Walking Through My Mother’s Life

Mom profile by Nina005The medium sized cardboard carton was waiting for me to open and sort through the contents. My mother lived to the age of ninety eight, and it looked as though she never threw anything out that she received in the mail. I had brought it back with me from the storage unit in South Carolina. It contained paper of all sorts, including old photographs, that she had seen fit to keep for many years. Until I opened it I had no idea just how long those years had been.

Now for weeks and then months it had waited for me to go through it. In an effort to motivate myself I kept moving it around. I knew it would take the better part of several days to do, and I was reluctant to set aside other tasks to address one that had no deadline. Finally I put it where I could not ignore it: right under my desk. I had to look at it every time I sat down to do anything. Finally I got tired of looking at it and set to my task.

Some of what I found was reminiscent of my mother’s life in the 40’s and 50’s: bills and sales slips from department stores, electric bills and bills for milk delivery, drycleaning, and so on. The prices of things from those days were interesting. It was both surprising and sad to see what a dollar used to buy.

The names of the stores brought back memories of being with my mother when I was small, taken along on shopping trips. To my young eyes, the department store was a wondrous place holding all sorts of interesting things to look at. She also kept paid bills for expenses related to her art and the galleries she had under her own name. I set these aside for my daughter who is planning a future retrospective exhibit of her grandmother’s art.

The quantities of letters on thin airmail paper were impossible to read. Plus many of them were in German or Spanish. The dates on some envelopes went back to before my mother married my father. It seems she had quite a collection of boyfriends and there were many letters, some I could decipher a little addressed to her in endearing terms. It amazed me that she had managed to keep and haul around that collection for so long. The earliest went back more than 70 years. I had a wonderful walk through her life and times, and I found myself happy to have been able to touch into my own memories of those days..

It seems to me that things were far more innocent then. There were rules to be followed. These had been handed down from generation to generation and applied as long as life was stable and people’s roles mostly well defined. There was more safety in living that way. There are people who wish it were still like that today, however their numbers are dwindling. Once change begins it cannot be stopped or the results will be like a cancer that devours its host. Growth often comes about with pain. However, the freedom of being out from under the rigidity of the life my mother lived with is precious. I am grateful for it.

 

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When Less is More

My mother was born in 1913 in Germany at the outset of World War I. Times were very difficult for German civilians, and there was often little to nothing to eat. She told me members of the family had to stand in line for hours to get simple items like bread and milk. As a result she had a horror of wasting food. I grew up feeling like it was important to have plenty of it on hand and to make sure there was enough for all. I did my best.

Lily and garlic bud067However, with my large family and my small budget I had to make sure everyone got enough and my children still remember how they had to cross off each fruit or cookie on their list whenever they took one. That was how I made sure no one felt cheated. These days with just me and Stephen to feed, I don’t have to ration treats. However, my recent diagnosis of diabetes means I cannot indulge my taste for sweets or for fruit the way I would like.

Now that the local summer fruit is available, this is daunting. Recently I slowly savored the taste of a delicious white peach from our local farm stand. I had peeled and cut up several and mixed them with a few native blueberries and a little almond creamer for Stephen and me to have for dessert. As I ate another spoonful I thought about the special quality of white peaches and the brevity of their season. I realized that eating this locally grown fruit is to be cherished. I took my time tasting this wonderful treat. “Less is truly more,” I said.

Stephen nodded and replied, “like fillet mignon.” I asked him to explain. “Well it is expensive so I don’t have it very often,” he began, “and it’s usually served in smallish portions, so you don’t get as much. I suppose because it is so rich. Then,” he went on after a pause, “there’s the idea that beef of any kind is not as good for me as fish or chicken, and I am aiming for longevity. So less is more, just like your peaches.”

I nodded; together we gathered up the dishes, put them in the sink and went on with our day. I continued to think about less being more. For instance, eating less means more room in the clothes as I lose weight, and because I can’t eat as much sweet fruit as I would like to, the small amount I allow myself becomes even more special. This can be applied to other aspects of life too. For instance we recently had a rare visit with a dear friend we seldom see. We made the most of our short time together and enjoyed every moment.

One theory for losing weight is to eat only three bites of any treat. I have noticed that the first few bites of anything do tend to be the best. Perhaps the tongue gets used to the flavor and no longer notices it. Once when I went to Italy to visit my daughter she gave me a small piece of chocolate candy from a very old and prestigious maker. It was wonderful. Having such a small piece was actually perfect, better than having a large one. We cut it into even smaller pieces and enjoyed them slowly, letting the taste linger on our tongues.

April Showers and May Flowers

Maple blooming 17 2The forsythia is blooming. Its golden flowers brighten the landscape and provide a kind of sunshine even during April showers. Gardening is present in the thoughts of those who do and in the stores as well. Pansies and other colorful flowers decorate the entrances of supermarkets and other stores that sell them. Gardening supplies are piled up ready to purchase. Even though it’s not yet time to be planting, these and other signs of spring hearten those of us who are weary of winter’s drab browns and blacks, bare limbs and withered weeds.

Gardening runs in my family and in my blood. I wish I could yet I can’t claim the green thumb of my ancestors. My great grandfather planted an orchard of flourishing fruit trees. His apple trees blossomed and bore from the onset of spring until deep into fall. His quince trees produced fuzzy hard fruit that with my mother’s diligent efforts became jelly and preserves. In her garden she grew a variety of vegetables. I can see her still working away in it, her tanned back brown in the sun.

My grandmother had a gardener named Mr. Patch. He was Irish. I remember his nut brown face and his wonderful brogue as he discussed with my grandmother what he needed for the garden. She did some work also, principally with her pruning shears as she picked her magnificent roses. She grew both flowers and vegetables, harvesting and eating from her garden all summer long. What I remember most clearly were her glorious gladiolas, the saucer plate dahlias ranging from deep red to bright orange and yellow, and the colorful zinnias that lined the gravel path leading from her driveway to her door, bounded by a white picket fence and two strips of green grass turf.

My father too grew roses and later brought back some young peach and plum trees from a horticultural show, planted them and then harvested the fruit when they grew old enough to produce it. I did have one experience with a fruit tree. Back when I had my spiral garden I had bought what I thought was a white forsythia to plant there. After three years it hadn’t flowered. Reluctant to discard it, I dug it up, replanted it at the edge and forgot about it. To my great surprise and delight, though now in the shadow of a large spruce, it grew into a white peach tree that produced three peaches its first year and many more after that.

These days my gardening is limited to a few potted plants. Perhaps one day I will have a small garden again, however I couldn’t manage anything very much more than the original three by five foot plot I was given as a child for my own. I grew flowers there, and then weeds by the time August rolled around. But it got me started on many years of garden tending. These days I write poetry about gardens together with other aspects of nature and the world I live in. My gardens have become metaphysical rather than physical, and truth to tell my back is grateful.

Lenten Discipline, Spiritual Discipline

icicles-2Regardless of one’s spiritual orientation, self-discipline can be helpful to one’s personal growth. In the days before supermarkets or even grocery stores, for people in spiritual or religious communities or congregations to find enough to eat in the latter months of winter could be difficult especially in the six weeks before Easter. The Christian religious institutions of the day dedicated this time, known to Christians as Lent to the spiritual practice of fasting. From a practical standpoint, this extended what supplies remained. It also provided a spiritual bonus to do so. Making a virtue of necessity, the Lenten observances of the past centuries helped individuals get through the scarcity of food.

When I was growing up of course food was abundant. Fasting certainly was not a necessity. I was taught that the way to fulfill my Christian Lenten obligations was to give up something I might enjoy eating. I was told that fasting wasn’t just about going without a meal or not eating meat; it could mean giving up chocolate, or ice cream or sweets in general during Lent as a discipline instead of not eating meat on certain days or whatever else might be considered appropriate.

My great aunt Alice was a woman of character and community mindedness. She was a great believer in doing good and volunteered in a number of organizations as well as gave generously to charities. She had a different approach. She believed in taking on rather than giving up something during Lent. She would assume extra volunteer work or make a special effort at that time to visit elderly or invalid family members or friends.

I have come to believe that my Great Aunt’s idea of a good Lenten discipline is more meaningful as a spiritual practice than giving up desserts or candy. However, I am not one to visit the sick, nor am I usually involved in any community activities of a volunteer nature. Instead I believe that for me to fulfill the spirit of this period I can take on a practice of deliberate focus: to enhance my awareness of gratitude and of opportunities for me to give. I can become more mindful of my blessings, spend more time acknowledging the kindness of friends and family, and be more aware of whatever opportunities may present themselves for me to be kind and thoughtful to others.

Self-discipline can consist of an act of rigorous denial or of observing and then acting as might be appropriate. One can lead a spiritual life whether or not one has taken vows or lives within a specific religious or spiritual setting. If my Lenten practice becomes a habit or enhances my ability to be more mindful, that will do me more good than giving up candy. In the process it may also help me to be more aware of when I can do someone a kindness. By prioritizing these attitudes in my everyday life, I can enact a Lenten discipline that will do more good in general than simply fasting from anything I might enjoy eating.

Full of Thanks and Grateful to Be So

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A Family Gathering several Years Ago

Thanksgiving is a nonsectarian holiday that most of us can celebrate. I remember in school it centered on the Pilgrims. In first grade we made pilgrim hats and talked about how they lived. Today as a result of our treatment of the indigenous peoples since the first US Thanksgiving, the stories I grew up with have changed somewhat. However since time began harvest festivals similar to our Thanksgiving have been universally celebrated. Throughout the history the expression of gratitude for whatever constitutes our abundance endures.

I wasn’t always aware how important it was to be grateful. To be sure, I was brought up to say thank you when given a gift and often to write a letter of acknowledgment to the giver. However, having an actual attitude of gratitude, as the saying goes, was foreign to my thinking. I can remember my mother saying things like: “Finish your liver, there are children starving in China who would be happy to have it.” Of course, the thought that goes with that is, well send it to them then, however that would have been considered a rude remark and would have merited disciplinary action.

As a child, like most I took my safety, my freedom from hunger and cold, and my warm surroundings for granted. I was sheltered from the knowledge of others’ circumstances; then, the only source of outside information besides the newspapers was the radio. I knew much less about the world than children with access to TV and the Internet do today. Whether that makes one more or less apt to be grateful is moot. It might make an interesting study. However most probably even today gratitude is something we become aware of only as adults. It is very easy for children to take their blessings for granted.

My change of heart began with a simple prayer given me by someone I met only briefly yet who had a profound effect on my life. I was complaining about my circumstances when she corrected me. “Rather than bemoan what you don’t have, rejoice over what you do.” She suggested I repeat three times a day, “Beloved Lord I do greatly thank Thee for the abundance that is mine.” The phrasing can be changed to suit those who have a different belief system to honor whatever higher power they may acknowledge–Divine Providence, the Goddess, Mother Earth and so on.

Oddly once I began to do that, my abundance began to grow and has continued to do so. On another occasion I briefly met a wise woman who among other things, told me to take nothing for granted. I took her advice to heart. As I have continued to be grateful even for simple gifts and to acknowledge my little blessings, they have continued to expand. Eventually I even learned to be grateful for difficulties and disappointments because of the opportunities to learn and grow they provided. At this Thanksgiving as always I will sit down at the table with a heart full of gratitude, and for this I am exceedingly grateful.

Tasha Halpert

Taking Account of the Gifts of the Moment

fall-leavew-and-light

          The maple tree outside my window has been late in turning. I worried the leaves might fall off before they changed color. Then one morning as I pulled the curtain aside I saw they had indeed made their transition to gold. Later in the day the sun shone through them and the brilliance of the leaves was a sight to behold. I stood gazing at them, grateful for the beauty of that moment and of the very special loveliness that is fall in New England.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in this beautiful part of the country. Fall has always been special to me. I remember as a child collecting bright leaves and ironing them between pieces of waxed paper to preserve their colors. I did the same with my children when they were small, and we would hang the leaves up in a window to let the light shine through them. When I went thorough my mother’s correspondence amongst the letters was one from me with some colorful leaves. Being in Florida she said she missed them, so I sent her some.

Lately driving on the country roads near where we live I find it difficult to keep my eyes on the road. The scenery is breathtaking. The foliage of the trees makes billowing waves of color; the rounded mounds of the distant leaves heaped one upon the other simply take my breath away. How easy it might be to get lost in my inner dialogue and miss this.

My mind, like most has a way of getting busy with thoughts concerning what is or is not to be done, or has or hasn’t been finished. Lately I’ve improved. I used to find myself making lists in my head and missing out on a lot of what I might have appreciated had my eyes had been focused outward rather than inward. Once I got into the habit of noticing what my mind was doing it became easier to tame its tendency to run away with my attention and keep me from seeing what was happening around me.

When I take the time to look there is always something interesting to see. Naturally when I am driving I must keep some of my attention focused on what I am doing. Providentially, while looking to the road itself I see what is in front of me. Too, when I am with someone if I pay attention to what he or she is saying or how they are feeling instead of thinking about what I am going to say next, it is much easier to be fully present and aware of my companion.

I’m coming up on a birthday this month, and what I realize about getting older is that it gets easier each year to be patient, to be aware, and to be present insofar as I am able. For this I am thankful. I may never know what I have missed in the past when my mind wandered off and took my attention with it, yet I can make it a practice to keep myself in the here and now. That way I can appreciate whatever there is to be enjoyed in any given moment.

Take care for each breath and love each heartbeat, Tasha

 

 

 

 

The Dailyness of Doing

Nature's Art 1. 2012-06- While I was growing up, when it came to household chores my mother did not consider me to be capable. This may have been because she expected more of me than I was able to do at a young age, or it may have been that she was so particular that my childish efforts were simply inadequate. She had very high standards. Regardless of the reason, she never encouraged me to do any cleaning or other household tasks even after I was in high school. What this meant was that I never really learned how to clean properly.

I remember the day I came home to the first apartment my young husband and I had and found my father sweeping the rug. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was cleaning the rug. But I don’t have a vacuum, I told him. You don’t need one, he said, and inquired of me where I kept my dustpan and brush. I had never realized you could clean a rug just by sweeping it.

I had to learn how to keep house the hard way, by trial and error and doing it. The other day as I cleaned the sink in the bathroom, I began thinking about household tasks in general. I realized that when I complete some tasks, I give a sigh of contentment and think to myself: good, now that’s accomplished. There are others I complete and with a sigh of resignation wonder how soon I’ll be doing it over again. Much depends on the task in question; some are more satisfying than others. Cooking, for example is my delight and I have no problem making three meals a day.

On the other hand, when I wash the kitchen floor, although it looks very nice, I don’t feel happy because it doesn’t last. Somehow it gets dirty practically immediately. Although small in surface, it is still a chore to keep clean. The stove presents the same issue. It seems that no sooner do I clean the pans under the burners than when I next turn them on, they’ll emit a bit of burning smoke from another stray crumb.

It is hard for me to take much satisfaction when I finish doing something I know I will have to do again practically immediately. Yet when I do not allow myself to take that satisfaction, I do not feel rewarded. If I do not feel rewarded it is much more difficult to do what needs doing again with any promptness. The good feeling I get from completing any task is an important part of what helps motivate me to repeat it, no matter how soon.

There is only one solution I can think of: to do the task as fully as possible in the present moment. What this means is that while I am doing it, rather than thinking of how soon I will have to do it again, or how onerous it is, I focus exclusively on the performance of it. It helps almost any situation to be mindful during it. As I direct my attention and my energy to the activity of the task, I am not only more efficient, but also more able to find pleasure in it.

Tasha Halpert