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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Making My Own Music

A musician by avocation, from the time I was a young child I was usually involved in some kind of music making. I’ve always loved to sing, and I can remember singing to my mother when I was quite small. At my grade school, weekly music classes the teacher played the piano as we sang British folk songs and music from Gilbert and Sullivan, typed and collected into a loose leaf notebook. Later the same teacher gave me private piano lessons. These ended after two years for two reasons: I found the practice songs to be boring and my mother, an amateur musician and child prodigy on the violin, disliked my fumbling attempts at learning the piano. She didn’t even like it when I played around on the piano keys, making my own music for myself. She would scold me for “making noise” as she called what I thought of as music.

Later I sang in various choruses at various schools and then in my church choir. To my delight one year my then husband bought me a guitar for my birthday. I began teaching myself to play. There followed a number of years playing and singing in coffee house, at hootenannies, and then professionally for parties and special occasions. I even volunteered at the local hospital, playing for the patients every week or so. My mother seemed pleased that I was following in the family musical tradition. Encouraged by her, and a poet by inclination I began to write my own songs. The melodies were simple, reminiscent of the many folk songs and hymns I had sung over the years.

Although I enjoyed playing the guitar, from the time I was a young child the idea of playing the harp had attracted me. However the many strings of the large harps looked difficult compared to the guitar and surely transporting one would be a nightmare. Then I injured my shoulder and because of the position required for me to play it, had to retire my guitar. After reading many articles on the importance of keeping the older brain alive, and disliking the recommended suggestion to do crossword puzzles, I decided to try a smaller folk harp. Searching the internet I discovered a lap harp with a playable nineteen strings and purchased it from the maker along with a book to learn from.

I spent a respectable amount of time teaching myself the initial songs and techniques. As I advanced, the lessons became increasingly difficult. I realized I was losing interest in playing. I felt frustrated and began to neglect my harp, even allowing it to get out of tune. My mother’s former diatribes from the days I used to play on the piano rather than practice my lessons had come back to haunt me. Then one day I realized I didn’t have to play actual songs, I could do ass I liked. I could just enjoy myself, making musical sounds; I could play for fun. I began to do that. Spontaneous tunes emerged in my head and then from my fingers. Now playing my harp has become a treat and the music I make from my heart has become a daily joy.

Memories of a Very Special Neighbor

Laura Dodge's Dancing Dolls        I grew up in the country, and the only neighbor I really knew was my Great Aunt Alice, because we lived in a smaller home on part of her property. There were no children for me to play with except some siblings across the street. My parents did not know theirs and I was not permitted to invite them in or to go to their house. To be fair, they were not a very kind bunch. There were two sisters and their brother, who was rather rough. They went to a different school than I did and I had very little in common with them. It is lovely to have neighbors, and once I had one who was special indeed.

I was recently able to get back in touch with this neighbor of many years ago. Her children and mine were of an age and we lived in a small town on the North Shore of Boston. In our suburban neighborhood our houses were only a few yards apart. Some days when I was upstairs, even without the windows being open I could hear her playing her recorder. A musician and an artist by avocation, she had a dachshund that she had taught to accompany her when she played happy birthday on the piano.

We were able to share only a couple of phone calls in the few months I had rediscovered her. Now has come the news that she has passed on. Memories of our years as neighbors flood back to me. One favorite is the time I was grilling a boned leg of lamb on my charcoal grill in the back yard. To my dismay I looked out and saw her German shepherd running off with it in his mouth. She bravely rescued it from him, cooked it for her family and gave me another leg of lamb that was even then roasting in her oven. Many times after that over cups of tea we laughed together, remembering.

Our children played together in our yards and she shared produce from her garden with me. Generous with her time and energy, she taught me a lot about sewing, and helped me whenever I was stuck trying to do something too advanced for my sewing machine skills. She helped me out when my younger children were born, brought food and kept me company. I was sad when she sold her house and moved away. Later after he was grown and on his own she took in my late son and as he helped her with hers, taught him a lot about gardening. I was very grateful to her for her kindness to him.

No matter how long someone you may cherish lives–and she was 92 when she passed on, it is never long enough to do and say all the things you wish you had done and said. I have to be content with what remains of my memories and of the conversations we had before she went to her final rest. She was a very special friend as well as a wonderful neighbor and I am sure many besides me have fond memories of her. A giving, sharing person, she set a good example for everyone who knew her. She lived a kind and caring life and will I am sure continue her loving ways now that she has her angel wings.

GPS Adventures and Misadventures

Red TracatorLong ago when I first used to drive myself places I hadn’t been before, following directions I had been given, I used to get lost three or four times until I found my way. Later on I would try to use a map, however having issues with right and left and getting them mixed up, I often just had to rely on asking wayward strangers for help. Then the GPS came along and it seemed miraculous to simply plug in my destination and tell the kindly machine to take me to it. Alas sometimes it works differently than one might expect. Which is what happened to me and some friends on our way to a performance in Medfield.

That evening I climbed into their car with my friends and we set off with time to spare to our destination. “Isn’t it wonderful to have a GPS,” I said, “I never get lost any more.” My friends agreed and as the driver plugged the address of the performance we were going to into the GPS, we settled back for the ride. Chatting amiably, we drove down 495. I pointed out a highway sign indicating the town of our intended destination, however the GPS took us past it, so we obeyed and proceeded to follow the directions as they unfolded.

They continued to unfold at length until we found ourselves passing a sign that said “Welcome to Rhode Island.” That can’t be right,” the driver said. We all agreed that certainly something was wrong. We turned around, and headed back the way we had come. The GPS continued to direct us. As it chattered on we found ourselves laughing harder and harder. Eventually we found our way to our intended destination. However, although we had originally allowed plenty of time to get there, we were half an hour late for the performance and all the seats were taken. There was standing room only.

Two of us, including me had hips that would not allow us to stand for a long period of time. Reluctantly we turned around and headed back to my apartment. Fortuitously the GPS was able to find us an ice cream stand on the way and we stopped for a treat. “I think we cursed ourselves by praising the GPS,” one of my companions remarked. “And we could have taken the route you pointed out,” said my other friend. We all agreed that it was probably wise to follow a map as well as the GPS, and returned home.

We could have been more upset but it really was quite funny the way the GPS kept saying things like, “Your destination is in X number of miles,” as it led us farther and farther away. At the time we turned around it was still insisting we only had three miles to go. Why it chose to take us somewhere that was clearly not where we intended to go is still a mystery. However, while we didn’t get where we were going in time to do what we intended, we had a lot of fun riding around laughing hysterically as the GPS attempted to do what it clearly did best, direct us where it wanted us to go.

 

Perspective Makes All the Difference

Cherry Blossoms on a rainy dayAt the time I was born my mother was newly come to the US, a bride of less than a year. Except for my father, she was very much alone in a big city, and I was her only companion for quite a while. I have often thought that my persistently positive perspective on life may have had its roots in my trying to cheer her up when she was sad and missing her family and friends back in her home country. Over the years since I have come to understand the power of a positive perspective on a potentially negative situation or experience.

This has become essential to my work. When I tell people I am a writer, they often ask me what I write. If I say I write essays, it sounds as though I am writing from a scholarly point of view. If I say I do inspirational writing, it sounds as though I am coming from a religious perspective. In truth, what I am doing in my columns is to simply present a different or alternative point of view from that which some might take about any given situation or experience. I write to be helpful, but it is self help I write about. Helping others to help themselves is my intention and my goal.

There is little we can do about circumstances. Daily life presents us with issues and difficulties we must deal with. The school of experience is our ever-present teacher, one we cannot escape no matter what we do. I’ve often felt that maturity or adulthood truly begins when we’re willing to learn from this teacher rather than moan, groan and feel as though we are victims of fate, circumstance or those who might perpetrate it. It is a lot easier to complain than it is to “bite the bullet” and admit there might be something to learn from any given situation.

I believe the expression “bite the bullet” comes from battlefield medicine when in the days gone by the surgeon had to amputate or otherwise operate without anesthesia. After whiskey was poured liberally into the patient, a bullet was put between his jaws to bite down on as a way to keep from crying out. Whether this is actually true or not it makes a good metaphor. When our focus is put not on complaint or disappointment but on what can be gained from whatever is happening to us, coping becomes easier and wisdom more accessible.

In my own life right now I am dealing with a change in lifestyle and a need to take better care of myself. I have learned that much of what I used to take for granted, I no longer can. Exercise is not an option it is a necessity. I need to do additional work on my body to restore it to better working order. I could complain, or even bemoan my fate. Instead I rejoice that I now have a good way to lose weight, that I can become stronger and healthier with effort and that it is good and helpful to be made to do that. Therefore I bless these circumstances and state firmly that I am exceedingly grateful for them.

Pleasure Can Take Many Forms

As regular readers of my column know by now, my mother really did not like to cook. She did what she had to do to feed her family. However, at least as far as I can remember preparing meals gave her no pleasure. Nor did she want my father to cook because, she said, he burnt everything. Perhaps he was impatient or perhaps he wasn’t watchful. I don’t know because I never saw him in the kitchen except to mix cocktails.

The only household chore I ever knew him to do was to polish the silver. My mother refused to do that and I do not blame her in the least. It is a dirty, tedious job. My father however seemed to enjoy it. I have a memory of him in an apron made from black and white striped mattress ticking material, vigorously polishing some of the lovely silver items he had inherited or been given by family members.

I on the other hand have always derived great pleasure from preparing food, baking, and providing meals for loved ones. For years I collected recipes. In the 80’s I wrote a cookie cookbook as well as a completely refined sugar free general cookbook with many recipes I had created. In those desserts I used only honey or maple syrup. Now even that kind of baking, along with a lot of other recipes I enjoyed making over the years, is history.

Recently I was diagnosed with a medical condition that requires severely restricting my carbohydrate intake. This has resulted in a major upheaval in both my eating and my cooking. In addition to sugars I have had to stop eating rice, pasta and potatoes. Thus I have had to eliminate many favorite comfort food recipes. I can no longer eat the Chinese fried rice I specialized in, the home fried potatoes or the shrimp scampi I enjoyed making as well as eating.

Then along came some difficult news. This caused a reaction I did not expect. I found myself in a depressed state and developed new aches and pains. I kept asking myself why was this happening? Then I realized I had been limiting most of my pleasure to cooking and eating. This is not to say I wasn’t doing fun things or having enjoyable experiences other than with food, however, I had concentrated principally on food related pleasure. I no longer regularly practiced other experiences I found pleasurable, like playing my harp or coloring.

Pleasure can rebalance the body’s ph and help keep us healthy. So now I am working to discover ways besides eating and cooking to give myself pleasure. In so doing I have rediscovered hobbies from the past like embroidery and begun to watch favorite old TV shows we have on DVD. I am spending more time with my harp, simply playing for the pleasure of it rather than working to learn tunes. I got out my coloring books and blank paper pads and began to color and as well as to draw. As time goes by I expect to enjoy new pleasures as well and look forward to discovering them. Meanwhile I already feel better.

The Only Constant is Change

20150911_183519Peace Village Sunflfowers Past Present Future

A wise teacher of mine once said, “The only constant in life is change.” This sounds like an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms, yet it surely has been true for me in my adult life. From the time I left home to be on my own I have had to embrace a sense of flexibility concerning my expectations. It may have helped that to begin with I grew up in New England where the weather can go from a shower to sunshine and back to a shower again in quick succession.

When I was a child I lived a protected life. Even the living room furniture stayed the same, as did the pictures on the walls. The people around me were the same also. Death was distant and spoken of only in whispers. There were no TV images of soldiers fighting and dying or talk of murders and fires. The war then was a distant rumble, its only evidence being the occasional blackouts’ and my dad in his air raid warden helmet roaming the neighborhood to warn of any light showing through the darkened windows of the inhabitants nearby.

When the war ended there was still not much difference in my life except for the packages my parents sent to their relatives overseas. They were stuffed with clothing and edibles that could travel, tied with bales of twine to keep them from being opened. This stable childhood did not really prepare me for the life of change I have lived as an adult. However, I have no quarrel with my experiences and quite to the contrary I believe they have benefited me in very tangible ways.

My first husband and I did quite a bit of traveling wile he fulfilled his army obligations as an ROTC student. We settled in one house only to find ourselves moving a number of times before our lives again settled down. To be sure, dealing with the energies and aptitudes of five children provided plenty of opportunities for unexpected adventures. As I approached my forties I felt confident that I knew exactly what was going to happen in my life. However, again my expectations were turned around and new adventures began.

After Stephen and I moved to Grafton and founded our center for inner peace I often found myself hosting the conglomeration of people who would drop by for a swim or a chat and of course be invited to stay for supper or even the night. We took in anyone who showed up at the door and needed it some inner peace. I always had plenty of food on hand, and I didn’t mind in the least especially as long as people helped out when we needed them to.

Lately without knowing what or how I have felt that something is going to change in my life. However it seems quite impossible to plan ahead for it because whatever does happen is never quite what I expect. For instance, how could I foresee that Stephen’s acquisition of one pot of a few succulents two years ago would multiply into a garden of pots and many more varieties? I do welcome whatever is next. My only expectation is that as good as it has been in the past so it will be as in the future or perhaps even better.