Charm School: The Art of Favorable Impressions . . . by Seth Langson

When I lived in Gastonia, my social life was Charlotte based. It consisted of recreational league co-ed volleyball, duplicate bridge club, festivals, establishments that served alcohol, midnight bike rides, and even the occasional blind date.

After every game, we’d gather at a local dive bar and commiserate over that night’s loss.  When our losing streak reached three games, I decided that the team’s morale needed a boost and invited all ten members of our co-ed volleyball team to cross the Catawba River and come to my house for a cookout on Sunday.

Bridgett immediately accepted the offer, showing that her social life was as dormant as mine. The rest of the team controlled their enthusiasm and told me they’d let me know.  Calls from the other team members straggled in over the next few days. Everyone had some excuse for not being able to attend the bash. Was our Esprit De Corps that bad?  Perhaps I should have given more than three days-notice.

This party was going to be so much smaller than I’d intended with only one guest. I called Bridgett to tell her the bad news.

“Hey, Bridgett. No one else is able to make it on Sunday.”

“Oh, I don’t care. I’ll be there at two unless you don’t want me to come anymore.”

I paused and considered truthfulness before I responded. “Umm, no it’s alright if you really want to travel all the way to Gastonia in this heat.”

“Great, I’ll see you Sunday. Do you want me to bring a salad or anything else? I make really good deviled eggs.”

“Just bring a tennis racket. There’s a court next door. I’ve already done the shopping and have all the food covered.”

What I really meant was that I’d already bought a four-pound steak in anticipation of the volleyball soiree. Hell, budget be damned, I’d also splurged and bought a case of three-dollars-a-bottle Romanian wine. This had been my liquid sustenance in law school even though all of the law students who wanted to work in big law firms drank Scotch. I drank the Eastern European version of Two-Buck Chuck wine, which pretty much said it all.

On Sunday, Bridgett arrived five minutes early wearing green shorts and a red and yellow checkered shirt. I didn’t know if she was color blind or just trying to dress like a traffic light. In any event, she gave new meaning to the phrase “dressed to kill.” Jenny, my 12-year- old Irish Setter, scrambled off the porch to greet her and immediately shed some of her orange red hair on Bridgett’s conversation-ending shorts. I thought that her luminescent attire looked better with Jenny’s red hair blotches, although Bridgett hid her appreciation of her canine altered look.

Ten minutes later, when the small talk became silence, I suggested that we play tennis on the court that was on the adjoining church property. I hadn’t played in ten years but was so bad that I never had to worry about the loss of muscle memory. Anything over the net was considered a success and the chances of my hitting a shot that didn’t have the arc of a rainbow were as likely as finding four leaf clovers in the desert.

As soon as Bridgett swung, I knew we were well paired… for tennis. The altitude of our shots was conducive to three-shot rallies which lasted almost a minute, long enough to increase my appetite for both food and air-conditioning. After thirty minutes, I’d had enough.

When Bridgett came to the net to shake my hand after the match, I gave her the highest compliment that I could think of.  “You know, you have the potential to be an adequate tennis player.” 

Bridgett smiled at me as if she’d never gotten such praise. “I usually play to the level of my opponent.”

It only took me four years before I realized that she’d been speaking about life, not just tennis.

“Are you ready for me to start cooking?”

“Sure, what are you going to have?”

“I bought this huge steak and I’ll cook it on the hibachi that’s on the porch. I’ve also got potato chips and canned green beans. I figured that meat and two sides were the way to go.”

“I’d have been happy to bring a salad.”

“I knew that you would, but I wanted to make the whole dinner. I figured I should reward you for making the forty-five minute drive from Charlotte. After all, no one else came.”

“Thanks. You really didn’t have to go all out.”

Encouraged by her enthusiasm, I strode outside to light the hibachi. Since I’d been using this cooking method since law school, I knew to move the cooker away from the house before I doused the coals with lighter fluid. As soon as the flames subsided, I returned the grills to the hibachi, slung down the salted slab of meat and stood back to admire my work.

Bridgett immediately reminded me of why I was single. “Wow. You didn’t clean the grills. They are coated with dog hair. It looks like Jenny’s slept on them.” That was my first clue that Bridgett was going to be high maintenance. “Bridgett, I always cook this way. The dog hair will burn off in just a minute.” 

She gave me a look that I mistakenly took for ardor and went inside to pour herself another glass of wine. I did the same just to appear polite. After five minutes of prattle about when she lived in Gastonia, I remembered that I needed to prepare the rest of the feast.  Bridgett would have nothing of it.

“I’ll do this,” said Bridgett as she tore open the bag of chips and inserted the can opener into the container of green beans.

“I’m impressed. Where did you learn such culinary skills?”

“In first grade.”

I decided to change the topic.  

Since I was an early adopter of healthy eating, I flipped the meat numerous times in an effort to keep it from being charred, but the hour on the grill betrayed my best efforts.

“Bridgett, what do you think? Is it ready?”

“I don’t know about ready, but it certainly looks done. I don’t think I’ve ever seen meat so black”.

When the cooked chunk of protein proved impervious to a fork, I shoveled the meat onto a plate and brought it to the table to be sliced. I’ve always had unrealistic expectations. 

My cutlery collection consisted of butter knives, steak knives, and a large carving knife, which if had it been created in the South, would have been used on a fresh-killed wild boar.

After the first two steak knives broke, I suggested that we amplify our means of attack and use the carving knife. Bridgett had another idea.

“Let me try the Boy Scout knife in my purse. My dad gave it to me when I was thirteen. He was worried that I was going to be too much of a girly girl.”

While Bridgett, poked, prodded and pierced the steak into four pieces, I slid over to the garbage pail and fished out the meat wrapper.  I don’t know how I missed the words “chuck roast.”

_____

Seth is an attorney whose practice was devoted to representing victims of sex abuse. He’s been writing humorous pieces since college and has had the great fortune to be in writing classes with Linda, under the tutelage of Maureen Ryan Griffin. These stories are true . . . with some embellishments.
Read Karen McFarland’s story about her life partner — “Tripping With A Botanist.”

Tripping With A Botanist . . . by Karen J. McFarland

Too many fantastical notions make vacations – especially honeymoons – highly susceptible to gross disappointment. Yes, indeed, I freely admit it and am blowing the lid off the idea that honeymoons are all they’re cracked up to be. My first indication that this was not going to go as well as the romance magazines tout was when I suggested we go to the beach and he insisted on a trip to the mountains. I lost.  

Two trips come to mind as less than the perfect experiences of paradise I thought they might be. Both involve my beloved spouse of many years, even though these took place when we were young and foolish, and highlight our vastly different career interests, lifelong hobbies, and our favorite free time pursuits. He’s a forest ecologist, basically a sort of botanist, who are very careful people, plodding, and thorough. He looks for – and finds – minutiae.  Ironically, these same perfectionists are so focused on their discipline, they lose stuff, and forget stuff like car keys, wallets, and even small children, constantly. At a summer field station, students had T-shirts made up that said, “Vegetation sampling kills brain cells.” 

I’m a musician and theologian, a free spirit who loves to be spontaneous, creative, and sees the big picture. I’m impatient with the slow, precise, and perfectionist styles. I live like I type – fast and with a lot of mistakes.

The first of these trips was my honeymoon. You see, I had grown up in the rolling hills and mountains of West Virginia and their charms had worn off. But, I had never been to the beach. The Ohio River I lived on doesn’t have any beaches. At least, not that I’m aware of.

We drove to the Shenandoah Mountains and followed Skyline Drive onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and on southward into the Great Smokies. Although we did indeed stop at every point of interest – falls, rustic cabins, old grist mills, interpretive displays of all the possible various types of old wooden fences, mostly we spent hours and hours on trails and at waysides looking at trees, shrubs, and various ground plants and wildflowers, from skunk cabbage to fiddle head ferns. I stood around a lot, pretending an interest I didn’t feel for this level of detail. A green leaf may have many jagged edges, but I don’t have any desire to count them!

My next clue that I was destined to be second class on this trip should have been that my brand new, ecologist hubby packed a plant press in the trunk of the car! Believe me, there was no music instrument case or book of esoteric philosophy tucked somewhere in there. The only photos of me in our honeymoon pictures is my palm holding a beaked hazelnut or some such other “unique” species. (Unique to him. They were all unique – and Greek – to me!)

Occasionally I was thrown a sop with a dinner at a fine national park lodge, or a chance to quickly browse the sights and shops in touristy places like Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And yes, in two weeks, I was once in my bathing suit sliding down a rock formation in a popular spot on a creek in North Carolina. But that was a long way from my dreams of lazy days sunbathing on the beaches of Hilton Head just outside our imagined luxury hotel or exploring the Outer Banks of North Carolina that I pined for.

My second-worst vacation was the one I took from my school teaching job to join my husband on his annual summer research trip through the mountains all along the eastern spine of the country, from the Appalachians in North Carolina almost to their beginning up in New England. The summer before I had spent June through August alone and forlorn in our tiny university married housing apartment in Ann Arbor. I didn’t intend to be left behind again.

All I want to say about that part of the trip is that I endured tiny isolated cabins in the woods lacking electricity or running water, long days alone while he was out researching and collecting plant samples in the woods, and opportunities to meet bizarre people a la Deliverance. Bearded men in flannel shirts popped up in the window of the cabin as I was dressing, with a brazen “Howdy, ma’am!” or suddenly appeared on a quiet trail springing from the woody underbrush in front of me with a suddenness akin to a jack-in-the-box, loaded gun slung over their shoulders, a couple of dead, bloody rabbits or squirrels dangling from their belts. The list continues with weary nights of my notating and pressing leaves while he slept, food either burned or undercooked over charcoal in the waning sunset light, with the occasional outing to a local greasy spoon diner.  

My husband whizzed us quickly by any possibly fascinating scenic or historical landmarks of great interest.

“Oh, did you want to stop there?” he’d innocently ask with raised brows after we were already several miles down the road.

“Guess not,” was my glum response.

The “vacation” nightmare ended for me in Burlington, Vermont, where a planned overnight with friends, in comfortable beds, with hot and cold running water, went bust.  I had planned to soak for hours in a generous tub.  

Our hosts, we learned, had been called out of town suddenly for a family emergency. A pleasant visit with hot, savory, home cooked meals and scintillating conversation turned into a solo tenting experience on Lake Champlain. These so-called friends left no key to their door, but had thoughtfully stacked a tent, with no assembly instructions, and two sleeping bags, on their front porch for us. It doesn’t sound too bad until you know that it rained relentlessly for the three days we were there, and the humidity inside the tent must have been over 80 per cent. Oh, and did I mention the mosquitoes?

Until the end of his career, he continued this kind of field research, many times outstripping his graduate students. Needless to say, I never went on a research expedition with my husband again, but we are still amazingly and happily married to this day, fifty plus years later.

To paraphrase the New York humorist Fran Lebowitz, “When other people say, ‘Back to nature,’ I say, ‘Back to the hotel!’”

_____

After growing up and going to the in-state West Virginia University, Karen has enjoyed two “careers:” the first as a free-lance violist/violinist mostly in southwest Virginia, a little in Boston, MA and Berkeley, CA, with a couple of isolated appearances in surrounding states.  She also taught lots of students both traditional methods and using Suzuki techniques.  After that, Karen became a Unitarian Universalist minister from Utah to MI and Ill before retiring in 2012.  Now she sings, writes, reads, plays with grandkids, performs wedding, memorial, and child dedication services (again as a free lance) and copes with maintaining a regular exercise program and a retiring spouse.  Occasionally she cleans the refrigerator while staring out the window at another snowy day in Michigan, while longing for a trip to Malta.

_____

Read Seth Lanson’s story about his life partner — “Charm School.”

My Dream of Mom . . . by Pam Pellegrino

My Dream of Mom; Joan Boyd Boyd

Joan Boyd Boyd

You are an angel, ascending to heaven, dressed in flowing white. You are blowing kisses down to earth. Streams of tiny gold fairy dust hearts flutter off your fingers. Together they form a kite-like string as they gently cascade down, all sparkly and soft, to tenderly touch my face. I will never forget this dream image of you I hold in my heart: young, beautiful, and healthy again.

I think back to when I was your child. We watched Mary Martin as Peter Pan every year. You were my Wendy: youth and wonder, motherhood and love, concern and sacrifice. I wanted to be her, because she was like you. Once I was on a kid’s show in the early years of television, and a man with a microphone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A mommy,” I replied without the least hesitation or imagination. You must have sighed at that.

On the surface, your life as my mom was conventional, but your inner life and life experiences, of which I know so little, were much more complex than that. This great insight of mine would likely have received a sarcastic but gentle response from you, such as “Most lives are, dear.”  Did you have secrets you wanted to tell, glimpses of your past before I was part of it?  Did I even think to myself I would ask you later, as if we had all the time in the world?  

I have a picture of you at eight, in your pale blue dotted Swiss dress with the large laced collar. Your mouth is lovely and full. Your eyes look sad and tired. I think by this time you had endured the horrible mastoid operations which almost took your life. You were allergic to penicillin. With no other known antibiotics to fight the infections that hurt so much, you had to be put in a strait jacket to keep you from going wild. Did your ears define your childhood, like my crossed eye did mine?

There is a picture of you at age 12, in pigtails, a spitting image of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. You are Wendy and Dorothy. Your face is so hopeful and open—you seem well and happy, grounded in the love of your family, open and excited about the adventures to come. You showed me with your love that there’s no place like home.

You read everything you could, and made a reader out of me. You loved Alice in Wonderland, the Little House books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and the poetry of A.A.Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson. You could hardly wait for me to be old enough to read them myself. You and I both identified with Anne especially.  You might easily have been the Anne who lamented “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes,” but you also would have loved Anne’s thought that “Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.”  My favorite line from Anne is “Red hair is my life-long sorrow.” Add kinky, uncontrollable, and the nickname favored by Dad, “Big Red,” to that, and you understood my plight. That’s why, when I was thirteen, you bought a product called ‘Straightaway’, heavily marketed to African-American women, to help me “get straight,” so that Paul McCartney would love me instead of Jane Asher.  

By your teen years you were devouring Vanity Fair, Gone With the Wind, all of Jane Austin, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina.  You wanted me to love reading that was challenging and thought-provoking. When I finished Gone With the Wind, you asked me who I liked the most, Scarlett or Melanie. My reply of “Melanie” was a bit of a disappointment to you. “Hmm,” you replied with a furrowed brow and slight frown. You left it to me to figure out why. Had you a Civil War and a plantation, rather than the life expected of a ‘50s housewife and mother of four, I think you very well might have been Scarlett.

Your mom wanted you to be ladylike, provide her with grandchildren and become a good housewife like she was. You excelled in needlepoint, piano, watercolors, and all the liberal arts. Your penmanship was impeccable, which pleased her. You could recite from Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” and I am sure her feminist manifesto pleased you. Perhaps you had fun imagining a little revenge after being raised by a father who merely wanted you to look pretty playing the piano, and two brothers who never acknowledged your opinions as the least bit interesting.

It was at Bethany College in West Virginia where you memorized parts of Chaucer, and where you met the handsome airman who became my dad. Robert Boyd sat next to Joan Boyd in religion class after the war, and marriage soon followed. (You loved your name: Joan Boyd Boyd!)  Robin arrived eleven months later; you “dropped me like an egg” seventeen months after that, and then Ann came along within the next two years. Three girls, still best friends, grew up together.  Seven years after that you had Steve (the only one planned, you told your daughters when we were adults). 

As a married woman with children, I’m certain you read Dr. Spock. I think of other books of that time, the 1950s and ‘60s, and remember seeing titles of works by Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, James Michener, Leon Uris, and James Baldwin on your bedside table, along with The Group and The Feminine Mystique. When I became a married woman in the ‘70s, we exchanged books we loved:  those by Gail Godwin, Lee Smith, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates.  

Dad travelled often, but you held down the fort, wisely and firmly. To me you were Marmie from Little Women. We felt safe and loved. Oh Mom, how I miss you, how I wish I had had more time with you!  We never quarreled or had issues like so many moms and daughters. I think the harshest thing you ever said to me was “Don’t be flip” if I was a little bit sassy. We still have that powerful, unbreakable bond, as I carry on with my daily chores, doing things just the way you taught me.

I haven’t dreamed about you in years. Something was resolved for me in that dream of 22 years ago, those kisses you blew for me, letting me know you loved me always, assuring me you are whole again, wherever your soul may be. 

I look up and see you, my loving, lovely mother, and know I am safe.

_____

When Pam’s husband Jimmy passed away six years ago, she found comfort in writing about her grief. She took classes in memoir writing, found her voice, and writes memoir and poetry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She is also a Spiritual Director, trained through The Haden Institute in Hendersonville, NC. 

 

For other loving tributes to mothers, read Kate Green’s Little deaths along the way teach us and Maureen Ryan Griffin’s Save Everything.

Why We Tell Our Stories

Why We Tell Our Stories; Colour me yellow

In an interview in the Sunday Times (May 28, 2018), Thuli Nhlapo, author of the memoir, Colour me yellow: Searching for my family truth (shortlisted for the 2018 Alan Paton Award) says: “. . . by telling our stories, we can go back to our roots and the tales told by our grannies and aunties as a way of imparting knowledge and assisting us to cope with life.”

Read the full interview here.

Read more about telling our ancestral stories on this page describing a segment from an On Being with Krista Tippett show — “A 200-year Present.”

Honoring My Father’s Service in World War II . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Honoring My Father's Service; Don & Judy Whitesitt

Judith Elaine Whitesitt and Donald Lee Whitesitt

I don’t have anything close to a full story about my father’s service in World War II, at least not yet. But from the few pieces of memorabilia he saved, I know this — 

  • Donald Lee Whitesitt enlisted on July 25, 1942.
  • His photo appears in the Class of 43-6F (Arizona Gliding Academy, Wickenburg, AZ) with a nickname “Professor.”
  • Private First Class Whitesitt is pictured in the 25th Training Group (Jefferson Barracks, MO, April 6, 1944).
  • His military “occupation speciality” was “Administrative & Tech Clerk 405”;
  • He received the American Theater Ribbon, The Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon, a Good Conduct Medal, and the Victory Medal World War II.
  • He was a sergeant in the India-China Division, Air Transport Command in Calcutta (Kolkata) serving the China, Burma and India Theater.
  • His honorable discharge lists his “date of separation” as February 11, 1946.

Although I know next to nothing about what my dad actually did during the war, I can see something of what he saw during his time in the Air Transport Command by the photographs he took — pictures of Calcutta streets filled with people (he’s labeled one “humanity”); ships and troop transports at Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka); water buffalo; the hanging gardens in Bombay (Mumbai); the harbor in Singapore. And I know what was important to him when I look at a picture of a cross in the U.S. Military Cemetery in Calcutta with the name of one of his fallen comrades written in the margins and a photo of him hiding behind a newspaper with the very large headlines “Peace Official.”  

I can learn something about his service in the “Forgotten Theater of World War II” by rooting around the Internet and reading the stories of the men and women who served in the India-China Division, but it’s not enough. I wish I could talk sit across from him at our old dining room table and ask him how he started in a gliding academy and ended up serving as a clerk in India, how his war experiences changed his life, what he learned about himself during his years in the army, how he coped with being away from my mom whom he had married just a year before enlisting. 

In his obituary, one that Daddy wrote himself because he wanted to make sure that we got it “right,” he described his degrees and his work for the Social Security Administration (he helped to set up the Medicare program), the places he and mother lived after they retired, and his volunteer work. He saved his army service for last, almost as a footnote. As I begin my work on a history of my father’s life, I think I’m going to put it first.

Honoring My Father's Service; Donald Whitesitt

Donald Whitesitt reading about the end of World War II

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Linda is our story gatherer.

Read other memories about fathers herehere and here.

The Night That Changed My Life . . . by Sandy Hill

The Night that Changed My Life; Sandy Hill and Rev. Sabin

(left to right: Gordon Critchlow, Ethel Critchlow, Sandy Hill, the Rev. Edgar Sabin)

 

The year was 1956. An honors student, I was ready to graduate from high school, but college was only a dream.

With five brothers and sisters, a sick mother and a dad who drove a taxi, we were desperately poor. Poor as in put cardboard in the soles of your shoes to keep the rain out, poor as in stand in line at the Salvation Army for your classmates’ discarded clothes, poor as in government surplus milk and cheese.

I’d cleaned houses, waited tables, babysat, but the amount I’d saved wouldn’t pay tuition at any college.

Enter three people who changed my life: the Rev. Edgar Sabin, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Towanda, Pa., and Gordon and Ethel Critchlow, an elderly, childless couple with big hearts.

One night, three months before high school graduation, I led a program at the church youth group. The Rev. Sabin was there, and apparently he saw something in me that I perhaps wasn’t quite aware of myself.

He moved quickly to find Pfeiffer College in North Carolina, where I could work 40 hours a week and go to college free except for books and incidentals.

Mrs. Critchlow rallied the women of her Sunday School class to sew clothes for me and buy a suitcase to put them in. 

Then the Critchlows and Rev. Sabin  drove me 600 miles to college – my family had no car – and got me settled. Through my college years, they continued to support me with small, but important, gifts. 

Their generosity changed my life forever. I graduated magna cum laude, ended up a newspaper editor, became an active volunteer, and donated toward helping another aspiring college student at my home church. 

And they changed forever the lives of my daughter, who was able to  graduate from college debt-free, and of my grandchild, when her turn comes. 

Words can never do justice to what they did for me.

They’re gone now, but I think of them often with gratitude.

_____

Sandy Hill, a former newspaper editor, is the author of five novels: “Tangled Threads,” “Kate & Delia” (sequel to “Tangled Threads”), “The Blue Car,” “Bonds of Courage,” and “Deadline for Death.” First chapters can be read free on Amazon and ordered through Amazon, Kindle and bookstores. She volunteers as an ESL and citizenship tutor of adults and tries to perfect her intermediate Spanish.

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Read another story about a mentor who influenced the course of a young man’s career.

Little deaths along the way teach us . . . by Kate Green

 

little deaths along the way teach us

Terese Eileen Murphy (Kate Green’s mother)

The Card read “All who have been touched by beauty are touched by sorrow at its passing.” My mother, Terese Eileen Murphy, was blessed with great physical beauty, but I was witness at the end of her life, to see her beauty in its purest form.

To the untrained eye, my mother appeared to be a 80-pound emaciated woman. Those trained to see more deeply saw pure essence, a spark of the divine, the stuff that we’re made of.

There is a hole left in your heart when your mother passes from this life, but with Alzheimer’s disease it is the “little deaths along the way” that prepare you for the final farewell. The ache of watching your independent mother surrender her car; of seeing the trust in her eyes while signing a power of attorney form; of witnessing her courage as she struggles with the loss of her autonomy. It’s the sorrow you feel the first time you realize that your mother will never go out to eat at a restaurant with you anymore, or see a movie, or even be able to sit through her granddaughter’s graduation from law school.

These are mileage markers on the journey that is Alzheimer’s, but these are not the only milestones. This journey is for the strong hearted, and you soon learn that it belongs to you as well as your loved one.

Along the path, you will have head-on collisions with pain, fatigue, guilt, resentment, anger; and soothing encounters with joy, laughter, courage, understanding, forgiveness and love. These are your companions.

They surface when you need them, are masters in the art of disguise, and are important guides to your ultimate destination—healing. They are gifts of feeling, of feeling deeply, and they take you to that hidden place of the heart, where wounds lie. You visit and return to this place as many times as needed, until you begin to understand the origins of the wounded parts of yourself and begin to forgive, heal, and lay them to rest.

American society celebrates birth and fears death. My experience, with observing the death of loved ones, convinces me that we need to celebrate both.  Words fail to communicate the depth of feelings you have at the birth of your child. It is a sacred moment. You feel partnership with the divine, surrounded by love. I have felt this also when death arrives. When death began its 7-year journey toward my mother, there was no way of knowing that the “little deaths along the way” would change forever the way I viewed this great passage. There was no way of knowing that these “little deaths” would help my mother heal and let go of the wounded parts of herself, and in the process would break down my armor and open my heart to forgiveness.

It may be hard to understand how something as devastating as Alzheimer’s disease can bring with its destruction unimagined gifts of spirit—but it does. Hospice workers know this. They recognize that there is a sacred aspect to death and in many ways they serve as a bridge to help those who are dying cross over from one dimension to another.

Those who minister to people dying with Alzheimer’s often witness the peeling away of the personality and find themselves relating to the authentic beauty of the spirit within that person. Hospice workers shared that their visits with my mother were intentionally planned to be at the end of their day in order “to take her beautiful energy home with them.” Staff members from other parts of the nursing home where mother lived would visit her daily because “just one of her smiles made their day.” In other words, they saw a beauty more profound than physical beauty—true beauty—authentic and pure, and it touched and opened their hearts.

Does one ever get over the loss of a parent? Back then the loss was so fresh it was hard to imagine. But the “little deaths along the way” did help prepare me for the final farewell to my mother. Now it is the memory of seeing true beauty and witnessing the nobility of the human spirit expressed by caregivers, friends and family that continues to comfort me and ease my sorrow. And perhaps, during the years that she struggled with Alzheimer’s, it was not so much that Death was moving toward her, but rather, Life—opening the door to new beginnings. The final gift I received from my mother was the realization that the journey of life continues for me—without the fear of death.

_____

Originally published in The Durham Herald-Sun (Sunday, October 15, 2000), Edition: Final, Page: G1

Kate is a member of our team.

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Read a woman’s reflections on her husband’s battle with lung cancer.

Looking for My Grandparents’ Story . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Looking for My Grandparents' Story; Elof and Egedia Johnson

Elof and Egedia Johnson (Linda Whitesitt’s maternal grandparents)

From Linda’s forthcoming book Hope as Wide as a Prairie Sky: Memories of Homesteading in Minnesota, Saskatchewan and Montana based on the life of her Swedish-American ancestors. 

 

I have prairie dust in my bones — dirt from the sod my Swedish great-grandparents broke on the tallgrass prairie of Minnesota; traces of soil their youngest daughter, Gedia, and her Swedish husband, Elof, tilled on the Saskatchewan plains; bits and pieces from the plowed earth of their second homestead on the shortgrass prairie of eastern Montana — every speck as much a part of me as the stories Gedia tells in this book.

Born Hulda Egedia Peterson, my grandma Gedia (pronounced Gid-ja) came to live with her daughter and son-in-law (Judith and Donald, my parents) shortly before I was born. It would be her job to take care of me while they worked, her labor of love to feed me and change me, play with me and potty train me, read to me and teach me how to read. I am who I am because of my kind-hearted, steel-willed grandmother. 

Today I’m almost as old as she was when she first held me in her arms, and I’d like to see her again; hear her strong, gravely voice tell me tales of her life on the prairie; have her introduce me to Gustaf Elof Johnson, the grandfather who died before I was born. What would she tell me about her parents’ and grandparents’ immigration to America? What tales would she share about how she fell in love with a man thirteen years her senior and decided to follow him in the great turn-of-the-century adventure of transforming grassland into the world’s granary? How did she and Grandpa live through the deaths of their children?

Thinking there must be something left of their rugged, pioneering lives, I started to root around in my attic for remnants of who they were and what they did, gleaned box after box for any shred of family history. In a large trunk, I found a shoebox from Penney’s department store labeled “Daddy’s things,” recognized the writing as my mother’s. Seeing the curve of her letters was a treasure all its own. Inside, I picked out Elof’s love poems to Gedia; his small, red-velvet autograph book filled with greetings from his first American friends; a few letters and documents; a couple of photographs; his diary, in Swedish, from his last years; his funeral album; an old Baptist hymn book. Stacked around the shoebox were letters Grandma wrote to my mom during World War II, Gedia’s favorite book of poetry, my mother’s high school diary, the journal of family stories she started to write a few years before her death, and an envelope marked in Mom’s hand — “Linda, you will want this. Aunt Minnie’s story about their Swedish parents.” Grandma’s sister! What a delicious discovery!

Returning to the Penney’s box, I picked up in my hands what Grandpa had touched with his own. “You have his thumbs,” Mother used to tell me as she outlined mine with her finger. “Even when you were a baby, I could tell they were the same.” Perhaps, I thought, Grandpa and I share the same memories as well.

I turned to the Internet, scoured it for information not only about Grandma and Grandpa, but also their prairie friends, the ones they knew in Minnesota who went with them to Canada and then to Montana, and Grandma’s brother Edward who, with his family, accompanied Gedia and Elof on their homesteading moves. Slowly, click by click, I uncovered memories of my grandparents tucked away in local histories, and most astonishing of all, I found Edward’s grandson Jim Peterson, who shared family photos along with his meticulously researched book on our shared ancestors. Equally as fortuitous, I stumbled on the family in eastern Montana who bought the old homestead from Gedia and Elof. They still live there and invited me to put a visit to “the old place” on my bucket list. They’d show me around. Tell me family stories.

I basked in what I’d found. Gathered the stories around me. Started to write. Stopped. Realized I would always want to know more. So I listened. Listened for Grandma Gedia, who always was eager to put in her two cents. Heard her say she’d like to tell me about my ancestors’ pioneering lives in her own words. I paused, then I started to write again, this time in her voice, imagining myself inside her story. 

Knowing her love of poetry, I chose to write in verse, and after many attempts at different forms, I decided couplets were the best fit for her book of memories. The white space reminded me of the emptiness of the prairie; the couplets, the intimacy of their love and the furrows of dirt she and my grandfather spent their life turning.

Hearing Gedia’s “two cents” has filled me with awe for my grandparents, dreamers called “honyockers” — chasers after honey (land and opportunity). With hope as wide as the prairie sky, they chased land to grow a future on, then fought to keep going when the unthinkable threatened to tear their lives apart. As I’ve continued to gather information and sift through memorabilia, all the while trying to discern how Grandma would describe her life on the prairie, I’ve become filled with gratitude for all my prairie ancestors and the dust they’ve mingled in my bones. In searching for their lives, I’ve unearthed endless nourishment for my own.

After years of looking and listening, writing and rewriting, I’ve begun to share Gedia’s story with others and in the process, I’ve noticed how hearing about her life has encouraged them to recall anecdotes from their own family history. It’s as if her memories have triggered their own. Then, like me, they want answers to long-held questions about their ancestors’ lives and wonder what information they might uncover on their own Internet treasure hunt. As I tell them about my adventures finding Gedia and Elof, they embrace the possibility that if I’ve been able to forge a link with my grandparents who have been gone for more than half a century, then perhaps they can as well. 

I coax them to start looking, tell them that perhaps they’ll find stories related specifically to their forebears. If not, I’m certain they’ll chance on bits and pieces of what their grandparents’ lives must have been like in stories about other people’s ancestors. They might even light on their own story. I suggest that as they take on their own pilgrimage of discovery, they’ll learn, as I did, not to be surprised by the connections they come upon, relationships past and present that feed their soul. And finally, I urge them to take counsel in Frederick Buechner’s reminder that “all our words are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”

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Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories. Read her poem about her immigrant great-grandparents — “Belonging to the Land” — another selection from her forthcoming book Hope as Wide as a Prairie Sky.

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Read Linda’s reflections about her husband’s battle with lung cancer.

Reflections on Living with My Husband’s Cancer . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Love

My husband and I are both classical musicians. I play the violin and viola, and Bennett is a conductor and trumpet player. Over the years we have come to know the old truth the music happens in the space between the notes. It is the mystery that rests between the notes as well as the nature of how they are connected that brings the notes on the page to life. It has been our goal to shape the relationship between the notes in such a way that we create music that moves us and the listener. The spaces and what they contain give the music meaning.

In the same way, the mystery that rests in the space between the moments of our life together flows through our relationship like a river and sustains us. For us, that mystery is love. Perhaps it’s the same for music.

As we have moved through time together, the experience of that “time together” — the accumulation of all the moments and the love between them — has carved out a shared history similar to how the unfolding in time of notes and spaces creates a memory of a unified work of art. Looking back, we see a musical work — and our marriage — as whole and indivisible, and neither one of us has been willing to tear it up and throw it away during the real hard times when we thought love had ceased to fill up the spaces. The wholeness and indivisibility of our shared life has always pulled us back. It is what remains with us just like the music is still present after the last note is played.

Love is what kept Bennett going before emergency surgery to repair a leak in the remaining portion of his right lung only a few weeks after his initial surgery for lung cancer in October 2009. Some time in the middle of the night before the early morning surgery, my husband’s roommate, on hearing Bennett distraught and tearful, managed to move his bed close to Bennett’s so that he could hold my husband’s hand and pray with him. Bennett’s roommate was not capable of getting out of bed, so we never have been able to figure out how he moved his hospital bed. But somehow he did, and in those terrifying moments late at night, he filled the space between them with love, assurance and comfort.

Bennett also shares a special relationship with someone else — his surgeon. We both know that his doctor’s caring attention, his supportive communication and his commitment have helped lengthen the tine in which we can both say, “We’re surviving cancer.” This is another space — the space between doctor and patient — that has been filled with love. And we know that relationships filled with love are healing.

Inhale / Exhale

Sometimes the spaces between notes are filled with moments of silence — moments when players stop playing and singers stop singing. Many times these rests are moments for breaths between phrases. They form a container for the phrases they enclose. Music played without attention given to breathing between phrases is lifeless, without flow and direction. Music, like life, needs breath to come alive.

There are many times in our journey of surviving cancer when breathing eludes me. So many events have taken my breath away: sitting in the doctor’s office and listening to him explain that the results of the biopsy showed cancer and, two years later, hearing that the cancer had returned; trying to take in another doctor’s description of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation; hearing the surgeon say that because he had found cancer in a lymph node outside of my husband’s lung, it was Stage III cancer and not Stage I; answering a call from my husband and hearing him gasp that he couldn’t breathe.

There have even been whole periods of time, days even, when it seemed like I couldn’t breathe: the ten minutes it took me to get home not knowing if Bennett would still be breathing when I got there; the next two minutes waiting for the ambulance; the three hours driving behind the ambulance from our regional hospital to the hospital in Charlottesville; the days waiting for the results of CT and PET scans; the hours spent at Bennett’s side while chemicals flowed into his body; the days between treatments as I watched his body become weaker and weaker.

When my husband started to heal after the surgery and chemotherapy, there were many moments when I felt I couldn’t get my breath. Every time Bennett coughed, every time he sighed or groaned, my body would immediately shift into panic mode. Once when he yelled in frustration at a computer glitch, I was in tears by the time I got to the top of the stairs to see what the problem was. I drove him crazy with my constant query, “What’s wrong?”

It was during those trying days of panic for no good reason that a wise friend gave me words, stories and strategies to help me make my way out of instant fright over every sneeze and cough. One of the things she suggested was to breathe — inhale and exhale deeply. She even gave me different breathing responses for different situations.

When I remember to breathe, the cancer doesn’t go away. But just like the rests in music that form a container for musical phrases, my breath forms a container for the moments of my life, and I am reminded that for this moment, we are together. With each breath, I am thankful for the time we share. Breathing helps me feel connected to the life that surrounds my — my husband’s breath, the rain on the window, the flowers in the path, and our cats asleep on the sofa. Breathing gives me the strength to rest in the moment no matter what it holds.

Fear

Fear is a frequent companion. I fear my husband dying. I fear what might happen to Bennett’s body during chemo and radiation. I fear that the cancer will not respond to treatment. Now that the cancer has recurred (fall 2011), fear seems to be a constant, unwelcome, companion. It’s a hollow pit in my stomach that won’t go away.

Fear doesn’t always visit with the same intensity. It comes in waves similar to the waves of grief I experienced after my mother’s death. Sometimes, the strength of the wave knocks me off my feet. During the months when the CT scans showed nothing to worry about, the fear receded. But it always shows itself quickly when Bennett experiences a pain or a cough we can’t explain. When Bennett is away in the evening for a rehearsal and I am in he house alone, a wave of fear can pull me under. The thought — “This is how it’s going to be when he’s gone” — washes over me. It isn’t so much a matter of “I’ll be alone.” Instead, it’s “How will I be able to go on when the ‘I’ that I am feels so intimately tied to the ‘we’ that we are?”

This is the source of the pit in my stomach in this journey of “we’re surviving cancer.” The ground beneath my feet is always shifting, and these earthquakes make me lose sight of who I am because my “I” is a “we.” Who is the “I” in the “we’re surviving cancer” story? It’s not the same “I” as before there was any cancer. Confronted with the fragility of life, I want to hang on to how it was before cancer, and frankly, there are times that I get mad as hell that cancer has changed everything.

There was a time in the winter of 2010 during the “no signs of cancer” months when I found myself inexplicably angry at Bennett. It took me weeks to realize that being angry at him masked the horrible fear that it might be our last Christmas together. Once I discovered its source, my anger vanished, and with it, my fear.

Now it’s another Christmas (2011), and the cancer is back. There is no anger this time, only fear. What helps? Writing these reflections is a comfort. Finding the words to describe what I have kept and continue to keep inside shines sunlight into dark and fearful places. Taking to heart the one very important word in the title of our book — “today” — helps abate my fear.

Today — this day — this moment — my husband and I are eating breakfast together, paying the bills together, having dinner with friends together. We’re making music together, and he’s helping me with my work. The “I” I am today is this woman who loves this man, who reaches out and touches him and leans over and kisses his cheek. Today we are both alive.

I have today with Bennett. I’d be lying if I said that it’s enough.

Endure

It is in the small, sometimes inconsequential moments of our life together that I am frequently struck with the sudden, strong desire that “we” must endure. Fixing dinner, opening the mail, grocery shopping — these are some of the shared moments when I long that the pleasure of doing them together lasts as long as possible. In some ways, it’s the same as holding onto glorious moments in classical music.

A few weeks ago the music ensemble I direct and play in performed an arrangement of the “Nimrod” variation from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a sublimely beautiful work. Playing it, I was deeply aware of every note, and many of them I held as if I didn’t want to let them go. I savored each note’s significance thoroughly before going on to the next. This practice of awareness is what I want to bring to every moment of our life together.

Cancer forces me to bring all of my awareness to the times my husband and I share. It also nudges me to be a more engaged witness in other encounters I have throughout the day. When I do, when I bring my awareness to the mountains before my eyes, the friend who is telling me about her day, the hummingbird’s wings I hear as she flies above the feeder, the shiny rock that catches my attention, I find that my life fills with meaning. The moment endures. It is luminous.

I remember entering a busy airport after a weeklong spiritual retreat in an idyllic country setting. I was stunned. My time away had made me intensely aware of the radiance of every person I saw. It was as if every individual was lit from within — everyone special, everyone shining in this great web of life. The moment didn’t last long, and I’ve never been able to recapture the depth of that experience, but my husband’s cancer brings me close.

At this moment one of our cats jumped into my lap as I was writing these words. Instead of brushing him away, I paused, took him into my arms for as long as he allowed me to hold him, and became aware of the preciousness of this moment. He’s not one to cuddle, so I had to treasure being with him fully and quickly. I want all of the moments in my life to endure, but my cat and life have other plans.

It occurs to me that “endure” has another meaning. Bennett is my hero when it comes to enduring many bouts with cancer without giving in to fear or pain. He has remained positive and optimistic throughout the surgeries and the chemo and is refusing to yield to despair when faced with lung cancer recurrence and the prospect of radiation and more chemo. In all of the health updates to family and friends he has written, there has never been even a hint of anger or despondency.

I have never known my husband to be anything but hopeful and determined. It is his indomitable will that has carried both of us through the sometimes bumpy terrain of our  life together. It is his unwavering commitment to me and to life that lifts me up in the moments when I lose heart. His words also help — “No matter what happens, Linda, we will endure.”

I want us to endure. Bennett teaches me how.

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Update: It’s been almost nine years since Bennett was diagnosed with lung cancer. His oncologist has declared his survival “a miracle.” I agree!

This story is from the book Linda wrote with her husband, Bennett Lentczner — We’re Surviving Cancer . . . Today.

Linda is our story gatherer, and Bennett is part of our our team.

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Read Linda’s story about her search for her immigrant grandparents.

Read Kate Green’s moving tribute to her mother.

So You Want to Lead a Band? . . . by Bennett Lentczner

In February of 1962, I began teaching band at North Shore Junior High School in Glen Head, New York. I was hired for the job mid-year on the recommendation of William Strickland, the supervisor of music in Hempstead, New York, where I was completing my student teaching. My soon-to-be new boss, Ted Ryder, had contacted Mr. Strickland because he was in desperate need for someone to replace his ailing junior high band director.

Mr. Ryder came to Hempstead to observe me teach and to interview me — a not even wet-behind-the-ears fellow who had only just decided he really would like to be a teacher. During the interview, Mr. Ryder told me he had never hired anyone with less than five years of teaching experience, but because Mr. Strickland had given me such a strong recommendation, he was offering me the job. Delighted, I began an adventure in the world of teaching that has lasted a lifetime.

I approached my first day on he job with great excitement. I was a band director! My junior high student teaching experience had been in a school with an excellent band feeder program where a very fine group of elementary school teachers prepared their students for the next level of band participation. In that junior high school band, the instrumentation was complete; in North Shore’s junior high school band — not so much. After my first rehearsal at North Shore, Mr. Ryder called me into his office and asked me how it went. I said it had been just fine, except “there were no bassoons.” He looked at me with a very serious pair of eyes and said, “I know.” That is why we hired you. You want bassoons? Develop them.” Welcome to the real world of teaching instrumental music.

All these years later, I remember that challenge, how I met it, and more importantly, how meeting that obstacle subsequently led to a career as a professional bassoonist for no less than two of the students who started their adventure trusting me for guidance. Over the years, Mr. Ryder placed many challenges in front of me. He supported all of my efforts to meet them and took great pride in my accomplishments. We became very good friends, attending professional meetings together and playing golf with as much frequency as time permitted. In June of 2005, long after I had left North Shore, my former students created an Alumni Band Concert, and we dedicated it to my colleague and friend, Ted Ryder. Without Ted’s intuition about me and his trust in my ability to grow in my new and demanding profession, there would not have been an Alumni Band. He was my first real mentor.

Ted was a great believer in the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) festivals. He required all the ensemble directors in the district to take their groups to this annual spring adjudication event and receive comments by some of the finest teachers in the state. It was an opportunity measure our work against high performance standards as well as gain insight into how we could improve our group and our teaching. Suffice to say that my first experience with NYSSMA dealt a devastating blow to my young ego. Juilliard graduates were not accustomed to less than excellent. In the months afterwards as I looked back at that first festival performance — my band had received a humiliating D — I came to understand the importance of teaching not for a particular performance, but in a sequential manner so that my students could grow as musicians.

With Ted Ryder’s support, I gained the tools needed to apply my Juilliard education to helping students make music at a high level and feel the satisfaction of their own accomplishments. His recognition of the abilities I had developed came when he turned the high school band over to me. I remember him calling me into his office and telling me that from day one he had recognized my musical skill; now he felt I had gained sufficient technical skill in applying that musicianship, and I deserved the opportunity to conduct the North Shore High School Band. I was thrilled and vowed to make him proud of the faith he had in me. Many years later his wife told me that he was so proud of what I was able to accomplish and spoke of me often and in very flattering terms.

The high school bands I had the pleasure of directing at North Shore earned many distinctions, among them were perfect scores at annual NYSSMA festivals. None was more impressive than the perfect score awarded by composers Donald Hunsberger and Hale Smith for the performance of Hunsberger’s transcription of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. What I remember about the performance was that the busses that took us to the school where the festival was taking place got lost, arriving just a few minutes before we were scheduled to perform. The 105 members of the band retrieved their instruments, went on stage and warmed up on their own like any group of professional players would do, listened to a quick tuning note, and within a few minutes, we began the performance. From the first note, I knew that the days of school-level band performances with this outstanding group of players was a thing of the past. Yes, I can take credit for being their teacher, but they had transformed what they had been taught into making music — not school music.

Our next year was spent reaching for higher and higher musical goals. Against the advice of Ted Ryder, I decided to make Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy the centerpiece of our NYSSMA festival performance. His advice was not based on the ability of the band to play this extremely difficult piece, but rather, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure they could perform at the high level they were capable of in the intense environment of a festival performance. I had no doubt and neither did the band. They delivered a flawless, exciting musical performance that had all of my colleague directors and their students on their feet with thunderous applause. Wow!

My joy was short-lived. While one of the adjudicators awarded the band perfect scores in all categories, the other judge, a last minute substitute for one of New York State’s leading collegiate band directors, gave the band low marks for my having chosen a more difficult version of the Grainger piece. Because I had a fine bassoon player in the band, I had chosen the version that most bands avoid because it is so difficult. Most bands perform the version that is scored for bass clarinet. The last-minute substitute judge happened to be a bass clarinet player, and this was his only negative comment. Amazing!

Ted and I knew that this was the best high school band I had ever conducted, and he fought the rating all the way to the state level. Nothing changed, but the band understood what really mattered — the music. They had performed with maturity and musical excellence, and they knew that both Ted and I were proud of all of them.

The following is an excerpt from the tribute I wrote in remembrance of Ted for his memorial service:

More than anything else, I came to know how deeply Ted cared for kids. I know his seemingly all-business approach often masked the pride he felt for even the smallest student accomplishment, and I also know how thrilled he was when young people made good music. For him, there were no finer moments. It was what he was all about. . . .

I will remember Ted always — for the pride he had in my successes, for caring, and for teaching me that there was always more to learn. I thank him for his encouragement, his example and his friendship.

Goodbye, my friend. See you on the first “big” tee.

February 9, 2000

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This story is from an essay in Bennett Lentczner’s book, Every Step Counts, Every Word Matters!

Bennett is a member of our team.

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Read a story about a person who changed the course of a young woman’s life.