Monday, March 30, 2009

When lives intersect

A generation ago - or more appropriately, less than a half-generation ago - a person's death was usually grieved by family members and people in his or her physical communities. Oh, you might hear of the death of an old high school or college friend, and have a momentary sense of loss for the person you used to know, but you quickly went about your life and there was probably nothing that triggered the memory of that loss until the next time you were laughing over old photographs.

Today many of us have "friends" whom we have never met - and probably never will. I have lots of friends through several online venues, in addition to those I call "friend" in my neighborhood, from jobs I've held, shirt-tail relatives, and friends of my children. My online "friends" are people who read and comment on this blog from Arizona, Virginia, Wisconsin, and other places. I don't know them in the traditional sense, but I know them from their comments and from their own blogs. They're important to me and add to my life in many ways.

I've had online friends in the past from newsgroups as varied as beta testing, graphics software, and the Episcopal Church. Some were very real to me and as I - or they - dropped out of these various groups, I missed them. Once, several years ago, a particularly personable and friendly member of my graphics newsgroup died. His death was reported by those who knew him well, and though not unexpected, it was still a shock - in the way death always is - and he was mourned by all of us.

As a recent devotee of Facebook, I have upped my online friend quotient dramatically. Some "friends" are family members, I have an old BFF from high school, and one or two others whom I know personally for one reason or another. But many of my Facebook friends have come by way of being friends of friends, and are people with whom I have no connection other than Facebook, and - for some, at least - an affinity for the Episcopal Church.

This morning, I awoke to the very sad news that one of these tangential friends had taken his life, apparently some time on Sunday. He was a friendly, funny man who had some health issues, was in the midst of a divorce, and - according to his last post on Saturday - had not been feeling well. He leaves behind two young children who loved their dad, and whom he adored. He gave no hint that he was planning this drastic action, and had been busy and active this Lenten season in his church.

The posts that are appearing on his Facebook page are testament to the fact that his loss is felt by people across North America, not just in the corner of Tennessee where he lived. When he was born almost 41 years ago, he lived in a much smaller world than the one in which he died, and I'm sure no one ever dreamed that his death would cause sorrow in so many.

With suicide, we who are left wonder why: What pain was so great that you couldn't reach out? What finally sent you to that place in your mind where being dead was preferable to being here? What depths of despair did you reach that even thoughts of your children could not lift you out? And if funny, involved, well-loved Lee could reach that awful place, who else in my life might make that choice?

Hard questions, all, and no answers for any of us. My faith is such that I believe Lee has found at last a freedom from pain, and that he rests this day in the arms of God. So I do not mourn his death so much as I mourn his death-effect. We who knew him online will miss his banter, his wit and wisdom. Those who knew him in life will miss so much more. And his children will miss him for the rest of their lives.

Rest in peace, Lee. You are a part of my life's story.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A patchwork of life

Yesterday, my sister and I went to a quilt show in Portland. Neither of us quilts, although we both do/have done our share of embroidery, crochet, knitting, counted cross-stitch, applique, and plain-vanilla sewing over the years. There were some incredibly beautiful quilts and other sewing examples, as well as kits, fabrics, crafty items, and things such as spinning wheels and "long arm" quilting machines available for sale and for demonstration.

The place was packed with young and old, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, siblings, grandchildren, and just friends. All were oohing and aahing over the incredible display of talent and investment of time and money that filled the room - a smorgasbord of color, shape, texture, and imagination. It boggles my mind to think of the hours invested in the hundreds of quilts that were displayed.

So, you might ask, what were you doing there if you don't quilt? Well, I would say, it involves a story (as so many things do!). Once upon a time, back during the Great Depression, my Granny had a WPA job that involved sewing. And because everything was so precious during those years, any scraps that were left over were given to the workers to take home. I envision scraps measuring in inches, rather than yards, but something that could be put to good use by folks who had grown accustomed to hardscrabble times.

And so the scraps accumulated, and eventually World War II was declared, the Depression ended, my father joined the Navy and brought his pregnant wife home to her mother - and the pile of scraps. Although my mother would eventually go to work for the war effort, her "confinement" was a time for being at home and doing homely things. Like piecing a quilt. At long last, the scraps had a defined purpose, and I can almost see my mom sitting at home in her mother's house, waiting for letters from my dad, waiting for her first child to be born, patiently measuring, cutting, and hand-sewing all of those pieces carefully kept by her own mother.

Eventually, this work measured more than 9' long and 6' wide, and was made up of 10" squares, each consisting of 16 individual pieces - all stitched together by hand. Eventually, too, my brother was born, my mother went to work at the local air base as a mechanic, and the work of her hands was folded up and put away. Over the years I'm sure she must have thought of it, but her life was busy and she had children to raise, work to do, bills to pay.

Last year, my sister pulled down a box from her closet, and together we marveled over the tiny, uniform stitches made by our mother's hand more than sixty-five years ago. I vowed that I would find a way to finish it, especially after my D-I-L Jr. told me that I have a "generational imperative" to do so! (How could I possibly not do it after that statement?!)

So yesterday, when we weren't staring gape-mouthed at the creations of others, we were talking to experts in the field of quilting, garnering information, encouragement, and our own share of those who marveled at this patchwork from so long ago. I'm looking forward to adding my own stitches to those of my mother, handling the fabric so thriftily gathered by my grandmother. And I'm hoping that Peggy will find time as well to sit with me on occasion and stitch her memories into this work of love.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Memories are made of this

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that I have a strong interest in history and in family. I do strongly believe that "past is prologue" and that we can learn important lessons from those who have gone before us. And I also get a thrill from being in a place, or touching something, that has been seen or held by ancient hands.

I'm fortunate that both my mother and her father left written life stories, filled with details about life "back in the olden days." It gives me a sense of who they were and what life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the Great Depression, World War II, and also sends me reminiscing about my own childhood. As a second-generation Floridian (although I no longer live there), I know that my own brain holds memories of Florida as it used to be - before Disney, NASA, and the Army Corps of Engineers got their hands on it! Those who came later, including my own children, have no way to experience the sleepy small-town atmosphere of Tampa, where I was born, or Miami - where I spent 26 years - prior to the great influx of refugees and the orgy of glitter and glamour that permeates the city now.

Jim, my dear partner, is native to the Northwest and has stories of logging, firefighting, hunting (he and his friends have hunted in the same location for almost 50 years!), white water rafting in areas that now require permits - Jim was there when there were no other rafters - and old growth trees that were so huge just one tree would fill a logging truck! He remembers our now-busy city before the interstate highway, when nearly all Oregonians were natives, and when the salmon runs were abundant in Northwest rivers.

In other words, Jim and I both have stories to tell of times that are no more. To us, they were just life and seem to have no special need to be recorded. But I remind myself often that my mother's and grandfather's lives must have seemed just as mundane to them and yet they had the foresight to know that those times deserved to be remembered. They took the time to write down those things - with pen and paper; no word processors for them! - so that future generations would know what had come before, from the viewpoint of those who had lived it.

Each of us has a unique story to tell, even those who don't think we do - like Jim. And I think - although not everyone shares this opinion - that we have a responsibility to future generations to leave a record of those stories. If you're inclined (and I hope you are) Story Corps has some information and help. And an online search for "oral history project" will give you links to some specialized oral history sites such as Vietnam Veterans, AIDS survivors, and a number of other organizations.

Each generation moves inevitably from making history to being history, and the only way future generations have to know our path is through our words. I hope you'll think about filling in some of the blanks for your family!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's in YOUR genes?

I got an email the other day from one of my cousins on my mother's side, commenting on my blog. (I do wish she'd sign in and comment publicly, but I'm glad to hear from her, in whatever manner she chooses!)

(That's me, 3rd from the left in stripes; Nancy is the 3rd woman from the right, behind the young boy.)

Nancy is the youngest child of my mother's middle sister - mom was the oldest - and, growing up we really weren't close, although we did see each other. We didn't live real far away, but Nancy grew up in a small community and we were the Big City family. I have wonderful memories of visiting my aunt and uncle and cousins - they lived on a farm, down a red clay road. I remember loving being out in "the country" and enjoying the freedom from noise and traffic, seeing their critters and spending time together. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still see Aunt Catherine ironing on her mangle iron. We were always warned about being careful not to touch it, but Aunt Catherine could make it sing! (I'm willing to consider that my memories may be colored by time, but don't tell me, please.)

I'm not sure that any of us look very much like each other, although careful inspection would probably reveal facial and other physical similarities. Our mothers "favored" one another, although old age revealed that my mom looked most like their mother, while Aunt Catherine was the image of their dad.

Many years have gone by since I've seen Nancy. The last time I recall clearly was at our granny's funeral in 1968, although I do think we visited once after that. The point is that we still live very different lives: she still lives in a small Southern community, I live in a major metropolitan area in the Northwest. Our religions have always been different, her family following the more conservative beliefs of our granny, and our family being staunch Episcopalians after the manner of our grandfather. According to Nancy's recent email, we also have some divergence of politics, though apparently we're not on opposing sides on everything.

We were raised in a time and place - and by mothers - who taught us that family is important and that others' religion and politics were to be respected and not used as a bludgeon. So although Nancy and I aren't "part" of each other's lives in the traditional sense, we still have that Cousin Connection that has withstood the passage of time.

But Nancy's email opened my eyes to the many ways we are alike, despite our apparent differences. Nancy is - or as she says, "was" - a writer. (I think writers are always writers, we just sometimes don't write!) That gift of writing comes directly from our common grandfather; my sister is similarly gifted, and my mom was prolific in the style of her father. I don't know if Aunt Catherine "wrote," nor do I know about my mom's youngest sister, Aunt Marion. I do know that Aunt Marion's daughter Laurel also writes. My sister's daughter is gifted, as is my oldest son. And one of my most poignant memories surrounding my mother's last illness is that all three of her children were mentally preparing her lengthy obituary even as we were gathering from different parts of the country to be with her. Writers all.

Nancy, who is three years older than I, also loves adventure, collecting "stuff," spoiling her grandchildren, and reading obituaries. Just like me. None of this is learned from each other, obviously, so I can only assume that it is implanted in our DNA as surely as the color of our hair, our eyes, our body types, and our musical abilities. It seems to me that this is a great gift. That, in us, our grandparents and parents live on. Not just in appearances, but in behaviors and talents. That in some small way, John Herbert Peck (1874-1961) and Willie Ola Peck (1887-1968) are still having an influence on the world. That the grandchildren of their grandchildren will carry parts of them forward to blossom in yet another generation.

I love this feeling of connection I have with Nancy, and I'm so thankful that she cared enough to not only read my blog entries, but to write and tell me about our commonalities. Maybe one of these days she'll even comment here. You'll know it's her by the writing style!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mad dogs and Englishmen

I've never made a bucket list (I might still do that, since I'm only middle-aged!), but if I had, visiting Europe - especially England - would be near the top of the list.

I am an unashamed Anglophile. Okay, maybe I should be a little ashamed since I used to think Prince Charles and I would have made a nice couple; after all, we're nearly the same age. Actually, I thought he looked a little priggy, but since it would have given me access to the Crown Jewels, several palaces, and centuries of history, I was willing to overlook his looks. But I would have been unwilling to overlook his taste in Camilla. However, I digress.

I've always wanted to visit England. To see the Changing of the Guard, Big Ben, the Tower of London (and the Crown Jewels, of course), Westminster Abbey, Parliament - oh, all the usual stuff. I've yearned to see double-decker buses, London roundabouts (but not to drive in London!), to visit a pub (but not to drink warm beer); I've mentally drawn the line at boiled beef, but think I could handle fish and chips.

So, at last, I'm going! Jim & I arranged our tour this morning and we leave the end of April. We aren't going only to England, since we both want to get a "taste" of Europe. We'll have 3 days in London, travel by ferry to France for three days in Paris (I expect we'll spend at least one of those days in the Louvre), and then by train to Italy for three days in Rome! Now, how exciting is that?

I would be happy to spend longer in England and Italy, stopping in France only long enough for the Louvre, but such are the arrangements of tours. And perhaps we'll go back in the next year or so for an extended visit.

We both love historical sites so much that it's a thrill to even start planning! I mean, what's more historical than Europe? We will have plenty of free time to visit things not on the tour, so we're talking now about what we most want to see. Maybe we'll be able to fit in a trip to Pompeii, but whatever we do, it will be exciting for us.

So if you notice a theme to my posts over the coming weeks, you'll know what's causing it. Or maybe I'll surprise us all and just treat the upcoming trip as a matter of course. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Just keep breathing!

I wish I could tell you that my daily reading of the obituaries was a recent addiction - you know, one of those things people do as they get older to see if any one they know has died. Or, failing that excuse, I wish I could tell you that I only began reading obituaries when I was fundraising for hospice in the 80s. It was important - from a fundraiser's point of view - to know which of our deceased patients had "Hospice" named as the beneficiary of any donations.

But the truth, the simple fact, is that I have read obituaries since about the time I started reading anything other than the comics and Ann Landers.

My name is Cheryle and I'm an obituary junkie.

Part of it, I'm certain, is due to my Southern heritage. Southerners are always keen to discuss who has died recently, what s/he died of, who has been seen paying too many condolence calls on the widow(er), and whether or not the family has been left financially solvent (in the case of the man's death) or who will take care of those poor, dear little children (if it's the mother who has died).

Of course if someone has died in the natural course of things, say, at age 93 after having survived at least one spouse and perhaps a child or two, there are other things that can be discussed. Such as whether or not the recently deceased has "just been waiting to die" ever since "George (or Mabel) passed on in 19 and 82." Or whether the house will sell for what it's worth since the recently deceased has just let it go to the dogs for the past 10 years. "Poor thing could hardly see anymore, so I reckon that's to be expected. Seems like those young'uns could've helped out some!"

But the real reason I read the obituaries is twofold: The first is so Jim or I can comment on the (perceived) fact that everyone who died was "so young," or that "at least it was all old people" (anyone older than we are).

The second reason, Dear Reader, is because I find so many obituaries are actually enthralling biographies of people whom it is now too late to meet! For example, today there was a death announcement for a particularly fascinating man. He just barely met the criteria for age, being only 9 months older than Jim, but he did so many things in his life! And he was a philosopher, besides. Oh, how I would have loved to have long conversations with him! And now the opportunity is forever lost.

Perhaps we should find a way to publish pre-obituaries, a daily listing of people in our communities - not the Rich and Famous, but just the ordinary Joes and Janes who populate our cities and towns. People from whom we could learn and with whom we could exchange ideas. People to whom we could pose questions and discuss answers. People whose lives could, perhaps, enlarge our own lives.

Or maybe we could just all find an older relative or friend whose storehouse of knowledge and wisdom could guide us as we muddle our way through this life. There are so many questions I still have for my mother and for my grandfather; questions that will remain unanswered; questions that I didn't know enough to ask when the opportunity was there.

And that may be the greatest loss we experience as we age. There are so many great gifts to being older - the blessings of seeing our children make their way, the advent of grandchildren - but surely there are losses. I think I will begin to look for ways to engage my family and friends in conversations beyond the mundane. Less of "How is the job going?" and more of "What do you think?"

I'll bet there are some interesting stories just waiting to be heard!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Moving Finger writes...

"...and, having writ, Moves on;
nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

My finger moves only to keyboard nowadays, seldom ever to write. And when I do write, it's frequently - usually - illegible, even to me. My handwriting was never anything to brag about, once I was freed from the uniformity of first grade manuscript and third grade cursive. By 6th grade I had developed my own "ruffles and flourishes" if you will, with "g"s and "y"s trailing reverse fish-hooks (just like every other girl my age) and "i"s dotted with great circles (also like every other girl my age!). Fortunately, this was before the age of the smiley face, or I'm sure my schoolwork would have sported that degradation as well!

My adult handwriting was an improvement - of sorts. My mom used to say, "Cheryle's handwriting is a beatiful thing to see; you just can't read it!" And she was right: my college papers, letters, notes to my children's teachers, all swept gracefully, grammatically correctly, Emily Post-ly (Postally?) across the papers upon which they were inscribed - and there were NO spelling errors! Folding them to place in an envelope, or stapling the corners together, I would often feel a sense of pride in how pretty they were, never giving a thought to how difficult they were to read. After all, I could read them; what's wrong with you people?

Even through years of using typewriter and then computers, it was easier to grab a sheet of paper and write something than it was to type (or keyboard) it. After all, formatting, finding paper, turning on the printer - well it was just easier to grab a piece of notebook paper from the kids or a legal pad from my office and write the letter, note, whatever.

My sister and I used to write long chatty letters to each other. She lived on one Coast, I on the other, and whenever a fat, legal-sized envelope with my sister's handwriting on it showed up in the mailbox, I saved it for when I could sit and relish it. Cross-outs, digressions, coffee rings - all were dear to me and cherished. And I responded in kind. Sometimes our letters would start on one day and end 12, or 15, or 20 pages later, on another. What treasures they were - and are; I've saved them all.

And I loved - and still do - seeing my mother's handwriting. It takes me back to childhood notes for school, or birthday cards, or mementos for my children, and, of course, her letters to me. I enjoy my grandfather's handwriting, an art learned in the 19th century, with letters that look so different today, peppered with words and phrases lost in the whirl of progress. And I treasure the school papers and too few letters that I have from my own boys, benchmarks of their progress in school, postcards from far-away places, Mother's Day and birthday cards that can make me cry or smile - or both!

Alas! I have become such a slave to the keyboard and email that I can barely write any longer. Sometimes it's an effort even to sign my name on a credit card slip (well, not that much of an effort!). My hand shakes sometimes when I try to write; it's not a real palsy because it doesn't happen any other time (like when I eat). But frequently I have to stop and form each letter in a word very intentionally, otherwise my writing is illegible even to me.

I will not leave behind volumes of letters written to my children and grandchildren, nor will I have many to add to those precious ones tucked away in boxes. And I'm sorry for that.

My sister sent an article about handwriting to me over the weekend. It was sent, of course, electronically, which was kind of ironic. But it speaks to the loss of this once revered art form, and it made me nostalgic for the "good old days."

Progress is good and I love the convenience and speed of computers. Hey, if not for computers, you'd be missing all this musing! But I'm sorry that future generations won't have the evocative odor of letters stuffed in old shoe boxes and hidden away in closets. Or know that thrill of touching a piece of paper that grandfather rested his hand upon more than a century ago. Or finding that word that a relative just never spelled the same way twice. Or especially the quiet joy of holding a letter from a long-dead loved one, re-reading the words so carefully written in an ageing hand, the faded ink a testament to taking precious time to say, "I love you and I miss you. Write soon. Love, Mom"