Category Archives: Family

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.

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.

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.


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.


Bucket Lists and Touchpoints

I felt my own mortality a few days ago, and it’s unsettling. A good friend and neighbor of mine is dead. I had seen him the day before when he dropped off camping equipment he had borrowed to take our school’s Cub Scouts and their dads on a camping trip. We hauled the equipment into my basement, then stood in the driveway talking about the kids and the next camping trip. He said, ‘bye’ and I said, ‘see you later.’ The next day I got the phone call.

With heavy hearts, our community is absorbing the loss and drawing arms around his wife and 3 young sons. There’s that. And it won’t be over anytime soon.

There’s also the tough conversations with our own children, about how to behave at a wake, how to be a good friend to someone who is very sad, and focusing on good memories. The questions are hard to answer.

Looking around, I’m seeing something I’ve rarely seen before in the eyes of people my age, but will become more common. A questioning, a shock that this shouldn’t happen to someone our age, and could my spouse or I be next? A realization that we, the tribe of GenX, won’t all make it past middle age. The fact is, we’ll be grieving together from time to time, right now won’t be the only time. So here we are, standing around in black, holding cups of coffee, reaching out for hugs of comfort, searching for words to say to cover what we are thinking, sharing the silence.

I hope we’ll do a good job at this grief thing. That we’ll act in kindness, that we’ll support each other to fill in the missing spaces of practical helping hands. Not just now, but next Father’s Day, in a few years for the graduations, in all the ways this stone will roll into the future. Until it’s our turn.

Two things are rattling around in my mind about this, in trying to puzzle piece together what I feel. One is our bucket lists. My friend’s bucket list is complete. I know for certain there are specific items on his list that he didn’t get to cross off, I suppose there should always be something on the list to look forward to. But I think there’s a lesson from my friend here that time is not on our side to accomplish the list. Maybe we need to search our lists and reconsider making a few things happen sooner rather than the later that we might not be blessed with.

The other is taking more care with the everyday touchpoints. Not the business touchpoints, the interpersonal touchpoints. I’ve been thinking a lot about the last moments my friend and I spoke. I didn’t know it would be the last. Usually we don’t know. So did I take the time and emotional effort to look him in the eye? Did I speak a genuine thank you for his help with the camping gear? Did I smile and not rush? Did I take the time to communicate somehow that I was glad to see him? Of all the things I did that day, it turned out to be an important 15 minutes. Did I spend it well? I feel like the answers are yes. I don’t know, maybe I could have done better.

I want to live my life aware, and perhaps a little more slowly so I don’t miss anything, and find ways to connect in the touchpoints with people I share my day with. I can’t change mortality. But I can embrace the grace of the everyday moments and keep my bucket list in my pocket.

Musical pairing: “Don’t You Forget About Me,” by Simple Minds, 1985 and “Say,” by John Mayer, 2007.

Best Baby Whisperer Ever

Milk Break Time

Her home was a soothing nest for the daily routine of babies and toddlers. Of milk breaks and naps, blocks and baby dolls. I’d like to thank the first care giver of our first-born son, Mrs. Locke. As first time parents, we were nervous and excited. This was back in the days before the family medical leave act, so I was expected to return to work in about 6 weeks. Finding the right care giver was our largest concern.

We interviewed several recommended in-home care givers and day care centers, and fell in love with Mrs. Locke. She was a sweet natured older African American woman who had cared for babies and toddlers in her home for decades. We were lucky an opening would be available about the time our baby was due.

Over the next two years I grew to appreciate just how lucky we were. I was anxious going back to work, and while I wanted and needed to return to work, at 6 weeks, I wasn’t healed up and our little angel wasn’t in a routine yet. The way corporate America and insurance companies treat new mothers is crazy, don’t get me started. But Mrs. Locke was my saving grace. She understood. She obviously loved little ones. You could tell by the way she cuddled them, talked to them and herded her little lambs with watchful efficiency.

Returning to work, still trying to nurse, still on the mend, I was a mess. By day two Mrs. Locke gently suggested that I should come back to her house on my lunch hours. She let me nurse the baby in her private guest room during lunchtime. She patted my arm and told me the baby was fine and I was doing a wonderful job and everything would work out, not to worry. She answered all my new parent questions, and carefully taught me the ‘right way’ to bundle the baby in blankets, how to dress him in layers, and how to stop the hiccups. She supervised transitioning to food, crawling exercises, celebrated new words, let me know when it was time for ‘proper walking shoes because he’s ready to go’ and knew how to make my little guy laugh.

Mrs. Locke was our partner in raising a happy, healthy little boy, and our teacher in becoming the good parents we wanted to be. Sadly, my husband’s job transferred us to another city when our little boy was two. I never had a caregiver again that equalled her.  And bless her heart, Mrs. Locke had one fault, she allowed herself to fall in love with the children. She cried and was heartbroken he was leaving. I knew she cried even when the older ones headed off to kindergarten and away from her care. Mrs. Locke had a big heart and a gift for nurturing little ones. She was wise, experienced and I trusted her. And I will always be grateful for her role in helping our new little family flourish.

Musical pairing: “I Want To Linger,” a traditional Alpha Chi Omega song, repeated often in rocking chairs as a lullaby. Date/author unknown.

Bahama Time

Catamaran Trip to Snorkel Site

Our family visited Atlantis, in the Bahamas in March 2011. The water and the weather were indeed paradise. For those of you who are interested in the travel review, keep reading, and for those who want to skip to the funny story at the end, fine by me.

Atlantis is a sprawling, fancy resort that occupies a large strip of beachfront on Paradise Island near Nassau. Our sons loved the resort. The waterpark is extensive and well-known for its water slides and sculptured pools and has the best lazy river I’ver ever been on. The aquarium is fantastic and features open air feeding areas for sea turtles, sting rays and the enormous manta rays. The beach, sand and ocean are pretty, it’s the Caribbean, but personally I think Mexico’s Yucatan has better Caribbean beach. The beaches at Atlantis are speckled with what they call ‘sea glass,‘ which is actually pieces of rum and beer bottles from the old Bacardi and Heinekin factories that used to manufacture there. The glass has been tumbled by the sea and is smooth and harmless, but still, to me it destroys the character of the beach.

My husband and I don’t think we’d go back without the kids. The main draws of Atlantis are it’s waterpark and casino and we’re not casino people. Plus, the dining is expensive. Great food, but expensive, so I was glad we had a kitchen in our villa. Our happy food discovery was conch. We’d never eaten conch before and it’s fabulous as a cold chopped salad and as fried fitters. I do also have a complaint about the cruise ships. We were there a week and you could tell the 3 days that the Disney cruise ships were docked because all of a sudden the lines were annoyingly long to the water slides, outdoor restaurants, etc. Those cruise ships dock and give thousands of people a day pass to the water park and casino. I figured this out and scheduled a snorkeling trip for the next docking day to avoid Atlantis all together.

Turns out the snorkeling trip was my husband and I’s favorite day. We went out on a catamaran, had beautiful views of the island, and the snorkeling was fantastic. Clear water, a variety of tropical fish, and fun, experienced guides. Snorkeling in the Bahamas is head-over-heels better than snorkeling in Miami.

Now for the funny story. The day we arrived, we still had lots of daylight left so we threw on our swimsuits and headed for the waterpark. After we figured out what slides we’d let the kids go down and what pool we would hang out at, we set the kids loose to have fun, and headed over to the nearest outdoor bar to see if we could catch the March Madness scores. (My Kansas Jayhawks were in the tournament.) Sitting in a row along the bar were 4 or 5 middle-aged white guys with tans enjoying their drinks and watching basketball. The TVs were turned down and popular music was playing on the sound system for the pool crowd. Rihanna’s “Every Girl in the World” came on the speaker. When the chorus started, people in the bar joined in to sing the song. We turned toward the voices, and yes, it was those guys, heads bobbing, singing Rhianna in their New York accents. Yah mon, the islands had them relaxed apparently, and they were the only girls in the world. It’s good to be on island time!

Musical pairing: “Only Girl in the World,” 2010, Rihanna