Let Me Say This…

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How well do we ever know each other? How well do others know me?

I can tell you this:

  • I am not nearly as nice as you think I am. Most everyone who knows me casually would tell you what a “sweetheart” I am. Trouble is, I’m not. I have a bad temper. I have dark moods. I indulge in self-centered rants and have days where I just want to “pick.” I notice every slight, hold a grudge for too long and feel sorry for myself way beyond what is normal or justified. I am very, very nice…right up until I’m not. So if you think I’ll always go along…”nicely…” you may one day be surprised.
  • I am way more fun than I am perceived to be. Really. True, I am serious. I am the poster child of the Virgo personality: there is a particular way to do things, and upholding that pattern is what keeps the world on track. I work at that to the point of being a royal pain in the ass. Just ask my daughters! I abide by the rules. I get nervous at the idea of losing control. And yet…I can laugh at myself about it. I laugh about a lot of things. I have laughed until my cheeks hurt, until my sides ached, until I [almost] peed my pants. I enjoy humor in others, and work at displaying it myself. I am often funny…and I can be a lot of fun. Contrary to popular opinion, I, too, enjoy a good time.

Why, now, am I making these observations? Because my family is here.

When surrounded by the people who have known you since birth, there is nothing to do but admit your true nature. My sisters are here and – though it may be hard to let down the facade of dignity and even-temper that I am able to maintain when they are far away – it’s okay. Because these are the girls that allow me to be my true self: to be silly and inappropriate, and to laugh until my cheeks hurt

 

 

Aunt Katie’s Eulogy

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Since my Aunt Katie died a week ago, I’ve had many people come to me to offer their sympathy, and to tell me a memory or an impression she left. There was the baseball cap she often wore, or the big truck she drove, or the dog that waited in the car while Aunt Katie attended mass. Always, though appreciative of the thought, I was left thinking, “There was so much more to her than that!” I was anxious for the chance to honor her for all that she meant to so many of us.

I thought I’d talk about Katherine’s life, and how she lived it: her work, the sports she loved, her garden…then Deacon Paul came to talk to me, to prepare for his homily…and I gave away all my best material. I was planning to interview all the cousins gathered here, to get specifics about how Aunt Katie influenced each of their lives…but there was a lot going on yesterday, and I didn’t get the chance. So, I’m speaking from my perspective alone in hopes that, by doing so, maybe others will identify with Katherine as I knew her.

My first memory of Aunt Katie goes back 60 years. I’m sure she was around before that, to hold me when I was a baby, and to try to hold me once I decided I was shy, and wouldn’t allow it. On this particular day, though, when she stopped in for a visit, my mother was giving baths and shampooing hair. The house was in an uproar. I was sitting naked in the middle of the living room, wailing. Aunt Katie swooped me up into her arms…and I let her. And I stopped crying. She did a little pointing to my dad, who was just as surprised as she was that I was allowing it. She said, “See, I’m not so bad…we could be friends…”

She was right. Aunt Katie was a consistent presence through my life. As a child, I looked forward to her Sunday visits for the cookies she often brought, and for the lively conversations that took place when she was around. As an adult, I appreciated my aunt as a mentor, a teacher, and a wonderful friend.

Aunt Katie was an example of a strong, independent working woman, when role-models like that were extremely scarce. She had a good job, and owned her own home. She always drove a nice car. She traveled around the state, and then around the country. When she came to Beaver Island on vacation, she almost always brought some of her nieces and nephews along with her. Once, stuck in traffic on the way back to Pontiac on a sweltering hot day, she said all four of the Evans boys had their long legs dangling out the windows!

Aunt Katie taught me how to get along with my Dad. “Don’t forget: I grew up with him, and three other stubborn brothers,” she told me. “It won’t do you any good to argue; you will never win. Instead, do this: drop your chin, bring your arms to your sides. Say ‘you are absolutely right.’ Don’t say ‘you could be right’ or ‘you might have a point’ because the argument will just continue on. Say ‘you are absolutely right.’ Then, just do what you want.”

I watched her put this into practice. My dad would rail on and on about the stupidity of the game of golf, and how foolish it was to go chasing a little ball across a field. Aunt Katie would nod, drop her chin, and say, “You’re absolutely right, Bob.” Then, next chance she got, she’d load up her clubs and go to the golf course. Dad would talk about how ridiculous it was to grow flowers. “If you can’t eat it, it’s just a waste of time,” he’d say. “You’re right,” she’d say…but she’d still run twine along the porch for her morning glories to climb.

Once, over dinner, Uncle Henry was talking about smoking, and what a nasty habit it was. “You’re absolutely right, Henry,” Aunt Katie said. Still, when she got up from the table, she closed herself in the bathroom and lit up.”She thinks I don’t know what she’s doing in there,” he said…as if she weren’t less than ten feet away. “It’s none of Henry’s business,” Aunt Katie spoke to herself…as if the walls weren’t paper thin. When she came out of the bathroom, in a cloud of smoke, neither one of them said a word about it.

And when my dad was on his deathbed, and he bellowed and sent us all, crying, from the room, Aunt Katie quietly kept her seat. No matter what he wanted, or thought he wanted, she wasn’t going to let him die alone.

Aunt Katie didn’t always shy away from an argument, though. There are a couple of people that she seemed to truly enjoy sparring with. There were others that she’d talk history with, or finance, politics, the stock market, gardening, dogs, or baseball. Katherine was an intelligent woman who could speak with great knowledge on any number of subjects. She wouldn’t waste her time, though, if she didn’t think you were interested.

She was always tuned in to what others cared about. She kept that in mind, too, when she asked for assistance. One niece helped with her taxes, because that was her strong suit. A couple nephews helped with remodeling projects. Aunt Katie called me if she needed something from the store; she called Bob for help with dinner. When Deacon Paul asked if I took care of Aunt Katie, I was stunned. “She took care of herself,” I told him. She was careful to spread out the help she needed, so that it seemed like she was asking nothing at all. Truly, in comparison to all that she gave, it was absolutely nothing.

With that being said, I do want to thank the many people that helped Katherine as her health failed, to make it possible for her to live a good life, in her own home. Thank you to the priests that have stopped to visit, to Deacon Jim, and the ladies that brought Communion. Thanks to Bob Evans, who was always there for Aunt Katie, whether it was doctor visits, meals, or just good companionship. Thanks to Eileen, who was Katherine’s helper and, most importantly, her friend. Thanks to Greg, who was always close by, and checked in regularly. Thanks to Keith, who brightened Aunt Katie’s hospital stay with regular visits…and to all the others that came, called, or sent cards. And many thanks to the hospice nurses, Sue Solle and Donna Kubik, for all their help and encouragement in Katherine’s last days.

My Aunt Katie lived a good life; my life has been better for having her in it.

 

 

 

Today

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When I’m struggling for what to do, how to behave, what to say…I find a quote – or it finds me – and the message speaks right to me, and gives me direction to go forward. This one is a gift from my friend, Lisa, who writes from rural Ecuador:

“Today: Soak in what’s real and what’s real is unhurried. The ground. The air. The exhale. The planted seed. The shift. The season.” – Victoria Erickson

And there it is, just what I need to find my footing.

Saturday, my Aunt Katie came home from the hospital, weak as a kitten, and resigned to the fact that there was nothing more that could be done to improve her situation. My cousin Bob brought her back to Beaver Island, where she was born and raised, and where she has lived since her retirement, more than thirty years ago. We helped to get her settled in her own house, where her biggest wish was to watch the Detroit Tigers baseball game.

I moved in to her house, too, to be there, and help however I could. Though Aunt Katie was, at times, frustrated by pain, weakness or the inability to perform a task(“This hand just doesn’t work right anymore!”), she was always brave, rational and composed. “That’s the way it should be,” she said, speaking of the fact that she would die before her sister, Margaret, “I’m the oldest, after all.” When I showed concern over her discomfort, she told me calmly, “That’s just part of the process, Cindy.”

Though we both recognized that these were serious and important times, we stayed true to our own natures. I still managed to get on Aunt Katie’s nerves with my inability to find whatever she sent me after (her little pills, the breathing machine, oatmeal) though her directions couldn’t possibly have been more precise. Any show of sadness or sentimentality was met with a sharp rebuke. Once, when my hand rested on her shoulder a bit too long, she gathered enough voice to say, “Cindy! Cut it out!” She still managed, now and then, to hurt my feelings and aggravate. We were both able, though, to let little grievances go, and focus on the big picture.

I was rarely alone with Aunt Katie. Her niece, Shirley, grand-niece, Paula, and Paula’s husband, Tom, flew over for a day. They brightened Aunt Katie’s spirits, and left behind enough soup to feed an army! Her nephews Bob, Greg and Keith were present and attentive. Phone calls were frequent and welcome. I’d help Aunt Katie hold the phone to her ear as she listened and responded.

Friends stopped in with gifts of food, well-wishes and encouragement. Aunt Katie smiled and nodded appreciation as I named her guests. Bob’s fiancee, Joann, spent one long night in the chair at her bedside, murmuring love and comfort. Donna and Sue, the hospice nurses, were frequent guests, always kind, helpful and full of good advice. The deacon came, to offer communion and other sacraments. Aunt Katie’s friend and helper, Eileen, stopped in for a long visit, and she and my aunt had a beer together. When I came into the room, Aunt Katie was smacking her lips and, with a little grin, said, “That tastes good!”

My aunt died Monday evening, with family and friends around her. She was eighty-eight years old.

My sister Cheryl, and her son, Bob, arrived the next day. Together with those of us already here, plans and arrangements are moving along. Photos are being gathered; memories are shared. Last night four of us ordered Aunt Katie’s beer choice before dinner, and toasted her as we clinked our bottles of MillerLite together. We’ll have a steady stream of family arriving over the next several days.

This morning, I picked my dogs up from the kennel. I stayed home from work. I have not yet contacted the family to see what I should do next. Today, I’m taking time to let it all soak in. One step at a time.

Perfume Season

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The Fox Lake Road is carved out of the woods in the center of Beaver Island. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass, there are no shoulders or ditches. The countryside rises up on either side, higher than the road.

There are disadvantages. There are times, in the spring of the year, when the Fox Lake Road runs like a river, with twelve inches or more of icy water held within it’s banks. Grading the road is a constant and thankless job, as every rain creates more dips and puddles in the surface. The road trucks cut gouges – ugly, but necessary – intermittently into the road side, to allow the run-off of snow-melt and rainfall.

There are assets, too. As I look off into the woods while walking the Fox Lake Road, glorious and ever-changing views of the forest floor rise up on either side of me. From spring green ferns, to autumn leaves, to velvet blankets of snow, it’s always a good show. In late summer, blackberries growing along the roadside can be plucked from the vines from an open car window.

This time of year, the raggedy mop-heads of the aromatic milkweed plants are right at nose level. This is perfume season! I heard once that there is a famous French scent that is derived from the milkweed flower. That doesn’t surprise me. There are few flowers that could compete with the heady fragrance of milkweed.

Milkweed grows wild in the fields and open spaces here on Beaver Island. When it moves in to yards and gardens, it is pulled as a weed. The plant has thick, flat leaves and a fat stalk that oozes a gooey white substance when cut. After blooming, large rough-textured pods form on the stalks. Eventually, the pods burst open revealing a mass of seeds, each attached to a white feather to help carry it on the wind.

During World War II, school children here gathered milkweed pods “for the war effort.” The pods were sent off in huge bundles and bags, and used to make flotation devises for the soldiers. The children did such a good job, they almost wiped out a butterfly!

Beaver Island is one of the stops on the migratory path of the Monarch Butterfly, and milkweed is the primary food source for the Monarch caterpillar. As the plants declined, so did the butterflies. Thankfully, both recovered. Most folks are happier for the butterfly than they are for the plant.

I can’t help but think that if people only knew how good it smelled, they’d feel differently about milkweed. If it were a bit more attractive…a little less invasive…and perhaps had a better name, it would be the most popular flower in every garden. As for me, I’ll continue relishing every walk down the Fox Lake Road, now in the thick of perfume season!

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A Garden is Hope

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From the garden last week, I harvested two perfect little patty pan squash, and a small bouquet of radishes.  Just enough radishes to inspire a nice potato salad. Today, I plucked one slightly misshapen but lovely tomato from the vine, encouraged two pole bean runners on their way up the garden fence, and noticed the peas are in blossom. Some are even beginning to form pods! The smaller garden, and my weed-free tactics, are working well this year.

Though we’ve had several days of high heat and humidity, we’ve also had plenty of rain this summer. On top of that, nights have been cool. That combination may be just what is needed.

The radishes – even though it’s late in the season for radishes – have not yet become tough or woody. Their flavor is still perfect. They have not gone to seed.

Peas like cool weather and tend to dry up quickly when the summer gets hot. My Dad used to plant peas on Mother’s Day, and we had generally harvested them all before the end of July.

I love peas, but only when they’re raw. I can hardly tolerate cooked peas. They are bearable in Chinese food – especially if still in their pods – and okay (but just barely) in a chicken pot pie. I understand that Creamed Peas and Tuna Fish on Toast needs peas, if for nothing but to legitimize the name of the dish…but still. Raw is the way I love them, and the only way to get good, fresh raw peas is to grow them.

I was so late in getting my garden ready to plant, I asked Aunt Katie if I should just forget about peas this year. “What will it cost you? A few pea seeds! You’d might as well try,” was her good advice. Thanks to her, on the thirtieth day of July, I have a large bed of thriving pea plants, covered with blossoms and the beginnings of pods. I’m looking forward to that harvest!

 

What I Remember

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On my mother’s birthday, my thoughts go to memories of her. Mom would have turned eight-five years old today. If we were still blessed with her presence, I can imagine a lively, strong woman with a twinkle in her eye, who would probably still enjoy going out for a nice dinner. Maybe followed by a night of “Bingo.” Finished off with a cup of tea and a good book. Unfortunately, she died nearly six years ago.

Mom’s seventy-ninth birthday was the last one she celebrated. Though she was gravely ill, she did celebrate. Many of her children and grandchildren were with her; her walker was decorated with balloons, tied on with curling ribbon. Photos show her smiling as she opened presents and marveled over each one.

She was my own very special mother, and it’s nearly impossible to separate that from everything else I know about her. With her own large brood, and many other children welcome to participate in our crazy family activities, with grandchildren adding to the flock, motherhood and nurturing was a big part of Mom’s identity. Not all, though. She had an eventful and challenging life before she had children, and plenty of exciting adventures after we were grown. Today I am remembering the things that made her the unique and wonderful person that she was.

Red was her favorite color. With her dark hair and fair skin, she could wear it well, too. As a young woman, bright red lipstick accented her perfect smile. That, and a touch of rouge on her cheeks was all the adornment she needed. Her strong brows and long, dark eyelashes stood on their own. As her hair changed to salt and pepper and finally silver, the reds in her wardrobe gave way to softer tones of rose and pink.

Mom loved to read, and she raised a family of readers. As a child, she read adventure stories about animals: Black Beauty, White Fang, Lassie Come Home, My Friend, Flicka. Later, she favored good mysteries. After working her way through all the works of Agatha Christie, she found others she liked. Mom favored gritty, tough-guy, detectives with a soft heart.

Shopping was one of mom’s passions. Weekly trips to the grocery store were prepared for with lists, clipped coupons and meal plans, and anticipated with pleasure. Outings with girlfriends to visit the shopping malls in Flint, or to wander through the shops downtown were highlights for Mom.

She’d come home with bags and packages to be hidden away for Christmas, or revealed to us children as new school clothes or the fabric for sewing them. She’d draw us in to her thought processes and her excitement:

“When I saw this color, I just knew I had to get it…imagine how pretty this will look on Cheryl!”

“Cindy, this is almost just exactly like the dress you picked out from the J.C.Penney catalog…and look at this price!”

“I loved this flannel as soon as I saw it. I bought enough to make nightgowns for all the little girls.”

Mom and Dad shared a love of dogs. They would tolerate cats, but dogs were a beloved part of the family. Mom could name her childhood pets, and every dog we’d had growing up, where we got them, and how they died. Her last dog was terribly spoiled with bits of cheese and meat chunks for treats.

Mom liked games and puzzles, and taught us all to like them, too. After we grew up, she often bowed out of participating, though. I think it wasn’t the games, but her raucous family that deterred her. She still enjoyed putting together a jig-saw puzzle, and often had one going on a card table on the porch. When I was young, Mom and Dad occasionally had friends over to play Pinochle or Michigan Rummy. Later, Mom took to the Bingo halls, and even went to the casino once or twice each year.

My mother liked the World War II era movie stars; Judy Garland was one of her favorites. Katherine Hepburn, too. She was crazy about Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Paul Anka. One of her favorite songs was “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.” Mom and I shared a love of Danny Kaye. Johnny Cash, Roger Miller and Kenny Rogers all gained Mom’s approval, too.

Mom loved roses. She would usually receive a bouquet or two for birthdays and other special occasions. As children, we’d call Perkin’s Flower Shop to order them, and have them billed to the family account. Seems that bill never came due, as Mom quietly paid it when it came in the mail. That never dulled her enthusiasm over the next bouquet to arrive that way!

This is just a small sample of the many characteristics that made Mom special. If she were here today, I’d deliver flowers. Since she’s not, I’m letting memories of her enrich my day.

Right Here, Right Now

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I started a new book that promises to be a life-changer: Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte. I feel like it was written just for me:

“…this is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented, and exhausting. I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door. Entire hours evaporate while I’m doing stuff that needs to get done. But once I’m done, I can’t tell you what it was I did or why it seemed so important. “

Because the author has me pegged so accurately, in describing her own situation, and because she managed to find her way out of it to an extent where she felt she could write about it, I have hope.

I have tended to fill my time the way the ancient Greeks filled their vases with pictures: no open space. It wasn’t always like that. Growing up, I was known in my family as “the lazy one.” I would sit for hours playing with dolls or reading a book. I would lay out in the grass watching the clouds form patterns in the sky. I rode my bicycle around and around the same path. I wandered the fields. I didn’t get bored, with almost nothing to do.

As a young mother, I would sit calmly just watching my baby sleep, or reading or singing to my little ones. I didn’t seem to always need to have ten projects going at once. I don’t know quite when that changed, but sometime between then and now, it changed in a big way.

Now, on a day devoted to housekeeping, I will probably also plan to write a blog. I’ll tell myself the time is right to start that new exercise program or – at least – take the dogs for a long walk. As long as I’ll be at home, I may as well bake bread, too…and if I’m going to have fresh bread, well I’d better make soup. In the midst of all that, I might decide to start or continue an art project, or do some yard work, or paint a room. It isn’t fun, being this person.

Two and a half years ago, when I was approached about taking on the Beaver Beacon, I had a full-time job at the hardware store. I held the part-time position of Phragmites Administrator on Beaver Island. I was teaching art to children one day each week. I was putting in a few hours a month cleaning my aunt’s house. I was producing art in my studio for the four or five galleries that carry my work. I was single-handedly taking care of my home and yard. And I – for some reason – didn’t hesitate to take on the writing, editing and publishing of a bi-monthly news-magazine. That’s just the kind of crazy I am!

At sixty-four years old, retirement is somewhere in the not-too-distant future. In the past, I have thought that, when I retired, I would like to travel. I’d also like to spend more time with cooking, sewing and crafts. I’d like to expand the size of my garden and get a few chickens, in addition to expanding my artistic career and teaching a few classes. In my retirement! I’m tired of the frantic pace, though. I want some calm. I’m counting on this book to teach me how to achieve that!