On Behalf of a Grateful Nation…

Ed. Note: This piece was written both as catharsis on the loss of my grandfather, and as ethnographic research paper for Dr. Marvin Sterling‘s ANTH-E393 World Fiction and Cultural Anthropology class at Indiana University. It is both biographical and fictional. 

The sky is a brilliant blue. There’s a warm breeze drifting up over the hill from the river below. The beauty of this late summer day betrays the solemnity of such an occasion. I’ve always thought so. Some might complain about duty in the cold or rain or snow; to me, it always felt like the weather should match the mood. It’s as if the warmth of the sun is a slap in the face to a family in mourning.  Continue reading

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On Ma’s porch swing…

Today was a busy day. But I couldn’t let it pass by without taking a moment to remember my “Ma.”

My paternal grandmother would have been 85 today. She left us almost eight years ago… the unexpected complication of a perforated ulcer. I had already been thinking about her birthday, four days before mine, for several days. This morning, my Facebook memories brought up a story I’d forgotten. 

A couple years back, the Munchkin and I were having a discussion about cicadas. He finds them creepy. I told him that, while I don’t like the way they sometimes divebomb one’s head, and I do agree that the empty shed skins are creepy, that I love the sound they make… 

Hearing the sound of cicadas takes me back to my childhood. When I was younger, every summer I would spend a week in Southern Indiana with my paternal grandparents, Ma and Pa. There was usually a trip to Holiday World, hitting golf balls into the back field with Pa, walks in Cox’s Woods, visiting great-aunts, and sometimes a drive down to Springs Valley and to the tiny hamlet about ten miles down the road where my grandfather grew up, to be spoiled with a trip to the old five-and-dime store. 

But in the evenings, we would sit on the front porch, eating ice cream, watching lightning bugs and listening to the cicadas. I remember one summer in particular when one of the 17-year cycles emerged… one evening the cicada song was so loud Ma and I couldn’t hear each other talking, though we were sitting next to each other on the porch swing. 
I got to know my father’s parents more in the last five years of their lives than I had in the previous twenty. You see, they did something remarkable for me. 

We live in the Bible Belt, and I grew up in two large families which both observe Christian faith. And although my parents, long divorced, were (and are) much more liberal in the ways of modern relationships, our extended families remain fairly conservative. So, when I became pregnant at age 23 with no husband, I thought for sure that my grandparents would disown me. I truly believed that I would lose them. I was so afraid, I couldn’t even tell them myself, leaning instead on my dad to break the news. 

A couple weeks later, I came home from work to find a bag on the front porch. Inside were groceries, gas money, and a sack full of baby onesies. And a note, scribbled on the back of a receipt: “Sorry we missed you. Ma and Pa” That was just the beginning. 

Throughout my pregnancy, the Munchkin’s early years, and through my divorce, my father’s parents were wonderful. They weren’t the emotionally distant old people I remembered growing up with. They were affectionate, warm, and doted on their only great-grandchild. They bought clothes and baby things. They helped with groceries when money was tight. They were never wealthy people, but they were generous. It was a surprising and wonderful gift they gave me, to be able to know them differently in their final years. 

This is one of my favorite pictures of my grandmother. Not because it’s wonderfully composed, but simply because this is how I remember her: sitting on the porch swing and caring for her family. I wish I, as well as my sister and cousins, had had more time with the woman she was in those last five years. But I will always treasure the time that we had, and how they didn’t turn their backs on me when I needed them. Whenever I hear cicadas, I remember them, and I smile. 

Happy birthday, Ma. Love you always. 

The Art – and Pain – of Compromise

An eloquent man of whom I’m a pretty big fan once said, “No democracy works without compromise.” When he said it, he was referring to American politics – a touchy subject that I’m not going to touch in this post with a 30-foot steel rod. But the idea of democracy, I think, can be applied to other situations in life, as can diplomacy. The life skill of “being diplomatic” was one which my grandmother prided herself on, and one she felt very important to pass on to her children and grandchildren… the art of getting along with others, even when you may not want to. Continue reading

“Hi. Welcome to our town. I’m glad you’re here.”

Tonight, Munchkin and I joined the “welcome line” at our student union.

This was the second time this week that the Office of International Services hosted informational meetings for our students, faculty, staff, and community who are affected by or concerned about the recent immigration ban. A group of people organized a team of volunteers to come line the halls before and after each info session to pass out snacks and hugs… to show these frightened “kids” that we are glad to have them as part of our university family and that we will stand up with and beside them.

I was SO proud of Munchkin tonight. He held his sign, shook hands, introduced himself, and spoke with confidence. Rather than being intimidated by those who looked or spoke differently, my Aspie was much more worried that he was making sure that he was showing his sign to the “right ones” (meaning the guests rather than the staff and volunteers).

Munchkin has been sad, worried, and maybe even a little angry since November 8th. I keep telling him that what we do now is to use our voices to stand up for people who need it. He seems scared. I won’t lie: I am, too. But I know that, if I want to teach him to be able to take a stand, to care for others just as much as we do ourselves, then he needs to see people (including Mom) who will look fear, hatred, and injustice in the face and say “Love wins.”

So far, we had just talked about the things going on around us. He knew I joined the Women’s March in Indianapolis. We’re talking about the March for Science (Munchkin LOVES science). But this was his first ‘official’ social activism event. I let him decide if he was ready and felt comfortable going, and he did great. I wish I could have captured the smiles on the faces of the students who stopped to talk to him, to thank him for being there tonight.

A while back, I did some sociological research into the failure of the “colorblind ideology” of the post-Civil Rights era… the well-intentioned philosophy that children should be taught to be “colorblind” to race. Unfortunately, more and more studies are beginning to show that this precept has backfired. It is but one reason we are finding our beloved republic in the state it’s in: fostering an undercurrent of racism that many of us believed – until November 9th, 2016 – to be a thing of the past.

But there is hope. Four generations ago, Munchkin’s ancestry included a “Grand Master” of the local Ku Klux Klan. Today, my child approached a dark-skinned young woman in hijab and, while carrying a sign that said “I’m glad you’re here”, confidently introduced himself, and asked if she would like a cookie.

This is how we change the world, folks. We don’t ignore race, color, or creed… we embrace it, and we teach our children to be “woke”.

When grief shakes you into gratitude

This week has been crazy.

Now, those of you close to me know that making a statement like that is akin to saying “the sky is blue”; my life has been some level of craziness for a couple of years now since I got the brilliant idea to buy a house and go back to school while raising an ASD kid on my own. Throw in fibro, a long-distance romance, work… you get the idea.

Spring semester started on Monday. But I missed my first three classes because Munchkin’s school was cancelled due to weather. I’ve just felt off-kilter ever since. I am my own slave driver sometimes (okay, most of the time), so I have been working all week at trying to tell myself to chill… but really I was walking a thin line between mindful awareness and just busy running, trying not to panic over feeling like I fell behind before the semester even started.

And then I opened Facebook.

Recently I haven’t been using social media nearly as much as usual. For the purposes of this post, the reasons aren’t important. But I just finished up replying to some professors and thought I’d scan the news. And that’s when I saw it.

Yesterday, a friend of mine lost her husband to cancer.

I met “Sadie” in high school. I always thought we sort of connected over our shared curly brown hair, and the fact that the two of us were some of the shortest girls in school. Sadie was actually slightly shorter than me, which is rare for me. Even though she was a year older, we had a couple of classes together. We reconnected on Facebook a couple years ago. I grinned when I saw her wedding pictures… “Jack” was a foot and a half taller than her! They were a totally adorable couple. I’ve watched with joy as they started a business together, built a house, and had a son.

I knew Jack was sick. I knew he was having a rough time with the chemo. I chatted with Sadie the other day to offer my help since they live nearby, and she sounded positive when she said she’d let me know.

And then…. this.

The details aren’t important. What’s important is that tonight, just down the road, someone I know – another mom who has been supportive to me, who is my age, who is raising a little boy – is now mourning the loss of her partner, her love, the father of her child. A little boy has lost his father. His father who is (was) the same age as my own partner, older by only a few days.

And now he’s gone.

My heart is aching for them. Though Sadie and I aren’t especially close, we’ve always had friends in common, and of course share the sisterhood of motherhood and the bond of a hometown. But having lost my own loved ones to cancer, to be a single mom of a little boy… I just can’t find words, can’t imagine such sorrow.

I don’t want to make this about me. The point I want to emphasize is this:

Sometimes, when you’re least expecting it, something happens to force you to reframe your perspective. That reminds us to be grateful. As I mentioned to my pilot the other day, “Sometimes we have to learn to find peace in the chaos.”

Gifts don’t always come to us in the way we expect. I would do anything to ease Sadie’s grief tonight, but – even though I in no way want to diminish the enormity of their loss – I am feeling humbled by the reminder to not get so bogged down in my own mess. That somewhere someone is hurting. That I should focus more on the blessings than my physical limitations. That maybe the best way to stop being wrapped up in self is to think first of others.

Tonight… be grateful. Reach out to someone in need of comfort. Hold your loved ones close.

And please… offer up a thought or prayer for Sadie and her son. Right now, and in the days to come, they are going to need “the village”.

When a teacher passes on

Sometimes you meet someone who leaves an indelible mark on your life. Who teaches you something you carry with you forever.

I’ve been blessed in my life to have met several such teachers. One of which was my childhood priest, Father Ron.

I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on him… this larger-than-life Italian who drove into our small town on a Harley, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a pipe, shaking up everyone’s notion of what an Episcopal priest was “supposed” to look like. I was 7 years old… and his Pittsburgh-Italian accent, salt-and-pepper hair, love of photography, and complexity fascinated me even then. I used to cherish afternoons spent playing with his boys (the eldest the same age as me, the youngest the same age as my little sister) at the rectory, Saturday afternoons working around the parish hall, and spaghetti pitch-in dinners, watching him standing guard over his own made-from-scratch sauce until it was ‘perfecto’.

As I got older, I began to learn that behind that tough exterior was a deep and intelligent mind, a soul who truly understood both the struggles of humanity and the quest to connect to something higher. He taught me to question everything, to never accept the teachings of man without weighing it against what you know, the wisdom of your teachers, and the stirrings of that inner voice. He was a man who had stared hell in the face and carried on anyway… he was tenacious and compassionate. I have carried his lessons with me since childhood. Even now that I’m grown, he never seemed to change. He always seemed invincible. During my last visit, though too long ago, left me smiling at how he never changes… relaxed, sharp-witted, opinionated as ever. I have been trying to find some time to go down and visit again, to introduce Munchkin to the giant who had such an impact on me.

Sadly, Ron passed away from this world this week. As much as I am saddened, I know that his family is heartbroken. He was a loving father, husband, and grandpa. He was a wonderful teacher, listener, and friend… and the world is a little bit darker without him. Those of us who were lucky enough to have crossed paths with him are forever changed.

When someone who has such an impact on our lives passes on… when someone we felt was impervious becomes mortal… it leaves a hole. It doesn’t matter that as my life became busier and I moved away from my hometown that I no longer had the time to sit talking with him for hours. I could walk in the door at any time and it would feel like no time had passed at all. He was just that kind of guy. 

Ironically, I just ran into his youngest son out of the blue the other day. We talked for quite a while, reminiscing about our childhood memories, shadows of a time that was much easier… before tragedy struck their family more than once, before my parents divorced, before any of us grew up and had our children and started our own lives. We smiled, laughing over how Ron (now long-retired from the priesthood) never changed. He was as loud and opinionated and funny and stubborn as ever. A giant. Invincible. I told him to tell his dad I said hi, and that Munchkin and I would be down to visit soon. 

But sometimes ‘soon’ isn’t soon enough. 

Ron wasn’t one to dwell on “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. He would tell me not to be sorry for one second that I didn’t get to see him one more time. The last time we talked he told me how proud he was of me… of my photography (which meant a lot coming from him, a professional photographer before he became a priest), and of the way I was building a life for myself and raising my son. I guess that’s all I need to know, to carry in my heart. 

Still… I know that any time I catch the scent of pipe tobacco and freshly-stewing spaghetti sauce… I will think of him.

Rest easy, rabbi. You are loved.
*Vita mutatur, non tollitur.*

Me & Father Ron, when I graduated from high school. May 1999

Me & Father Ron, when I graduated from high school. May 1999