Being the Things

I pulled out of the driveway to take Jim to work. He synced up his playlist and flooded the car with “Let It Be,” and I swung around the corner to see a cherry red pick-up truck charging up the hill and heading up the driveway of the Helen Purcell home.

And I gasped involuntarily. The woman driving the truck was short enough to be peering over the steering wheel, and I could see her shining blonde hair and the determined set of a high-cheek-boned face.

I gasped because Automatic Mind told me, “That’s TERRI.”

But Reasonable Mind said, “Terri doesn’t have a cherry red pick-up truck, and she wouldn’t be in Zanesville, anyway.”

And Grieving Mind demolished the whole thing. It said, “Terri died on Saturday.”

Jim turned at my gasp.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing, Buddy,” I answered. “We’re good. Case of mistaken identity.”

But Grieving Mind whispered, “What’s wrong is that Terri died on Saturday.”

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When Terri got her shocking diagnosis early in January, her daughters started a special Share and Care for Terri Facebook page. It became a busy place, with people posting pictures and inspirational thoughts and words of encouragement. Early this week, after news of Terri’s death had filtered out, someone posted this: Be the things you loved most about the person who is gone.

It was on a pretty background and attributed to something called Bohemian Quotes, and I looked at it for a minute before I thought, “Whatever THAT means.” It struck me as glib, and in the raw, angry aftermath of a dear friend’s death, I didn’t want any suggestion that, “Here! Just do THIS, and it’ll all be good,” although I realized, deep down, that the person who posted it hadn’t meant that at all.

So I dismissed that little saying, but, like an ear-worm, it burrowed.

Image borrowed from Pinterest

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When Ott called to tell us about Terri’s death, he talked about the beautiful 48 hours that led up to it.

They watched her favorite movie.

She got up and into her wheelchair, and sat at the back door, where she told Ott exactly what he needed to do, and when he needed to do it, to maintain the beautiful garden she’d created.

She read, or someone read to her, her favorite children’s lit.

And deep into the night before she died, her beloved family gathered with guitars and voices, and they sang Terri’s favorite songs, a caring, loving chorus.Then, I think, she fell into her final sleep. I like to think that she started her journey on a wave of well-loved song sung by best-loved voices.

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Be the things.

A lot of Terri’s things were about nurture.

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She nurtured her garden, which was a magical place, with a medley of thoughtful, beautiful plantings. Terri tuned in to nature and the change of seasons. And she would write, sometimes, in her emails, about what was happening in her garden.

She had art in her garden, too, pieces that expressed something very special to her.

I am not a gardener, but last year, Mark noticed the resemblance of the hedge in the front yard to a sinuous caterpillar. We made it some eyes and a mouth and deedly-boppers; we painted a paver to look like Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I found and read a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I painted a brick to look like that cover, and I nestled that brick in the marigolds, which are one of the few flowers the deer won’t eat. I thought I could paint the old three-wheeled grown-up bicycle in the garage black, plant its capacious basket with more deer-repugnant flowers, and paint a paver to look like the cover of The Wizard of Oz.

I had more ideas, too. Terri was excited. She and Ott were going to come, this summer, and see how far we’d gotten with the storybook garden.

On Monday, not even 48 hours after Terri died, the first drowsy daffodil in my front patch opened its sleepy, bell-shaped blossom.

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Terri nurtured the people she worked for, and with. She came up with wonderful events. She facilitated art and music therapy activities for grown-ups and kids. At many of these happenings, the kids walked away with a blanket and a book. It was important to Terri that we encourage kids to read, and thus to dream, and just maybe, then, to be carried forward on the strength of that dreaming.

She hosted teas with gardening themes and crafting themes and themes of magical stories like Harry Potter’s. She conceived and created Women’s Enrichment events. She masterminded a yearly fund-raiser for her organization, the Soul Shine Blues Festival.

Terri listened to people. And she took the things she loved best and rubbed them to powder in her hands and distilled them into the work of everyday life. In the doing, she helped and fortified others.

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I cannot cook in my kitchen without using something that came from Terri—my ceramic flour scoop that arrived in a surprise package one day; the metal mixing bowls, and the spices and sauces, that were part of the Soulshine basket that we won.

I have a drawer full of notes from Terri because she was the kind of person who wrote thinking of you notes and thank you notes in her bold and happy, artistic hand.

Our friend Debbie got a thank you note from Terri in the mail on the day that Terri died. In her last days, she was grabbing a pen and writing her thoughts and nurturing far-off friends.

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Terri nurtured her home. She changed the decorations by season. In her last Christmas, sick and in pain and not knowing why, she would email daily about her progress in getting the trees up, setting out the children’s Christmas books she loved, putting her cherished decorations on the shelves. I have no doubt Terri’s last Christmas house was a magical thing to see.

The house and the garden and even the work activities, many of which drew her husband or her children into their mesh, were all about family, which was the thing Terri nurtured most fiercely. She loved her husband and kids and daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and her parents and sister and brother and her nieces and nephews and in-laws and extended family and special friends, her family-of-the heart, with the kind of unconditional love that we should all experience just once in our lifetime.

We talked in February when there was still some semblance of hope. We talked about the possibility of nurturing the body so it can set healing processes in play. We talked about the maybe of one last chance at chemo. And Terri said, “I think my grandkids need me here. Does that sound crazy?”

It didn’t sound crazy. It sounded right and true and heart-breaking. Of course those children need that kind of buoying, believing, visioning love.

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Terri loved music, and her family reverberated with that. Ott plays professionally and Terri would go, almost weekly sometimes, to hear him. He played, too, in church, and he passed his musical gifts on to his kids. As a family, they can make a damn fine noise. Terri often posted video on Facebook.

In her last year, Terri got herself a dulcimer, and she was teaching herself to play it, to add a new and traditional dimension to the family chorus.

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Terri had felt sick a long time before she was diagnosed. She called for appointments; she asked for tests. For whatever reason, her medical folks didn’t listen to her. It’s a pulled muscle, one told her. They recommended things to reduce stress.

I don’t know if it would have made a difference, in the long run, had she been diagnosed in August instead of January. But it tears my heart that no one listened to her.

There were other disappointments, too, in the days after her diagnosis.

I dealt with her illness by stewing in a broth of anger and resentment on, I thought, her behalf.

But it was clear, in that last weekend, in that last precious visit, that Terri had faced those hurts head on, and synthesized them. She had jettisoned her anger and come to acceptance. She forgave. She let it go, and she found, it was clear, the joy in every last day.

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Each year, Terri picked a word that was kind of a token or a talisman for her. This year her word was ‘shine,’ and she did, in those three short months she had left. And she does, in a legacy too rich and lasting to let the glow diminish.

She inspired me to choose a word, too. My word this year is ‘courage.’ I was thinking about making bold changes and striking out bravely on new paths. I didn’t think I’d be calling courage into play to deal with my dear friend’s death.

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Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.

I have two regrets: I wish I had told Terri more often how important and wonderful her special qualities were. I wish I had tried harder to emulate them when she was here.

And I know this: no one, none of us, can try to do the things she did the way that Terri did them. She is irreplaceable, and the world is changed because she’s gone.

But we can—I can—carry forth the spirit of the things that Terri loved.

I can build that garden.

I can put a stack of CD’s in the car and pick one out to play when I drive to teach my night class. I will crank up the windows and bellow along, in my flat, hoarse voice that no one else should be subjected to, just loving the music.

I can see my house with new eyes and hang things and display things that say beauty to me, that speak to me of seasons and time and what’s important.

I can write a note to a friend.

I can give a book to a child.

I can remember, everyday, to tell the precious people in my family that I love them.

I can face my hurts and resentments head on, and let them go, taking the long, hard slog to forgiveness.

I can, as Terri did, appreciate and marvel at each and every day.

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And I can let those regrets change the way I do the business of life. I can see, wide-eyed and mindful, the wonderful things that those I love put into play daily.

I see, I can say to them, your humor, your steadfastness. Your devoutness and devotion. Your imagination and artistry. Your gift of love and your gift of perseverance.

I see those things, and I can never do them the same way that you do. But I can appreciate them and I can emulate them, in my own way, through my own lens. Because you, and the things you do, are essential. The world needs those things.

And one day, this train is going to stop, and you and I are going to have to get off. Someone, though, will try to carry on.

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So.

Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.

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Working With Heart

Imagine what a harmonious world it could be if every single person, both young and old, shared a little of what he is good at doing.   (Quincey Jones)

 

Sister Mary Theresa: a pale, beautiful face framed by a white wimple.  Her hands, long-fingered and powdery clean, clasped her wooden rosary beads as she swished down the aisles. Her gauzy black veil brushed our desks as she ensured that we were earnestly penciling our letters neatly into the blue-lined spaces of our coarse yellow paper.

We loved Sister Mary Theresa, and when she stood in front of the room and told us to be diligent, we listened.  Work hard, she told us, and learn about your gifts.  Even someone who is six years old might discover her vocation.  And maybe, and Sister’s face would shine when she said this, MAYBE, there’s even a child in here–or two!- who has a religious vocation. Maybe, among us, there is a future priest!  Or a future nun!

Ah, my heart leapt, and I knew that was me, that I was destined for a life of sacrifice and prayer. I read the life of the Little Flower, and decided that nothing would do but to join a cloistered order of Carmelite nuns.  I wrote to them and declared my intentions.  They sent me flyers and literature and good advice: Wait a bit and explore all your options.

The next year, I had a lay teacher and the Beatles came to America, and I realized that I was REALLY intended to be a rock star. I wrote to the Beatles, too, but I never heard back from them regarding my future employment.  And a passing year and an impatient family bore the truth down upon me: to be a musician one needs some kind of musical ability.

So there I was, aged eight, without a clue, knowing only that I was destined neither to be a bride of Christ nor a female rock icon.  But I knew deep in my deepest knowing that I was destined for something: that I had skills and gifts and talents waiting to be discovered…that there was a vocation out there waiting for me.  There was a Pam-shaped niche, just waiting for me to grow up and fill it.

I embraced Sister Mary Theresa’s concept of vocation.

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We all know people who are in the absolutely wrong jobs.

There’s the teacher (not the norm–there are great heroes in the ranks of teachers!) who chose the field because it was steady and paid decently, and she could be home when the kids were home. She is using the lessons plans she designed for her math class 15 years ago. Math hasn’t changed in that time; why should the way she does her work?  She grades one class’s papers while another is slogging along, completing that day’s assignment, at their desks.  She always gives quick written feedback, but she often ignores the raised hands and puzzled faces in front of her.  In the teachers’ lounge, she is bitter about cell phones and tattoos and rudeness and administrative decisions. She regularly refers to her high school students as ‘little shits.’  She can tell you exactly how many days there are until summer vacation.

There’s the worker in reception who regards the people he is meant to serve as a gross imposition on his time.

There’s the exhausted doctor whose mind is only on her watercolors.

There’s the government worker who plods along at his job for forty years, racking up the retirement dollars doing work he hates.  He and the wife are saving for their retirement, squirreling away money for a little retirement place in Florida.  He dies the week after he retires, from a massive heartache that explodes with no warning.  His kids, grown now, remember him falling asleep in his lounge chair after dinner, cigarette burning down to a nub.  He was always tired, always, remote, always a little bit sad. Not me, each vows. That will not be me.

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But there are the others, too–the people who seem made for their position, who, no matter what it is that they do, elevate the role to that of a true vocation.

There’s the adjunct math instructor dancing in the hallway because a struggling student has finally grasped the concept of derivatives.  The classroom ceiling cracked open, a beam of glowing light poured through on the student’s head, and she dropped her pen and looked up at him in wonder.

“I get it!” she said.  “I GET it!!!”

That’s it, he thinks; this is the job I’m meant to be doing.

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There is the woman who has waited tables at the same family restaurant for thirty years.  She has her regulars, and she knows exactly what they want.  She knows the kids’ names and where they are in school and she serves each customer a heaping helping of personal interest along with the scrambled eggs. She makes strangers feel welcome; her quick eyes assess their state–tired, in need of comfort, confused or perplexed, excited to be visiting, here for a reason that involves bad news.  She knows when to suggest a soothing bowl of hot soup and when to grab a brochure of local sites and recommend a trip to the wildlife sanctuary or the sculpture park.

She quells the rude without offending and she reaches for crying babies and she makes sure the coffee cups are never, ever empty.  She can’t think of another job that would give her the same joy.  This kind of serving–well, it’s her vocation.

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There is…

…The haircutter who makes sure every client leaves feeling as if she looks her absolute best.

…The coach, industrial foreman by day, who inspires kids to stretch, to grow, to push themselves and find out just what they are capable of doing.

…The guidance counselor who plants and harvests dreams.

…The stay at home mom who juggles diapers and library trips and dirty clothes and satisfying dinners day in and day out and makes her life look like a gift.

…The factory owner who knows the names of each of his 200 employees.  He spends at least one day, every two weeks, on the factory floor.  He asks about the kid who applied for a scholarship; he wants to know if the mother-in-law is out of the hospital. His people love him and love working for him.  His business withstands pressures that sink other enterprises.

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These ones have found the work that makes their souls sing.

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Maybe–although I don’t completely buy this–there’s not a mystical niche that was created for each of us before we were born.  But each of us has our own special formula of gifts and leanings, weaknesses and blind spots, abilities and potential. Tapping those particular talents and attributes taps into happiness.

So a young man we know, Noah, who has a pretty severe development disability, is happily employed at a family-owned diner.  Noah’s job coach realized that he was meticulous and orderly and loved to organize things into neat bundles.  So Noah does the job the wait staffers at the diner hate to do: he wraps silverware into linen napkins and places them in a big plastic bin. Noah never puts an even vaguely dirty fork into a pristine napkin.  He will set aside any piece of silverware that has the slightest hint of residue, and when he is done with his napkin rolling, he will take the suspect pieces back to the kitchen and wash them by hand.  He greets regular customers, his face lighting up; his joy is part of the warmth that draws them back to that diner three or four times a week.

Noah has found his niche, his calling.  (Oh, the wisdom of that job coach!)

So a young woman who loves working with kids, who just wants to help kids find their own niches, takes some social work classes while she is remediating her GPA: she needs a 2.75 to get into the education program.  But a funny thing happens. She falls in love with social work.  Knowing that it is a gritty, demanding field, and knowing that she will never make top pay, she plunges into a wholly unexpected course of study.  She loves her internship.  She gets a job at an inner-city children’s program and earns her MSW in the nooks and crannies of time.

She sees pain and heartache and often is called on to offer comfort.  But she sees, too, gleaming moments of triumph.  And she knows that this–this work, this exhausting and consuming work,–is what she is meant to do.

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Self-knowledge is not taught in schools, but it should, maybe, be our first and continuous learning–its blossoming our ultimate goal. It is painful to see the unemployed woman, tender and slow and patient, talk about wanting to work in a fast-paced, high pressure office,–the exact kind of environment that will ignore her skills and sap her energy.  It is frustrating to see the child, awkward and clumsy but gifted with artistic skills, talk about his only consuming passion: to be a fast-moving, dexterous professional basketball star. And it is annoying to work with the real estate broker who goes through the motions, checking his text messages when he could be pointing out the possibilities.

There are tests that show our aptitudes and our communications styles, free tests that we can take, and then wrestle with the knowledge unpeeled by the results. {See links at the end for a couple of examples.}

There are the things that people say to us, offhand remarks–Nobody bakes pies like you do, Carrie! or,–Whenever I want to build something, Calvin, I come to you for help planning.

There is the thread revealed by the journals we keep: Look at how many times in the past six months, Frieda thinks, I wrote about repurposing! Perhaps the clues are there, bread crumbs on the trail, waiting to be picked up.

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What happened to Sister Mary Theresa, that beautiful young nun in the early 1960’s? Not many years later, the mysterious habits morphed into practical polyester suits, the swishing veils into pill box hats with short, bouncing plackets. Many, many nuns in those turbulent times tied up their sensible oxford shoes and marched out of the convent into secular life, into marriages and relationships and public schools and not-for-profit management.

I wonder if Sister Mary Theresa found, in those years of discovery, that her definition of vocation underwent a change. Because that’s a possibility, too–that the job that fits exactly when we’re 20 is not the right fit when we are 32.  That our vocation can grow and change as we do.

A constant awareness, I think, must be maintained.

Imagine, though, what life would be like if we encouraged and  cultivated that kind of self-knowledge. Imagine a world where everyone picked up the bread crumbs.

Imagine a world where every person was engaged in work that made their heart sing.

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Some free online  inventories:

Find your strengths:

http://www.literacynet.org/mi/assessment/findyourstrengths.html

What’s your communications style?

http://occonline.occ.cccd.edu/online/klee/CommunicationsStyleInventory.pdf

 

…That’s the Way I Spell ‘Success’

(Because I haven’t reached out to the folks or their families, and because the information here’s a little bit personal, I’m altering the names of the real and wonderful people about whom I write.)

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My mother, when I was growing up, had herself a frienemy.

Oh, of course, we didn’t call the relationship that then, but that’s what they were, my mom and Thea–frienemies.  I have to think they really, deep down, loved each other–why else would they keep calling, keep visiting, keep plugging away at a relationship that seem to chafe them both?

Thea’s kids were all around the same age as my mother’s own darling offspring, and they were all–sigh–so much BETTER.  They got good grades, and they didn’t get rides home in police cars, and they didn’t rip their pants climbing chain link fences to get out of places where they shouldn’t have been in the first place.  They didn’t roll their skirts up to mini length as soon as they were out of sight of the house. Their breaths didn’t smell suspiciously wine-y or malt-y, never mind a thick overlay of sweet spray mouthwash, after Friday night football games. And they didn’t provoke evening phone calls to parents from school personnel, unless the call was to tell Thea and her husband that their child had earned yet another scholarship, award, or academic kudo.

When the school called our house, the room quickly cleared. My older brothers–oh, they were unfeeling!–would send one of us younger ones back in as sacrificial scouts after the receiver banged back into place.  If the canary stopped singing, those bad boys would stay out of the mine a little bit longer.

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And, the next day, maybe, Mom and Thea would wind up chatting on the phone, again.  Comparisons would commence.

Thea would call Mom, say, to tell her how wonderfully well parent conferences went, and then she’d ask, with gleeful concern, how Mom had enjoyed hers. Of course, when Thea talked to teachers, she heard things like, “A joy to have in class!”

When my mama went to conferences, she heard…

…Not working up to potential.

…More interested in socializing than in schoolwork.

…Messy.

…Missing work.

…Attitude needs adjustment.

The Mom/Thea kid-comparisons lasted until well after we all left school.  Some of us bumbled around, discovering ourselves.  Some others charted a course, followed it, and quickly secured career advancement.

I leave it to you to guess whose kids did which.

One day–I was teaching middle school at the time–I stopped in to visit mom and interrupted her on the phone with Thea.

“Well,” my mother was sputtering, “well, maybe my kids aren’t all successful.  But at least I think they’re HAPPY!”

She slammed down the phone and turned and smiled at me.  “Coffee?” she asked.

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I certainly didn’t debate it with my mother at the time, but her statement has stayed with me all those years.  What IS being a success, after all, if it isn’t being happy?

But happiness shouldn’t be a contest, and, I’m thinking, neither should success. This whole line of thought gets me to pondering the people I’ve known whom  I can honestly and unequivocally call successful.  The trappings that society considers requisite for success don’t really apply.  To be successful, I think, you have to set goals and meet them–or, have the wisdom to know your goals are wrong and change them.  To be successful, you have to be willing to try and fail and try again–and know that failure is a real and potentially permanent possibility.  To be successful, you need to know yourself and to have the courage to stay true to whatever it is that means.

It’s the rare person who does all that consistently.  I don’t always, or even often, reach all those high notes.

But I’ve known folks who have, and did, and do.

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I knew, for instance, Dan and Jessica, who never bought a single thing on time.  They had seen the world–Dan had been in the service and stationed in Europe. I was so impressed that the little downstairs powder room in their lovely house sported a wooden sign that read, “WC.”

Ah, that’s class, I thought: who in the States calls their half bathroom a water closet? Dan and Jessica had traveled. They’d been there.

They had a houseful of books, a houseful of music, a houseful of art, and a house full of rich conversation.  Dan was the maintenance guy at the little private school where I taught; he was a gifted ‘fixer,’ but never too busy to put down his tool belt to discuss the merits of a poem I’d just lettered on the bulletin board in the hallway.  He was a poet himself, and he crafted odes to celebrate all kinds of events–entries and exits, commencements and commemorations.  I remember his poem to celebrate the first time a goat visited the school, and I remember its historic refrain:

There’s goat doo-doo down in the hall.

Jessica taught; the two of them entertained; they continued to do some traveling; and together they raised three wonderful children.  The first time they ever took out a loan was when the oldest one went off to college. And you can bet those bright, funny, hard-working kids worked their butts off, got and maintained scholarships, and paid back, in giant ways, their parents’ faith in them.

Long after we moved away, we learned that Dan had died, much too young.  But what a lot of living he and Jessica packed into their years together–what integrity and passion.  What laughter, and what fun.

In the Dictionary of Pam, when you look up ‘success,’ you’ll see pictures of Jessica and Dan.

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I knew a man named Luke who had absolutely no reason to be happy, and yet he was. Luke was dying from AIDs by the time I met him; he dragged a long and hurtful past behind him.  He’d made mistakes; he’d learned some big things–bigger things than most of us ever have to tussle with.  He’d forged a fierce authenticity in a fire that had raged overly bright.

We met at a soup kitchen run by our church.  I believed in organization and lists and volunteers signed up for shifts.  I believed in meal planning and smart shopping and counting the cost. I believed our hands were the only hands God had on earth–and that we had better keep them washed and busy.

Luke believed–he really, really did–that God would provide, and that a spirit of radical hospitality was more important than counting out the chicken breasts.  It was all, he would assure me, going to work out anyway.

The two of us worked the kitchen together for a couple of years.  We drove each other crazy.  We disagreed on lots of things–but never on the dignity of the people whom we served.

It worked out, as it turned out, really well.

Luke had a tiny apartment a block or so away from the church, which was good because he had no car. He had thrift shop clothes and hand-me-down furniture and he could tell you stories about winters, back during the time he lived in New England, when he couldn’t pay for heat and there was truly and literally nothing to eat in his house.  He hadn’t acquired a whole lot of material goods since those days, but he had learned a deep and abiding faith, and he had come to accept himself. He kept a prayer wall, Luke did, where he wrote, in Sharpie, the names of everyone he cared about and everyone who needed prayer and all the causes he just ached to see resolved.  He could see the lists from his bed; when he felt too sick to get up, he would stretch out and read the names and send up prayers.

And then, a day or two would pass, and Luke would feel better.  He’d get up and come back to church and tell me I was too fussy, the way I peeled potatoes.

Luke bounced back so many times that I just knew, deep in my knowing, that he was going to be around a long, long time.

But of course, he wasn’t.  He died way too young; he died way too soon.  And he died having made a far-rippling impact.  He taught a congregation about acceptance and grief and a kind of hospitality that says I don’t CARE how badly you smell or how funny you talk or whether your filters aren’t firmly in place: it just doesn’t matter. You are welcome here, my friend.

Luke lived his beliefs, stayed true through pain and neglect and deeply wounding sadness, found faith, built family, left us way too soon.  Luke, too: success.

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Successful? Hey, I know people.

I know someone, for instance, who works to reunite broken families.  Her methods, which are creative, maybe a little unconventional, are sometimes frowned upon by a canon-bound establishment. But they are compassionate methods, and ones that keep people safe.  They are methods that work. She often celebrates success.

I know a woman, born to wealth, who spent her career educating people to go out and build themselves better lives, and who, in retirement, insures her family’s funds help others.

I know a man who yearned, despite Fate’s other plans, to go to law school; he passed the Bar the week that he turned 50.

I know a school counselor who never gives up on her students–who pours her heart and soul and being into getting them on the path to success.  Sometimes, she has to testify in court. But often, she is dancing at their weddings.

I know a woman who happens to have Stage Four cancer but has never–not for one day–let that define her.

I know a mother who survived the unthinkable suicide of a child; she now works to promote better understanding of mental health issues in young people.

I know a person who, deprived of the opportunity to have a traditional family, opened his arms to lost sheep and lonely souls. He built a family, person by person, heart by heart. It is one of the strongest, most loving family groups I’ve ever seen.

I know people who reach deep into the pits of their gifts and talents, and who bring up treasures clutched in both hands.  They use their words, their music, their ability to teach, their compassion, their parenting skills, their creativity, their movement, their awareness.  They have wrestled with the Meaning Demon long and hard.  They have been victorious.  Their words and sounds and touch and thoughts enrich the lives of those they reach and nurture and respond to.

Still wrestling with the Demon myself, I am blessed with all these role models.  I hope to reach that plateau, that victory platform, where I can join them and say, at last, “Success!”

Right now, I can say, “Working on it.”

But my mother was right. Mostly, and blessedly, I’ve been happy.

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I know some other people, too, ones for whom the whole idea of wrestling was too much–the ones who turned away, who settled, who–it seems to me, anyway–gave up.  They are not happy, those ones.  But neither are they doomed.

I firmly believe this: it is NEVER too late. And there is always something you can do.

Success is understanding the hands we’ve been dealt and looking at all the options of playing those cards.  Then it’s picking the option that matches what we know of ourselves and our gifts, our values and our yearnings, and committing ourselves to playing that game, whole of heart and single of mind.

It has nothing–success doesn’t–to do with money or clothes or cars or trappings.  But you can have those and still be successful.

**********

Mom is gone.

Thea is gone.

I stay in touch with one of Thea’s kids on Facebook; she’s out West, but we keep each other informed.  So I know that, in her siblings’ lives, there have been divorces and estrangements, disappointments, arraignments, and muddles.  But they have all come through okay. Their lives might not look exactly like the triumphs they’d envisioned back in the day when Thea and Mom compared notes.  But they are all, my old friend tells me, true and strong and happy.

Ah. So. Competition over.  There is plenty of room on the victory platform, plenty of space for each of us to climb up and grab those sashes and slide them over our heads. The music will pulse; we’ll all be bouncing, hands flailing joyfully, the silky word ‘success’ flared across our chests and bellies.

It’s crowded, that platform, with successful people; they dazzle me with their grins and their dance moves. They inspire.  Wait for me!  I call to them. I think  I’m getting there!

And then I go back to the wrestling.

62 Years of Sauce

This year, my mother-in-law Pat gathered her grown children around her Thanksgiving table. They came from small cities and villages within her western New York county; they came from the west coast and from the Midwest.  They came to eat the first Thanksgiving dinner not cooked up and served up under the discerning eye of their father Angelo; he died in the dawning of 2015.

Ironically, Pat and Ang’s 62nd anniversary fell on Thanksgiving day itself this year.  The marriage spanned 61 years of growth and change, war and détente, peace, turmoil and resolution, births and nurturing, work and respite, loss and renewal–in the world, and in their lives.

That’s a lot of years together.

That’s a lot of spaghetti sauce.

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I ate spaghetti, growing up, and I liked it, but my Scottish mother’s version was not like ‘regular’ spaghetti. The sauce was thin enough to be translucent. Early on, she rebelled against shaping meatballs; instead she’d brown a big chunk of burger in the sauce pot.  One of my brothers had an aversion to the texture and sight of any kind of stewed veggies, so Mom would clamp the big metal grinder to the countertop and run an onion through it.  The grinding reduced the onion to mush; Mom would stir that into the cooking beef.  (She always cleaned out the grinder by running stale bread through it, behind the onion; often there’d be ground bread in the sauce, too, which didn’t bother anyone.)
She would pour cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste into the pot.  She would double the bulk with water, and stir in oregano and basil flakes.  She would simmer it all together and cook up two pounds of thin spaghetti.
We ate it all with no complaints; it was hot, flavorful, and filling.

It wasn’t, though, traditional Italian spaghetti sauce. When I married Mark, I would really begin to learn the intricacies and variations involved with cooking a wonderful, thick, bubbling pot of what his family called, in Italian, “soukup.”

*****

Angelo was the son of Sicilian immigrants Joseph and Mary–called Ma and Pa by their children and extended family. They married in the States in the early part of the twentieth century; they built a life in western New York, where they had seven children and Pa worked on the railroad. Ma was a stay-at-home mom; on Saturdays, Ang recalled, she would cook up a huge pot of sauce and bake enough bread for a week. Ang was always interested in cooking; he learned the secrets of sauce by watching Ma and helping her.

He brought those secrets, those tasty techniques, into his marriage with Pat, who was not Italian, but quickly learned the ins and outs of Italian cooking.

Sundays were family dinner days.  In the early years of their marriage, Ang and Pat lived in an apartment above Ma and Pa, and, after church, they would gather downstairs around a huge and groaning dining table. Several of Ang’s siblings would arrive with spouses and kids; a special table would be set up for the young ones.  Bowls and platters of pasta and sauce would emerge steaming from Ma’s kitchen, and the family would dig in with gusto.

When Ang and Pat bought their own home, that big table came to roost in their dining room, and the tradition of Sunday pasta dinners moved with them, too.  They had five children in all, four active boys, and then, ten years after Thomas, the youngest, was born, the lovely surprise of a baby girl.  Mark and his brothers brought friends home on Sundays; leaves extended the table to its utmost. Extended family might drop in. When the boys began marrying and grandchildren arrived, the practice of the children’s table had to be reinstated.

But the wonderful quality of the sauce never wavered.  When I first knew Pat–I was in college and we worked together at a bookstore–she canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, and the pasta sauce was simmered from ingredients mostly home-grown and hand-preserved.  A long simmer, the right seasonings, a little sweetness to cut the acid…attention to detail and patience were the most important qualities.  Spaghetti sauce was a delicious and inexpensive way to feed a hungry mob.

The sauce that Pat simmered up in the kitchen of her lovely hundred-year-old home was far different from my Scottish mother’s.  Pat and Ang served sauce that was thick, rich, and fragrant.  (Their sauce was to my mother’s what robust stew juices are to thin soups–both valid, of course, but mightily different.  I understood after first tasting Ang and Pat’s pasta why some Italian families call their red sauce ‘gravy’.)

Unless it was a Friday, or Lent, the sauce could contain many different kinds of meat–usually an abundance of meatballs, often Italian sausage, and sometimes pork or chicken.  My father-in-law was partial to putting pig trotters into his red sauce; I didn’t doubt that they sweetened the sauce. Those seemed, though, blatantly anatomical steaming on the plate of meat which Ang would strain from the sauce and place in the middle of the table. He and Pat would put little bowls of sauce at intervals; there would be grated cheese and crusty bread and greens to make a salad.  And two huge bowls of pasta with scoops could be easily reached from all seats.

A lot of sauce was ladled at that table; the sauce fueled conversation, discussion, and camaraderie.  As years went by, Pat’s methods changed; the proliferation of good, economical, high-quality canned sauce made the hard work of handpicking, peeling, juicing, and canning tomatoes unnecessary.  But the canned sauce was only a base for the magic that Pat and Ang worked in their kitchen.

Along the way, Ang discovered a recipe in his local newspaper; it was Dom Deluise’s mother’s meatball recipe, it was darned good, and we use our adaptation of it to this day. I imagine the sauce being shared around tables for generations to come–feeding hungry families, complementing joy and struggle.

So here, in honor of Ang and Pat’s long partnership, and of the first anniversary, just past, they’ve spent apart, here is the method for that long simmered sauce….

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We use (to feed 4-6 people):
–one 6-ounce can tomato paste
–one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
–one 24-ounce can of spaghetti sauce, traditional or meat flavored
–a portion of a recipe of Dom’s Mom’s meatballs
–three links of Italian sausage
–one onion
–one clove of garlic
–olive oil
–oregano
–basil
–rosemary
–a bay leaf

–one quarter cup of sugar

Coat the bottom of a heavy stock pot with olive oil, and heat that over a medium flame. In it, sauté chopped onion until almost translucent, then add the garlic clove, crushed.  Stir until the veggies are sweated and soft, then add the tomato paste and sauce and spaghetti sauce.  Fill the empty sauce jar with water, twice, and stir into the pot.  Add the spices and sugar and bring to a simmer.  We cook and stir, simmer and steep, for at least three hours.

Meanwhile, bake the meatballs (recipe follows) and parboil the sausage. At least an hour and a half before serving–and you can do this well before then–add the meat to the pot and let everything simmer so the flavors will meld and blend.

As the acid bubbles to the top of the sauce during the early simmer, skim with a flat spoon.  You can sweeten the sauce in several ways.  We usually add at least a quarter cup of sugar; I know people who add a cup or more. We have a good friend who peels a carrot and halves it and throws both halves into a steaming sauce pot. Pork bones also seem to add sweetness and cut the acid; we save the bones and leftover meat from a roast, and in they go.

Chicken, also, cooks down into tender strands in the sauce and adds a wonderful flavor; I don’t recommend putting pieces of chicken in the pot with bone intact, though.  The tiny bones come unglued and separate into the sauce, and unsuspecting diners crunch down on bits of hard bone.  Much better to remove the flesh from the bones and throw just the tender meat into that simmering brew.

We like to serve this with a tossed green salad, grated parmesan, and a loaf of crusty bread.  Of course, a bold red wine goes nicely too.

It’s easy to double or triple this method for a crowd, and you can be daring with add in’s.  We love the sauce with fresh zucchini cooked into it, for instance. And in Lent, Mark’s dad always omitted meat and added sardines and chopped hard-boiled egg.  In those times, instead of topping the sauce with cheese, Ang would heat olive oil in his cast iron skillet, and brown up  a big batch of bread crumbs. The family would use them in place of parmesan, and Mark still loves his sauce topped that way.  And of course, vegetarian possibilities are endless, too. A neat trick Pat taught me was to add dried fennel to the sauce; its taste evokes Italian sausage, even when there’s none to be found in the freezer.

Leftover, this sauce makes a dynamite base for a thick, spicy chili.

********

Our version of Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs

2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork (ground turkey works, too, as does ground chicken…)
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs
4 eggs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or–I often use 1/4 cup of dried parsley)
1/2 cup grated cheese–our favorite is a romano/parmesan blend
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 minced onion
***Optional: 1/2 cup pine nuts

Mix all ingredients; let stand for 1/2 hour.

Shape into meatballs.

Fry gently (to brown), or bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Add cooked meatballs to sauce and simmer.

One More Sailor Sounds the Bell

Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson
Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson

Monday night, at 11:15, Jim knocked at our bedroom door.

“My stomach feels funny,” he said.

I sat up, poised to go into full mom-mode.  “How about a Tums, buddy?” I asked. “Would that help?”

“It’s not that kind of funny,” said Jim. He paused and then started to say something, but before he got very far, Mark’s cell phone rang.

It was Jim’s big brother Matthew, who, joined by his cousin Jeremy, had been sitting a loyal vigil at his Grandpa Angelo’s bedside. Matt was calling to tell his dad that the vigil was over; Angelo had made that final passing.

“Oh,” said Jim, softly, and he went back down the hallway and closed the door to his bedroom, needing to be alone for awhile.  Somehow, I think, his stomach had been letting him know the news Matthew shared over the phone.

******
Angelo was 94 when he passed peacefully from this life into the one that comes next.  He was a patriot and a family man.  He was a hard worker who believed in the value of education.  He was someone who didn’t give up, who cherished his faith, who was passionate about his interests.
******
Memories, stories, images, tumble…

I think about working with Pat, Mark’s mom, at the bookstore. Long before either of us thought we’d be connected by marriage, we were friends. I was a just-out-of-college, newly married, party-loving kid then; so were many of the crew.  Pat was maybe early forties; she trained us and she tolerated us, and one night we persuaded her to come out with us after work.  She let her husband know, of course, but Ang probably figured she’d grab a cup of coffee and be home, oh, maybe 45 minutes to an hour later than usual.  By 11, he was calling my home phone, a little frantic, asking my husband if he knew where we could be.
Where we were was the Park Pub; we were sitting with big drinks, sharing wedges of a giant roast beef on kimmelweck sandwich. We were laughing and munching and telling tales and confessing hopes and fears and great loves and disappointments, and Pat was gently riding herd on our exuberance.  She got home around midnight, I think, and the next few times Angelo came into the bookstore, he narrowed his eyes at me–a wary, speculative look.

Later, when life had shifted in unexpected ways, and Mark and I were dating, I would ask for an ashtray when I visited Pat and Ang.  I smoked while Mark and I dated and in the first part of our marriage.  Ang would get me the ashtray and talk about his own habit; he only smoked, he told me, when Pat was pregnant.  So he smoked for four of the first nine years of their marriage, from the early fifties to the very early sixties,–smoked while waiting to welcome Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy.  By the time a wonderful little surprise, Mary Ann, joined the cast in 1970, the need seems to have ebbed; the boys don’t recall Angelo smoking in anticipation of Mary’s birth. (Mark, 16 when his baby sister was born, confesses to being mortified that people of such advanced years on the planet could be having a baby. “ Mother, how COULD you? At YOUR age?” Pat remembers him saying.)

I remember rollicking meals with the family and an ever-changing cast of guests around the big dining room table that Ang inherited from his mother, another Mary, whom everyone in the family called ‘Ma’.  Ma bought the table from a peddler in the Depression era; the peddler shopped his wares from a horse-pulled wagon.  He’d load up the wagon and make his slow way from Buffalo into the outlying areas, stopping to see if housewives needed chairs, a sofa, a bed-frame.  Ma needed a table that would seat her burgeoning family. Ma and Pa–Grandpa Joseph–had ten children; the twins, Vincent and Theresa, died shortly after birth. The rest of the children,–Tony, Frances, Joe, Angelo, Lucy, Sam, John, and Russell, in that order–grew up strong, hard-working, and hungry.  They gathered around that table–stretched by up to eight leaves–for many years.

Ang remembered Saturdays at home and Ma baking bread and simmering spaghetti sauce.  For lunch she would flatten out a big hunk of dough, spread some of her good homemade sauce on top, grate cheese, chop meat–homemade pizza to feed her hungry kids and her husband, who worked hard at the railroad before coming home to tend his amazing garden.

Ang learned to make the sauce.  He and Pat were ahead of their time; they shared household chores, and Pat used her amazing customer service skills to pursue her own career in retail sales.  Ang would come home from the plant; Pat would leave for work; Ang would feed his own hungry horde.  But on Sundays, the whole family gathered together around Ma’s table.  Friends and extended family were welcome; there was always room for one more.  Mark’s college buddy Frank, who attended the Culinary Institute and cooked at the Tavern on the Green for a time, rhapsodized years later about eating lasagna at that table. The best he ever had, swore Frank stoutly, nothing to compare, before or since.

Now the table belongs to Ang’s baby girl; from Mary to Mary: a full circle.

Matthew, at Grandpa’s side for that final passage, wrote on his FaceBook page:  One more sailor rings the bell….farewell and following seas, Grandpa….
Matt served in the US Navy Presidential Guard, choosing his Grandpa’s branch of the service.  Ang served during World War II, on the Fletcher-class destroyer, the USS O’Bannon.  It was a ship that had a plucky and determined crew, and they saw a lot of action.  Famously, though, the O’Bannon miraculously avoided a confrontation when a Japanese sub surfaced within hailing distance.  A crewman was on the O’Bannon’s deck, peeling potatoes.  Somehow, he had the presence of mind to take the roughly grenade-sized spuds and begin lobbing them rhythmically at the submarine.  It submerged and left quietly,–not, I guess, interested in taking any chances.  The potatoes saved the O’Bannon that day, and she and her crew served honorably in many actions.

Angelo in Navy
Angelo, a young sailor on the USS O’Bannon


The war left a lasting impression on Angelo; he wrote movingly of his abhorrence of armed combat when he inscribed copies of the book Action Tonight, by James D. Horan, for each of his children. (Action Tonight detailed the O’Bannon’s World War II journey.) But Ang retained his deep love of country, and he kept close touch with his shipmates, attending reunions and sharing correspondences.  In November 2014, the local veterans’ association honored Ang in a special ceremony.  After WW II, medals which he had earned were somehow never delivered; he finally accepted those medals at age 94, in front of his family, friends, and admirers.


Jennifer, Angelo’s granddaughter, also serves in her country’s military; her Grandpa was very proud of his smart savvy granddaughter, an officer and a helicopter pilot with the US Army.

Ang and Pat believed  in education.  Ang himself never finished high school; in Depression days, boys from big families often didn’t.  They left school at 14 or 15, they got men’s jobs, and they contributed the money to their families without quibble or bicker.  But Ang and Pat were determined that their kids would go to college.  They couldn’t afford fancy residential schools, but there was a good SUNY college within an easy commute. All five kids earned their bachelor’s degrees there. Ang and Pat provided a roof and food and a car to get back and forth—and plenty of life lessons.

They might have been commuter students, but Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy all made a real effort to be part of college life. And on Friday nights, that might mean partaking of the partying that was so much a part of 1970’s college culture.  They would crawl home in the early wee hours, sometimes to a chorus of birds greeting the dawn, and stealthily creep up the stairs to pass out in their beds. They needn’t have worried; their concerned parents had just the right hangover cure. 

Pat would vacuum at 7 AM; Ang would clash pots and pans; the boys would be rousted from bed to perform early Saturday chores.  Mark tells tales of mowing the dewy lawn; clipping the hedges that surrounded their football field side yard; scraping and painting house and garage;–all on a couple hours of sleep. He said he always had a really bad boo-boo head.  He said he never realized until then that sweat could actually smell like beer.

In 2001, Ang saw a blurb in the local paper that said a program was being set up to give high school diplomas to WWII vets who’d left school to go to serve their country.  Ang called the number. ‘Am I eligible?’ he asked.  He explained he had left school to work, only later, in his twenties, serving in the Navy.

The woman he spoke to gently told him no.  The award, she said, was only for those vets who actually quit high school to enlist.  Ang said he understood and hung up the phone.

Several days later, an article appeared in the paper begging the gentleman who’d called to inquire about the diploma to call back. After talking with Ang, the woman had been unsettled; she investigated and found that Ang WAS eligible.  He received his high school diploma that year, standing straight and tall in the  auditorium, applauded by family members and an SRO crowd of clapping community members and students.  He was 81 years old.

The stories about Angelo swirl as the family sits at the kitchen table–childhood escapades, work stories, memories of standing with Angelo in the basement, running the intricate, multi-gauge miniature railroad he’d set up over the passage of many years. There’s the story of the car Pat turned down to marry Ang, who was 14 years her senior; her brother offered to buy her a convertible if she’d abandon the idea of  the wedding.  Pat and Ang were married 61 years. The sons in particular remember hopping to it when their father began to utter the words, “By the Christ in heaven…” Mary Ann has her own stories to tell,  the cherished baby girl, the pretty teenager whose dates had to pass a tough, tough scrutiny.

Memories flicker and flash likes snippets of old time movies, out of context, out of order: Grandpa and Number One at the town dump, rescuing metal Tonka trucks left carefully at the edges by those whose kids had outgrown them, taking them home to sand and refinish, creating a dream of a fleet for a kid with a dirt pile.  Angelo with his eight year old daughter, come to the store to show the mom what they’d bought. Grandpa with a warm, pudgy hand in one of his, flowering plants carefully balanced in the other, walking toward the graves of his parents.  That picture morphs quickly, flipping through the years–the pudgy toddler gradually becoming a tall, handsome, young man, but still at the cemetery every year, still at Grandpa’s side. Angelo at Christmas, passing out decorative wooden wheelbarrows he’d painstakingly crafted in his basement workshop. Grandpa and granddaughter, barely old enough to sit by herself in a lawn chair, having a long serious conversation on a hot summer day, while her big brother buzzes energetically around the yard. Grandpa with any one of his beloved grandchildren, driving his little tractor around the lawn.

There are many ways to take stock of a man’s life; one of them is to count the number of grandchildren who post on Facebook, when he passes, that they have lost their best friend.  Ang took infinite pride in his wife, Pat, and his children, Mark, Joe, Stephen, Tommy, and Mary Ann. He was a kind and fond father-in-law to Patty and Phil, Susans and Pams,  a devoted grandfather-in-law to Julie. He was a loving brother, uncle, and friend. But in grandfathering, he seemed to come fully into his own.  He had unflagging time, love, and patience for his grandchildren, Matthew, Brian, Jeremy, Phillip, Bobby, Jim, Jennifer, and Alexander. He delighted in his great granddaughters, Alyssa and Kaelyn.

Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983
Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983

He lived a long, hard-fought, wonderful life, did Angelo, and he passed from it convinced he was going home.  In the days and weeks and months to come we will, I hope, be able to write the stories down, to take scattered fragments and anecdotes and create a narrative that gives an inkling of just how rich the life, how lasting the legacy, Angelo leaves behind.

But for now–now I hope that man of faith is where he firmly believed he would be–at a long, many-leaved, celestial table, enjoying, maybe, some pasta and sauce with his parents and the siblings who’ve gone before.  Friends who’ve also made that trip are welcome, I know. As each of us contemplates that departure, we can do it knowing that no matter how many people crowd around that table, there will always be another leaf to add, another chair to pull up.  Plates will be passed from hand to hand; the newest guest will be given silverware and a napkin.  A glass of wine will appear on their right. 

There’s a great loss, of course, but great comfort in this: Angelo’s home with his parents tonight, getting things ready.