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. 

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