite of passage letter to me and signed it with, “Love, Mom.” What struck me the most in it was her advice to “marry a man who is going places and will take you with him.” I had learned the only bargaining tool to hitch that ride was my looks. And what I saw in the mirror told me I was doomed. I decided I’d better develop my talents.

My story does have a happy ending. At 23, I married a man who loved me just the way I was. Whenever I questioned how he could be attracted to me he said, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I thought that was his way of saying I love you in spite of how you look. Today I know better. My husband was way smarter than the media gave most credit for. He could see past the images that beauty advertisements were trying to force down our throats. After 34 years of marriage, he still loves my soul and my own brand of gorgeous that encapsulates it.

Over the years, with a concentrated effort, I’ve undone much of the damage to my body image. Movies like Miss Representation have helped. Most recently a wonderful blog post by Kasey Edwards affirmed my belief that the way most women see their bodies is an illusion. Our perception has little to do with how the world sees us.

I’ve come to peace with my mother and her inability to accept the body I was born into. I see now that like me, she was a victim of “lookism.” Born in the 1920’s, a bride in the 1950’s, she was a product of our culture. In her own convoluted way, she was just trying to keep me safe. She was passing on the societal expectations she had learned from her own mother.

Yes, at times, I still fall back into feeling horrified by the way I look. Recently, I saw a picture of myself that made me cringe. Instead of taking the feelings to heart, I now compare them to how I feel hearing a recording of my voice. Like most people, I don’t like the way I sound, but don’t take the foreignness of it to mean I’m flawed. In the same way, I no longer take my reaction to a photograph of myself to heart either. It doesn’t mean anything. My initial discomfort doesn’t stem from how I look but comes from the disconnection I feel of looking at a shell. The “real” me is formless.

Our world is evolving and so am I. The best gage of my self-acceptance is my daughter and the women my sons chose to marry. All three are stunning, accomplished women. They exude self-confidence and embrace who they are. No matter how thin or pretty, they would never think to add the superficial to their list of achievements. They where brought up knowing their power isn’t on the outside but lies within, being beautiful is no longer a career path.

After seeing my art on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Annie commissioned me to illustrate the above portrait of her as Glinda the Good Witch and her daughter as Dorothy. She wanted her little girl to know she had the power inside herself to make her dreams come true.

After seeing my art on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Annie commissioned me to illustrate the above portrait of her as Glinda the Good Witch and her daughter as Dorothy. She wanted her little girl to know she had the power inside herself to make her dreams come true.

My mom (second from left) at a luncheon shortly before she married my dad.

My mom (second from left) at a luncheon shortly before she married my dad.

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All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com