Advent Day #20 – Wisdom

Wise and Otherwise

December 20.  The 20th free gift of the month is something that can be acquired, but cannot be bought.  I don’t think that it can be given, either.  The gift is Wisdom.  According to Wikipedia, “Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgements and actions in keeping with this understanding.”  In other words, “To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)  However, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”  (George Bernard Shaw)  And finally, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”  (Mohandas K. Gandhi)

It would seem, then, that wisdom is something that can be acquired in living with awareness and engaging humbly with experiences.  It seems to me, though, that you can’t give someone the benefit of this process.  You might point out the process and talk about its benefit, you might set up the beginning of the process, but you can’t impart the journey or the result.  It has to be lived.  I’m a mother; trust me on this.  I wanted to give my children wisdom more than anything, probably for selfish reasons.  I wanted to be spared the pain.  I wanted to spare them the pain.  I asked God to give them wisdom…like on a magic platter descending from heaven…but spare them the pain.  Can’t be done.  Wisdom is born of pain and suffering and effort and failure.  You have to be awake through it all as well.  You can’t gain wisdom while you’re anesthetized.  I’ve made a great discovery, though.  This process is a great equalizer.  Keeping Gandhi’s wisdom in mind, my children and I are fellow travelers on this path.  We share our stories as friends, we perhaps contribute insights to this process, but we cannot assume the roles of provider and receiver.  I try to remember that as I talk to them.  It is too easy for me to slip into the “teacher” role and begin to spew language about what they “should” do and what is the “right” way to do something.  I often issue too many reminders and begin to sound like I’m micro-managing them.   They notice.  They mention it.  I have to challenge myself to be wiser and trust them to be wise.

I remember the day my father told me that something I said was wise.  It felt like a great victory for me.  I was 19 or 20.  I had been talking to my oldest sister about some article I had read in an evangelical Christian newsletter taking issue with science and carbon dating.  My father was eavesdropping from the breakfast room and jumped on the subject by voicing some objection to the fact that the money he was paying for my college education hadn’t stopped me from discoursing like an ignoramus.  I was scared of his strong emotion, ashamed of myself, and angry at his insult.  Embarrassed and hurt, I fled.  We didn’t speak for 3 days.  I realized that he wasn’t going to apologize to me or mention the event on his own, so I decided I needed to take the initiative to talk to him about my emotions, clear the air, and try to restore our relationship.  I’d never talked to my father about our relationship very much before.  He was always right, often angry, and anything that was amiss was my fault.  I also knew that he would not show his emotions, that it would be a “formal discussion” on his part, but that I would probably not be able to contain my tears, making me feel foolish and not his equal.  I decided to brave the consequences and approach him with Kleenex in hand.  I began to talk, and cry, and tell him how I felt.  Then he asked me if I wanted an apology.  “What do you want me to say?”  I told him that part was up to him.  My dictating an apology to him would be meaningless.  That’s when he said, “That is very wise.”   Suddenly, I felt I had grown up and been respected as an equal to my father in some way.   What I understood or didn’t understand about evolution and carbon dating and creation didn’t matter to me any more.  That I had been able to navigate emotions with my father and repair a broken relationship was far more significant.

Dad & me in 1992. Photo by my 8 year old daughter.

Wisdom isn’t easy to get, but it is available.  If you pursue it, you’ll probably get it eventually.  It’s completely avoidable, though, if you so choose.   I know which way I want to go, so I’ll keep paddling my canoe and checking the horizon.   For those of you heading the same way, STEADY ON!  I salute you.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Companion

I spent the last 8 hours in the delightful company of my firstborn child.  We spent the day making paper roses out of pages of an old copy of The Lord of the Rings for her wedding bouquet, trying out hair-dos for the wedding, and talking heart to heart. I am so grateful that the years we’ve spent together have produced two women who have grown to be great friends.  You can read all kinds of opinions about whether your children are supposed to be your friends, but in the final analysis, if you both live to be adults at the same time, you can have a friendship that is richer, deeper, closer than any you can imagine.  My daughter was born when I was 22, and in many ways, we grew up together.  We read together, learned together, laughed together, cried together, explored different roles and ages and stages in each others’ company and discovered that we really like each other.  We’ve always been very honest and good communicators.  So, I sincerely want to say,

“Susan, thank you for being my companion for 28 years (so far)!  I love you very much.”Companion

Honoring My Father (Reblog)

George William Heigho II — born July 10, 1933, died March 19, 2010.

Today I want to honor my dad and tell you about how I eventually gave him something in return for all he’d given me.

My dad was the most influential person in my life until I was married.  He was the obvious authority in the family, very strict and powerful.  His power was sometimes expressed in angry outbursts like a deep bellow, more often in calculated punishments encased in logical rationalizations.  I knew he was to be obeyed.  I also knew he could be playful.  He loved to build with wooden blocks or sand.  Elaborate structures would spread across the living room floor or the cottage beach front, and my dad would be lying on his side adding finishing touches long after I’d lost interest.  He taught me verse after verse of silly songs with the most scholarly look on his face.  He took photographs with his Leica and set up slide shows with a projector and tripod screen after dinner when I really begged him.  He often grew frustrated with the mechanics of those contraptions, but I would wait hopefully that the show would go on forever.  It was magic to see myself and my family from my dad’s perspective.  He was such a mystery to me.  I thought he was God for a long time.  He certainly seemed smart enough to be.  He was a very devout Episcopalian, Harvard-educated, a professor and a technical writer for IBM.  He was an introvert, and loved the outdoors.  When he retired, he would go off for long hikes in the California hills by himself.  He also loved fine dining, opera, ballet, and museums.  He took us to fabulously educational places — Jamaica, Cozumel, Hawaii, and the National Parks.  He kept the dining room bookcase stacked with reference works and told us that it was unnecessary to argue in conversation over facts.

Camping in Alaska the summer after his senior year in High School: 1951.

My father was not skilled in communicating about emotions.  He was a very private person.  Raising four daughters through their teenaged years must have driven him somewhat mad.  Tears, insecurities, enthusiasms and the fodder of our adolescent dreams seemed to mystify him.  He would help me with my Trigonometry homework instead.

Playing with my dad, 1971.

I married a man of whom my father absolutely approved.  He walked me down the aisle quite proudly.  He feted my family and our guests at 4 baptisms when his grandchildren were born.  I finally felt that I had succeeded in gaining his blessing and trust.  Gradually, I began to work through the  more difficult aspects of our relationship.  He scared my young children with his style of discipline.  I asked him to refrain and allow me to do it my way.   He disowned my older sister for her choice of religion.  For 20 years, that was a subject delicately opened and re-opened during my visits.  I realized that there was still so much about this central figure in my life that I did not understand at all.

Grandpa George

In 2001, after the World Trade Center towers fell, I felt a great urgency to know my father better.  I walked into a Christian bookstore and picked up a book called Always Daddy’s Girl: Understanding Your Father’s Impact on Who You Are by H. Norman Wright.  One of the chapters contained a Father Interview that listed dozens of questions aimed at bringing out the father’s life history and the meaning he assigned to those events.  I decided to ask my father if he would answer some of these questions for me, by e-mail (since he lived more than 2,000 miles away).   Being a writer, this was not a difficult proposition for him to accept.  He decided how to break up the questions into his own groupings and sometimes re-phrase them completely to be more specific and understandable and dove in, essentially writing his own memoirs.   I was amazed, fascinated, deeply touched and profoundly grateful at the correspondence I received.  I printed each one and kept them.  So did my mother.  When I called on the telephone, each time he mentioned how grateful he was for my suggestion.  He and my mother shared many hours reminiscing and putting together the connections of events and feelings of years and years of his life.   On the phone, his repeated thanks began to be a bit eerie.  Gradually, he developed more symptoms of dementia.  His final years were spent in that wordless country we later identified as Alzheimer’s disease.

I could never have known at the time that the e-mails we exchanged would be the last record of my dad’s memory.  To have it preserved is a gift that is priceless to the entire family.  I finally learned something about the many deep wounds of his childhood, the interior life of his character development, his perception of my sister’s death at the age of 20 and his responsibility in the lives of his children.   My father is no longer “perfect”, “smart”, “strict” or any other concept or adjective that I could assign him.  He is simply the man, my father.  I accept him completely and love and respect him more holistically than I did when I knew him as a child.  That is the gift I want to give everyone.

I will close with this photo, taken in the summer of 2008 when my youngest daughter and I visited my father at the nursing home.  I had been widowed 6 months, had not yet met Steve, and was anticipating my father’s imminent passing.  My frozen smile and averted eyes are fascinating to me.  That I feel I must face a camera and record an image is somehow rational and irrational at the same time.  To honor life honestly is a difficult assignment.  I press on.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Forward

“Forward” is the weekly photo challenge prompt.  Hmm.  Directional.  Nautical.  Paths…I have a bunch of shots like that which I’ve already posted.  Boring.  Check the dictionary.  Aha!

2
a : strongly inclined : ready

b : lacking modesty or reserve : brash

3
: notably advanced or developed : precocious

Inspiration!  Allow me to (re)introduce Emily.  She is turning 22 on Wednesday.  Last year, I did a Birthday Post dedicated to her, but she deserves more press.  Especially with this theme!  Ready, brash, precocious.  She is much more than these, but she is these.  Ready to act, in many senses of the word.  Ready with her emotions, her opinions, her dreams.  Ready, often, to take on any challenge.  Brash, bold, unreserved, “larger than life”.  Precocious….oh, the stories I could tell!  When she got 2nd runner up in the Little Miss contest, they asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.  “An artist…like Georgia O’Keeffe!” she replied in her 5 year old voice.  In first grade, she was given the responsibility of trotting down the hall to the third grade classroom for reading because she was far more advanced than the rest of her class.  Often, however, her teacher would find her in the nurse’s office having an extended visit, chatting, charming, helping out, telling stories.  In high school, she was invited to lunch in the teacher’s lounge by a new staff member who thought she was a teacher.  She is progressive.  She is learning, growing, changing at an incredible rate, still.  And she is someone whom I love so thoroughly and passionately that sometimes, I almost can’t bear it….the rush of oxytocin, almost losing her as an infant to meningitis, the fights we had, the pride when she performs, the fear we lived through…we are bound together and moving forward, deeper, higher all the time. 

So, now, the photos:

Guess which daughter is Emily...

Guess which daughter is Emily…

...and Mema, who is always too fabulous for words

She is really too fabulous for words, but “Forward” describes some of her.

Examining Entitlement – the “Feed and Frustrate Formula”

I am working on finding The Middle Way in my life and on communicating what I can of that journey to anyone who might find that helpful…with my own children in mind as always.  The other day, I came up with a phrase that I am finding useful in describing the continuum of experiences needed to grow and develop as a person:   “Feed and Frustrate”.   We all need a certain amount of feeding, starting in infancy when we are in our most dependent phase, and continuing through adulthood.  We have physical needs, emotional needs, and intellectual needs.  How do you determine what is a ‘need’ and what is a ‘want’ and what that certain amount actually is?  That’s a good question and leads to examining entitlement, which I will get to in a moment.  I want to take a look now at the other end of the continuum and describe our need for frustration. 

Frustration, challenge, resistance, a force up against we must push is a very necessary part of development.  Consider the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon.  Many well-meaning folks have discovered a curious thing.  If, in their effort to be kind to animals, they assist a butterfly in its struggle to free itself from the structures surrounding it, the insect will weaken and die.  The butterfly needs the activity of straining to get fluids moving to its wings, to strengthen them for flight and to dry them out.   A similar thing happens if you facilitate a chick in hatching from an egg.  The work to chip away at the shell, the time and effort it takes to accomplish that task on its own, is vital to the chick’s health and makes it more robust.   Without that hindrance, the chick remains weak.  We need to frustrate our children and ourselves enough to stimulate our ability to access our own strengths. 

Working out the balance of feeding and frustrating is a lifelong endeavor.  I find myself looking at my adult children and wondering how I did as a parent.  I became a mom at the tender age of 22 and felt all those biological and hormonal urges to protect, provide, nurture, and “spoil” my kids.  I also had a pragmatic sense of limitations.  My mom might say that’s the Scotch in me.  I am frugal.  My kids call me “cheap and weird”.  I’m not sure I had a notion of the value of frustration, even though I’m sure I frustrated my kids unintentionally anyway.  So, they didn’t get everything they wanted, but I’m not sure I taught them a “work ethic” or a “frustration ethic” very well.  I am not sure if my parents taught me that, either.  Regardless, the responsibility of developing that ethic is my own.  It is the responsibility of each individual to examine their ideas of entitlement and challenge themselves to develop the resources necessary to achieve their goals. 

I like to learn through story and art.  I think of examples of characters who live out their “feed and frustrate” scenarios and find some tales to be inspiring, some to be cautionary.  Too much feeding as well as too much frustration can lead to helplessness and hopelessness.  One story I’ve been following lately is that of a young man who is an NBA basketball player in his second year as a pro.  I like watching Jimmy Butler play.  He has the kind of untapped strength that seems to increase with the number of challenges he’s given.  While his teammates recover from injury, he gets to play more minutes, and he seems to be growing up before my eyes.  I did some background checking and learned that he was abandoned by his father as an infant and kicked out of his mother’s house when he was 13.  A friend’s mom eventually took him into her home and gave him some strict rules to follow…and he blossomed.  The feed/frustrate formula made him confident in his ability to improve himself, which he keeps on demonstrating on the basketball court. 

This idea is not only pertinent to individual lives, but also to systems.  Politically and economically, how are we balancing the feed and frustrate formula in order to support a robust society?  Are we giving too much assistance?  Are we giving too little?  It’s a good thing to re-evaluate over time. 

So, perhaps I’ve given you something to think about.  How do you see the feed/frustrate balance in your life?  Where do you think an adjustment might help?  If you’re a writer, what is happening on this level in the story you’re working on now?  How does that dynamic work in your characters’ lives?  Thanks for listening to me hash out my thoughts! 

And one more point.  “Ahem!  This theory, which is mine…” footnote reference to Monty Python sketch featuring Miss Ann Elk...I own it and it’s mine.  I might use it in an article or something.  If this gives you an Aha! moment and you want to share it, please reference this blog post.  Thanks for your respect!

This Is Your Party, Mom!

My grandfather’s little tax deduction for the year 1934 arrived on New Year’s Eve.  Anne Louise McFarland, my mother, grew up believing that all the fireworks and shouting every year on this day was in honor of her birthday.  I grew up believing something very similar.  My parents didn’t dress up and go out on New Year’s Eve…they dined at home on champagne and escargot and caviar and other delectable treats while listening to “The Midnight Special” on WFMT or to “Die Fledermaus” on TV or video.  When I was old enough to stay up with them, we would sometimes catch the Times Square celebration and then declare East Coast midnight and go to bed an hour early.  But the reason for the season was my mother, not the march of time.  In my late teens, I didn’t go to other people’s parties, I still stayed home…and my boyfriend (soon to be husband) joined us.  We enjoyed the best food and champagne and music and silliness and company without ever having to contend with drunk drivers on the roads.  My mom lives 2,205 miles away from me now, but I am still planning to stay home and drink champagne and eat salmon and listen to wonderful music and think of her.  She is still reason enough for all the joy and love and delight you might see tonight.  I’ll show you why:

Graduation, Radcliffe Class of 1955

Graduation, Radcliffe Class of 1955

This is my mom and dad at her college graduation.  That’s right, she graduated from Radcliffe, the female component to Harvard, at the age of 20.  The woman has brains.  With her late birthday and having skipped a year in elementary school, that means she went to college at age 16, all naive and nerdy with bad teeth and a lazy eye and glasses, but with a curiosity and charm that matured and eventually proved irresistible to my father, who, with money and pedigree and a Harvard degree, was “quite a catch”.  

Ten years later, the family

Ten years later, the family

So, by 1965, she’s a mother of 4 little girls (that’s me, the baby, blonde, aged 3), running a household, volunteering with Eastern Star and the church and a host of other things.  So stylish, so Jackie!  This was Massachusetts, you know. 

Acadia National Park, I think

Acadia National Park, I think

And she’s not afraid to go camping, either.  This was a picnic picture taken by her mother-in-law.  That would explain the handbags and the dress.  My grandmother was never seen anywhere without a handbag and make-up.  My mother was…often!

1978 in California

1978 in California

Fast forward 13 years.  My mother gave birth to a boy when she was 38She had 4 willing babysitters surrounding her and a handsome husband now sporting a beard.  She’d also picked up a Masters degree in Church Music.  We moved from Chicago to California where she became more adventurous in cuisine and hiking and music and new volunteer opportunities.  This photo was taken the last Christmas that all her children were alive.  My sister Alice (far left) died the next August.

1985 - Proud grandparents

1985 – Proud grandparents

A month after she’d turned 50, my mother became a grandmother for the first time.  She’d also survived breast cancer by electing to have major surgery, something her own mother had done 10 years earlier.  She was housing and caring for her barely mobile mother and raising a pre-teen son at this time as well.  Do you see a grey hair?  No?  Neither do I.  My mother is amazing.

1989b

Christmas and New Year's 1989

Christmas and New Year’s 1989

Mom turns 55.   She has 4 grandchildren, a 16-yr old son, and her mother has just died.  She’s volunteering as a docent at the San Jose Historical Museum, a position she will hold for more than 20 years, specializing in their music department. 

Summer 1994 - babysitting the grandkids

Summer 1994 – babysitting the grandkids

Here, she’s 60.  My husband and I are traveling in Europe for our 10th anniversary, and she and Dad take our kids to the beach cottage for a few weeks.  My husband survived double bypass surgery on his heart two years earlier.  Yeah, Mom came out then, too, to take care of the kids…and me.  Who has the energy to be with 4 kids (aged 3, 5, 7, & 9) at the beach for two weeks at the age of 30, let alone twice that?  My mother.  Although she did let me know (graciously) that it wasn’t easy. 

13 years later, back at the beach

13 years later, back at the beach

In 2007, Mom came out with my sister and brother to see my daughter graduate from college.  We all went to the cottage together again.  This was my husband’s last trip: he died the following February.  My father is not with us on this vacation.  He is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition he had for 7 years before his death.  My mother visited him several times a week while he needed skilled care and played the piano for all the residents, jogging memories with old popular tunes and supporting the hymns during chapel services.

March 2010 - photo credit DKK

March 2010 – photo credit DKK

My father died in March of 2010.  I had been widowed for 2 years.  My kids and I flew back to California for his memorial service, and Dad’s ashes were buried next to my sister’s and my husband’s.  My mother invited the family back to her house and we gathered around the piano again.  She played and sang and laughed and cried, and I did, too, right by her side.  My mother and I are alike in many ways, and I am so glad, proud and grateful to be a woman like her.  I see her smile, I hear her voice, I taste her cooking and her tears, and feel her spirit flowing around and through me all the time.  We’re going to party tonight, Mom.  Miles be damned!  Happy Birthday!  I love you!

 

 

My Best Friend’s Birthday

Yup, today is Steve’s birthday.  He is beginning to get comfortable saying that he is “in his late 40s”.  We are still working on being transparent with ourselves and each other, genuine, authentic.  This morning we talked about how difficult that is for parents to do with their children.  We want to be better people, better role models, especially in front of them.  But we miss the opportunity to be fully present, fully alive, and fully responsive when we hide behind those roles.  That can hurt.  The child may feel like they are not worthy to receive the person they love the most.  I remember how honored I felt when my father asked me to help him with something.  I was the mother of 4 children by then.  He had broken his back and was lying flat in traction in the hospital.  He asked me to help him brush his teeth by catching his spit in a pan when he spouted it straight up.  It was the first time I truly felt that he was volunteering his vulnerability.  I left the hospital in tears, not because I pitied him, but because I was so happy to feel connected to this man I adored for so long. 

A man who had been my spiritual director for years sent me a TED video this week about Vulnerability.  I highly recommend it.  See if you don’t recognize something about yourself here.  It may be a surprise.  Then see if you can find someone to talk to about it.  It may be a pivotal point in your life. 

Today is All Saints’ Day as well.  Here’s to all the truly good friends, the saints in our lives, who allow themselves to be seen, to be vulnerable, to be genuinely available and thereby, help us to find the courage to join them in that important place.  “And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”

(Steve, dressed up to see the musical “Hair” with me.)

Living Inside Out

Denholm Elliott in the Merchant Ivory production of “A Room With a View” portrays one of my favorite wise characters.  I love the scene at the pensione when he’s trying to convince two women unhappy with their accommodations to take his room which has a view.

“I don’t care what I see outside!  My vision is within.  Here is where the birds sing!  Here is where the sky is blue!” 

He is gesticulating with his dinner fork, poking himself in the heart all the while.  Sometimes I need a good poke in the heart as well to wake up that inner vision.  I find myself feeling bored and peevish, discontent with my fortune.  Why a traffic ticket now?  Why didn’t I get that early bird discount?  What am I supposed to do with myself when it’s 95 degrees out, I’m wearing a tight corset, I’m at work, there are no visitors to talk to, and I’ve got no chores to do?  Why am I feeling so stuck?!?  Because I’m not taking responsibility and I’m not living from the inside out.  I am waiting for the outside world to stimulate and satisfy me. 

And the outside world would love to take over that job!  There are a million things to distract and entertain and lead you from one external thing to the next.  I spent 4 hours this morning at the Wisconsin State Fair, manning the Tourism booth in my 19th Century costume.  A quick tour after my shift was all I needed to grab a lamb sandwich and some fresh roasted corn on the cob.  I passed up all kinds of brightly colored, noisy stuff.  I don’t need a chamois cloth or a giant roller coaster ride or chocolate covered bacon on a stick.  They’re not really going to make me happy.  I want to be satisfied from within, and I want that for my children.  I tend to worry about their fortunes, too.   How are they going to get a job?  How are they going to pay off those student loans?  How are they going to get around if their cars break down?  I find myself getting anxious and peevish on their behalf, too.  But really, more than catching a break, I want them to catch that inner vision.  I want them to be able to be satisfied and happy and enthusiastic about life no matter what their outward circumstances show.

An inner life.  Unassailable, regenerating, like solar energy that continues for millenniums.  Do we even teach our children to cultivate that anymore?  How are we supposed to have a moral compass if we don’t?  How does a nation of outwardly motivated and distracted people develop a moral compass to guide their democratic process?  I wonder about these things…..

Family Milestone

I have been absent from the blogosphere for a few days in order to be present at a family event.  My oldest, Susan, and her First Mate, Andy, invited a small contingent of family and friends to support them in a Handfasting ceremony.  We gathered in a woodland setting to witness their vows and verbalize our advice and wishes in a ritual with varied symbolism.  The result is, finally, that they are engaged.  They will now begin to plan the final steps toward Marriage, which for my daughter has been a big, scary journey into never-ending adulthood that has made her skittish for years.  This social event has her two sisters and at least one future sister-in-law completely ecstatic, and sent them into a frenzy of beautifying and picture-taking that reminded me of their school days on the cheerleading and pom-pom squads…

Girls will be girls

My son was much more restrained and tired from his night shift job and travel, but he surprised me by looking more like his dad than ever before. 

For Susan, the event put her in the spotlight in a way that made her very nervous and vulnerable, but to her credit, she was aware of the neurotic nature of that anxiety and owned it with humor.  Which only made her more adorable to Andy.

During the ceremony itself, I really wanted to pay attention to the real time emotion and meaning of the moment.  While others snapped pictures, I put my camera down and watched the expressions of my daughter intently as her beloved read his vows and she read hers.  Together they fashioned a three-stranded cord and allowed themselves to be bound together.  I was in tears watching and hearing and feeling and believing right along with them. 

Afterwards, of course, we had feasting and drinking and gifting at a Chinese restaurant.

If we all look like we are glowing and flushed, I can assure you it’s not because of quantity of drink so much as the fact that it was almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and it was, after all, an outdoor event. 

The heat wave continues, and the wave of good feelings does, too.  My daughter is grown and growing; she is building a very strong, very loving, very supportive relationship with a person she has admired since she was 11 years old.  And it is very good.  I suppose I can now take a sabbath rest for a day…I’ve been given tomorrow off from work because of the hot weather.

I Promised My Mother-in-law

I promised to dedicate a post to my mother-in-law for her birthday, which was the 16th.  The last time I saw her alive was on her birthday in the year 2001.  She died sometime the following week, alone in her apartment, while we were traveling.  That fact is consistent with the mystique I associate with remembering her.  I’ll never be certain who she really was, although I have many theories.  I have been told that she was a concert pianist as a young woman and that she played for Rachmaninoff when she was 16.  I have seen the signed program portrait that he gave her.  I did hear her play as an accompanist for our community theater.  She was definitely capable, even with arthritis.  I wish I had known the passion of her younger years.  I saw in her such a mixture of joy and anxiety as a mature woman.  She had a playfulness and sense of humor that I found completely amusing, so much more casual than my own mother’s.  She was a grade school teacher with the ability to relate to people in a very natural way.  She was sentimental about cats and dogs and friendship and children. As I learned more about her relationship with her mother, though, a very painful history emerged, steeped in shame and punishment.   I’m sure that was the root of the depression that lingered throughout her life.  She carried scars and secrets with her to the grave.  We only learned about them when her sister-in-law spoke up after the funeral.  I imagine, though, that she would have liked to allow the sunniest parts of her personality to shine through unclouded.  It was her ability to laugh in the face of fear that I illustrated at her memorial service when I told this story:

In June of 1992, she came out to visit us from California.  We had only been living in Illinois since August, and  Jim had been through an emergency cardiac procedure that January.  She came out eager to see him recovering and to bask in the hugs of her four grandchildren.   He had a scheduled check-up during her stay, and learned that his arteries were even more clogged than in January.  He was advised to undergo double bypass surgery as soon as possible.  He was 31.  She decided to extend her stay indefinitely and see what happened next.  Her anxiety was tremendous, and so was mine.  Her sense of humor, however, surfaced much more readily.  It was her coping strategy, and it matched his perfectly.   The day of the surgery was stormy and dangerous.  A tornado touched down in the vicinity of the hospital and cut out power just as he was coming out of surgery and off the breathing machine.  A frantic nurse grabbed a mouth tube and bag to squeeze air into his lungs.  Marni and I were shaking all over and clutching hands as we watched.  Moments later, the generators kicked in and a calmer air prevailed.  Jim was breathing unassisted, and he was motioning me to come closer to tell me something.   I leaned in to hear him say in a hoarse whisper, “They found out what was wrong with my heart.”  “Yes, dear…”  “When they opened me up, they found this!”  His hand moved under the bedsheets by his side.  I looked down and discovered that he was clutching the broken figure off of one of his bowling trophies.  “The Bowler” was a running gag we had started the first year of our marriage.  He surfaced in Christmas stockings, random drawers, and even in the bouquet of roses Jim brought onstage after my senior voice recital.  How in the world did Jim manage to stage another practical joke on the day of his heart surgery?!!  Well, he had an accomplice, of course.  His mother, who smiled mildly and innocently at the end of the bed while I looked around in utter amazement.  Then we all tried to keep from laughing too hard, only because it was so painful for Jim when he tried to join in.

Recovering from heart surgery, smiles intact.

So, whatever troubles lay at the core of my mother-in-law’s psyche, I appreciate that she had the desire to live happily and tried to do that as much as possible.  She truly loved her children and grandchildren and enjoyed so many pleasures with them.  She shared what joy she found with a lot of kids during her lifetime as a teacher, and I’m sure many are grateful and remember her to this day.