Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Old Branch

It's been quite a while since I was here last.  I didn't realize how much time had passed since my last post. I keep meaning to come by, share a few thoughts, but the thoughts I've had have been too private to put on the web. 

In the meantime, I recalled a conversation my youngest brother Grant and I had some time ago. "Do you realize we are now the Old Branch?" he said.  What did he mean by that, I asked.  "Well, you know.  The family tree, how it branches off.  Do you I can't think of anyone who's alive of Granddad's brothers and sisters?   I'm not sure about Grammy's sisters.   And even in Mom and Dad's generation, there are only a few left."  We started naming names of those we knew who were still alive or known dead, but we do not know all the names as the extended family is very large and widespread.  "That makes us the Old Branch of the family tree," he said.  "We're now the ones the kids turn to for answers and we're supposed to know them.  I can remember when Mom and Dad in their forties and Grammy in her fifties, and I  still thought they knew everything." 

Me, too, I thought that, I said. 

"But I'm at the age they're at and I don't feel I know as much as they did at the same age," he pressed.

I thought for a moment.  "They knew different things because times were different, simpler in many ways.  They knew what they needed to know for the times they were in.  We'll need to know things based on the times were in."

"How do we find the answers?  How do people know how to do things?"  He was clearly worried.  "The girls (his daughters) are going to be looking to me for answers, and I'm afraid I won't know  them."  

"Nobody knows everything, and when you run into a situation you don't know, you find someone who has experience or knowledge, then you'll know, too," I reassured him.     

It was probably about the time when we were trying to figure out how to resolve the conflict of providing for our mother's health care needs and balance her needs to live independently. Gone are the days when it was common and expected the elderly  would live with their children.  Now it's either senior housing or nursing homes.  Times change.

She lives three hours away from us, a long drive in the summer, a harrowing drive in the winter, and never a convenient drive in the best of circumstances.  We leave the relative slow and safe two-lane highways of our New Hampshire country roads for the four- and six-lane highways of the Massachusetts cities to the south of us.  We wanted her to live closer to us so that we could keep an eye on her and follow her medical care to ensure the best possible care for her. 

Neither my brother nor I were prepared for the incredible volume of paperwork that the two states required to be completed. On the surface, it should have been so easy.  Pack her up, move her to a nursing home here.  Transfer her Medicare and Medicaide insurance information.  But it wasn't to be so.  A folder was created. 

Compounding the frustration was the piecemeal sharing of information.  A representative would say a form was required to be filled out. My brother filled it out, turned it in.  But you don't have power of attorney, they said.  So he took time off to become an authorized POA, seeing a lawyer, getting documents signed, going to Massachusetts, filing paperwork.  Now you need to do the form over.  So  he did.  He did, turned it in.    Aaaah, but another form was needed.  Why wasn't this given during the last visit?  A shrug, no excuse, perhaps a misunderstanding,  but the new form still  needed to be filled out if we wanted to proceed.  This happened multiple times, always followed by a shrug and no apology.  Was there no one who knew the entire process, who could give and tell us everything that was needed in one meeting, to explain the entire process, to expedite the processing, who wasn't on vacation or out sick!  Our mother is 80-something, time is valuable.  A shrug.  Everyone is doing the best they if you could just complete this and return it, someone will review it.  

Eventually, New Hampshire made it so difficult to move our mother here that we had to resign ourselves to leaving her in Massachusetts, on her own, in the care of home health care aids and visiting nurses.  We do not have the social programs that support the elderly here (or children, really, in my opinion).  Some of this is based on the socio-economic base or our state's residents and some of it is "cultural."  What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps thinking.  Daniel Webster, a famous Patriot and statesman, said that God makes mountains but New Hampshire makes men, or something like that.  There's not a whole lot of sentimentality. 

I marvel at all the changes that have taken place since the time of my grandparents birth.  A hundred years of change, the automobile, indoor plumbing (my grandmother's house only ever had an outhouse!), man walking on the moon, computers, fax machines, color TV (do they even make black and white anymore like when I was a kid?!), digital cameras. 

My Ole Sweetie-Pi, Earl,  has a different viewpoint.  He says we are rapidly becoming the generation that is being left behind.  He doesn't see the Old Branch as having the answers, not the way our parents did.  He sees us as asking more questions, leaning more and more on our children for answers.  Technology has divided us, he says, and the gap will grow wider, as technology advances and we don't keep up. 

I'm not a fatalist but I am a realist.  I told a sweet, lovely lady (who is in her early retirement years) that I blog for a hobby.  Her eyes glazed over, she nodded and smiled, and I realized she didn't know what I was talking about.  Does make me wonder what she thinks I'm doing, though.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Giving and Receiving

Karen and I saw side by side, desks abutting, at our job. She is petite, reed thin, blond, a charmer, a natural salesperson. I am her near opposite. Short, round, dark, aloof. She is also one of the most intelligent women I know. I mean, she could take her checkbook and at a glance could balance it in her head. Me, I need a calculator, pencil with eraser, and loads of uninterrupted time. And then only after some struggle could I make the numbers balance.

Unfortunately, she was involved in a serious head-on collision in her car and she and her sister were seriously injured, Karen suffering some brain damage. She lost part of her memory (not knowing her family), her ability to do balance her checkbook just by looking at it, and the ability to tell if she were hungry, couldn't remember how to grocery shop or dial a phone. She had to set her the alarm on her watch to remind her it was time to eat. Before that she was literally starving to death because she didn't know she was hungry. It was only after serious weight loss and fainting that the doctors realized she lost her sense of hunger.

What she was left with, however, was the ability to see auras. I suppose that sounds very "new age" and reeks of women in long flowing gowns, draped in clunky semi-precious and precious jewels that represented their chakras, reading tarot cards, and casting spells. Karen was not like that and she took umbrage at being compared to pseudo psychics. She showed up to work every day in her business suit, wearing closed toe pumps, flesh toned hose, and blouses that were buttoned up to her neck. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a neat, low, pony tail, and her gaze was direct and her smile, when given, was sincere. The only difference was that she could look at you and see fogs of colors swirling around you and the colors had meaning. She could look into your heart and know your character.

Colors had positive and negative aspects and it was only if you had situational knowledge that you could know the color's significance. Without even being aware, we speak intuitively of color's meanings. For example, green was a nurturer or a healer; it could also mean someone who was "green with envy;" red meant passion or anger as in "seeing red" ; blue was peace but it could also mean depression, "feeling blue." And black had only one meaning, evil, a soul devoid of any light.

She could see if a person had guardian angels or spirits about them. She could see into the future. She saw past lives, but because it went against every religious precept she was taught, she reviled the idea of past and future lives and refused to lift the curtain to see what was there. She would become physically ill if images appeared in her mind.

"It's a burden to know so much about people," she emphasized to me. "I don't want to know how shallow and mean people are or how they are not living up to their potential if they only had the courage to follow their dreams. God must cry every day. There is nothing I can do with this knowledge. It is too painful and too awful to bear. I don't want it. I want the doorway that gives me this ability to close and never open again. I don't care what else I have to forget as long as I don't have to have this anymore." She gave me a woeful look. "Your angels, or spirits, or whatever you want to call them, talk to you all the time and are frustrated that you don't listen."

"I don't know how to listen, and I'm not sure I want to learn to hear what they're saying. Don't want a chorus of angels telling me what a screw up I am. I think that's why God made my mother," I quipped.

Karen, undeterred, pressed her point. "Wait, you need to know something important. You have an angel over your shoulder who wants you to know something."

"I don't want to know that I'm going to Hell. I'd rather wait and let that be a surprise."

"One of your other angels is laughing. He says he's the one who shares your weird sense of humor." Karen looked beyond me, nodded and smiled at nothing. (I know because I turned to see what she was looking at.) Nothing there that I could see anyway.

"OK, I'll listen and if it's something I like, then I'll think you're right. If it's something I don't like, I'll think you're making it up."

"It's a lesson you need to learn."

I felt my resistance rising.

"Don't shut me out," Karen admonished. "You need to hear this. Do you believe that God blesses us?"

"Yes, of course."

"Do you think He's like Santa Claus and makes personal visits to everyone's house?"

"Well....sort of. I don't think He wears a red suit or has a long white beard, though I could be wrong about the beard. I think He says "let there be light" and the lights come on. I think He answers prayers. Don't tell me He has a prayer committee."

Karen smiled. "Your angels are laughing again. They want me to hurry up and get to the point. Okay. Sometimes God uses people to bless others. Do you know what I mean by that?"

"Baptism? Confession?"

"Quit being a smart-mouth." Karen crossed her legs and faced me straight on, looking grim and proper. "No, let's say you needed $5,000 and you won $5,000 in the lottery. Would you say that you were blessed and would you accept it?"

"Of course! Are you telling me I'm winning $5,000?"

She ignored the question. "Let's say you needed $5,000 and your mother offered you $5,000 and you knew that it was important to her to give it to you would you accept it?"

"Probably not. I know how hard she would've worked to save it, all the sacrifices she made to be able to offer it. She's worked hard her entire life; her life has been difficult at best. I want her to enjoy her money and to do something that's important to her. No way could I take her money. I'd find another way."

Karen nodded in understanding. "You would turn it down, knowing full well how much she wanted to give it to you and how important it was to her that you accept it?"

"Absolutely. No way could I accept that kind of money from my mother."

Did it occur to you that God might be using your mother as His envoy or courier to bless you? And now you have turned away His blessing and gift? Also did it ever occur to you that when someone tries to do something nice for you, it may not be about you but it may be that they have to be a blessing to others so that they can be blessed in return. By turning them down you are postponing a blessing that they might need."

"I can't possibly accept every gift that someone tries to give me. I don't have the means to return the favor. It's much easier for me to thank someone for their kindness and not have that feeling of obligation."

"You're not supposed to accept every gift that comes your way. Not every so-called gift is from God. You have to have your eyes open to see the difference." Karen shifted in her seat. "Your angel is saying that when it's right you need to learn and develop a sense of gratitude and graciousness." Karen looked hazily past me again. "Not everyone expects something in return you know." Sometimes people just want the good feeling that comes with being kind or generous or knowing that they've somehow helped a friend, or maybe they are repaying a debt by helping you. But by refusing them you are not allowing them to advance spiritually. Also you're telling God that His blessings aren't good enough for you."

"Maybe," I said as noncommittally as I could.

Karen smiled. "And then sometimes you have to gift in return because you are supposed to provide the greater good. It's confusing. That's all I know."

That conversation took place years ago, and it's one I've long remembered and thought on. I've since switched jobs a half dozen times perhaps, meeting new people, making new friends. At my current job I have a friend named Sharon. Sharon is a Gardener. We are talking a couple acres (or more!) of gorgeous flowering plants that she tends with a loving eye. Flowers of all kinds everywhere blooming everywhere.

She came to work one day, and said, "I have too many flowers. They are crowding each other out. I'm digging them up to thin them out. Do you want them? If you don't take them, I'm throwing them away." She is very direct and succinct like that.

Well, if she's throwing them away.... "Oh, I'd love them! I've been wanting flowers for the house since I bought it. I buy one or two plants a year, but my flower "garden" seems to be confined to window boxes."

"Bring your Jeep. We'll fill it up."

Silly me, I thought she was exaggerating, but I should have known better. By the time she stuffed my Jeep full of plants, (roses, phlox, iris, heather, bee balm, clematis, lamb's ear, to name a few) there was barely room for me to sit in the front seat. I couldn't see out of any of the side windows and I was being stuck in the back of my head with rose stems. My car smelled earthy and flowery and heavenly.

For the longest time I had envisioned flowers growing in my yard, and now, Sharon has blessed me with her kindness and generosity. She says I did her a favor by accepting the plants.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Worth My Time?

I used to be a commissioned insurance sales person. It was a job I was coerced into; I didn't like it; I was extremely resentful because of unfortunate circumstances that forced me to be there. I showed up every day but I was determined to punish and exact some satisfaction of revenge on my employer by failing to meet sales goals and deftly, and oh so cleverly, turning away clients. In the end I was the one who suffered my few commissioned sales and a miserly paycheck and a miserable future.

However, while I was so cleverly cutting off the branch on which I was standing, I discovered I had a knack for listening to people and drawing them out. The more I listened, the more people wanted to talk. In a job where potential and established clients were supposed to be hustled in and out as if we were in a 20-items or less checkout line, my clients lingered and shared some of their most intimate and amazing thoughts. That lady there? She was molested by her uncle when she was seven. That widow? Loved her husband but glad he's gone because now she's free to do as she has always wanted to be. That teenager? Hates his stepdad and his mother for marrying him and is driving angry, building up points on his license. And the elderly gentleman and his beautiful wife, still happily married after 45 years, holding hands, reinforcing my hope that love does endure and that marriage is tender bond.

My employer disapproved of the length of time I expended, as time was money; criticism and subsequent training flowed. It was made abundantly clear that my time was to be spent in making them money, and as it turns out in making me money too, though I was too stubborn to admit it, too late in seeing that I was hurting myself financially and personally, and too stubborn to relieve us all of my anger and seek employment elsewhere.

One afternoon, a young man, in his mid-30's, of Indian culture judging from his liquid black eyes, brown skin and musical accent, came into the office, seeking auto insurance on a newly acquired vehicle. It had been a slow day for me, perhaps I had had only one client earlier and no one scheduled for the rest of the day. My time was his, and I was grateful for the distraction and for the opportunity to look busy. He handed me the paperwork to register and title his vehicles, I scanned it, noting that the buyer's name and signatures were omitted.

At first he seemed pleasant enough, and the transaction was one I had done hundreds of times and I could virtually complete in my sleep. I asked him for his name, which he promptly provided, picked up my pen to fill in the missing information on the forms. "No, wait!" he interrupted. "I want this to be in my wife's name."

"Okay," I readily agreed (giving the customer what he wants is paramount to making a sale). "But your wife will have to sign the forms."

"She doesn't know I bought the car but I want her to have it." He leaned over the desk, his upper body touching the desk top as he gave me a pleading look.

"The laws are pretty strict, I'm sorry. I can't put a vehicle in your wife's name without her written signatures. We just can't go about registering and titling vehicles in another person's name. Imagine the possible disastrous consequences."

He was not mollified. "If something happens to me, I want her to have the vehicle," he persisted.

"If something happens to you, this vehicle will become part of your estate, and if there are no children, will go to your wife. It's a bit of a hullabaloo, but from personal experience, it does eventually work out. I must caution you that your best advice is from a lawyer. Or you can ask your wife to come in and we can put everything in her name then, or we can put the paperwork in both names and then you can take it to your wife and she can also sign."

"Things are so different in this country," he said. "I am from India." His voice was trailed off. "I miss my country. I married my wife who is American, and we came here to live. She told me that there was so much opportunity here, but I cannot find one job. In my country, I was an accountant, like your CPAs. My degrees are not accepted here. I have applied many many times." Two hours slipped by as he spoke of his beloved country and family and of his difficulties in adapting to American life.

"Do you know H&R Block? I see that they are always advertising for people to do tax returns. I don't know anything about them, other than they're a huge outfit. I know people without accounting degrees who work for them. Certainly with your knowledge and their training, you could find a position there. Perhaps you could eventually consult or open your own office. Perhaps the answer is not necessarily to work for another but to work for yourself?"

He body straightened and his eyes brightened. "Yes, I will check out H&R Block." He stared thoughtfully at the papers in my hand. "We will put the vehicle in my name."

In a course of ten minutes I had completed and applied the appropriate stamps and he went on his way.

The office manager, a woman with a booming voice, swung her hips, like flashing caution signals, down the aisle to my desk. "Took you long enough. How much money did you make?"

"He ended up buying minimal insurance; he's unemployed." I squirmed beneath her glare but nevertheless felt a slight perverse delight at her annoyance with me.

"Then he wasn't worth your time. We don't want minimum insurance clients."

I don't remember how much time had passed, two, three, four months, but he showed up at my desk again, registration plates in hands. "I want to cancel the auto insurance," he said as he handed the bug-and-mud encrusted plates to me. "I am going back to India." He did not sit this time, poised as if rushed.

"Oh, how lovely!" I said.

He shrugged in resignation. "Yes, I shall see my family, but my wife will not return with me. We have decided to divorce. I do not like it here and she does not like it there. There is no other way."

"Oh, I am sorry that it didn't work out for you. You have had many difficult decisions. I hope that this one will bring you happiness."

"Yes, many difficult decisions." His eyes were so dark that I could not discern the pupil; his gaze was soft and liquid. "May I tell you something?" I nodded, not taking my eyes from his. "Do you remember when I came here the first time, and I wanted to put the vehicle in my wife's name?"

"Yes, and we put everything in your name."

"I wanted everything in my wife's name because I wanted her to have the car and everything else that was mine. I had planned to register the car in her name and then go home and commit suicide. I did not want any problems for her. I was so discouraged, no friends, no family, no job. But after talking with you, you gave me so much hope, that I changed my mind. And now I go home. I could have taken the plates to the Registry myself, but I wanted to see you and to thank you."

He extended a hand and we shook hands, clasping each other's hand longer than is socially acceptable for a polite handshake. I wished him well and he left.

As soon as he was out of earshot and eyesight the bosomy office manager was at my desk again. She stared fixedly at the registration plates. "Turning in his plates and cancelling his insurance! I warned you that we don't want minimum insurance clients. He just wasn't worth your time."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Perfect Moment

Mao, my sweet and beautiful Colombian friend, was curious about relationships between men and women. He was intrigued with the rituals and rites of romance and courtship. He startled me one day by asking how does a man propose to a woman, does the man really get down on bended knee. I said not always, though my husband did when he asked me.

Mao reflected on that. "When a man offers a woman a ring, she usually says yes. Even if she doesn't want the man; she wants to flash around the diamond ring."

"Not me. I said no."

Mao's black eyes flashed. "You are supposed to say, yes, Kah-thee! It is bad manners to say no. It takes a lot of courage for the man to propose."

"Perhaps, but I never, ever wanted to be married."

Mao gave me his brightest smile, eyes sparkling. "But you married him."

I signed. "Yes, he wore me down until I said yes."

"That's how it should be." He grunted in final approval.

I smiled at his Latin machismo. Perhaps in his culture that was the way. This little old Yankee girl had different ideas.

"I read somewhere that in everyone's life there is one perfect romantic moment. What was your most romantic moment? Was it with your husband?"

I thought back. How much do I share? "My husband was an intellectual, Mao, a good man in many, many ways. He didn't have a sense of humor and he really wasn't romantic, but I knew I was loved. He just showed it in different ways. But there was a time after that, when I was in college..." I drifted off, embarrassed. "After my Daniel died, I decided to go back to college and pursue a degree in English. I was taking a poetry class and as part of our grade, the class had to present original poetry to the entire college. There was a man there, a classmate, who presented his poems after mine, and they were all love poems. I didn't know it at the time, but they were written for me."

"Why aren't you with him! That is very romantic! That took a lot of courage to stand up there in front of everyone!! Kah-thee!! Women love a man to do that for them!"

"You're right. When I finally understood his poetry was meant for me and not just a homework assignment to pass the course, I was extremely flattered. And it truly was one of the finest moments of my life. But I had to turn him away and tell him he could only be my friend. I had to." I could feel Mao sizzle in disapproval and disappointment. "He was married. He had children. We're still friends. That is enough."

Mao slumped a little, saddened by my story of unrequited love, and I gave him a quick hug and a laugh and forgot about the conversation. Days later when I went to pick him up for work (we commuted to work together and I drove), Mao called me from the second-story porch of his apartment. "Kah-tee!" he yelled down. "I need you to come and stand under the porch." I was running a little late and felt impatient that he was delaying me even longer, but I did as I was bid. "Wait, stand right there!" he instructed as I was about to step onto the first floor porch deck. I need to be able to see you!." He disappeared for a moment, and gave me a beatific smile. "I have something I want to give you!" He held a long-stem yellow rose in his hand. "I want to give you a romantic moment! I am going to toss this rose down to you and I want you to catch it?"

"Does it have thorns?" I teased.

"Kah-thee, this is the perfect romantic moment, like in the movies. I am doing this for you," he gently chided. "You do not ask about thorns in the perfect romantic moment! It is not right!"
The rose fell from his hand and sashayed through the air, dipping and twirling, until I caught it over my head.

I clasped the rose and brought it to my nose and sniffed its delicate fragrance. "Mao, this is beautiful! Thank you! I shall remember this forever!"

"I wanted to be the one to give you the perfect moment!" he said triumphantly.

I smiled. How fortunate and blessed I am. Love, even misguided, is a gift. Two perfect romantic moments that could make the world stop: love poems that filled my heart, spoken in a filled auditorium, by a married man, and a yellow rose tossed from a second story porch by a man who shared my love of men.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Love Endures All Things

My oldest brother, Mike, was speaking of our grandmother, our father's mother. Mary Birdena Hussey was her birth name, though most everyone in the family called her Dena. There were some who called her Mary, her coworkers. doctor, bank teller, the meter reader and such, but to me and my two brothers, she was Grammy, and Grammy was her most cherished name of all.

"I just came back from the nursing home," he said. "She looks like she's doing okay, getting thinner, and she cries and begs to come home. She worked and sacrificed her entire life for the family and now all she remembers is her own name, and she says it over and over. She doesn't know who I am but she knows I'm someone who can take her back home. I feel so guilty about leaving her there when she's done so much for us. I hate Alzheimer's!" he hissed vehemently.

I felt his pain subside as I waited quietly for him to go on. I understood too well about why she said her name over and over; it was one of my secret guilts that I didn't tell him.

Grammy and I were outside in her yard, enjoying a beautiful New England summer day. She took my hand as she often did and held it and then brought it to her lips and she kissed the palm of my hand. "I think I'm losing my mind," she said.

"Grammy, I don't think you're losing your mind," I assured her, panic seizing me like no other panic I had ever experienced. "Tell me, what's your name?" I threw an arm around her and hugged her until she squealed with delight. She loved being loved. I loved loving her. The fear of losing her was incomprehensible.

She laughed, "Mary Birdena."

"See, you're okay. People who are losing their mind can't remember their name. As long as you know your name, you're just fine." Her large hazel eyes peered deeply into my dark brown ones, to see if I were telling her the truth, and she seemed satisfied.

"It's just that I seem so forgetful lately...but okay. I'll know I'm fine as long as I remember my name..."

"Grant and I were talking about Gram," Mike continued, " and what we remember most about her. You know how there's usually one thing that you remember the most about a person?"

I hadn't thought to define Grammy's essence and spirit with a single memory and I was a little irked by the thought that someone could be summed up so succinctly; but it was a curious statement. "What do you mean?"

"Well," he said, "when I think of Grammy, I think of her as always offering me an apple. Every time I went to her house, she always offered me an apple. I'd say I didn't want it, but she'd make me take it. Grant says she was always giving him canned peaches. Remember how she always had canned peaches and pears and fruit cocktail under the sink cabinet?" Yes, I could clearly see her badly yellowed, white enameled sink, two cabinets, one each side, one for pots and pans on one side and canned goods in the other. She kept creamed corn in there for me when she made chicken fricassee for Sunday dinners. "What do you remember?"

"Those creme-filled vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate sugar wafer cookies, I suppose." That was not what I remembered the most about her, but it's what I said. "She always kept a secret stash of them in her white dish cabinet." She also kept a stash of rainbow colored gross grained ribbons for my long hair that she loved. The baby books she kept of me had dozens of pictures of the back of my head because she loved my long dark hair.

"Gram always loved you best. How come she never loved me and Grant as much as you?"

It's too complicated, really, to understand and explain family dynamics between siblings, I thought. I said, "I suppose because it's easier to relate to another female, because I'm the one who spent the most time with her, because Dad loves you best and because Mom loves Grant best, because Grammy always wanted a daughter and had a jackass for a son. She loves all of us, just differently. She and I just had more in common, that's all."

Mike thought on it for a moment, and said "Trade you Dad for Gram. She can teach me how to cook and you can learn to drive a dump truck."

"No deal," I said.

It was a six-hour ride one way to the nursing home to visit my grandmother in Vermont. Connie, my boyfriend, was keen that we should see her as often as we could while we could and we'd make the trip once a month or so. The residents would crowd around us, vieing for scraps of our attention, asking if we knew where their children were, asking us to come back.

I would trim Grammy's nails (she was always particular that her nails should be short) and comb her hair "extra pretty." Her eyes would light up, and she'd smile broadly as I assured her that she was the most beautiful Grammy in the whole entire world.

As we would get ready to leave, she would always beg me to "take her home" and promise "I'll be good, please take me with you," and the guilt at not being able to take care of her, to take care of her as I imagined she would have done for me, would be so overwhelming and suffocating that I would leave a sobbing, wretched mess.

The Alzheimer's progressed rather quickly once she was diagnosed. When she first went to the nursing home, it was just to provide her with assistance for her daily activities as she could not cook for herself or attend to her financial needs. As time went by, the bright light faded from her eyes and she lost the ability to speak but a few words. I could see her trying to remember how to speak, her lips twitching, but only indiscernible sound coming out.

At the end, we went to see her to ensure her care. I still filed her nails and made her "extra pretty" and told her she was the most beautiful Grammy in the world. She seemed happy for the attention, patting my hair, and eagerly accepting my kisses, holding my hand in her frail one as we walked the nursing home hallways. My brother Mike stopped going "because she doesn't recognize me anymore." I tried to tell him that Grant and I didn't go and visit Grammy because I thought she would recognize us, we went because I still recognized and loved her.

Do we know when it's the last time we shall see a person on this earth? I think some might and that this knowledge is a gift that is the greatest on this earth. A blessing from God to his children. Was it in October? Perhaps. I remember autumn in it's magnificent orange, red and golden splendor. Vermont fields once green, now beige and flaxen, a warm shining sun, but not the hot sun of July. A breeze with the faintest hint of coolness. The languidness of summer fading.

As Connie and I entered the nursing home, I saw Grammy sitting at the piano that was in their recreation area. In her mind she was playing a tune that only she could hear. Her knobby fingers ran up and down the keys, her eyes were closed. (The nursing home had unplugged the piano long ago as she played the same chords incessantly, to the annoyance of everyone in earshot; they couldn't get rid of the piano, but they certainly stopped the sound). As if she knew we were there, she opened her eyes and looked straight at me and stood straight up in unrestrained delight. She scurried as quickly as she could to me, arms open, lips pursed in an anticipated kiss.

I scooped her up, lifted her lightly off her feet, in a mad hug, being careful not to break her fragile body. I set her back down, and the life and the light was back in her eyes. Her lips twitched and little grunts came out. She reached up, cupped my face in her deeply wrinkled and heavily veined hands, and poured herself into my eyes. "Love," she croaked. I immediately started to sob uncontrollably. She patted my hair, as she had so often done when I was little. "Pretty," she barely mumbled. I was holding onto her for dear life, my heart bearing the greatest pain I ever knew. I could hear Connie crying behind me, blowing his nose. Grammy squirmed away from me, reached into her skirt pocket, searching for some little treasure.

She put her clutched fist into my open hand; I looked to see what she had give me. And there it lay, a little cellophane packet of graham crackers, crumbled and crushed. She closed my fingers around it and once again peered endlessly into my eyes.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Honor Among Thieves

Keith looked across the chasm of our adjoining desks, leaned across his desk into my workspace, and blurted in a whisper, "I've spent time in prison." He threw himself back in his chair, crossed his arms in front of his chest. He gave me his five-front-teeth-only smile and his deep brown shone in a perverse humor intended to shock me.

It worked. I tried to repress my knee jerk surprise, but I knew my eyes were wide and my face frozen in a stupid look with my mouth gaped open. Finally, I was able to utter, "Oooooohh..." I had long before surmised that Keith was likely a recovering drug user, someone who had lost his way and was struggling to get back He had a saunter and a chip on his shoulder; he was quick to anger, and just as quick to laugh. He had his own set of ideas about right and wrong. He could look you straight in the eye until you looked away first. He was emaciated looking, smoked too much, could be crude in speech and manner when it struck him to be so, could be gentle and kind if one were gentle and kind with him. He was a drifter, had been homeless. He was a loner in a room full of people. He sat at his desk with his headset on, listening to talk radio, occasionally blurting out answers to quiz questions and political opinion polls.

He was my work mentor. I was in a job that was a poor fit. Map making required someone with strong analytical and spatial skills, measuring and recording roads, time and distance using instruments and published resources. To me, time and distance is measured by feeling and intuition. A road is a journey. My heart is my instrument that guides me. An odd friendship and respect bloomed, Keith was spatial and I was, according to him, spacey.

Keith roared with unrestrained delight, and disapproving faces turned to see who was laughing in this grim place called The Workplace. He stared them all down one of his F* You looks until everyone turned back to their work. I secretly admired that and wish I knew how to do it, too.

"Sooooo, why were you a guest of the state?"

"For starting up my own church."

"You're a minister?" I was dumbstruck. I never would have taken him for a man of the cloth.

"No, that was part of the problem." Keith was clearly enjoying dragging out the story, his smile wider and his eyes glittering. "I ain't no altar boy."

"So, I'm beginning to see. How could you ever end up in jail for ministering a church?"

"Well, I seemed to have "ministered" to myself with the church's money."

"Keith! How could you ever conceive of doing such a thing? That's just not right!"

He pulled out the front of his tee shirt and buried his laugh into his chest at my naivete. " Seems like others agree with you. I can't believe people got so mad about it when you consider how pretty stupid and trusting they are. I only gave them what they wanted. They wanted answers and I gave them answers. I don't see anything wrong with that. They wanted to believe in what I said and they wanted to give me money to say it. So I let them. It was simple. I used to drive a white Cadillac in those days."

"You are a very bad man!" I decreed, disgusted with him. He smiled sadly at me and I gave him an apologetic smile in return.

Changing the subject, he said, "Know how I got this job?"

"I am afraid to ask."

"Remember on the job application they asked if you spoke any foreign languages?" I nodded my head. I had written "some Spanish" on mine. "I don't speak no foreign languages, figured they wouldn't hire anyone like me, so to be a wise guy I wrote "Ebonics. Do you know what Ebonics is?"

"Yes, it's commonly called "black" English."

Now it was Keith's turn to be surprised. "Not too many white people know that word. Well, the human resources person didn't know, and when she saw it, she was impressed that I could speak "Ebonics." She went on and on about I was the only person she ever met who could speak such a little known language."

I didn't mean to, but I started to laugh. "You correct her?"

"I needed this job. My two dogs and I were living in my car. We needed to eat. That HR lady and me were both bluffing each other. She tried to show off by letting me know she knew that Ebonics was some dead language like Latin and she needed someone who could speak another language. We both got what we wanted."

I begrudgingly acknowledged his point. "Giving up on the church founding business?"

A huge grin. "I never did look good in a white robe. Miss that white Caddy though...."

"Keith!" I admonished. I looked at my watch, it was the dinner hour. "Look, I'm starving. Want to go to lunch?"

The invitation surprised us both and for once Keith was the one who was dumbstruck. "That is very nice. You are the only one here who has ever asked me to lunch in the whole year I've been here. " I started to say something but he cut me off. "But I cannot go with you. You are a nice lady and I would damage your reputation if you were friends with someone like me. I am a bad man, but you have been kind. Go find some nice friends." Keith put his head set on and shut me out.

At the same time my regular lunch pals came over to gather me up and go to lunch. As we were headed towards the cafeteria, one of them leaned over and whispered, "Be careful of that one. He's no good, hasn't got a decent bone in his body."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Lesson in Humility

When I was dating my boyfriend, Connie (Conrad), I would often make the two-hour drive to Connecticut from my home in Massachusetts, and oftentimes we'd do something a little extra special to make the most of the limited time we had to share.

So, one evening we decided to dine at the Groton Inn, a very nice establishment where beautiful banquets are held, as well as a fine restaurant. We decided to take Connie's best friend, Gerry, as a treat for him. Gerry was kind of an odd little person, no real friends except for Connie, and now me by my relationship with Connie.

Connie wore a nice navy blue suit, I wrote a voluminous tea length dress (black with the tiniest roses), and Gerry wore his cleanest best jeans and his standard flannel shirt. We all complimented each other on how nice we looked and we went off to dinner.

Dinner went well. I managed not to drop anything out of my mouth, knock over any wine glasses, or walk up the inside of my dress as I sat or rose from my chair. All in all a successful dining experience. When it came time to leave, I leaned over and whispered to Connie, "I have to run to the ladies' room."

He blushed (personal matters always embarrassed him)"Gerry and I will wait for you in the main lobby. I don't want to lurk outside in the hallway at the ladies' room door." His blush only deepened but his robin's egg blue eyes were laughing.

I walked past a large banquet hall, laughter streaming out, filling the corridor. I peeked in and saw a beautiful bride and her handsome groom. The huge room was packed with friends and family.

I went to the ladies' room; miraculously I was the only one there. I have this weird thing about using the ladies. I do not dilly dally in there. I do not primp or prance, check my teeth or redo my hair. I might reapply my lipstick. My sole purpose is to do what I have to, wash my hands, and leave. In and out. Plus I knew Connie and Gerry were waiting for me and I didn't want to keep them waiting any longer than necessary. I think a long absence would be embarrassing for all of us. Is that in the bathroom etiquette book somewhere?

I step back into the hallway, and it was empty, the guests either at their banquets or the restaurant. I walked past the wedding and they were still laughing and the band was playing. I walked past the restaurant and waiters were scurrying about from one table to the next.

I stepped smartly along, and behind me I heard a voice call out, "Excuse me, excuse me." I do not turn my head to see if the person is talking to me. The only person I know is waiting ahead of me, not behind me. "Excuse me, excuse me," the voice said again, only louder, more urgent. I walk past another banquet hall filled with guests.

I inwardly debated.

There is something about me that attracts the oddest people. Usually people I've never met before just see me out and are harmless. They want to reveal their entire life story to me(as when I am standing in a grocery store line) want my opinion on an item they are buying. However, there have been times when people have not been entirely harmless and it is because of them that I do not acknowledge strangers.

Yet there was a quality of urgency in the voice and that convinced me to turn. A middle-aged woman, half running towards me, repeated, "Excuse me," as if those were the only words she knew. She stopped in front of me to catch her breath. I waited patiently for her next words. "Your skirt is tucked up into your underwear."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wrong Number?

One evening while I was reading in bed, I heard the downstairs phone ring and the answering machine pick up the call. I arose from bed and stood at the top of the stairs to listen if the caller would leave a message and to hear if it were a telemarketer, political pollster, or friend.

At first the voice was garbled and I thought it was a drunken party-goer who was pranking my phone and I turned away to return to bed. I don't know exactly what it was that caught my ear, but I realized that the person was not a drunk but a person in deep trouble whispering a plea for help.

I have poor depth perception and it is very hard for me to run down stairs without fear of falling. I have to take one step at a time with both feet being on the same step before stepping down again. It is slow and awkward and frustrating. The bile of fear rose in my throat as the panic and pain in the voice on the phone was becoming more and more evident.

I'm sure it was only seconds that passed, but it seemed like hours. "Don't hang up," I prayed aloud. My four cats, sensing my alarm, were now weaving in and out between my legs, tripping me up, always a quarter step in front of where I wanted to be, stalling me like in some horrible dream. I tapped their behinds with my foot, clapped my hands in a flurry, shouted at them to hurry them along, but they were oblivious to my angst.

I could clearly hear the voice now, TWO voices. A woman sobbing, begging, "Don't hit my face anymore...don't hit my face anymore....I'm sorry...I'm sorry..." And a man whose rage chilled me so deeply that I was frozen in place. "I will hit you as many times as I want! I will hit your face! I will kill you if I want!" More cries, more sobbing.

I grabbed for the phone. Too late! The caller disconnected!

I paced my kitchen furiously. I dialed *69 to ring back the caller, but their phone number did not accept the reverse dialing. I played back the sickening message that was now record on my answering machine, and the numbness and shock of what I heard overtook me and my thoughts were paralyzed, my mind was blank as if I could not remember how to think.

Caller ID, caller ID, I have caller ID. I scrolled through my directory and found the number. The caller was someone who lives two hours away in Nashua; how did she ever dial my number? Random dialing in a panic hope for help? Dialing her local police and she misdialed and reached me? It didn't matter, because it was now my responsibility to respond to her cries for help.

Telephone book, where in the name of God is my telephone directory? I need to call the police in in Nashua, I decided. They can send someone out immediately. I cannot find my telephone directory, the cats are even more crazed with my anxiety and I am yelling at them.

I dial "O" for operator but that does not work anymore here. When did that change? I wonder in my fury. I dialed the national number for information: area code, 555-1212, and finally after the tenth ring an annoyed automated answering service dryly intones, "City and state, please." Frustration is building. This is an emergency for God's sake!! I provide the requested information. No listing for that city and state, would I spell the name of the city. I spell the name. I can barely speak, my jaw and throat are tight with fear and frustration. "Name of person you are calling," the automated voice says. I give the name of the police department. "No such person by that name," says the voice. "Please hold for an operator to assist you."

I want to throw the phone through the window and drive aimlessly in that city two hours away to find that woman who is being beaten. The operator finally comes onto the line. In a single breath I explain, "This is an emergency, I need the police department."

"Please hold while I get that number for you," the operator says. A click, and another automated voice comes on and gives me the emergency police number for the Nashua Police Department. "Would you like that number repeated?" the hollow voice asks. Yes, yes, yes, as I write the number down and want to make sure I have it correct. "For an additional fee of 55 cents your call can be automatically dialed. Would you like the call to be automatically dialed for an additional fee of 55 cents?" Yes, yes, yes!!! I want to cry and scream. Everything is moving too slowly. I am moving too slowly.

The phone rings at the Nashua Police Department and a female dispatcher answered on the second ring. "Nashua Police Department. What is the nature of your call, please?"

In a breathless rush, I identify myself and give her my residential address. "A woman is being beaten and she is crying for help. I think she misdialed -- she reached my number -- she is crying and asking for help. You need to send someone out to her right away. She could be dead by now!"

"I'm sorry. We can't help you. You must call the police department in your own city and they will contact us and then we can send someone out there."

"WHAT?!" I scream. "Are you kidding? Did you not hear what I just said? A woman is being beaten in YOUR city and you want me to call MY local police department? You are not going to send help that she needs NOW?!"

"It's procedure. The police department in the jurisdiction of the...." I don't know what she was going to say after that as I slammed down the phone in helpless rage.

Phone book, phone book' I just find the phone. I did not want to dial 911 as I didn't want the police sent to my house; I needed police sent to that other poor woman's house. Found it! How to look up the police department. My mind was going blank again; I was forgetting how to think clearly. I know how to use a phone book, so why can't I find what I'm looking for. I cup my head in my hands as if to clear the cobwebs.

My orange cat, Buster, jumps onto the counter where I am trying to read the fine print in the book and paces across the pages in front of me. I unceremoniously swipe him off the counter and he sits sulking and glowering at me from the floor. He leaps onto the pages again, and this time when I brusquely push him off he tears the pages with his claws as he dug in to hold on.

There are two telephone numbers listed for our local police department. One is for the detectives unit. I dial the number, ring, ring, ring. An answering machine saying that they are available during the work hours of blah, blah, blah. I cannot believe this night. Our police department keeps banker's hours? Crime doesn't happen in our little city after five p.m.? No one is available?

I am lost and incredulous; I am cold and numb; but I still feel fury as never before. Everything is moving in slow motion again. I find the second number for our police department, dial, and a woman answers, "Dispatch."

Relief surged through me. Once again I identify myself and I tell her all that happened. I play the recorded message into the receiver so she can hear it, I tell her I have caller ID and that I have the number of the caller. She patiently takes this all down, says they will do a reverse phone number look up, and assures me that they will follow up.

I went back upstairs to bed but could not sleep. I sit up with all the lights on, my knees up to my chest and my arms wrapped around my legs, hugging myself to myself. The woman's voice reverberates in my head, and I hear it over and over. I fell asleep with the lights on and awoke after midnight when Earl came home from work, listened to the message, and came into the bedroom, white-faced, asking if I were okay.

Late the next afternoon, I called my local police department and asked if they knew anything further about my mysterious caller. They could only confirm that they called Nashua but did not have any further information; I would have to follow up with them if I wanted further information.

So, this time I dialed them directly, saving 55 cents to have the phone company automatically dial the number for me, and spoke to the female dispatcher. "Sorry, we can't give out any information. I can tell you that we did receive a call from the police department in your city about a phone message belonging to someone to the address at the phone number that was provided. That's all that I can tell you."

"You can't tell me if you actually sent someone or if you simply took a message? You can't tell me if the City of Nashua responded to a cry for help from one of its own citizens? You can't tell me if that poor woman were dead or alive if you even went there? Did you hear the recording that she left on my answering machine?"

"It's an issue of privacy..."

"PRIVACY! That woman called me. Never mind. I have the number and I have the name. I know how to do reverse look up as well as you do. (I provided the name and address of the caller.) I'll call myself. Thanks a lot. I'm sure that woman is thanking you as well!"

"Wait! Just wait a second." The dispatcher weighed her words. "Look, I'll tell you this much. We did send out a car and we went to the door. We asked if everything was okay. The person who answered the door said everything was fine. We asked to see the woman of the house, and she also confirmed everything was fine. We've done all we can."

I was stunned. "She said she was fine? Was this some horrible telephone prank after all?"

I could feel the dispatcher's shrug. "No, I think it was real enough. But when the police show up at the door, the woman backs down. It happens all the time. She's afraid of her husband or boyfriend going to jail and they'll be alone. They just want this beating to stop and they hope that having the police showing up at the door will scare the beater into stopping permanently. We see this a hundred times a week here, at least. Alcohol, drugs, crime, poverty, certain ethnic groups that think it's okay to beat up their women all play a role...every night we get these calls. After a while it's just hard to care as much as you should care, but we keep trying because sometimes what we do makes a difference in someone's life. You have done far more than most people ever would have thought of doing."

I thanked the dispatcher for her thoughtful and honest answer and hung up the phone. I replayed the message one last time, and hit "erase."

I wish it felt as if I had done enough.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Signs, Omens, and Answers to Prayers

I read some while back that there is no such thing as coincidence, that it's all part of a Greater Plan. This is mostly true, I think, but sometimes we trip simply because we didn't pick up our feet. Sometimes we trip up because we are meant to be delayed.

I'm going to share a story with you that causes me deep embarrassment and one that I have not shared with anyone. I mean, really, it's a tale we hear all the time, shake our heads at in disbelief, and swear to ourselves that it could never happen to us because we would never be that foolish. Oh, really?

I used to date someone named Conrad (Connie); we dated for about 10 years or so before we went our separate ways. In the beginning, I was totally taken by him, his blue eyes, his winning smile, and his absolute adoration of me. Everyone who meant him described him as charming. His companionship was intoxicating and we had fun. As much as I loved my husband, Daniel, he lacked a sense of humor, his intellect being devoted to loftier pursuits, such as art, God, writing, not necessarily in that order. We could discuss world politics and play a serious game of chess. We would not particularly sit and watch a sitcom together and laugh out loud.

Anyway, that's a different story. Connie was fun and attentive and he liked to explore and imagine. He chased rainbows and I chased them with him because I believed he was capable of doing anything he set his mind to. We dreamed together.

He always wanted to be his own boss, he had considerable insurance agency experience and he decided to buy an insurance agency. It seemed like a natural course and one that would be successful. He called and asked he could borrow money from me. I said no. The first time.

His mother and his best friend mortgaged their homes for him and he asked me again. I could see how seriously he believed in himself and his ability, and my faith in him was no less than his in himself. So, I agreed to take a second mortgage out on my house.

There were roadblocks along the way, but isn't there always when one is doing a big financial transaction like this? I dismissed them as each roadblock was overcome.

The night before we were to go to the bank to pass papers, Connie realized he had left the house deed in Connecticut where he lived. I was living in Massachusetts, and now it was a three hour drive to go and retrieve the deed. He called his house and fortunately his nephew was there and agreed to meet us halfway, in Rhode Island.

We get to the lawyer's office. Their fax is down and they don't know when it will be fixed, and there is paperwork that needs to be faxed between their office and a bank in New York. We decide to wait. The fax comes back on line.

My name is misspelled throughout all the documents. It's that "i" before "e" thing that throws people off with my last name. Corrections were made.

The entire conversation was directed towards Connie, even though the mortgage was in my name! The loan officer referred to Connie as Mr. Seafood (his last name had a similar sound, but it's definitely not Seafood. She must've been hungry as it was nearing lunchtime by now.)

Then the percentage rate of the mortgage is incorrect. More corrections, more delays. I am now panicked at this transaction but it is too late to back out. Finally we (I!!) receive the check but we cannot find anyone locally to cash it because I don't have enough money in savings to clear it, and he needed the money in two days to close the sale on the insurance agency.

So off we go to New York where the bank is located. The first bank will not cash their own check. We go to two of their satellite branches until we find one that will cash it.

I'm not going to tell you the rest of this, you can surmise the rest and you'll probably be right.

I share my story only because I want to impress that those roadblocks were there for a reason. I was not supposed to remortgage my house. It was not my responsibility to make Connie's dreams come true regardless of how deeply I cared for him and how much I believed in his ability. What Connie thought were challenges to be overcome were, in fact, detour signs. .

Then again, if Edison quit after his 9999th try at inventing a long-lasting light bulb, and didn't try that 10,000th time, I'd be writing this in the dark today.

Now you understand my dilemma.

On a different note, I posted before about the loss of my Bengal kitty, Longfellow. Even now, I sit here and struggle with tears, causing my other cats to weave in and out between my legs, head butting my forehead, and wiggling under my hands so I can stroke them. Inexplicably, the other day I found a leaf under my chair where I sit at my computer and I had the distinct sensation of a strong silky body rubbing up against the calf of my leg, only no kitty was there. The sadness does not seem to leave me. In my own silent prayer, I have asked for an answer to what happens to animals that we shared love with.

Quite by accident, I happened upon a website that referenced Luke 3:6 and Luke 12:16. The author of the post said the scriptures were in reference to animals. Now I personally think that the "all flesh" referred to in Luke 3:6 means mankind (and there are interpretations that translate it to mean "mankind") but I did find solace in Luke 12:16 where two sparrows are sold for five pennies but God remembers them.

I'm not going to be pig-headed this time and ask for a billboard with my name on it, declaring that this is the divine answer to my question. I believe that God remembers because He said so.

Now if I could just figure out the answers to the other questions I have on my mind. Perhaps the answer is, if it doesn't flow easily, I shouldn't be doing it?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Abundant Pantry

I live in a tiny Victorian, built in the 1870's. It's a sweet little house and I loved it as soon as I saw it. Actually, the proper term is a poor man's Victorian, meaning it has some of the features of those lavish older homes with elaborate scrolled woodwork and porches and brightly painted.

My home is not elaborate at all. There is a front porch, four rooms, a bathroom, a room where I work on my computer, and a pantry. The pantry is larger than my computer room. The pantry is larger than my back deck. I love my pantry. I store all my staples out there, as well as pots and pans and appliances that are too large or too plentiful to fit inside the cabinets of my eat-in kitchen.

Earl, my Ole Sweetie-Pi, was in the pantry, looking for a can of tomato soup. I keep them more or less neatly stacked on one particular shelf, with like flavors stacked together so that I can tell at a glance what I have on hand. "Do you know you're almost out of tomato soup?" he yells to me as I stand at the island, stirring up a batch of cookies.

"No, I'll put it on the grocery list."

"Do you know you have two jars of mayonnaise out here?"

"Yes," I said, continuing to stir.

"We have a case of stewed tomatoes and a case of diced tomatoes. Look at all the different flours you have, and 20 pounds of sugar! Are we expecting a shortage?"

"It could happen," I said, stopping to sample the batter.

"Why do you need four different kinds of fruit juice?" he pressed.

"Why do you need 100 model train engines and a storage unit full of freight cars?"

Silence. "All I'm saying is that you have a lot of duplicates out here." He came out of the pantry with two soups, a minestrone and a tomato garden. He likes to combine soups to create his own recipe. "Who are the cookies for?"

"Work. It's nice to have a little treat."

My orange tabby, Buster, came by and rubbed around my legs, which is his way of softening me up for treats from the table, the counter, or wherever food and I might be.

Earl dourly studies him. "You're always making treats for work. Buster's getting fat."

Buster was a throw-away cat that we picked out for free from our local veterinarian's. "Buster was abandoned and probably forced to garbage picked before he came here; he knows what it's like to be thin and hungry. He much prefers being fat and happy." I look into those pleading green eyes, weaken, and give him a gob of cookie dough. It is gobbled in a nanosecond. "I know how he feels."

Earl took a pot down from the pot rack that is over my head and poured his two-ingredient secret recipe into it and lighted the stove.

"Do you know what cornstarch pudding is?" I asked him. He shook his head no. I am not surprised. Our backgrounds are very different. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, doted upon by a household of women, pampered, indulged. His youth was spent squandering dreams. I am not much better for him, I fear. I indulge him, too; it's part of what I want for myself so I give it to others.

"So what is it?" he says. His back is turned away from he as he twirls the spoon in crazy circles.

"It's an old fashioned pudding, made with cornstarch. Not very flavorful if I recall correctly. I can still remember Mother standing at the wood stove, stirring cornstarch pudding in an old dented aluminum soup pot."

"So it's dessert."

"I think it's intended to be dessert; for us that would be our entire meal. A bowl of it. Three times a day."

He stopped stirring to turn and look at me. "You're kidding. I thought your father worked."

"He worked and then he drank all his money; he earned it and he could spend it however he wanted. He liked to show off to his buddies at the bar just what a great guy he was and spent all his money on them, trying to buy their approval and friendship. Mother would take the loose change from his pants pocket, buy a box of cornstarch and a gallon of milk, and that was what we had to live on." I shook my head at the irony. "He used to be proud, and actually brag, that Mother lived on a dime."

Earl tried to absorb the image and the feelings. "Must have been tough."

"Oh, I don't know. Remember how you told me you didn't know you were rich? Well, I didn't know we were poor. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be hungry all the time. I don't know when I first discovered that people actually ate whole meals. Probably from going to visit my grandmother. She'd go all out with biscuits, chicken fricassee, mashed potatoes, cake, whatever I wanted. And I promised myself that when I grew up, I would not ever be hungry again, and if I had it in my power, I would not let others be hungry either. I always want to have food to share." Buster yowled plaintively at me. I gave him a small gob of cookie dough (I am concerned about overfeeding him). I'll share my food, even if it's just with a fat orange cat.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Ride Uptown

My youngest brother, Grant, is very attached to our mother and he extends great kindnesses, far more than I do. Our relationship with her is individual and distinctly different, resulting in our different views on her as a mother. Irregardless, the one thing he and I agree on is our mother's lack of a social filter, that quality that prohibits you from saying outrageous (even if they are true) observations.

Some of her forthrightness is attributable to having an English-speaking family and a society of friends who were rough in nature and language. There was certainly little elegance or eloquence in manner or speech, and when you mix that someone who elicits only the bare bones of a foreign language, you're up against some pretty stark and startling conversation.

Everyone who knows her has been on the receiving end of one of her truths. We've learned to laugh it off, but when we introduce someone new to her, (say a new boyfriend or girlfriend) we always start with a warning, "Brace yourself, don't be hurt, don't be angry. She's going to say whatever is on her heart, whether you want to hear it or not. She doesn't mean to be hurtful..."

Mother is 81 years old, lives independently in a senior housing community. She's irascible and strong-willed. When she needs something done she will just casually toss out, "I need to have the air conditioner put in and go to the bank." Long silence. "It would be nice to have the air conditioner put in; I suppose I could ask one of the old men here to do it for me but they're not so good anymore. Can't count on them; they don't move too hot. I'll just sit in this hot apartment until one of them can come." Long silence while she waits for the guilt to seep in.

And my dear brother, with his friend, Paula, volunteered to drive the 150 miles to put in her air conditioner and take her to the bank. There are a number of two story brick buildings in her complex and after driving around a bit, my brother was able to find a parking space close to her building; the plan was they'd help her get her outside with her walker, go and get the car, and come back around to get her, take her uptown to do her chores, go back home.

Grant dropped Paula off at my mother's building while he parked the car. As he was walking up the sidewalk, an elderly lady approached him. "Are you the one going uptown?"

"Yes," he said hesitantly. He did not know this woman.

"You're here to see your mother?" He nodded. "She said you'd take me uptown. I need to go to the grocery store."

Grant, irked at being a chauffeur, but not wanting to embarrass Mother by refusing her friend a promised ride, helped the old woman into the front seat of his car, explained he'd be right back. The old woman shuffled in and sat comfortably while he went to escort Mother to the sidewalk and bring the car around. He rolled the windows down so she wouldn't suffocate in the car as she waited.

The old lady was still in the front seat, politely waiting. Paula and Grant helped my mother into the back seat. She is round as a strawberry barrel and weighs about as much. She is stiff with arthritis, but is determined to go. She grunts heavily as she sits, all smiles and gushing with delight at the thought of a car ride. Paula took the seat beside her. My mother, oblivious to the fourth person in the car, said "I want to go to the bank. Do you know how to get there?" Grant assured her that he did and the four of them set off.

It's a short ride made interminable by my mother who focused her entire attention on Paula, filling the silence with chatter about the "old people" known only by her who lived in her complex. As Grant later told the story, Mother continued roughshod over any interjections the old woman offered, not unusual as my mother will be heard, waving away any interruptions to her stories. Mother thought she was conversing with Paula the entire time. As they neared the shopping mall, the old woman said, "I want to go to the grocery store." Grant pulled into the Shaw's parking lot.

Mother in the backseat said, "Why are you here? I told you I wanted to go to the bank!" She was thoroughly miffed at his memory lapse. "The bank is not here!"

"I know, Mom," Grant says patiently. "Your friend wants to go to the grocery store. I thought I'd drop her off here, we'd go to the bank, and swing back and get her."

And that was the first moment Mother saw the old woman. She stared in amazement at the back of the woman's head until the old woman turned around. A staring contest ensured, broken by my mother. "Who the hell are you?" Mother fiercely inquired.

"I live in the same complex as you; I need to go to the grocery store."

Grant, alarmed, "You don't know this woman? She said she was a friend of yours."

"No, I don't know this old woman! She's just some crazy old bat getting in your car. She's an old fool!" (Pronounced Old Foo by my mother, the worst insult imaginable.) "What are you doing letting that Old Foo in your car? Why do you want to take her to the grocery store when I need to get to the bank!"

Quick glances were exchanged between Grant and Paula as their panic deepened. Now what? "We still have plenty of time to get to the bank." Looking at the now so-named Old Foo, "Look, we can't just leave you here. I'll take Mother to the bank and we'll come back and take you home, okay?"

It all worked out, of course. Mother was able to get to the bank on time, the old woman who wandered haplessly into their lives was delivered to her front doorstep. As Grant related the story to me in agonizing detail, I laughed and laughed. I laughed until I cried. It could only happen to him.

Several weeks later, I was uptown, coming out the RiteAid, of one of our little city's drugstores, a scruffy man, smelling of old cigarettes and sweat looked me up and down. He was leaning against the building, leg bent at the knee, foot pressed against the wall. I pretended not to see him. "Hey!" he yelled at me. I stopped, weighed the fight or flight response in me. "You going uptown? I need a ride."

I thought of Grant, smirked on the inside of myself. "No. Sorry. Going in the complete opposite direction."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Do Pets Have Souls?

These are three of the five fur babies that we had. The one with his back to us is Longfellow, the black and white is Molly (Molli-licious!) and my orange tabby, Buster Crabbe.

It's Longfellow, my silky as ribbon, sweet-natured, form-fitting, Bengal, I wanted to post about; he was struck and killed by a passing motorist this past week.

This question has been asked many times before, and brilliant theologians who studied The Word and quote Scripture will unequivocally say no, only humans have souls.

But still I wonder. Our other cats bring in the occasional mouse or snake (EEKS!!). This past autumn I watched Longfellow sort through a pile of autumn leaves. He found one the one that he wanted and brought it into the house and presented his precious prize to me. And this winter he found a child's lost blue mitten and sat on the deck railing, holding the mitten in his mouth, amber eyes peering into the kitchen window,willing me to turn around and see him, waiting patiently to be let in. At night, he was my snuggle kitty. He would curl into a tight silken ball in the crook of my neck, singing his lullaby in deep contentment, velvet nose in my ear, body vibrating with his song, until we both fell asleep.

The last time I saw him, he was was leaping through one of my straggly flower beds, chasing a yellow butterfly, oblivious to the world around him, only knowing that the butterfly might be the finest treasure yet.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Suffer the Children; Send Them to Me

Let me begin with a bit of a brag.

My youngest niece just graduated from college this past weekend with a double major, nutrition and communication. She worked full time and went to college full time the five years she attended school. She is the first student in four years from her college to be accepted in an dietary internship at a prestigious Boston hospital. Her long-term goal is to be a food writer! She confided to me that I inspired her when I used to let her help me in the kitchen and didn't get angry when she made a mess; instead we cleaned up and made it fun. Can you believe that? That has to be one of the top ten compliments I have ever received.

Earlier this year, my oldest niece received her masters in pharmaceutical research. While she was an undergraduate she won first place in a national science contest and later went on to win third place internationally. She was the first in the history of our family to acquire a four-year degree, but to obtain a Masters is downright unknown. Currently she's working on finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

These young women did not achieve such excellence by accident. They had a tremendous amount of love and encouragement and support from their both parents, even when their mom and dad were no longer married to each other. When the days seemed endless and their goals unattainable, my brother would say, "Look how far you've come and achieved so far! When you were in high school, did you ever envision you'd come as far as you have? You can do this! Concentrate on today and do well today, tomorrow will take care of itself. Get help if you need it and don't be embarrassed to ask for it. Don't feel bad about asking for help; feel good that you know that you need it and you get it."

I am so terribly proud of them. When they were still in high school, I asked them individually if they had a boyfriend. My oldest niece, Hilli (BeanBag) was clearly put out by the question. "Aunt Kathi," she sniffed with all the confidence and arrogance of a fully informed teenager, "there will be no time for boys. I will have my education and my career first and then there will be time for boys. Boys are a distraction; they keep you from achieving your goals!"

Laura, on the other hand, half-heartedly gave me the same statement; perhaps it was wisdom their parents had instilled in her and her sister and she was still attempting to adopt it as her own. I heard the pause. She leaned deep into me, peering seriously into my eyes, and said, "Aunt Kathi, can we talk about boys?"


I have a former coworker whose daughter, Vicki, was dating a man who had sole custody of his young three children from a previous relationship. The children were beautiful, well mannered, and adoring of their dad and Vicki. They were the kind of little ones who would be welcomed anywhere. As time progressed and it seemed apparent that their adult relationship was leading toward commitment, I was happy for all as they looked like a loving family unit. Then one day my coworker, in describing the children, referred to them as 'pseudo grandchildren.' Then she went on to say how her daughter was looking forward to having her own children and being a 'real' mom. And she was looking forward to being a 'real' grandmother.

I could not contain the reverberation that shook within me. "I think your daughter has 'real' children to love and she is a 'real' mother to them."

My coworker scowled defensively. "It's just different to have your own, ones that you bore. They're yours. If you had children, you'd know what I mean."

Possession and ownership. Objects d' art. Mine, mine, mine. Yours. Mine.

Thank you, God, that I don't have children, for now I can love them all equally, without prejudice.


A couple of weeks ago, my Sweetie-Pi and I were sitting at our kitchen table, eating a simple lunch. Earl looked past me and stared out the front window. "Somebody's sitting on our retaining wall," he said. "Probably just a hiker who needed to stop for a quick rest." We munched quietly and I forgot about the person on the retaining wall. "The person's still out there," he said.

I put my sandwich down. "I'll go see if they need help. If not, I'll scare them away. For all we know they could be plotting to steal our irises that we have planted," I teased. I found my shoes and walked down the grassy knoll that is our lawn. An ash-blonde head slightly turned to the sound of my footsteps, and I was surprised to see the profile of a young girl, around ten I guessed. "Hi, are you okay?"

A rapid nod of the head dissolved to a a slow shake. "No, not really," she mumbled into her chest.

"Are you hurt?" Alarm set in and I wished I had brought my cell phone so I could've called for an ambulance or the police.

"No." She looked up at me, golden eyes filled with an uncertainty beyond her years, and then back down at her bare dangling feet. She hugged herself against the cool spring air, goose pimples dotting her arms.

Silence as I thought about what to say next. "Are you running away from home?"

A noncommittal shrug. A tentative nod. "Sort of."

"Oh, I see. Well, that's a pretty big decision. Things must be pretty tough at home. Would you like me to sit with you for a while so you can talk about it?"

"If you want to." Her voice was whispery soft, the invitation hidden in her despair.

"I do." I came around and sat beside her and for the first time had a good look at her and she studied me out of the corner of her eye. She had a spray of freckles across the top of her cheekbones. Her long hair blew into her face, hiding her expression from me.

"So, do you want to tell me why you've decided to run away from home?"

"Because my mother yells at me. She's always yelling at me and I'm afraid of her."

My heart seized at the word 'afraid.' "Did she hurt you?"

Shrug. "No, she just yells all the time and swears at me and calls me names, hurts my feelings."

I could feel my jaw tighten and the words choking in my throat. "Well...I don't think it's right that a person gets yelled at or sworn or called names. That doesn't seem like the right thing to do. It would certainly hurt my feelings if someone treated me like that, too."

More silence as each weighed what to say. "She's not my real mother. She's my foster mother." She turned away from me, ashamed. "I can't live with my real mother right now." She slunk further into her humiliation. "I was on the trampoline and my foster brother bounced me off and I fell off and hit the ground. And then she came out and started yelling and swearing."

I asked this brave little girl what her name was, and she told me, Lena. "Lena, I have to be honest here; I'm at a loss for words. I never had my own children, so I don't know what to say, but I can speak from some life experience." I plucked a cream colored daffodil with a coral center from my border and gave it to her.

"Life is not fair. In just the little time I've spent with you, I can tell that you are good and bright and smart, and yet you are given a difficult life." Lena nodded. "I'm sure that your mother wishes that she could be with you and that you could be with her." More nods. "From the sounds of it, your mother made some poor decisions and choices that are keeping you apart." Unspilled tears and thin lips.

"I'm sorry that has happened, Lena, and I'm sorry that your difficult life is part of the consequence of someone else's actions. One of the things we have to learn as we are growing up is that life is full of choices. Do you go left or do you go right, do you pay attention in school, do you say no to the pressures of your friends who may be offering something that could hurt you or your future. Lena, some choices are hard and will require you to be very strong and sometimes if means you may be alone. What I have learned is that there are all kinds of prisons, Lena. There are ones that the courts put us in because we didn't obey the laws, and the ones that we put ourselves in, maybe because of our attitude and maybe because of our poor decisions. Right now you have a hard life, and being a "kid" (we both chuckled at that) means that your life is not really your own now and that you are largely dependent on the goodwill of others. But you do have a job and that job is to be the best kid possible, to get a good education, obey the law. Eventually, you will find a freedom that you never knew existed. Does that make sense to you?" Nod.

"The other thing I've learned as I've gotten older is that what we learn as children and the experiences we have make up part of who we are as adults. You have learned that you don't like yelling and swearing, right?"

"I hate it! When I am around little kids, I never swear and yell at them!! I never get mad at them. I want to hug them! When I grow up I want to work with kids."

"See, you have already learned something that will make you as wonderful an adult as you are as a young person now."

I was missing the mark, and I knew it. She did come to my retaining wall to hear this. "Lena, sometimes people yell at us because they were afraid for us, and that is how they express their fear, through anger. Anger may be the only emotion they are comfortable showing. Maybe she was never shown how not to be appear angry when she's really just concerned for you. Have you tried telling your foster mother that you are sorry for scaring her and upsetting her and that next time you'll be more careful?"

Lena smiled brightly as the idea grew in her mind. "No, I never have! I didn't even think of it!"

"Hmmmm. Well maybe it would be a good thing to say to her and see how it goes?" I smiled in self-admonishment. Forty-five minutes later I finally hit upon what she needed to hear from me. I talked too much; listened too little.

"Yes, I will do that!"

I noticed the goose pimples had multiplied on her arms. "Want a jacket?" She nodded yes. As it happened I had a zip-up, sweat shirt type jacket from my thinner years that I had just washed and was going to give away. It had been on a hook, hanging in front of a window in the back set of the car. When I handed it to Lena, it was still hot from sitting in the sun. She slipped it on, wrapped it tightly around her to absorbing all its warm. "You don't have to bring it back. It's yours."

"Thank you. This is nice!"

"All set to go home?"

"Yes, I am going home now." She picked up the daffodil that was bent from being twirled in her hands and looked down the street in the direction of her home with her "not real" mother. She set off; her bare feet crunched and swished the sand that had remained on the shoulders from last year's winter, the too cool spring breeze blowing the hair back from her face, her eyes ahead, full of resolve, not turning to wave good-bye. I watched until I could neither see nor hear her anymore.

Journey well, little Lena. Go build some mountains.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Perfect Clarity

In putting these stories on the Internet I realize that I am also sharing with the unknown multitudes whose life experiences and learning are vastly different than mine, but that's okay. I hope that those who may come here will find something valuable that they can take with them.

So now the difficult part for me. I am keenly aware that my spiritual experiences that I share may sound fictional and dramatic. I can not tell you why they happened to me, I only know that they did. I know that I do not have them the same way anymore. I think it was the absolute childlike faith, the unquestioning belief, that made them possible.

My grandmother was devout. She read the Bible every day; she prayed every night. She didn't eat meat on Fridays; never went to church with her head uncovered. Many of the books that she gave me and read to me were children's Bible stories. She talked to me of God and Angels and Heaven. She was the one who taught me the prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep...."

When I was old enough, I was allowed to stay overnight and some weekends with my grandparents. On warm summer days Gram and I would lie on a blanket on the grassy knoll at the back of her tiny two-room house. Grasshoppers and crickets would leap on us; bees buzzed about the Indian paint brushes, wild daisies and brown-eyed Susans. We would look up at the blue sky and white fluffy clouds and see if we could see Heaven beyond the clouds, because that's where Heaven is. At home my mother was silent with her own sadness; my father bellowed his anger at everything. My grandmother was the only one who talked to me.

One summer day, a neighbor of my parents, Mrs. McLaughlin dropped by invited my mother and us kids to join her and her children at a local beach. My mother cannot swim but she craved the companionship of other women and to leave a forlorn house. She eagerly accepted, packing up a quick picnic and me and my younger brother.

I remember my mother wearing a two piece polka dot swimming suit. It looked like the package of Wonder Bread, white with yellow, red and blue polka dots. I loved it. I thought she looked beautiful in it, and she looked so happy talking with Mrs. McLaughlin, thoroughly engaged in her conversation.

I wandered away, at first only wading in the cool water. I wiggled and dug my toes in the cold wet sand. I could see other children and adults swimming. I could see my mother, face turned away from me, head thrown back in laughter.

I waded deeper. The water was soft, beckoning, inviting me to chase it. A ribbon of water rippled past me and I could not resist and I followed. Water rushed into my ears, filling my head with its roaring. I opened my mouth but I could not scream. I looked up through the water, and the sun and sky waved and danced, but could not claw to the top. The light dazzled and fragmented all around me. Bubbles burst. I looked through the water and saw myself floating and struggling for the surface. I was wearing a blue bathing suit.

How could this be, I wondered? How could I see myself struggling to find the surface? I looked towards the beach where my mother sat, hugging her knees to her. The air was crystal clear and pure, the day shone brighter than it ever had, I did not need air to breath, but I was alive and had knowledge of my surroundings and the people there. My visual perception was so sharp it almost hurt to look; I could see my mother. I could hear her words. It was as if I were standing beside her only I was midair, floating, looking down and out, unafraid, curious. Perfect clarify of vision and hearing but not understanding.

A shout. I saw Mrs. McLaughlin spring into the water. Blackness. I was on the beach. Mrs. McLaughlin gave me mouth-to-mouth until I was awake, dazed, but still not afraid.

I cannot remember my mother's exact words to Mrs McLaughlin, but she laughed and thanked her for jumping in to get me. She seemed untroubled by the incident, more disturbed by the commotion I caused, and returned to her conversation.

I went back to the water's edge and waded some more. The water warm and inviting, but this time I did not listen to its lulling song.

Mrs. McLaughlin never invited us again to join her at the beach.


Many years later, my husband of barely ten years, lay in bed, paralyzed from the neck down from a freak accident in the home. Tubes were running everywhere, machines were tracking all his impulses. He was dying. We were both fighting it.

Dr. Choi patted my shoulder. "Mrs. Shields, your husband is brain dead. It's only the machines that give the illusion of life. If I turn them off, he will stop breathing." In demonstration, he turned them off, the chest rises and falls stopped; I gasped in horror and abject denial, and the machines were turned back on. "You must think about removing the machines."

I could not think! I would not think. Only days ago we clung to ever fading hope, we held hands, and I made every promise to God that I could think of. "Take me," I begged in prayer.

Daniel awoke, saw me, smiled. "You are my favorite wife, " he mouthed over the respirator tubes. I was is third wife.

"You're my favorite husband," I quipped, having been only married to him.

He smiled wearily; blue eyes flickered, lids heavy with the effects of drugs. "I want you to know that life with you was never boring. Even being mad at you was never boring."

"Me, too. I was never bored either."

"I want you to get married again."

"No," I said too firmly. "I will not marry again after you."

He looked sad. "Was it that bad? Being married to me?" A long gasp of air.

I clutched his hand in panic. "No, I only wanted to be married once in this life, and I married you. There will not be any others."

He closed his eyes, as if in thought. "I hope you change your mind. You should not be alone."

Alone I made the decision to turn off the respirators. Alone I accepted the responsibility for never seeing him breath again. Alone the hope was extinguished.

My mother went with me that last night. The doctors felt I should have someone with me as I sat and waited and watched and held to desperate, desperate hope. My mother was silent with me, speaking only to the medical staff as they drifted in and out, She reported my emotional status, "She's doing fine." "She's holding up." Then more silence as she sat.

I recalled that moment on the beach when I was a mere child filled with faith. I knew what awaited him: perfect clarity, vision, understanding where the skies were bluer and the sun shone brighter and the clouds were whiter; he would float, like a feather in the breeze, the quadriplegia only a memory.

I knew all these things, and I still wished he were with me.

I have a distinct recollection of being only thought, no form. I wonder if this is what the new age folks mean when they say we are a perfect thought in Divine Mind.