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Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Really, when you look at the strange twists and turns that life takes, I don’t know how people can conclude that there is no God.  If, for example, my godfather and uncle hadn’t met and married a woman from New Hampshire when they were both in the Army, my family would never have dreamed of visiting them here.  I would never have concluded that New Hampshire was an infinitely better place to raise a family than New York City, where my family is from.  If my husband and I hadn’t moved here, I would never have gotten a job at one of those firms that develops and scores standardized educational exams.  And neither would my daughter.  And if she hadn’t worked there, she would never have met the man who became her husband, and they would never have had their two sons.  Two people now exist in this world who would never have come into being, if my uncle had not met and married this woman – who subsequently divorced him, anyway.  I have no idea why; I only know my family’s side of the story.

That’s about to change, I think.  This past April, my uncle’s son killed himself.  We weren’t close, but since he was family, I went to his wake, and there met his mother, whom I have not seen in over fifty years, this same native New Hampshirite whose brief marriage to my uncle brought us all here.  She was ecstatic, after so many years – and to be honest, I was happy to see her at last, too.  I really, really liked her when I knew her, and always grieved for the breakup.

Today, I took myself out to lunch.  I take myself out to lunch as often as I can, actually, mostly because I really hate making lunch.  I mean, once you’ve exhausted cold cuts, tuna salad, and peanut-butter-and-jelly (which I can’t eat anyway – I’m allergic to peanuts), what else is there?!  Not last night’s leftovers, not with my husband home all day and routinely saying, “What happened to…?”

(We once had a conversation about my odd lunch-out habit.  When he learned that I had always eaten lunch out, he was floored:  “Didn’t you ever pack a lunch?”  I thought about that for a bit – it isn’t as if my family was as rich as, say, the Kennedys, but then, who is – before I realized why:  Anything I had brought into the house to pack for lunch the next day would have disappeared overnight, down the gullets of any or all of my three younger brothers.  Nothing was safe in that house.)

So, I take myself out to lunch as often as I can.  I bring a book, and enjoy my own company and somebody else’s sandwich-making skills.  I had just sat myself down and was reaching for my book, when an older woman came up to my table and addressed me by my first name.  Now, not too many people in this town know me by my first name, which I loathe; many more know me by my middle name, and that’s how I like it.  So there was only one way a woman of a Certain Age could have known me by my first name.

It was her, my long-lost aunt.  I probably would have invited her to have lunch with me, but she was already engaged with one of her daughters, so she contented herself with giving me her telephone number and exclamations of Let’s-get-together-soon.  I said we would – I really would like to – she went back to her daughter, and I returned to my book.

And then I went to pay my check.

And the waitress told me that the Ladies Behind Me had paid it for me.

“What is the sweetest thing someone did for you today?” is today’s prompt.  I know I covered this in the post I wrote this morning, but – that was yesterday.  This is today.  I am still floored, that getting together with me means so much to this woman.  After all, she’s from here, she has family here and a long, long history in this town.  She could have lunch with any one of a couple dozen people.  But she has just ensured that I will be getting together with her.

Don’t tell me there is no God.  He keeps breaking into my life in the most unexpected ways.

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Well, that didn’t last long – my resolve to post every day, that is.  In fairness, I was gone for most of yesterday, and also, yesterday’s prompt – ” What is the sweetest thing someone said to you today?” – wasn’t the most inspiring.  People aren’t given to saying sweet things to people my age.  However, today’s prompt –  What is the sweetest thing someone did for you today?” – actually works.  For yesterday.  Today is still too new for me to address anything besides breakfast, which I have yet to eat.

My mother was unimpressed by words.  “Actions speak louder than words” was her motto, so when you’d say, “Mommy, I love you,” she’d snap back, “Deeds, not words,” which meant, basically, “So get off your duff and do something around the house, if you love me so much.”  The trouble was, in a household the size of ours – five kids – there was always so much to do, that no matter what you did, it didn’t make all that much of a difference.  Eventually, I was able to take on the mending, so at least that helped a bit; I was hopeless at ironing.  I always managed to iron creases into shirts.

Anyway, back to the present.  The weather has been very hot and humid lately, so any housework that needs to get done, needs to get done no later than 9:00 a.m., or it’s a lost cause for the day.  (Laundry excepted.  Cold rinses always work on a hot day.)  Yesterday, I got all my housework done by 9:00 a.m., except for an errand to the post office, and I was planning to do that by car, on my way to somewhere else.  My husband, knowing that I had a long drive ahead of me, stepped up to the plate, and offered to walk my parcels down to the post office for me.

Big deal?  Yes, actually, it was.  The parcels in question really mattered to me, but only to me, not to him; and he had his own plans for the day, which included a good bit of gardening, shopping for groceries, and an afternoon swim at a lake about twenty miles from where we live.  In other words, his day was already all planned in his mind.  But to those plans, he added my errand, which meant that I was able to take off for my “church gig” unencumbered by more chores.  (“Church gig” = a drive of 40 miles/75 km, one way, to hang out with a group of senior citizens at one of the two churches I attend regularly.  I do this once a week.  The old ladies are a pip – I can always count on them for a good laugh and a lot of good stories.)

As Mommie Dearest used to say, “Deeds, not words.”  In the case of my husband, I get both.  I am truly blessed.

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A few years ago, responding to one of those “getting to know you” memes, I listed the ten most influential people in my life.  One of them was Peter Bochow, the man who taught me German.

A few people contacted me after that.  It seems that like me, they had Googled his name, but unlike me, they had  actually found an online reference to him —  my blog — and to a man, they wanted to know if I had heard anything more about him.  Mind you, this man was a remarkable teacher by any standards, so I’m not surprised that people who had also learned German from him, as I had, would remember him after all these years.  Who could forget his memorable demonstration of when the verb “to go” takes the accusative, and when it takes the dative?  (To illustrate, whenever you told him to go to the blackboard using the dative, he’d start to climb on top of the blackboard.)  Or the “pretty little green car” (a Matchbox car) that he used to illustrate how adjectives work in German?

He was as remarkable a person as he was a teacher, broadminded to an extent unknown in the world at that time.  His English was practically flawless; it took me over a year to decide that he was, in fact, a native German, and not just an American who spoke German very well.  Over time, a sort of friendship developed between him, my husband, and me, and we would meet regularly even outside of class for a beer and conversation, in German, of course.  He would tease me relentlessly about the sole glass of milk I had drunk one evening before class (“Milch?!  Pfui!”), and in retaliation, my going-away present to him when we left Germany was a milk can.  He never spoke much about his youth, but there was one memorable class when he talked about his “open-air classroom” when he was ten or eleven — that was in 1945, and the “open-air classroom” was a school that had been bombed to smithereens.  I learned when his birthday was (today), I remember when he met his wife, and I remember when his children were born.

Over time, as too often happens, we lost track of one another.  He had children and a couple of jobs, teaching not only for the University of Maryland but also for IBM in (I believe) Wiesbaden.  We had children, and moved fairly often with my husband’s job, and in one of those moves, lost our address book.  It happens.  But when all these inquiries came my way after my blog post, I looked up first him, then his family members, and found an address for his daughter.  I sent her an e-mail, explaining who I was and what my interest in him was, and asked if she could bring me up to date on his life.  She wrote back, rather coolly, and told me that he had died in 1996, and hoped that the information was what I was looking for, “even though I don’t know you.”  Well, no.  But I knew you as a baby, Toots.  I did write back to request his date of death so I could commemorate him, but never got an answer.

All lights go out, eventually, but this is one that truly grieves me.  He was a smoker when we knew him; I guess it got to him eventually, even though he did give it up, I hope permanently.  I don’t know if he was remotely religious, or if he even believed in God; but clearly, God believed in him enough to give him a gift for language and teaching, and in terms of the parable of the talents, this is someone who took his five talents and made fifty out of them.  I hope he is parked at Bach’s feet, enjoying The Art of Fugue as it has never been heard this side of eternity.  Lacking a date of passing for him, I can’t commemorate it; but on this day that would have been his birthday, I offer this prayer:  May your memory be eternal, Peter Bochow!

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“Have you ever protested for anything?”

Finally, a topic I can respond to. Most of the last several have been, shall we say, “uninspiring.”

In fact, in my callow youth, I did care enough about something to mount a picket line. Mind you, it didn’t do much good. We did everything by the book: Kept the line moving, kept it on a quiet side street, so we were always drowned out by the more spectacular crowd parading down Fifth Avenue, screaming slogans and obscenities and planting themselves in such a way that it took four or five cops to wrestle one into a paddy wagon. This was the Vietnam War era, and there were thousands who marched the streets of Manhattan in protest – and one quiet little group demonstrating in favor of the War. That was us.

I mean, really. Nobody’s in favor of war, not even the military. People get killed in wars, Us as well as Them, and those lines can get blurred very quickly when you meet one of Them up close and personal; a warrior can be put out of commission for the rest of his life by having to kill someone in hand-to-hand combat. So no, the military isn’t pro-war, either, just pro-deterrence: Rattle a long enough sabre, and the enemy thinks twice before invading. And that’s as it should be.

In our case, we were very clear about the purpose of the Vietnam War. It was the containment of Communism, period. China was big and Communist, and pushing its way into smaller countries, gobbling them up like appetizers, and our small group considered that Americans had an obligation to those countries to keep them free enough to decide their own destinies. There was already plenty of evidence to suggest that Communism wasn’t a remotely benign form of government. There was no real economic incentive for the United States to be in Vietnam, either; it wasn’t like we were exporting Vietnamese teak, or whatever, by the metric ton. No, the goal was very clear: containment of Communism.

Not to mention that in those days, there was an actual draft. You turned 18, and you either went to college or into the service. Most of our group were college kids, but a fair number were 1-A status, and knew that it was only a matter of time before being called up. And still they participated in our little counter-protest. For the other side of the coin was equally plain to us: Regardless of what the media and the mainstream asserted, American boys didn’t run around killing babies, and we owed them our support.

It’s been more than forty years since those adventures, and I’m still glad I did it. I have a clearer idea now of what Vietnam was really about – it was supposed to be a “quick victory” for Kennedy in 1964, to boost his chances of re-election – and that awareness annoys me no end. But there was one other fallout that never once occurred to me in those days: Now, forty years later, I can look a Vietnam vet in the eye and say, “I did my best to support your efforts over there.”

(By the way, I’m currently re-reading “Vatican,” by Malachi Martin. There’s a fascinating chapter in there on the role of the Catholic Church in undermining the American effort in Vietnam. Keep in mind that Malachi Martin was a Jesuit for a number of years, so he had no anti-Catholic agenda. Read the book – it’s an eye-opener!)

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It’s quite a few years back that I saw, in Reader’s Digest’s “Toward More Picturesque Speech,” something that ran along these lines:

“No sun, no flowers, no warmth, no leaves, no grass, no daylight — No-vember!”  Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

And yet…

Maybe it’s because I live on a Main Street, which means we get a lot of traffic through here.  And maybe it’s because of the biker bar down the street from where I live, so that all summer long we have motorbikes roaring through here at full throttle.  Maybe it’s the fact that a busy State road is less than a quarter mile away, just down the hill.  But I find that as I grow older, November has grown on me.

My favorite month used to be October, with its riot of colorful leaves; there’s something so exuberant about October.  Even on a rainy day, there’s a vibrancy about October — the leaves seem to glow even brighter when they’re wet.  By November, that’s pretty much history; most of the deciduous trees are bare, and those that are not, have leaves well past their prime, sad remnants clinging to the last dregs of dear life; sort of, “nursing-home leaves.”

But as I said, November has grown on me.  I like its quiet.  I like the way things seem to be settling down for a long nap.  The frenetic and eponymous Holidays are already trying to push their way into our consciousness, but they are comfortably far off enough that we can ignore the attempt for at least a couple more weeks.  November has its own rhythms, its own chores, its own demands:

Clean the garden tools, give the grass one last mow before it snows (something we actually didn’t have a chance to do this year, as a freak snowstorm blanketed all of New England), clip the hedge one last time.  Arrange to have the trees pruned.  Check the garden one last time for any stray root vegetables that we may have missed.  Rake the last of the leaves and pile them into the garden for mulch.

And oh, all right, start making out gift lists for Christmas.  Might as well.  That’s my chore, anyway — all that garden stuff belongs to the hubster, whose enviable green thumb is responsible for all the outdoor chores that get dumped on him.  Besides, he loves being out of doors.  I don’t.  Woman-like, I enjoy buying gifts for my family.  I enjoy it even more since the advent of online shopping; I’ve never been a crowd person.

And then there are the other delights of November.  “No light” means that we draw the curtains earlier, eat supper earlier, have more time to read, knit, or whatever.  Nothing else clamors for attention.  I can spend a good part of my day preparing the savory soups and stews that I love to make, that have no place in the summer; who wants to eat hot food in the summer?!  Summer’s bounty is stored or given away to our neighbors; now we all hunker down to enjoy the fruits of one another’s labors, as well as those of our own.

The Aran sweater I abandoned after May is calling me to finish it.  Pumpkin spice coffee is brewing.  National Novel Writing Month beckons.  (Not this year; I’m clean out of ideas at the moment, but there’s always next year.)  With it, too, November brings the memory of “Allerheiligen” and “Allerseligen,” All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated in the West on the first and second of November.  There’s just something about November that is consonant with remembering “those who have fallen asleep.”

Thank God for November.

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Between the annual income-tax burden, the beginning and middle of Great Lent (as opposed to the lesser fasts observed by the Orthodox Church), and the final illness of my stepfather, life has been unimaginably hectic.  I didn’t do this much running around when I had teenagers in the house.

So, having gone into a decline on the last Monday of March, only to “rally” in time for his 96th birthday on April 1 — by “rally” I mean that he returned from near-death to a more stable state of vegetation — my stepfather slipped away last night, April 6, before anybody really realized what had happened.  My sister said that he was in exactly the same state as he had been since last Friday, just breathing but not in any sense alive…his breathing slowed…he took one last breath — and was gone.

The hole in my life is a revelation to me, since, after all, the man was my stepfather.  I didn’t even feel this empty when my mother died.  But then, Dad was a unique human being; I’ve never known anybody with as much innate talent as he had, who actually, seriously, thought of himself as Nothing Special.  Of everybody in his family, he was the greatest of them all:  supported everyone after the death of his own father, patched DC-3s together over and over and over during World War II, even flying them on occasions when the flight crew was wounded; ran into a burning plane, again and again, to rescue every man aboard, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star (and never spoke about it till the end of his life, when he was interviewed by my niece’s boyfriend for a school project).  And he married my widowed mother, at a time when a single woman with a child was suspected of being Loose, since anybody could say she was a widow.

He dropped out of high school when he was 16, and spent his life creating tools and the dies for them — nowadays, boys get two-year associate degrees in tool-and-die making, and call themselves mechanical engineers.  He could make anything and fix anything, and while it wasn’t much to look at — it worked.  And the fix was usually permanent.  He spoke two languages fluently, Polish (his first language) and English, which he only learned upon entering public school in second grade — and he learned it at the expense of his idiot teachers calling him “stupid” because his English was so broken, so all his life, he thought of himself as “stupid.”  And by the way, his English  was so fluent that while you knew right away he was working class, you would never have guessed he hadn’t uttered a word of it till he was seven years old.  This is what shaped my life; these are the shoes his children have to try to fill.  Forget it.  That’s a truly hopeless task.

The last 2 ½ years of his life were spent in a nursing home, courtesy of falling and breaking a hip.  The surgery to repair it messed with his mind, and although he had physical therapy, he became afraid of walking, so that he lived in a wheelchair and had to put up with the indignity of other people taking care of his bodily needs.  Typically, he saw it as something he just had to bear, so he never complained about it.  I don’t know if I could be that humble if something similar happened to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition, we are taught that humility is the key to open the gates of heaven.  Yes, baptism is a part of it, but it’s not the key; it’s the beginning of your life in Christ.  How you live is just as important as being baptized, since how you live shapes how you die; in other words, you can take the gift of Baptism and use it, or you can take it and throw it away.  If you throw a gift away, what good is it?  But if you use it, eventually it brings you to humility.

Dad was, hands down, the most humble man I’ve ever known, in the sense that he never tried to be what he was not, he knew his faults and accepted them, and downplayed his virtues, which were many.  He let his works speak for him, offering advice when it was asked for or necessary, not holding it against us when we refused to follow up on it.  He didn’t try to be A Dad; he just was, in his acceptance of what we were as we navigated the usual changes of life.

In notifying family and friends of his passing, I made the statement, “If humility is the key that opens the gates of heaven — Dad owns it.”  I’d love to have seen the look on his face when those gates swung wide to welcome him home, judgment-free.  In accordance with Orthodox tradition, I’ll pray for his soul; but in my own heart, I’ll also be asking for his prayers for us.  May his memory be eternal!

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“Could you live without the internet for a week? For a month?”

This prompt reminded me of an essay I read once that began, “All my friends are in a little box.”  The essay was, of course, referring to internet friendships.

Sad to say, many of my friends also live in a little box.  I’m not sure if that’s because we are all (or mostly) by nature introverted, or whether it’s because the people who occupy space around us are all so busy with their own lives that no one has any time for visiting anymore, but there it is:  With the exception of immediate family, all my friends live in a little box.  Physically, they live hundreds and thousands of miles away, the exception being people I know from church, who also live several miles away and have busy lives of their own.  I can only sympathize; I remember very, very well what it was like to be running a household with small children in it.

But now, at the other end of life, it was my friends in the little box who kept me from losing my sanity when the kiddos grew up and moved out.  It was my friends in the little box who helped me hold it together when “routine” surgery spiralled so far out of control that I nearly ended up on the other side of eternity.  (Interestingly, at that particular time, people who share the same geographic space with me were, without exception, too busy to fix a meal or come over and help with the housework.  Thank God for the Family Leave Medical Act, and for teleworking; we would have been up the creek otherwise.)

Could I live without the internet for a week, a month, or even a day?  Can you live without friends?

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