Memorial Day 50

image1Memorial Day is set aside to remember American service members who died serving their country. This Memorial Day is important to me because it’s the 50thMemorial Day since my father died in combat in the jungles of Vietnam.  I am not alone. 1968 was the height of U.S. losses, almost 17,000 service men came home in body bags that year. And this Memorial Day I am also the forgotten child of a soldier who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Forgotten by his mother and family.

One of the many fallouts of war happen long after the guns are silenced and the politicians count their gains and spin their stories of success. The fallen remain frozen in time as the rest of us are pulled forward into a present that constantly has a hole, a deep shadow of our missing loved one. Looking backward, that hole grows deeper every day, a widening gulf of events on the timeline where the fallen should have been. Meanwhile, my father remains eternally 26 years old, longing to return to his wife and daughter and work with his father on the family farm.

I read my grandmother’s will earlier this year. She died at the advanced age of 98. In it, she documented her family ties and legal heirs to her husband and son who predeceased her, the daughter, and her grandsons. And she intentionally omitted me, her only granddaughter. She knew me and she shunned me in the most final of ways.

We’d had a constant relationship over the years, corresponded, and we regularly told each other ‘I love you.’ Our relationship wasn’t perfect, but we had one. I was the reminder, what she had left to hold on to from her son. We lived a great distance apart, and she didn’t like to travel. I would come to her. The last time we were together was a happy meeting. We were in church together, had a tender conversation, and warmly embraced before we parted. The last words she spoke to me was that she loved me and was glad I came. I smiled and agreed. Many more cards and letters echoed the same.

I won’t attempt to explain my grandmother’s will or understand why my father’s family chose to dishonor and betray him by tearing my branch off the family tree. There’s no fixing this. I do wonder what my father would think. How would he react? Given how much he sacrificed, I can only imagine. On Memorial Day.

Get Out of the Boat

get out of the boat 2 1

I fear failure. Other people might fear success, other people’s opinions, or losing control of what’s comfortable. But fear is evil. Fear is paralyzing. Fear robs us of the possible. So let me share the one thing that keeps me going.

“Get out of the boat.”

I just completed student teaching and am searching for a teaching job. The job market is grim. I wonder if I will be successful changing careers. I’m middle aged! I don’t have experience! It’s a hard profession. There are few job openings. What was I thinking?!

“Get out of the boat.”

Despite the self-doubt, the jerks that have told me I’m not good enough, the worry over spending money going back to school, and all the other decent reasons I should have given up or not begun in the first place there is one thing.

“Get out of the boat.”

I keep hearing, quite clearly in my heart, that I need to get out of the boat. And I know what it means. I’ve heard the story about Jesus walking on water and Peter asking if he could too. There’s much more to the Bible story, and this is less about Peter’s faith, and more about my fear to step into the unknown and begin again. I’m afraid I’ll drown. But I have to

“Get out of the boat”

because I’m more afraid of regretting staying in the boat than I am of drowning. In the past year I’ve been to the funerals of three friends. Which makes me wonder if I’ll live to feel that regret or not. Is it presumptuous for me to act as if I have time left in my life to have a second career? What I do know is that I enjoy being in a classroom with teenagers. I love planning what we’re going to learn together when the bell rings. And I have hope and ideas about how I can be a better teacher tomorrow and the next day. Because I feel called to change the world one disinterested teenager at a time. If I will just

“Get out of the boat” again.

So I will keep my eyes above the waves. I’ll ignore the jerks. I’ll embrace the optimistic idea that I might not drown. And listen to the voice that speaks to my heart when I breathe deep and listen carefully. The voice that sounds true and calm, and encourages me to be a teacher and

“Get out of the boat.”

Supervising Student Driver and Box of Tacos


This week was the last time for me to supervise my son’s driving on the water polo club practice night. It was special, because for the first time we dropped everyone off without any hitting or elbowing going on in the back seat. The solution: tacos and asking nicely.

My oldest son is learning to drive this year. He’s passed the driveling class and has a restricted license. Oldest son is in a water polo club this summer with three other high school teammates. One night a week it’s my turn to supervise the carpool since none of them can drive alone yet. It occurred to me last night that it’s like carpooling for an hour each way in Chicago rush hour traffic with four little Beavises and a box of granola bars. Who knew teenage boys were so interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, these are nice teenagers and I like spending time with them. Water polo players are their own fascinating bunch to begin with. It takes a person with a certain personality to enjoy being drowned for a couple of hours every day for “fun.”  The trip to practice is different from the trip back.

Driving to practice, everyone is full of energy and eager to talk about summer school, current events, and make jokes. Everyone knows the rules to not bother or distract the driver, my son. On the way home, after two hours of treading water, ball passing and drowning defense drills, they tumble into the car like fish out of water, smelling like chlorine and we begin the hour drive back home. They are exhausted, sometimes too exhausted to do more than listen to the radio. But some nights, like last night, the coach hasn’t expended all their energy and they are revved up. They fuss about who is going to sit in the middle. They elbow each other and throw mild insults. It usually helps for me to start a game of ‘name that tune’ for the radio, with me being the referee and final authority on matters of the 1970’s through 1990’s without consulting Shazam.

Since last night was my last night for carpool for the summer season, I suggested oldest son practice his driving skills at the drive thru window of Taco Bell on the trip home. I asked them to be sweet and not get taco contents all over my car. Usually I bring them a small snack for the long ride home because they’ve burned all their calories and they are starving, like a box of goldfish, pretzels, or granola bars, so the tacos were new and different.

The box of tacos entered the car and the feeding frenzy began. It’s usually like this when the snacks are handed into the back seat. It’s like tossing a baby seal into a pod of orcas. Oldest son got upset when he learned that as driver, he couldn’t have his taco until he stopped at a red light, it’s my rules. Then I had to negotiate a truce over the hot sauce and no, you aren’t going to have a fire sauce eating dare contest tonight, sorry. I’m such a kill joy.

A dozen tacos are inhaled inside 3 blocks, and we’re back to name that tune to pass the rest of the hour. I looked over at my oldest son, driving much better in the dark than at the beginning of summer, and smile. In a couple of months his driving restriction will be lifted and he will be able to drive without me. He’ll be fine, but I’ll have less time with him and his friends. To listen to them ha ha- ha ha like Beavis to each other’s silly jokes and hear about their history papers that are due at the end of the week. We’ll enter the next stage, where I wait for them to check in and tell me they have arrived and are OK.

The car pool is a sacred space for parents of teenagers, it’s where you have many important conversations and spend quality time. My advice is to always volunteer for the carpool. Even though the car smells like chlorine and they laugh with that annoying laugh and you have to tell them to stop hitting each other and there are goldfish crumbs to vacuum up the next day. It’s all worth it and I’ll miss it.

Musical pairing: “On the Road Again,” by Willie Nelson, 1980.

Holding on to the Flag

Holding on to the Flag

Holding on to the Flag

March 2013 marked the passing of my favorite Marine, my great Uncle Cleve. He was the patriarch of our family, a butcher and grocer in a small Texas town, and a deacon in his church. He was also a proud member of the first group of men in the 2nd Marine Division created during World War II. God bless him, he lived independently for 95 years, drove himself to the hospital and died a day later. Uncle Cleve was cool.

Funerals are very much like weddings. They are a family and community celebration, with ceremony, food and significance. He was a single man, so my mother and her sister were his closest relatives. He had six great nieces and nephews that he treated like grandchildren. We all gathered together in the ancestral town of our family to celebrate his life, where he alone had remained his entire life.

His town is settled on the breaks of the plateau in north central Texas, where sagebrush and pinion pine stubbornly grow in the red caliche clay dirt that daily meets a broad, blue sky. This is the rangelands of isolated cattle ranchers, that built their small town for mutual dependence, a small main street lined with churches, banks, local shops and cafes, and a sheriff’s office.

I flew down to Texas and picked up my mother, to drive with her to the funeral. Four hours of asphalt lined on each side by barbed wire fences. Mother and I talked of tasks to be done, wondered who we would and wouldn’t see, apprehensive to return home. Her sister and my cousins were heading to the same spot on the map from different directions, merging toward the appointed place and time.  We met at the funeral home. This was the same funeral home that had solemnly buried other family members in years past. The gathering parlor with the same mahogany fireplace and formal sofas for visiting, the flowers already arranged and filling the room with the fragrance of lilies and roses. Of course Uncle Cleve looked ‘good’ but not himself, the way unoccupied bodies look. As requested, he wore his Marine bolo tie and 2nd Division lapel pin, dignified and appropriate.

Uncle Cleve had called us all home and we were together in the same room for the first time in many years. It was lovely. There were 2nd cousins, neighbors, and other kin to hug and chat with. I heard funny stories, tales of intertwined histories, and we shared photos on iPhones. We compared how much the kids have grown. I especially appreciated visiting with the other war hero in our family, Cousin Billy who was a Screaming Eagle. He’s a quiet, gentle soul with a soft, drawling voice. Thinking about him parachuting out of planes in Europe is difficult, just like it’s difficult to imagine Uncle Cleve in Iceland, New Zealand, Iwo Jima and Saipan. But I’ve heard the stories and seen the pictures, it was all real. As real as this funeral gathering.

After a night’s sleep, we spent the morning preparing for the burial. Texas funerals are formal, with suits, starched white shirts, and dress cowboy boots, black dresses and pearls. The one thing that prevented me from giving this funeral a perfect 5 out of 5 is that it was at the funeral home chapel rather than in the church sanctuary. Uncle Cleve had been a deacon for his church for decades, I personally felt his funeral should be there, but the sisters didn’t agree on it, so it was in the chapel. At least the Baptist choir and the pastor were there to officiate. I’m not sure this pastor had done many funerals yet, he was probably on his first church assignment, but he did well and I made sure to tell him so at the luncheon afterward. My prediction is that he will develop into a really good funeral preacher, an art that is difficult and delicate, but important. Anyone that’s heard a generic, limp funeral preacher can tell you that.

After the eulogy in the chapel we rode in the limo to the cemetery. As usual for this part of Texas, it’s windier than hell, probably 30 miles per hour. We watched the pallbearers carefully remove the casket from the hearse and simultaneously grasp the edges of the flag covering the casket to make sure it didn’t blow off and head for New Mexico. The funeral canopy creaked and leaned against the wind as a large spray of flowers shot over the heads of the crowd. No one flinched, this is Texas. After a few well-placed words and a prayer, the Marine guards skillfully executed their graceful ceremony. Taps were played, the guns were fired, and the casket flag was perfectly creased and folded, despite the gusting wind.

We shook hands and gave hugs, then visited the other family grave sites with flags and flowers, remembering our roots to this place. Then we met up at the church for homemade lunch. Baptist ladies can put out a fantastic spread, with thick ham slices, fried chicken, and an amazing variety of vegetable and fruit salads. Of course there is fresh pie and coffee. What a gift it is that church ladies give to grieving families, the gift of a home made meal and a place to rest after the emotional toll of a funeral. Because even a funeral like this one, of a long life well lived, is still difficult because of the goodbyes.  We gathered for a family photo, gave more hugs, shed tears, and smiled about how good it was to be together. A very good funeral it was for my favorite Marine. Semper Fi, Uncle Cleve. Enjoy your new guard post.

“Here’s health to you and to our Corps

Which we are proud to serve;

In many a strife we’ve fought for life

And never lost our nerve;

If the Army and the Navy

Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;

They will find the streets are guarded


Musical pairing: The Marines’ Hymn, author unknown, in use since the mid-1800s.

At the Doorway of the Cave, in Sunglasses

Mountaineer in one of the ice caves of Paradise Glacier, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, CA. 1925. University of Washington, Commons.

Mountaineer in one of the ice caves of Paradise Glacier, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, CA. 1925. University of Washington, Commons.

Enough of crouching the in winter cave. Enough of sitting next to the chicken of depression and saying, “Hey buddy, hows you doin?” (thanks Gary Larson, for that metaphor) It’s spring now! The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, I’m sneezing… maybe I’ll just stand in the doorway of the cave wearing sunglasses, enjoying my Claritin fuzz buzz.

My apologies for not posting a blog in a long while. YOU probably haven’t noticed, but it’s been disappointing as hell for me. I’d done so well to faithfully write and post something every week, even if it was weak. I stuck to a personal goal of blogging every week. But I hit a massive wall of silence in January and I literally had nothing to say. I’d heard this happens sometimes to creative people, but since I’m not particularly creative or even a professional writer, I assumed I’d be immune to such high-grade oddities. Huh, although I don’t think it’s a sign of my qualification to high-grade oddities.

Well anyway, confession is good for the soul, most often in private, behind dark wooden doors with screens for anonymity, whispers and sobs and trembling hands. But I’m already at the door of the cave, remember? I’d rather not look back right now. So I’ll just admit it to God and the tens of people who read my blog that I HAD NOTHING TO SAY.

Silence isn’t always bad, in fact I could list several occasions that I wish I had kept my stupid mouth shut and pulled the blank look down over my face, the look that people put in their place should have. Or the impassive look that wise sages sometimes hold, blink and hold.

No, that was not my silence. Mine was the silence of a gift being covered, set out of reach, on ice and numb. The silence of thinking, and rethinking and not quite grasping words or the conclusion or the meaning yet. So I waited. Not patiently, but I waited. Got comfortable with the break from thinking so many things at one time in the Slush Puppie machine kind of way that my mind usually grinds away at so many ideas, repeated conversations, random memories, and to-do lists. In the waiting I prayed and meditated, 3 am seemed to be the routine time my mind decided was appropriate for that. Really, I have a fun circadian clock.

And now inexplicably, the silence is broken. I just wanted to share that.

Musical Pairing: “In Repair” by John Mayer, 2006

Sweeping Up Glitter

Pinecone Ornament

Pinecone Ornament

I undecorated the Christmas tree this week and packed away the lights, garlands and stockings.  The nativity was carefully wrapped again and placed in a box marked ‘fragile.’ Undecorating Christmas is a quiet activity. Unlike the event of decorating, when the entire family drinks hot cocoa, listens to Christmas music, and helps decorate the tree. I do the undecorating alone. I know the routine of what goes in what box, and like to wrap certain ornaments in specific tissues and bubble paper to protect them until next year.

It was the usual undecorating chore until I held the newest addition to our family tree, a handmade craft created by our youngest son last year at the annual Cub Scout ornament decorating event. The ornament I removed from the tree was a cinnamon scented pine cone, with green glitter glue dripping from its tips, hanging from a shiny green cord. I drew it closer to my face. It still had the faint smell of cinnamon clinging to it, an earthy, warm, strong sweetness mixed with evergeen muskiness. It still sparkled.

My memory rewound to the day the cinnamon pinecone came into our home last December. When little boys decorate Christmas ornaments, it’s crazy good fun. Fifty little boys running from craft table to craft table in packs, asking their dads to hold their latest creation while they begin another. Traditionally, the favorite table was Mark’s cinnamon pinecone ornament table. The smell, the glue, the glitter, what’s not to like? Mark has three boys, so as long as I can remember, Mark’s pinecone table has been part of the evening’s fun.

And after an exhausting whirlwind of trying to keep up with my son’s decorating fun, I helped Mark clean up his table. We bantered about how much fun the boys had, and were pleased with a successful event. I crawled under the table and swept up the last of the glitter, wondering if more glitter was on the ornaments, in the boys’ hair, stuck to their scout shirts, or the floor instead. That’s OK, it’s not a party until somebody spills something. And our family enjoyed the new addition to the family tree last year.

This December, the pinecone came out of its paper lunch bag again, and graced the family tree. This December it still smelled of cinnamon and evergreen. This December it reminded us of Mark, who is not with us anymore. Mark didn’t set up his traditionally favorite table at the ornament decorating party. Mark didn’t make the room smell like cinnamon, no glue dripped, no glitter fluttered to the floor to sweep up into sparkly drifts in dustpans.

I find it halting, surprising, achingly beautiful, these unexpected things that stop me. That remind me. I’m thankful, despite it being hard. Remembering the moments that cannot be repeated, seldom are rehearsed or even counted as consequence at the time, but are sweet nonetheless. It’s always the little things, isn’t it?

Musical pairing: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Christina Aguilera version, 1999.

Thank You, St. Nicholas

Santa in Minneapolis, Marshall Fields

Santa in Minneapolis,     Marshall-Fields

Dear Santa,

I have been a very good girl this year. For Christmas, would you please bring me Dr. Dre earbuds? That’s it, you know we go low-key at our house.

Thank you, I’ll set out the chocolate brownies and Jameson, as usual.

I’d also like to thank you for the joy you’ve brought to our home over the years. I had no idea how much fun it would be to experience Christmas with children. Now that our youngest son is an “informed believer” that phase has ended, but it sure was sweet. It was fun to take the boys to Marshall-Fields to sit on your lap, and to write notes with Christmas present wishes. To plan, shop and wait for little ones to fall asleep on Christmas Eve. It was exciting to build Lego spaceships, and race Hot Wheels cars and play board games in PJs on Christmas morning. You’ve helped us make some wonderful family memories.

I apologize for the over-commercialization of your image and the crazy focus on piles of presents. What happened to Americans at Christmas? We are wackadoodle. Santa is supposed to be about children being surprised, appreciating a wish fulfilled, and a break from the long winter nights. The patron saint of children, should remind us of the Christ child.

Despite the current state of Christmas, which is spoiling Thanksgiving and a few other things these days,  we can still choose our Christmas. We can celebrate Christmas in a quieter way. We can dial down the consumerism. We can change the focus in our own homes. We can say “Merry Christmas” and internalize what it really means.  So, dear Santa, I hope you’ll return to our home in some Christmas future, when grandchildren lay their heads in warm beds to dream. When our sons get to play the role of St. Nicholas and create memories of their own. That’s actually, my Christmas wish, the earbuds are entirely optional.

Musical pairing: “Grown Up Christmas Wish,” Amy Grant, 1992.


Artist, Friend

Wilson, Martian, Jan Brady

Thank you, my hippie shake, hyper-creative girlfriend. The one who liked me even though I was preppie and shy. This photo explains a lot, we’re at a Halloween party in Marilyn’s studio. I went as Jan Brady and she went as a three-breasted Martian. We have an unlikely friendship, and I appreciate so much the time we spent together mixing two styles and having fun.

Marilyn and I met in college, she was an older sorority sister. We got to know each other much better after graduation. We lived in the same city and she washed and cut my hair for years. Marilyn knew how to cook too and she taught me how to make homemade pasta and we’d sit around the chiminea on her patio and drink wine and talk about everything and nothing.

I’m not quite sure what exactly I brought to the friendship, I just knew that I loved spending time with Marilyn. She was always buzzing around on an inspired discovery. She learned how to weld and made metal furniture, sculptures, and architectural pieces for businesses. Her house was an evolving work of art, with rooms changing colors, antiques moving in and out, curtains as doors, knocking down walls. Her style was something uniquely Bohemian, whimsical and dreamy. I loved watching her creative process, admiring her handiwork, spending girl time together. I enjoyed listening to her views on what was going on around us. I learned what the color ‘Dennis green’ looks like. I got comfortable with quirky.

I realize that most artists, and Marilyn is an artist, struggle with living in the little boxes and formulas of society. People like Marilyn can’t be in a box and be themselves or express their God-given talents. It broke my heart when she moved to follow her dreams, and get lost, and find herself again. But I understood, and wished her happiness and prayed for her to find space to create the things she had in her imagination.

And I’m so pleased to say Marilyn and I recently reconnected. Even though we’re apart and I can’t wander through her studio or banter about what she’s thinking about, I can still see photos of the finished product and marvel at how many ways she is beautiful. I’m thankful for my friend who appreciated having a Jan Brady type around. Because I appreciate Martian types.

Musical pairing: “Drops of Jupiter,” Train, 2001 and “Hippy, Hippy, Shake,” Beatles version, 1963.

Hand Cramps and Squinty Eyes

View at Work

GenX is the first generation to spend a great deal of time using computers at work, and I’m beginning to wonder how it will affect us physically. PCs entered the home and workplace as we came of age, and a large number of us have been staring at computer screens and typing on keyboards for a living for 15 to 30 years now. 30 to 60 hours a week, depending upon the demands of the job, times 50 weeks per year, times 15 years is a minimum of 22,500 hours of computer work for one GenXer and we are nowhere near retirement. This doesn’t count the recreational hours we spend with our computers either. What does computer work do to our bodies that might be different from the physical demands of a desk with no computer?

I do know that I’ve already had one hand surgery to fix tendonitis. I usually get sore, cramped hands on days that I do long hours of data entry, typing or mouse scrolling. So far it’s not arthritis or carpal tunnel, but it’s not fun. My eyes are fine, but I have friends needing three sets of clear vision: near, far and computer distance, which can be tricky for the optomitrist to solve. There’s also pain old eye strain too. Desk obesity is a problem for some of us. Earning a living at a computer also affects our joints, metabolism, mental agility, social skills, and other areas of health. Other documented problems include exposure to low levels of raditation and ion fields and internet addictions.

I chose my workpath, and overall have really liked the computer centered work environment. I think it’s a better fit for me than outdoor jobs, manual labor, or standing labor. Other types of labor have higher physical costs than desk or computer jobs. I was just wondering, as I rubbed by aching hands at the end of a long day, if computer jobs hold different health risks than we’ve seen in the past from other types of jobs. I don’t know, but GenX has been the guinea pig and we’ll let you know how it goes.

The next generation started using computers, phones and video games at earlier ages than we did, so the cumulative effects of heavy screen and button pushing usage will likely be even more pronouced for them. I hope they can be healthy when they reach middle age and older.

In the meantime, I need to be better about making space in my day for activity and motion, talking instead of emailing, and resting my eyes on something other than a computer screen… like people’s faces or the great outdoors.

Musical pairing: “(Leave the) Great Indoors,” John Mayer, 2001.

Calculating Dinner Rolls and Other Kindness

Sitting with Liz and family

I’d like to thank the lady who taught me a great deal about hospitality. Liz is one of my mother’s dear friends, and from time to time we’ve been neighbors and the recipient of Liz’s amazing hospitality. Liz and Mom met on an Army base in Texas in the 1960s. When we were in dire straights and needed a place to stay, we stayed with Liz. Decades later, when my husband needed a place to stay while we were moving, he stayed with Liz. I know we’re not the only people who have benefitted from Liz and her crash pad.

Liz also likes to cook for the soup kitchen at her church, and has coordinated and served thousands of meals over the years. Her favorite meal is of course, Thanksgiving. She loves to exhaust herself cooking and serving turkey and all the love that goes into a great Thanksgiving meal for several hundred people.

When we were neighbors again for awhile, I liked to go help sometimes on her Wednesday morning warehouse shopping trips for her weekly soup kitchen meal. She had all these formulas for calculating how many pounds of meat, how many cases of vegetables, how many gallons of tea, how many dozens of dinner rolls would feed the crowd she and her team were expecting that night for dinner. Liz understands street level hospitality.  With Liz you get more than a hot meal, you also get a warm smile and some dignity.

I’m thankful to have Liz in my life for many reasons. Liz is very kind. Her home is cozy and filled with laughter. She’s a woman in constant motion, organized, practical, and has just the right Midwestern sensibilities to give excellent advice. She loves kids, she loves a good party, and she loves to help other people.

I’m just so thankful to have known Liz all my life and spend time with her when I can. I like to cook in her kitchen with her, tag along to visit her goldfish in the koi pond, and talk over coffee. Her gift for genuine hospitality amazes me and I’m blessed that she has a tenderness for strays like me and many others.

Musical pairing: “Ordinary Miracles,” Barbra Streisand, 1994.