Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Mom's Tribute

When I spoke about my dad nearly 15 years ago, I was struck by how impossible it was to distill a person’s life into a few bullet points because we are all so much more than the sum of our parts. My mother was more than a Shakerite, a Delta Gamma, an Ohio Wesleyan graduate, a nursery school teacher, a Brownie troop leader, a garden club MVP or a past president of the South Euclid Women’s club.

She was more than a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, an in-law, a mother or a friend. She was a woman who radiated warmth. Literally and figuratively. Girlie was always hot-if you came to our house; you brought a sweater 12 months out of the year. She had many sides and one of her most sparkling facets was the abundance of her generous spirit. She was generous with praise, gifts, encouragement, and support.  And she could lavish you with love.

For me, this took many forms. From her tenderness in caring for me even before I was born-she’d sit on the steps leading to the second floor of our Dorshwood house during storms so she wouldn’t see the lightning that so frightened her because she didn’t want to frighten me. It worked. I’ve always loved storms. JRocking me to sleep and singing songs she wrote about me and our collie Mac. All the festive birthday parties, Easter egg coloring, cookie baking and listening with genuine attentiveness to every last detail of my little girl life. 

Her words continued to encourage me. From notes in my lunch bags during Junior High to letters received at college filled with praise for good grades (sometimes) and reminders to take my vitamins. She told me to remember that “this too shall pass” and when I felt intimidated or unsure to “act as if.” She heartily encouraged me to move to Chicago and the day before we left, told me to “ Let it happen and don’t hold back.”

But we know there’s much more to Mom that this, so let’s get serious for a moment. ...she insisted on ordering the patty melt at Mavis Winkle’s, delighted in drinking Perrier on ice in a crystal goblet, devoured my pumpkin bread and… who could forget her torrid love affair with chocolate?

She blossomed by the water whether in St. Michaels’ MD, Chautauqua Lake in NY or more recently as an enthusiastic crew member on board our sailboat. We were heeling (safely) in some pretty juicy winds and she looked over at me and exclaimed, “I really like it when we tip!” Her rather extensive lighthouse collection spoke to this passion.

But boy oh boy did my mother love sports. Baseball, golf, you name it, with the crown jewel being, of course, football. Not to be sexist, but Mom knew more about that game than any dude I’ve ever met. You may think of Jane as “sweet”, a term used to describe her that she thoroughly disliked, but if you ever watched a football game with her, I can guarantee sweet would not come to mind. Girlie let fly with some seriously salty language. 

But you could forgive her that, I’m sure. My beautiful mama made us all feel so good, didn’t she? She was the BEST listener and made us feel accepted for all of our humanness, flaws and all. 

She was and is, the essence of grace.

I will never find the words to adequately express what she means to me. She and I have a powerful connection and though I am grieving her fiercely, I know that she is still looking out for me, guiding me and loving me right back, heart to heart, as always. It continues to be an honor and a privilege to be her daughter. 

I’ll end my remarks with a quote from one of our favorite storybook characters, Winnie the Pooh.

“If ever there is tomorrow when we are not together, there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you.”

Roots to Reality

The rumbling groan of the ferry horn seemed to push the old girl out of her slip. Chugging out of the cloud dusted Oban harbor, she headed northwest towards her next port, bringing me closer to the roots and the re-routing of my family tree. My husband, David, and I were traveling to Skye, a craggy island in northern Scotland, for my mother’s wedding. But first, we were heading to the windswept Isle of Mull, a place that I’d heard about since childhood. My mother planted the seeds of ancestral pride long ago, the reedy melodies and mournful wails of the bagpipe underscoring stories of our ancestors, the resilient MacLean clan. Dad and I would listen as I’d stroke her silver broach, fingering the coat of arms engraved with the motto, Virtue Mine Honor. I loved sharing this bold, colorful heritage with her and told myself that someday I’d get to see those ancient castles and hear the rich brogue of their people. I never the dreamed the journey would be so bittersweet.
Lulled by the massive boat’s gentle rocking, I leaned back on the faded vinyl seat and closed my eyes. Thoughts of my father flooded my mind. Less than seven months had passed since his death and grief still packed a mean sucker punch.
When my father died the building blocks of our family shifted precariously. Mom and I took solace in our shared memories, but she was alone for the first time in 45 years and was terrified of never regaining her balance. Her future husband, a former high school boyfriend, phoned her the day after we buried my dad. A recent widower, Scott was impatient to marry again. He knew she was losing her footing and offered to steady her with the promise of security, but there was a big catch. A quick wedding or nothing at all. Mom, heartsick and lonely, consented. She painfully packed away my father’s belongings, trying in vain to bury her grief along with them. 
A resounding horn brought me back to the present and my gaze settled on a simple stone castle rising proudly from the top of a bluff. “Look! David…it’s Duart castle!” From that distance, it was hard to be certain, but I had a feeling we were passing the ancestral and current home of the MacLean clan. 
Bumping along a scrawny unpaved road a scant hour later, we got our first taste of country driving. One lane (for two directions) on a twisty muddy road is challenging enough. It gets hairier when you’re unaccustomed to driving on the left side and you encounter the meanderings of sweet, but slow, black faced sheep. It reaches white-knuckle time when your husband is stingy with the window wipers. 
David nudged me with his left elbow. “Hey, honey, I wonder if there are any MacLeans buried up there.” He pointed to a tiny cemetery perched atop a bluff overlooking the Sound of Mull. He pulled off to the side of the road and we climbed the slippery hill. The rusty latch on the iron gate stuck for a moment before it clinked open. Fringed with tall weedy grass, the slender stones leaned wearily, their inscriptions softened by time. Wind rushed down the narrow aisles, bending shoots of Queen Ann’s lace in its race to the top of the peak. Shivering, I leaned over the first stone I came to, and read the name Margaret MacLean. She died a century before my great-grandmother, also a Margaret, was born. Dozens of MacLeans from ages past were resting in the tiny graveyard, their tombstones bathed by the tender rain, while I wandered quietly from one distant ancestor to the next, wondering who they were, what kinds of lives they led. Growing up an only child, I wasn’t used to feeling part of a big family. That had never mattered before. But with my father gone and my mother moving on, I was grasping for familial connection. It didn’t matter if I had to look to the past to find it.
Our first and last morning on Mull greeted us with a cheerful dose of sunshine, a welcome accompaniment to the start of a hectic day. By nightfall we would be up north in the highlands reminiscing with Mom. But I wasn’t ready yet. I needed to spend some time in the heart of the family archives.
Duart castle embodied the rich history of the Macleans, standing resolute as the clan stronghold since the 14thcentury. “Good morning, folks. Welcome!” A broad faced woman with ruddy cheeks extended her hand. She was dressed in the vibrant red and green  MacLean of Duarttartan, the same pattern I would wear the next day in a floor length kilt.  David told the woman I was of MacLean descent. “Oh, well you must sign the clan guest book then, dear!” She pulled out a leather book and placed it in front of me, smoothing down the pages.  At her suggestion, David snapped my picture as I added my name to the list of other distant family members. 
The first drafty room we entered featured a long, lustrous rectangular table, set with ornate silver candelabras and gleaming sterling tea sets. Ancient battered swords hung behind protective glass, displayed next to scarred bagpipes. One room was dedicated to displaying grand portraits of the chiefs. I was immediately drawn to the image of a rakish 21 year old who looked like he had just gotten away with something. Lachlan MacLean, the current chief as a younger man, smiled down at me. We wound our way up the cramped stone steps, occasionally passing family group portraits. I paused to look for Lachlan each time. 
When we reached the top, even my persistent fear of heights couldn’t keep me from taking in the panoramic view from the battlements. The now foggy sky muted the shadows on the clear, cold water of the Sound and cast a soft focus on the soaring mountains to the north. Did generations of powerful chiefs pace this walkway, appraising the shipping lanes they controlled? I wanted to spend more time there, but we were on a tight schedule. 
As we were winding our way down the drive, we passed a disheveled man, mid 50s, who was tending to the roadside shrubs. 
“David, stop! We have to turn around. That’s Lachlan!”
“What? That’s a gardener. The chief wouldn’t be out here working in the field.”
“Why not? He might enjoy it. Besides, I recognize him. Come on, turn around.” So David made a hasty U turn, the tires sinking into the muddy road. I leapt out of the car.
“Excuse me, Sir,” I asked tentatively, “Are you the chief?”
Smiling, he wiped his hands on his dirty slacks and asked, “Are you a MacLean?”
I wavered. “My grandmother was.”
“Then, yes, I’m Lachlan. Welcome home.” He extended his hand. “I’m surprised you recognized me. Folks expect me to be up at the castle in a kilt, sipping whiskey,” he laughed. After inviting us to visit again, he returned to the relative anonymity of his gardening and I reluctantly pulled myself out of the refuge of the past. 
Grief had yanked me off balance, but this tiny island, so rich with family, had begun to steady me with its deep roots. The next section of my family’s history had yet to be written and although the uncertainty of the blank page was unsettling, I knew Mom and I would always remember how our chapter of the story started.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Her Dark Night

“Jane…Jane!” Her eyelids snap open. Sleep is never deep anymore, she kind of floats along erratically, just below the surface, in a state of semi-vigilance. Her heart pounding, she fumbles for the light, rolling on Libby who squeezes out an irritated yowl. The clock reads 4:28, A.M. “Jane!” Oh God. What’s wrong now?
           “Coming.” Her creaky voice barely carries across the guest room. She heaves the covers off and doesn’t stop to put on a robe. Her feet thud against the faded carpet as she hurries to the front of the house, mind racing to the latest weather report. Did they predict snow? Did it snow? She doesn’t stop to check, but plows forward, shivering, praying that it hasn’t because then the ambulance couldn’t reach them.
She rounds the corner into his bedroom, their bedroom before the arrival of the hospital bed. She tries to brace herself for what she might find. “I’m here, I’m here,” she pants, her eyes searching his face for signs of pain. But she sees none. His breathing isn’t even labored. He’s sitting up, clear eyed.
“I want some orange juice.” Her knees stop shaking, but her heart hasn’t caught on yet. “Are you okay? Is something wrong?”
“No! I’m tired of water and I want some orange juice. I wish you’d stop carrying on.” She looks at the clock, which is clearly visible from his bed.
Her anger has been building slowly over the years, in fits and starts, kind of like that construction project that never seems finished. First you notice a solid gray frame, wind ghosting through its beams, rising from that the perpetually barren lot that used to be dotted with errant pieces of trash and the occasional stray dog.  Then one day you’re stuck at the light and you see that the big red trucks with the giant tires are gone and a completed building stands, punctuated with manicured green shrubs and a well stocked parking lot.
Fatigue, laced with a creeping depression serves as her daily sedative, but it hasn’t kicked in yet. She’s confronted him before for such blatant acts of selfishness, but it never does any good. She turns quickly and hurries to the kitchen to get the juice. Orange pulp splashes the counter, but she ignores it. She nearly races back around the corner to hand him the glass. She can’t get out of there fast enough. He looks into her once lively brown eyes.
“Oh, God, what’s the matter now?”
She flees the room. Tears smack her cheeks rythmically like fat raindrops before a cloudburst. She crawls back into bed and hugs herself under her old quilt in the small room with the low ceiling. The sobs knot her chest and try to fight their way out, but there’s so much in the way. She can’t believe she’s going through this again. She squeezes her eyes shut in an effort to contain herself, but the image of Bob’s gaunt face and unseeing murky eyes swims before her. She battles to forget that last day. Why can’t she remember his twinkling eyes and easy smile? The sobs break free and she rocks gently in the little bed.
This doesn’t last long.
No, no, she won’t go there. She can’t give in to these memories. Not today. She can’t afford to be wiped out by them. She shakes her head vigorously, searching for distraction like a junkie needing a fix. She focuses on the present, and latches onto her current husband.
His refusal to hire a nurse has not only baffled his family and friends, who know he can well afford one, but it has rendered her physically depleted. She strains her back nearly every time she tries to lift him to clean his vomit or change his sheets. God, how this has aged her. She hears that a lot lately, and the evidence is clear in those new lines that have carved their way around her mouth.
Resentment floods her system, diluting her grief. Its familiarity settles her down. For now, this is a safer place to be.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

A bit about Dad

My father carried gratefulness around like a lucky coin. Maybe the seed was planted when he was adopted as a baby, but he was profoundly thankful for his family. He would have been lost without my mother and told her so in vibrant love letters that she continues to treasure. But he appreciated the smaller, sillier things, too, like peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches, having someone else (anyone else) mow his lawn, chocolate cake with caramel icing, and every episode of the Muppets.

He delighted in Judy Garland’s voice, a good vodka martini, heavy on the olives, The Far Side comics, and hurrying out with me to the open garage whenever a rollicking thunderstorm paraded down the block. (To this day I can still be found sky gazing at even a hint of a rumble.) I grew up watching my father flex his senses. As he soaked up everyday pleasures, they accumulated over the years, burnishing him with the warm patina of a contented man.

But although he may have been satisfied with his life in general, he was by no means apathetic when it came to those around him. Dad held opinions on everything from when I should be allowed to shave my legs (yup) to the state of world affairs. One of his favorite places to share these opinions was at the kitchen table, most notably at breakfast on the weekends. After finishing off a plate heaped with (never enough) scrambled eggs, he would lean his hefty, 6’4” frame back into the squeaking roller chair, take a deep breath, prop his fingers into a pyramid, look out the window and say “Well, girls. ” This was our cue that a history lesson, current events summation, or just plain advice was coming.

Occasionally, Dad would pull the morning’s topic from one of the books he was reading. We’d hear about the wisdom of Churchill or the foresight of Lincoln. Civil War history was his literary passion, though, so you can imagine his delight when I came home in fifth grade and announced that I had to give a speech about the War Between the States. Thrilled, he outfitted me with an authentic Union cap, a real Confederate canteen, a tape of period songs, and an abundance of facts. I was not quite as thrilled.

A WWII Veteran, Dad was a member of the 82nd Airborne. Although he rarely spoke of his own experience, I think he gained a sense of honor from being a soldier, along with pride. Unwaveringly thankful to be an American, he often reminded me how lucky we were to live in a country where freedom was our birthright.

Words got as much care and feeding in our house as our collie, Mac. Books climbed the walls in our family room, tumbled off nightstands, and stretched out on tables. I vividly remember him telling me that I could go anywhere in the world or embark on any adventure when I became absorbed in the pages of a book. But perhaps the most valuable lesson my dad taught me was that words can comfort and connect. That written down, they carry great significance, most importantly, to those you love.

Shortly after his death, I found this dog-eared note folded in half in the pocket of his daily planner. Apparently he tucked it into each fresh notebook.

“Dear Daddy,
Thank you for taking me out in the rain.
Yours truly,
Carol Ann”

Friday, October 07, 2016

A Quick Decision

“They’ve been feeding him intravenously for the past few days.”
My honeymoon glow turned to ice. “Where is he?”
Our cat, Hobbes, had spent the last several days at the vet, brought there by my parents who were taking care of him while my new husband and I unwound on the beaches of Saint Maarten. Two weeks before our wedding, our other cat, Tigger, had to be put to sleep to spare him from the pain of an incurable bladder disease. As wretched as that experience was, we were not the only ones who mourned him. 
Tigger had been Hobbes’ littermate, buddy and partner-in-crime. Adopted together as kittens, Hobbes had never known life without him. Without another kindred soul. You can imagine how lonely he was. So lonely, in fact, that he stopped eating a few days after we left on our trip. My parents, who checked on him daily, did their best to keep him company, but he grew weak and listless. My father implored the vet, “These kids can’t lose another cat. Do whatever you can.” The doctor administered medication with an eyedropper and fed and watered him through tubes. He kept him going. By the time we got home a few days later, Hobbes had grown jaundiced and had lost nearly half his body weight.
We waited in the sterile examining room with the pea green walls and goofy dog calendar, the same room we were in when we said to goodbye to Tigger before we were ushered back to the front desk, tears still streaming, to sign gruesome paperwork. The knot grew tighter in my stomach. We didn’t wait long. The door opened and in walked the vet, empty-handed.
 “Your cat is dying of loneliness,” he stated matter-of-factly. I fumbled in my purse for a Kleenex. “There is no physical cause for his condition. You’d better find a friend for him right away.
Later that morning David and I squinted as we walked resolutely into the fluorescent bathed, antiseptic room where the local animal shelter kept their cats. We had told the volunteer that we were looking for a female, though I can’t remember why. We knew for sure we wanted a tabby though, like Hobbes. She directed us to one of the dull metal cages stacked on the left side of the narrow room. Inside three tiny kittens awaited homes. As we came closer, one kitten thrust his head between the bars and yowled an energetic greeting. 
“Oh, that’s the male. Don’t mind him. Here, hold one of the females.” She handed me a wiggling bundle of fur with sleepy gray eyes. As I began to pet her, the male piped up again, continuing to communicate with us. Preening and chirping, he bounced around the little cage, his tail curled into a question mark. Pleading to be picked up, he stretched tall on his scrawny legs. Sometimes, I guess, they just pick you.
Charlie chattered all the way home and ran straight to Hobbes the moment I opened the carrier door. Hobbes, yellow eyed and weary could barely muster a sniff. Our six- week old kitten still longed to nurse, though, so burrowed his way under Hobbes’ thick fur and suckled him. Whether he was too weak to protest or he welcomed the attention, we’ll never know, but as the afternoon wore on, Hobbes began to shuffle along after Charlie to see what he was getting into, and by nightfall he was eating. 
The boys were together for 14 years.