Reflections In Lights And Death

A man I know passed away last week after bravely battling a terrible illness. I met Tom in 2020 when I joined the local Educational Service Center board and we became colleagues.

He was always quick with a joke, eager to put a newcomer at ease, and a smart man who was respectful of others. He liked to travel and learn. His wife Fannie also attends our meetings and is a kind soul. The two seemed perfectly matched.

But that’s the end of what I knew about Tom till I read his obituary and learned things that made me wish I had asked more questions while he was living.

Tom was a fan of lifelong learning, a Scout leader and a Sunday school teacher. He was a longtime Civil War reenactor and lifelong history buff. He enjoyed the outdoors, gardening and yard sales. Tom was an inventor who made an ice cream machine that operated by pedaling a bicycle. He even built a 1965 Plymouth from the frame up.

I always liked Tom but had no idea he was such a character. Old photos in a slideshow projected on the wall played while we waited in line. If I didn’t know it by then, it was clear that Tom packed as much living into his life as he possibly could.

I had a newfound appreciation for Tom’s zest for life.

It made me a little sad to think of all the great learning I missed out on because I knew none of this. Of course, when getting to know someone, you don’t know what you don’t know and have to rely on them to give you some clues. I suppose that’s why we often learn so much about people from their obituaries.

As I looked at Tom’s wife and son, their family and so many friends lined up to say farewell, I started thinking about how Tom left a mark on us all. Every person there knew Tom for a different reason and everyone had different stories to share. Every one of us is richer for knowing him.

Later in the evening I strolled through the holiday lights at the Gallipolis City Park and stopped to visit the war memorial. I’m typically so taken with the statue above me that I fail to notice much else.

But on this night I saw the face of the soldier reflected in the marble wall of names below. It made me pause.

It occurred to me that something of Tom is reflected in everyone fortunate to know him. It’s nice to think that humans can live on through the influences we have on others. I won’t soon forget Tom or the lessons learned during the brief time we knew each other.

One of those lessons is to do a better job listening and paying attention so I can learn something I never knew I wanted to know.

Grief

It’s a funny thing about grief. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Sometimes it shows itself in unusual ways and in ways that are tempting to ignore.

It doesn’t always look like the sadness or depression you might expect. Sometimes it manifests itself through anger or listlessness.

It can be brought on by a song on the radio or a funny story. You can be having a great day and suddenly can’t breathe because the horror of your loss is so all consuming.

No matter what it looks like, it won’t go away on its own. You can’t just decide that you’re done grieving. There really are no rules. How you’re feeling can change without warning, can worsen at the drop of a hat and can ruin a good day like ants at a picnic.

When we talk about losing a person, we think about just that. The loss of that individual and what they meant to your life. You’ll miss their laugh, their brutal honesty, their pumpkin pie. You’ll miss the routine of having them in your life and the way they stopped by just to say hi or because they were lonely. You’ll miss having that contemporary, the person who has known you all your life and with whom you have a shared history.

But no one talks about the other sense of loss. When someone is part of a unit, say a group of friends or part of your family, you will experience a completely different kind of loss when they die. You will suddenly recall every lost member of that group and each tragedy as vividly as if it just happened yesterday.

For example, when my Aunt Mary Ann died this summer, her passing summoned memories of the deaths of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousin. All these people left empty seats at our table and each of their deaths represented a shift in the family dynamic. When my grandparents died, we lost our core, those people who bonded everyone together. When Mary Ann lost her husband and daughter, we got closer. When Mary Ann died my dad lost his contemporary, the only person left in this world who knew him from birth and who shared the stories of his formative years.

We grieve and change each time someone dies and we often look backward, embracing the bitter with the sweet. I suppose we do this because it seems easier than looking ahead to that ever shrinking table that awaits us at the next holiday.

Depressing, I know. And yet, it’s a part of our journey. All of us will lose someone important and all of us will have to navigate the trials of coping with our troubles. Time stands still for no one and every day we can wake up and get out of bed seems like a good opportunity to work through those problems and to find healthy ways to cope and to move forward as our loved ones would want us to do.

When Mary Ann lost her husband and later her daughter, you could see her struggling but she did her best to live well and to keep going. She spent time with friends, turned to her Bible, cooked and baked and devoted hours to her family. It was hard but she showed us that it’s possible to forge a new path forward.

We each have to find our own path when we experience loss. It could be spending time with family and embracing the new dynamic. The peace we need to move forward could be found on walks in the woods, in quiet meditation or in reminiscing about the good times. Maybe it’s found in journaling or in talking to someone.

I’m not a professional or an expert but I do have vast experience in this area. If you’re going through something difficult, I hope you will remember this. There can be brighter days ahead. There is nothing wrong with admitting that life has been hard. There’s nothing wrong with seeking counseling or guidance of some kind from a professional.

It doesn’t make you weak to need help and it doesn’t make you crazy. It makes you human.

Musings on Christmas Memories In A Time Of Sorrow

Santa at Dogwood Pass in 2017.

On Saturday, I spent much of the day baking cookies at my parents’ house. Afterward, we watched Christmas movies while a kitty cat purred in my lap.

Their house is always warm and it was cold outside when I left. The shock of cold and the starry sky reminded me of a Christmas Eve long ago when we spent an evening with my grandparents. I was small and all the adults kept talking about how a certain little girl needed to go home to bed so Santa Claus could come.

The colorfully lit tree was decorated with an assortment of ornaments accumulated over time and I sat under that tree to open a gift from my grandparents. I don’t recall the gift but I do remember the little candy dish filled with old fashioned hard candy that you buy at the store. I remember the laughter among adults and the warmth of that old house.

The memories made me smile as I hummed Bing Crosby’s White Christmas on the way to the porch.

This year is much different. Most of the people who provided the laughter and warmth of that home are gone now. Many who are left are too young to remember those people and that place.

This year has been haunted by hardship and loss for so many. This will be our first Christmas without my aunt Maryann. Another family member recently received a terrible diagnosis. My great aunt Marcella died over the weekend. She was the last of her generation in my grandma’s family. A college friend lost three immediate family members just days apart during this season of cheer. We have lost longtime family friends including one who just passed on Sunday. My mother is coping with injuries from her fall at Walmart over the weekend but is probably lucky to be alive.

Things aren’t going well and it’s a far cry from the picture perfect Bing Crosby moments of my childhood. It gets harder to be joyful at Christmas as you age because you’re more aware of all the troubles of the world around you.

However, as I write this I keep glancing at something written on a post-it note that I stuck to my desk months ago. Little did I know it would come in handy today. It simply says “Gratitude turns what you have into enough.”

It isn’t always easy but I’m choosing to be grateful for the memories and grateful for the time we had with all those who have left empty seats at our table. I’m grateful for the people and all the good in my life today. And when you look at it that way, it still hurts but maybe it hurts a little less.

An Extraordinary Life

My Aunt Mary Ann said that she wished she had spent more time listening to older relatives and remembering their stories. Yet, when I expressed interest in her stories and maybe writing some down, she didn’t understand why I was interested. She said her life was ordinary and that there was nothing to write about.

So I wrote this story using a few of her memories and my own observations about how she lived. I was able to read it to her a few weeks before she passed. It was important to me that she know that her life wasn’t ordinary and that the way she lived made a difference.

I read it at her funeral and have debated for a week whether or not to share it here. It’s longer than my typical post but I hope you have the time to enjoy it.

The picture is a snapshot of how I will always remember Mary Ann – a young single mother who dressed up as Raggedy Ann to take her daughter and very small niece to a Halloween party. That little Tweety Bird is me!

An Extraordinary Life

My Aunt Mary Ann believed that she lived a plain old ordinary life. That’s common among people to think there’s not much interesting to say about them. What they don’t understand is that everyone has a story to tell and that it is in the ordinary that we often find the most extraordinary things.

Mary Ann loved to reminisce, especially about her earliest memories of growing up in the little house below Allensville. Life revolved around the family and she had beautiful memories of time spent with her older sister Tootie (that was a nickname), younger brother Ronnie (my dad) and their parents.

She said that she couldn’t have asked for a better family as her parents believed that family was more important than anything and proved that time and again. They made sure they all ate together, they played with the kids, took them to Sunday School, worked hard, and did their best to give their kids all they needed and some things they wanted too. They taught their kids to work hard and to follow the Golden Rule.

Their dad had grown up poor and the Betts name wasn’t very good when he was a young man. Others before him had done wrong and the Garretts didn’t believe that Earl Betts was good enough for their Garnet. When they didn’t approve of the union, the couple eloped. He worked hard to prove the Garretts wrong and to be a good provider for his wife and young family. Mary Ann remembered that they taught their kids that their good name was the most important thing they had and that they needed to protect their name as though their life and everything they held dear depended on it.

Born just after the war, these three were among the last kids in America to know a world not dominated by cheap foreign made stuff. There wasn’t a Dollar General in every berg and people didn’t get a lot of new things every trip to the store. Televisions hadn’t yet infiltrated every living room, driving people in from the front porch where conversations happened and lightening bugs were caught. They were among the last generation to know a time when the family meal was more important than kids sports. They knew the joys of free time, of days playing outside and entertaining themselves with made up games, mud pies and playing house.

She remembered lots of snowball fights with her siblings. At one point during an especially memorable one, snowballs began falling from above. They realized their dad was on the roof of the house, performing an aerial attack. While he was a young man with much responsibility, it sounds like he could be a big kid himself.

The year Ronnie was born, a storm buried southern Ohio under a foot or more of snow that Thanksgiving. It was the biggest snowstorm in Ohio’s history and the National Guard was mobilized to help. Mary Ann was just three years old but this historic snow was one of her earliest recollections. She remembered opening the door to find a path her dad had dug outside between two walls of snow. She was just a toddler and admits that it might not have been that tall but remembered these walls of snow vividly and with wonder in her voice.

There was a lot of wonder during these years.

Christmas was an especially happy time. In fact, she remembered holidays the likes of which modern kids will never know. “We didn’t get a bunch of stuff all year long so we really looked forward to Christmas. It was special.”

When it came to trimming the tree, the family had a few store bought ornaments but they mostly used things they made. She recalled making paper chains and stringing popcorn. She said her parents would hide small things in the tree as well, sending them on a treasure hunt to find what little gifts waited for them. She said “We didn’t get a ton of stuff but we liked what got. We were excited for our gifts and mom and dad made it as special as they could.”

Life wasn’t perfect but it was good and it was a blessing to have two young parents who had a drive to give their kids a better life than they had. She said they were probably poor but they never knew it because everyone around them was poor too.

By the time she was a teenager, the two younger boys – Randy and Merle – had made surprise appearances. This made them a family of seven that, by that time, lived up on Garrett Ridge. She remembered being old enough to help with laundry, cooking, chores and her youngest brothers when needed. It was about this time she noticed that not every family had a dad that helped around the house and parents who were partners.

She loved the life they had as a family when Randy and Merle arrived but believed that she, Tootie and Ronnie got the better part of their parents when they were little. Randy and Merle may have had more material items but the three older kids had more of their parents’ time and energy.

“Yes, I had a wonderful childhood. Of course, I was a good kid and didn’t cause trouble,” she liked to say.

Her brother Ronnie remembers things a little differently, often complaining that his older sisters were mean to him when he was a little boy. After years of banter and accusations that she was a little goody two shoes and he was a brat, I asked for her memories.

Mary Ann offered a firm denial.

“I never did nothing to that boy….. but if I did….he had it coming.”

She went on to admit that there was one small occasion that she did get him into trouble. Just one, of course. “He was having one of his fits he was so famous for and I had a sun burn. He hit my sunburned arm with a little toy truck. And I’ll tell you, it did hurt. But it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I made out when I went running to tattle. I should have won an Oscar for that performance. So yeah, I got him in trouble on purpose but he had it coming,” she insisted.

She grew up, got married and had a baby of her own but found herself in a bad situation. When she left that marriage, she took with her eleven year old Tracey and started anew.

These years were hard. “I was bound and determined not to take help. I wanted to prove that I could do it and I wanted her to be proud of me. Yeah, it was hard at times but I kept us afloat and she was all the inspiration I needed to keep going. I just had to look at her.”

And then, just as suddenly as the winds will shift on a spring day, there came a person who would change her entire life. That’s when she met Vearl, her best friend, the love of her life and her soulmate.

Mary Ann could be stubborn and sometimes opinionated but she had a wonderful sense of humor. Vearl was the only person who could match her wit and go toe to toe with her. She said he treated her “like gold” but that it was hard for her to adapt to having a partner who wanted to do things for her and who wanted to give her the best he could. She said it was hard to go from shouldering all the burden to having someone who wanted to help.

“He was the best thing that ever happened to me. Every year of discontent I ever had was worth it when I had him.”

Tracey once asked her why they didn’t ever go out and she said it was because they were just happy being together. They could watch tv, sit on the couch and talk or go out for ice cream and be perfectly happy because they were together.

Vearl fit in with the family just like another son and gave my grandmother someone else to feed. Food was always important in the family and there was nothing better by Mary Ann’s estimation than to have all the family together for a meal. She was a little wistful when she explained “Those are some of my happiest memories as an adult, having everyone together for a meal.”

Mary Ann was a wonderful cook who learned from her mother how to make pies and noodles from scratch and how to make the simplest dish taste amazing. But her mom took feeding people to a new level. She remembered bringing Vearl for Sunday dinners and said her mom always wanted to feed them as much as she could. “We would eat lunch at noon and she’d want to feed us again before we left at three. Vearl used to say you’re the eatenest bunch of people I’ve ever seen.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

As so often happens, passing time left a lot of empty seats around that table. Her parents, siblings and then Vearl and Tracey left this world, carving out a reminder that growing older is a privilege not afforded to everyone.

It was during these years that I learned my Aunt Mary Ann was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known and I have often wondered how it possible for one person to go on after so much tragedy. Many of us would be tempted to embrace the darkness, to be awash with grief and to become bitter. The rest of us might have sat down with a bag of Oreos and been overwhelmed by our grief but Mary Ann did not.

Instead, she made the best of each day, moving forward with whatever grit and determination it took. She understood that life is for the living so she got up every day, got dressed and did her chores. She read her Bible and worshiped at her church. She shopped and ate out with friends.

She always cherished time with her family. Mary Ann was never too busy to spend time with her family whether for a meal or to pass an afternoon on the porch. When she asked you how you were, she really wanted to know.

When someone was sick, she brought soup and cookies. When you were too busy to cook because you were having a yard sale, she brought lunch. Sometimes she just showed up with a homemade pie because she had cherries and felt like making a pie.

These acts of kindness and consideration kept her busy and productive. They kept her engaged with the people who mattered most to her. In doing so, she taught us some valuable lessons about living and mourning, about honoring those who came before us, and how to go on despite our grief. Mary Ann never allowed her struggles to define her but they certainly made her stronger.

She said two things that give me pause.

She enjoyed reminiscing, not because she lived in the past, but because those memories are a powerful tool for finding happiness today. “Memories help you through the hard times. When someone dies, the memories you have of them don’t die. So as long as you have those memories, you haven’t completely lost them. Those memories will keep you going.”

The other thing that seemed so fitting and profound was this. “Everyone has to go through things. Sometimes there’s a lesson to be learned. Even though you’re struggling and even though you think you’re not doing too well, you may be helping someone else. You may be showing them how to do it.”

After watching her all these years, I am reminded of a scripture. “This is the Day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Yesterday has given us wonderful memories to help make the hard days better. It teaches us lessons and makes us smarter. It gives us memories that will help us keep our loved ones alive and make us grateful for having them. Mary Ann understood better than anyone that tomorrow is not promised. We can make plans and look ahead but there’s no guarantee any of us will see the sun rise on a new day. But today, this day, is the most important one because it’s the only one you have.

Mary Ann showed us this. She led by example, proving herself to be strong and capable. She was also wise enough to be grateful for those memories as well as for all that she had in the present day.

There are people in this world who do far less with much more. There are people who lose their way after a tragedy and who don’t understand that remembering a loved one is the best way to keep them alive. There are people who will never learn these lessons, much less so generously share them with others.

There’s nothing ordinary about this level of wisdom and grace. There’s nothing ordinary about my Aunt Mary Ann’s life. In fact, if you ask me, it was indeed quite extraordinary.

* * *

This is the story I read to Mary Ann but it’s not the end of her story. Her life on earth has ended after a long period of suffering and hardly complaining at all. Cancer is evil but she showed us that even though she couldn’t beat it, she could die with dignity.

She showed us how it’s done.

But that’s not the end of her story either. You see, Mary Ann was a believer. She knew in her heart that there is a better place waiting, a place where there is no more grief, loneliness or pain. There is no cancer. She was looking forward to an incredible homecoming where she would be reunited with her family and all those she’s honored and missed for so long.

The Native Americans believe that the prayers of grandmothers we never knew are still protecting us. I like to think that she has also met people she never knew in life but whose blood has coursed through her veins and whose prayers have protected her all these many years.

And when you think about it that way, things aren’t so bad.

When I read this to Mary Ann and I got to the part with the scripture – This is the day the Lord has made – she said Amen. That meant a lot to her, this idea that we must value each day we are given as though it is the best and most important day.

So these are the words I want to leave you with because I’m sure she would want it that way.

This is the day the Lord has made. Let us be glad for this beautiful day and for this time we all have together. Let us be glad for the time we had with Mary Ann and for all those who have left empty seats at our tables.

Let us rejoice for these gifts. And let us rejoice for Mary Ann who we know is happy, at peace and who we know is rejoicing.


Starting A New Year

It’s 12:34 a.m. on my birthday. I spent my last full day as a 43 year old person getting the gray washed out of my hair as the jingle told us, going on a failed adventure and watching undertakers carry my aunt’s lifeless body from her home.

I need my new year to be better than this.

I tend to get more philosophical around my birthday, thinking about what I have learned in the last year and what I think the next one should look like.

If I am to be completely honest with you and myself, I don’t really have it in me to do all that today. For the last few weeks, death and dying have been more prominent themes in my family than life and living.

That’s the season my family is in. It’s natural and that’s ok. That doesn’t mean we have to like it but that’s the thing about life – we don’t always have to like it but we do have to muddle through the best we can until conditions improve.

If anything, this time has been a superb reminder of why we should never complain about growing older.

After all, not everyone gets to do it.

Even with Covid limitations and even with family issues, over this last year I have managed to find enjoyment at home, to get out on adventures and to have some special experiences both near and far.

While hibernating at home this winter, I binged on I Love Lucy. I had bought the complete series and watched it in order- some episodes more than once. When conditions allowed, I visited her hometown and soaked in the recreated TV sets and had a few beautiful days wandering around western New York State.

I have walked hundreds of miles through parks and museums, wearing out shoes as I set out to see as much of the world as I can. This year found me exploring historic sites as well as natural places like a gorgeous sunflower field. I learned about Annie Oakley’s triumphant rise to fame from humble beginnings in Ohio. This year taught me that Buffalo Bill believed in equal pay and equal opportunities for women and Native Americans at a time that people still believed a woman’s place was at home and that Native Americans had no place in this country at all.

This year I cruised down highways in the Nerdmobile, floated down the Ohio and Muskingum rivers atop a paddle boat and soared high above the earth in a biplane.

The mountainside community of Thomas, West Virginia is where I learned about how immigrants of numerous nationalities lived and worked peacefully. Despite cultural and language barriers they were united by patriotism for their new home and the opportunities afforded to them in America.

This is where I saw the most stunning fall foliage of my lifetime.

I followed signs down country roads to find a working mill in Virginia, had a chance encounter with an artist and slammed on the brakes for many a roadside attraction or pretty scene.

I finally found a home for my pulpit, a family heirloom that I had been keeping safe until the right person came along and needed it for a church. When I couldn’t travel, I had books to keep my mind busy and I finally created a real office space for my work from home lifestyle with new furniture and decor.

When I did travel, I had the cutest little cat to come home to at night. Everyone should have someone in their life who gets this excited simply because they came home.

No, I didn’t leap from airplanes or fly off to exotic places. I flew to Denver and road tripped as much as possible. I daydreamed about all the places I still want to go and chided myself for not winning the lottery yet as that’s what it will take to fund the adventures I wish to take. Of course, I don’t actually play…..

For the last couple of months, I have spent more time getting to know my aunt and listening to her stories. Wednesday was my night to visit and to take something special for our dinner and dessert. It was far more fun and rewarding than I first expected.

As we have been bracing ourselves for the loss of this important person, we welcomed three small souls who have brought much joy and laughter to our lives. One of the most rewarding things you can do is to extend kindness to someone who has nothing to offer but their companionship.

This year has taught me to look more closely at what’s in my own area and that it’s ok to not plan, to just wander and make the best of things as they are. I have perfected the art of wandering this earth safely and appreciating whatever fun I’m able to find.

Friday’s adventure was a bust. I went with a friend to a hot air balloon festival where the balloons were grounded for weather, a detail event organizers didn’t mention until after we had paid for non-refundable admission. But we met a nice elderly man there and had a great dinner at Boston’s Restaurant upon his recommendation. We laughed a lot at the ridiculousness of our day and also got to see a gorgeous sky after sunset, a true gift at the end of a challenging week.

We had another chance encounter with a kind human when we experienced some trouble late in the day. I want to tell you about that experience but not today.

The moral of the story is that life is filled with sunrises and sunsets, with great fun and some disappointments. As my aunt slipped the bonds of this earth, somewhere else a child was born. As my trip around the sun comes to a close and another starts, there is both bitterness and sweetness.

If not for these things, life simply wouldn’t be life. What does the song say? We all want happiness but we can’t have a rainbow without a little rain.

Remembering Janice

In a year that has been defined by loss, my family took another hit this week. We lost an elder, my Aunt Janice. She was a spirited woman with a vibrant personality that filled up a room and her loss has left a void yet to be measured.

There were ten kids in my mother’s family. Janice married the oldest son Howard. Growing up, family dinners as we called them (you likely call them reunions), were held twice a year – on the Sunday closest to Christmas and the Sunday closest to my grandparents‘ birthdays (August 14 and 15). All my aunts and uncles and countless cousins packed into my grandparents’ house for a potluck meal that ranged from the lazy cook’s bucket of chicken to delicious pies and a line of crockpots containing such delicacies as homemade noodles, garden fresh green beans and venison.

If you were smart, you knew which of the aunts were the best cooks and what they had brought. Janice was one of those who could make anything taste good, a skill that came in handy during the years she ran her own restaurant. She also knew how to stretch a dollar to feed a crowd. I once saw this woman transform four eggs into a steaming hot pan of delicious scrambled eggs that fed a table full of people.

It was always evident when Janice was present because you could pick out her laughter from any crowd. She knew how to capture your attention, how to tell a story, and how to make you laugh.

She loved having a good time and wanted everyone else to share her joy. Simply hearing her laughter could make you happy too.

Janice was an avid reader who enjoyed critical thinking, travel and anything that exercised her mind. Janice was quick witted, a no-nonsense straight shooter who wasn’t known to back down when she thought she was right. Which was most of the time, by my estimation.

She was what you might call a gutsy broad.

Janice was a talented quilter and even ran the local library branch for some years.

She especially loved western travel and sharing stories about the places she visited. I regret not hearing more about her trip to Glacier last fall because I’m sure it was a good one.

She was a proud mother and grandmother who encouraged her offspring to work hard, to do good, and to be strong.

There’s also a chance she was the best pie maker in the world. Seriously, friends. The Best.

In fact, Janice taught me how to make pies a long, long time ago. I was a tiny little girl with blonde hair in pigtails when she and my uncle Howard came to visit. She made an apple pie and let me help, telling me that maybe someday I could make a pie of my own.

A few days later, inspired by my newfound “skill” of pie making I got up early and made one in the middle of our very new white linoleum kitchen floor.

Assorted cereal, potato chips, flour, food coloring and other scavenged ingredients spilled over the sides of my tiny doll pan and onto that white floor.

Imagine my mother’s unbridled horror when she discovered my culinary achievement. Let’s just say that I was in trouble all day and possibly for days after.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Janice heard that story! I’m guessing she enjoyed it immensely.

I use pictures to tell stories and am grateful to have this one from last year’s family dinner.

Janice was sitting on my parent’s front porch, quietly taking in the scene as people arrived with covered dishes and young children in tow. I was lurking in my usual stance with my zoom lens in hand. She caught my camera and gave me this look.

Anyone who knew Janice can tell you what came next. She smiled, said something witty and laughed that fabulous laugh.

And this is how I will remember her.