Monthly Archives: August 2017

Not Quite

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This is the season, it seems, for qualifiers. My birthday is almost here; I am not quite sixty-five years old. Summer is nearly over; fall is coming soon. It’s that “in-between” stage that begs for evaluation and invites plans. That’s where I’m at right now.

Summer. It came in slowly, with cold, rainy days through most of June. Even when it warmed up, it seems the hot summer days were often balanced by chilly nights or cool, windy or rainy days. Mosquitoes were never unbearable. I almost always slept under a light comforter.

I spent the early part of the summer getting my back yard reconfigured and my garden planted. Though it was a lot of work, it has pretty much taken care of itself since then, and has been a source of satisfaction and fresh vegetables for weeks now.

Most of my flowers are finished blooming, though the ones that are still offering their bright faces are more appreciated than ever. The low hedge of  “Autumn Joy” Sedum is healthy and bright green. Before long, its flat flower heads will be glorious bronze tones.

Aunt Katie’s illness dominated the summer season. When she was home, the goal was to buoy her spirits; the wish was to see her improve. “How are you today?” I’d ask whenever I stopped. “Not good,” she’d answer, discouraged. “I wish I had a different answer,” she once said, vehemently.

I brought her a large potted tomato plant, to grow on her kitchen porch. My cousin Bob planted a tub of salad greens just outside the door. His sheep grazed just behind the farmhouse. She watched them from her kitchen stool as he did her breathing treatment.

Morning Glories came up from seeds dropped in other years. Aunt Katie was never well enough to put up the rows of string for the flowers to climb; I never thought to do it for her. Now, in August, the vigorous  vines have tumbled over and formed a thick mound, reminding me of my neglect.

When she was getting care on the mainland – between two hospitals and a rehabilitation facility – telephone calls became a focus. There were calls to Aunt Katie’s room and to her cell phone. There were calls to the keyboard and to the nurse’s station. Because she was often out of her room, away from her phone, or unable to talk because something else was going on, and because the nurse’s station was poorly staffed in the evenings when I was able to call, I was usually frustrated. When I was able to get updates, I called family members downstate to spread the word. My cousin Keith changed his route to be able to visit with Aunt Katie on the way to and from his cabin. His phone calls were highly anticipated and welcome for the good information on her spirits and her progress.

When Aunt Katie finally came home, she knew – as we did – that she was coming home to die. Friends started calling, and stopping by. Dishes of food were dropped off. Family members altered their summer plans to get to the island. Though she was clearly weak, struggling, and in decline, I thought she’d be with us for a while. I packed a week’s worth of clothes, to bring to her house, and anticipated being there a month or more. That was not the way it worked out.

On, then to the services to honor my aunt. Bringing together many of her nieces and nephews and their families, islanders who knew and respected her and the contributions she made in her long life, and friends who wept openly at the dear heart we had lost. It was exhausting…and wonderful…as many events like this are, but a fitting send-off to a wonderful woman who has been a big part of my life.

The funeral was a sad start to the planned, week-long vacation on Beaver Island for my sisters and their families. Still, good company, fine weather, and lots of little children helped to bring perspective and joy to a transitional time. For me, especially this year, their presence was a blessing.

Work was the second major focus of my summer. Extended hours at the hardware store made for long, busy days. In addition, there was writing, event-covering and business to be taken care of for the news-magazine. Getting artwork where it needed to be – and myself where I was supposed to be to promote it – was another pull in yet another direction.

Though my diet and exercise plan went out the window less than two months into the New Year, I have somehow managed to lose about eight pounds. Walks with the dogs went from daily – as promised – to a couple times a week, as time and weather allowed. Our rides down to the Fox Lake were often foiled by other people and dogs on the shore. I only made it to the Lake Michigan beach a couple times this summer, and I never went swimming. That should be considered at least a venial sin in the evaluation of both my summer and my 65th year. I live on an island, for God’s sake!

So, as I look back over the year, and the summer season, I’d have to say it was not quite as successful as I would have liked. That’s okay. There was joy, and progress, and change. It was not quite a failure, either!

 

Looking Ahead

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Events of the past couple weeks – some joyful, some tragic – have served to open up large blocks of time in my life. Now, with the last of my visiting family and friends waved off on the ferry boat to get back to their own lives, and with my birthday just around the corner, it’s time to start looking ahead.

My birthday competes with the New Year as a time to assess accomplishments and failures (including failed New Year’s resolutions!), and to resolve to do better. Saying good-bye to my Aunt Katie, whose long life was an inspiration and an outstanding example of living well, has directed my thought process. In setting my goals for the next year, I look to joy.

Rather than lay down plans and aspirations as if they are chores to be dutifully completed, I want to keep my eye on happiness. The list may look the same. To be better organized, healthier in habit and weight, to grow my food, take care of my dogs, expand my knowledge and spend quality time making art are constant self-improvement goals. It is the strategy that I am changing.

Rather than look forward to the time when I will be happier because I am better organized…or slimmer…or more on top of other duties and obligations, I intend to find joy in the process. Instead of keeping my eye on the “finish line,” and my distance from it determining my success or failure, I want to enjoy this walk through life, every step of it. I want to (even!!!) take note of flowers along the way. Maybe it will feel the same. Right now, looking ahead, it seems like just the attitude-shift I need.

 

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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