Who was Bobby Kennedy?

“Who was Bobby Kennedy?” a young person asked recently.  She knew that John Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated “sometime in the ’60s?”,  but she had never heard of Bobby.  I told the story, as I remembered it, of his deep despair after his brother was killed, his commitment to civil rights, his decision to run for president in 1968, and his assassination in a hotel in LA the night of the California Primary.  She said it was amazing to her to think that her relatives had been alive during those times.

Her interest was an invitation, not that I really need one, to think about how to frame all the stories from those years.  Seeing that one small window in time through her eyes, remembering how desperately sad and discouraged I felt in 1968,  I wanted to make sure she knew about the good parts of those stories, too, about the joy of living communally, about hope for the future, about living simply and about family. She said I should write it all down and she promised to read it. I might even give her a quiz after three or four episodes, just to be sure she meant what she said!

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Amazing Grace

It’s been almost 12 months to the day since I swallowed my last-at-least-for-the-time-being chemotherapy capsule. For several months (see earlier post “Waiting for the Other Shoe…”). I dithered around wondering when (not if) my symptoms would return causing me to call Dr. M and renew my close personal relationship with various chemical agents. Since I started back to work part-time as Interim Director of Religious Education at our local Unitarian church, I just haven’t had time to think about it much, what with volunteer recruitment, curating the supply closet, writing newsletter articles, editing curricula, and getting to know a whole new group of interesting adults. Not to mention the sheer joy of spending time among the youngest members of our congregation. Sooner or later the other shoe will drop – it’s inevitable with this plasma cell cancer – but in the meantime any celebration of a Chemo Holiday beyond this brief mention will just have to take a back seat to writing lesson plans and creating some cool posters for the classroom tomorrow. I’m a lucky woman.

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The Friendly Skies

I was heading home from O’Hare to LAX on June 28, following a joyful reunion of Allings in Evansville, Wisconsin where all 6 of my parents’ grandchildren, four of their 6 partners/spouses, and all eight of the great-grandchildren, plus assorted elders had gathered for a few days. Boarding was chaotic, as usual, but I had checked my suitcase so I just had to push my carry-on under the seat in front of me and settle in.
In the middle seat and window seat in my row were two young men, traveling together. The young man in the window seat had a moderately severe physical disability – I had seen him and his companion board the plane early. I guessed that he had Cerebral Palsy – CP notwithstanding, he returned my smile of greeting with an ear-to-ear grin as I plunked myself down in seat 9C. The middle-seater offered a somewhat subdued response when I said “hi”. I thought he might be tired, or just not interested in conversation, so I arranged myself for four hours of reading and buckled up in preparation for take-off.

Shortly after the beverage service began, the purser stopped at our row and asked me if I knew whether my seat-mates spoke English. I said I didn’t know, that we hadn’t exchanged more than a smile. So this charming man, the purser, began to engage the two in conversation, first in Spanish (no go) then French, which released a torrent of excited response from the middle-seat guy. I don’t speak French so couldn’t really follow their conversation, but it was clear that the purser had a lovely accent and there was enough laughter and smiling to assure me that they were all getting along famously. Every 20 or 30 minutes he was back at Row 9, apparently picking up right where they had left off. It was fun to listen to them, and to imagine what they were talking about.

As we began our descent into LA, and the purser made one last visit to my neighbors, I asked him if he had a business card because I wanted to write a note to his supervisor praising him for his excellent service to my neighbors. He got a little weepy for a moment. We chatted a bit. He had a classic Hispanic name, had been born in Mexico but came to the US as a child. He lived in France for 5 years and studied opera, but the opportunities were not there for him so he went to work for United Airlines “just to pay the bills”. He sings now in church and while he has not entirely given up his dream of singing opera, he is a realist and said “Ave Maria may be as good as it gets for me”. We laughed about that.

I did write the letter/email and sent him a copy. He replied immediately with effusive thanks – he was in Seattle, headed for Houston. I like to think that he sometimes hums arias while he pours out the coffee and sodas in Economy Plus.

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A Garden of Motherly Love

Mom was a determined gardener. Until she and Daddy married in 1942, she had no experience growing flowers and vegetables – she was a city girl. Wartime found her partnered with Freddie Oddone, our grandmother’s hired man who lived next door, in managing a sizeable garden plot of rocky Connecticut soil. Freddie spoke little English and mom spoke no Italian, but the language barrier fell quickly as they found common ground in the names of vegetables and the constant application of Vigoro and chicken manure from Freddie’s flock of Rhode Island Reds. While many war brides sent pin-up style photos of themselves to their new husbands overseas, mom sent pictures of me, age 2, holding a cabbage as big as my head, and of Freddie, smiling broadly, leaning on his hoe. After the war, in a series of homes in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and then back to Connecticut, mom concentrated on her flower gardens, devotedly nurturing perennial delphiniums and peonies and lilacs and forsythia and coral bells and aquelegia (columbine). She added annuals wherever there was an empty spot: petunias, snapdragon, marigolds, and zinnias, with borders of multi-colored portulaca and blue ageratum. She loved nothing more than spending the early morning hours weeding and talking to her flowers (she would have loved Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s book “The Language of Flowers”), sitting in the dewy grass with a cup of black coffee gone cold just the way she liked it, a cigarette, and a battered old bushel basket to catch all the weeds.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, I miss you.

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The Other Shoe

It’s been almost six months since I swallowed that last chemotherapy capsule.  In spite of multiple assurances and cheerleading from my oncologist, and despite the blood work that continues to show VGPR (Very Good Partial Response), it’s been hard to  unchain myself from daily fretting about every ache and pain, every percieved anomaly in the complex functioning of this 70 year old body.  

I saw the doc again last week, he said (again) that my “numbers” look great and to come back at the end of July for another visit.   OK, I said to myself, this is it: gotta get over this daily worrying. My goal for the next month is to worry just once a week, on Fridays. That way, I figure, I’ll have all weekend to decide whether it is a legitimate worry or just a run-of-the-mill-garden-variety worry, and can either call the doc first thing Monday morning or go for a walk and come home and do the laundry. Oh wait, better make that Tuesday morning, on Mondays they are always swamped with calls from people like me who have spent all weekend worrying.

See? Already I am worrying less. Thanks for your support. That other shoe will just have to wait until I say it’s time to DROP.

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Library Sweepstakes

I sat down with book reviews from the Sunday newspapers just now and logged in to my library account to place reserves on four book titles. Here’s what I found:

The Library owns six copies each of the first two books, both poetry – Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs
and Billy Collins’ Aimless Love.

I am number 4 of 4 holds for the Mary Oliver book (127 pages), and number 10 of 10 holds for the Billy Collins book (261 pages).

The Library owns 10 copies of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt et al. At a prodigious 910 pages, one hopes that at least 300 of those pages are devoted to footnotes. My request for the Goodwin book is number 40 of 40.

The Library owns 44 copies of Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt, 387 pages, and I am number 256 of 256 holds.

I’m sure this says something about the relationships between poetry and popular fiction and between non-fiction and fiction, and I’ll bet that when I do finally get my copy of The Goodwin book I will groan and moan through the first 50 pages (this darn book is TOO HEAVY) and give in and buy a copy for my Kindle.

The poetry books, however, will be sweet and small and the poems will be arranged on the pages just so, and I will love holding those books for a while, reading and re-reading and copying favorites onto scraps of paper.

This is my favorite Christmas poem, posted with love.

Touch Hands – Rev. William H. Murray (1840-1904)
Ah, friends, dear friends
As years go on and heads grow grey,
How fast the friends do go.
Touch hands, touch hands with those that stay.
Strong hands to weak, old hands to young,
Around the Christmas board, touch hands.
The false forget, the foe forgive,
For every guest will go
And every fire burn low
And every cabin empty stand.
Forget, forgive,
For who may say that Christmas Day
May every come to host or guest again.
Touch hands! Touch hands!

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Never Too Late

Even though the official “gratitude” holiday has come and gone, there are a few things that still need mentioning. My interior life (where ideas for things to write about lie around waiting for me to notice them) has been somewhat chaotic, kind of like a Whac-a-Mole game where those ideas pop up holding little signs “write about me!” “No, me!” “I’m the best idea yet!” “Pick me, pick me!” Some of these furry creatures deserve their own story and not just a sentence on this list (ugh, this sounds trite already but I am determined…). The rest are people/events/food/etc. that need a shout-out just because. Peace and love to all.

1. Thanksgiving Dinner, and all those dear souls gathered around our table. Julia’s Corn Pudding, Emma’s pies, Hannah’s roasted veggies.
2. My sister, peeling and chopping vegetables, singing harmony with me, never once sighing that I had already told her that story.
3. Our musician friend bravely undergoing kick-ass chemo.
4. Spouse of yore, worried about health issues and settling in to a new home in the mountains.
5. The long life of our late friend Jeane.
6. Santa’s Workshop and all the helpers, especially the amazing HBWH.
7. Henry, posting amazing photos on FB from his vantage point in the stands at Soweto today during Nelson Mandela’s Memorial.
8. Oncologist Jim M. who has extended my chemo holiday until March 2014!
9. Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore.

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Why I love cemeteries

Alan Gurganis, in today’s NY Times, beat me to it, and, let’s face it, he is a polished, experienced, and brilliant writer who deserves to have had the first word on this timely topic.  


Even before I read Gurganis’s column I had been thinking about all the Saturdays spent with one or more of my three younger siblings at my father’s side at the Northford Cemetery.  First we went to the “New Cemetery”, with graves dating back to the mid-19th century.  We clipped the grass and weeded and pruned the yew shrubs around the dark grey granite monument that marked the place where my paternal grandparents and great-grandparents had been laid to rest.  If the plants needed water, we skipped along to the old pump with a bucket, and could usually get the water flowing after a few hefty pulls and pushes on the handle.   If Daddy was feeling particularly mellow and gracious, we also tidied up the adjacent plot of my great-aunt and her husband.  The husband, being from New York, was always something of an outsider in our family, regarded as a “smooth operator” by my grandmother. I came to understand that this meant only that this great-uncle was more successful at making money than anyone in my immediate family! As a young girl, I held him in high regard for two important reasons: first, he always had a jar of candy on the table when we dutifully called on him and my great-aunt, and second, even though his right arm had been amputated above the elbow, he planted, worked and harvested a huge and prolific vegetable garden. To me, he was an heroic figure.

After our work in the New Cemetery was completed to my father’s satisfaction, we crossed the road and slipped through the gap in the tumbling-down stone wall that surrounded the Old Cemetery.   Huge maple and chestnut trees with roots pushing up through the rocky soil shaded the graves and monuments.  We carefully read the names and dates, many of them nearly undecipherable, on the old stones.  My father filled in the bits and pieces of family history that he had learned from his mother and his grandparents.  “The Linsleys”, he said, “didn’t always spell their name Linsley.  Sometimes it was Lindsley, or Linsly.  But they were all part of the same big family, and they married into the Maltbys, who sometimes spelled their name Maltbie.”  Armed with this information, we walked carefully from row to row, squinting and holding our faces just inches from the old stones in the hopes of finding a Maltby or Linsley. We called out to one another across the graves, “here’s one!” and everyone would hurry to inspect the find.

When my father and mother died, they specified that their bodies be cremated and the ashes buried next to the grey granite family monument. Ever practical, theirs was the first generation to choose cremation. The way my father explained it, it was important to leave room for the rest of us should we choose to join them “when our time came”. Euphemisms for death were part of our vocabulary, even though we were happy and carefree denizens of the cemetery.

I’m positive my father had never heard of Dia de los Muertos, but on those bright October afternoons in the cemetery his demonstrated devotion to our forebears opened our minds and hearts to the possibility that those souls whose graves we discovered and tended could always be a benevolent presence in our lives.

When my father died November 3, 1986, my mother arranged for a “cemetery blanket” to be delivered to cover the very fresh grave. The blanket was a thick, fragrant mat woven tightly with balsam fir branches and pine cones, and decorated with clusters of red berries and a flocked red bow.

Although we surely knew better, the presence of the blanket gave my mother and the four of us children (all adults) great comfort as the Connecticut weather turned wintry. We imagined Daddy, tucked away all warm and toasty, sleeping six feet under.

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If I were…


My writer friend posted this exercise on her blog yesterday and I had so much fun with it I wanted to share it with more folks. Have fun and pass it on.

If I were a month I’d be October.
If I were a day I’d be Monday.
If I were a time of day I’d be morning.
If I were an animal I’d be an elephant.
If I were a direction I’d be west.
If I were a piece of furniture I’d be a rocking chair.
If I were a liquid I’d be maple syrup.
If I were a gemstone I’d be mother of pearl.
If I were a tree I’d be an oak.
If I were a tool I’d be a pair of scissors.
If I were a flower I’d be a forget-me-not.
If I were an element of nature I’d be a shadow.
If I were a musical instrument I’d be a tenor sax.
If I were a color I’d be olive.
If I were an emotion I’d be contentment.
If I were a fruit I’d be a cherry.
If I were a sound I’d be quiet.
If I were an element I’d be silver.
If I were a car I’d be a pick-up truck.
If I were a food I’d be a BLT.
If I were a place I’d be the top of the hill.
If I were a material I’d be velvet.
If I were a taste I’d be tangy.
If I were a scent I’d be jasmine.
If I were a body part I’d be hands.
If I were a song I’d be “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan.
f I were a bird I’d be an owl.
If I were a gift I’d be a book.
If I were a city I’d be New Haven.
If I were a door I’d be Dutch.
If I were a pair of shoes I’d be moccasins.

If I were a poem I’d be “Starfish” by Eleanor Lerman.

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Goodnight, 46-year-old

It was just after Christmas in 1965 when I called my parents in Connecticut to tell them that their first grandchild was on the way, due in August. They were thrilled beyond words; all during my pregnancy we talked often, visited in person once or twice, sent lists back and forth through the mail of the absolute must-haves for baby equipment, clothing and supplies. 

My husband and I lived just a block off Haight Street in San Francisco, in a large second-floor flat near Golden Gate Park. At the time I was working as a teller at Wells Fargo Bank, a half-hour bus ride from home. I loved my job, loved the hustle and bustle of the old branch in the heart of the Fillmore District. In the course of any given day I might assist Mr. George Leonard, proprietor of Leonard’s BBQ Pit, who always brought sweet potato pie on Friday for “the ladies at the bank” or Jorma Kaukonen, a shy, long-haired fellow whose fledgling rock band The Jefferson Airplane practiced in a nearby hall. The bank’s personnel policy dictated that I should resign my position at the end of my fourth month of pregnancy, but my crew at the local branch decided they needed me longer than that, and I wanted to work as long as possible, so I stayed until the end of month eight. When I got too tired to stand at my window, I retired for a brief nap to the women’s lounge on the mezzanine, which featured a full length couch. The assistant manager took my window and covered for me while I napped – his wife had recently had a baby and he understood about naps.  The world of banking was kinder and gentler in 1966.

My due date was August 31, so my dear parents planned a trip from their home in Connecticut to San Francisco so they could be with us and help when the baby was born. It will come as no surprise that August 31 came and August 31 went, and that baby was nowhere to be seen or heard. My father had to return home for work but my mother stayed on…and on…and on. She cleaned and ironed and cooked and played Scrabble with me and reassured me that first babies were often late arrivers (I myself had been late, by almost two weeks). Mom’s own birthday was coming up the second week in September and my younger siblings at home in Connecticut were planning a big party for her, assuming that she would be home with lots of stories and pictures of the new baby.

Days passed, the obstetrician said repeatedly “everything is fine, don’t worry, this baby will come when he/she is ready”. The city was sweltering in a not-uncommon September heat wave and I was cranky and miserable.

By September 12, I began to whisper to Mom “maybe this baby is waiting to come on your birthday?!” On September 13, I woke up with mild contractions, and that afternoon the doctor said, “I think you should go to Blum’s right now and have a nice sandwich and a piece of cake – I’ll meet you at the hospital after 7 p.m.” And on September 14, on her grandmother’s birthday, Hannah was born! Mom stayed another 5 or 6 days, but by that time she had been away from her Connecticut family for almost three weeks and they wanted her to come home.

Mom was 46 that fall, a young-ish grandmother – from the very beginning, she and Hannah loved each other to pieces.   Even though (or perhaps because) they always lived on opposite coasts, they wrote copious letters, sent cards, talked on the phone, and had regular summer and Christmastime visits.  It was my joy to see their love grow over the next 24 years. 

Happy birthday tomorrow, dear daughter.  Your grandmother would be so proud of you, I know she is watching over us.  Love you, xoxo.

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