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Posts Tagged ‘honoring the dead’

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, Savage, Minnesota, June 2009, photo © 2013 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Memorial Day, a somber remembrance of the men and women who gave their lives in U.S. wars. I am fortunate; I only know of one family member who died while fighting a war—my Uncle James. When I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at its dedication, I did a rubbing of his name (Panel 20W – Line 32). And when I started blogging, I discovered the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website where I began leaving him messages each Memorial Day. Uncle James died seven months into his tour, in Binh Long, South Vietnam, a long way from his South Carolina home. This is the time I dedicate to him.

Yesterday, I listened to CBS Sunday Morning and was taken with Lee Cowan’s story of Charlie Haughey, a Vietnam war photographer. It reminded me of the importance of photographs to remembering the dead. During his service as a photographer in Vietnam, Charlie Haughey chronicled the daily life of soldiers in his battalion. When his tour ended, he dropped his nearly 2,000 photo negatives into a shoebox, and hid them away. Now, after 45 years, Haughey’s mesmerizing images of soldiers battling the physical and emotional hardships of war are seeing the light of day. You can see in his eyes, they still bring him pain.

To all of the fallen, and for Uncle James. Never forgotten.


-posted on red Ravine, Memorial Day, May 27th, 2013

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bridge memorial 2012-07-28 22.21.48

I-35 Bridge Memorial – 36/365, Archive 365, Droid Shots, 35W Bridge Remembrance Garden, Minnesota, July 2012, photo © 2012 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I passed by the 35W Bridge Remembrance Garden three times over the last few weeks. Wednesday, August 1st, 2012 marked five years to the day since the I-35 bridge collapsed. The third time I drove by, I was traveling home from the Guthrie with Liz and her mother who was visiting from Wyoming.

Ironically, on August 1st, 2007, Liz’s mother was in the air on her way to Minneapolis when the bridge collapsed. Liz and I were folding laundry and doing last minute preparations for her visit, when we received a phone call from my mother in Pennsylvania asking if we were okay. Confused, we quickly turned on the TV to see that one of the busiest bridges in the Twin Cities had fallen into the Mississippi and was a twisted mass of concrete and steel.

Thirteen people died that day; 145 were injured. They had been going about their lives in what was until that moment, an ordinary day; it could have been any one of us. The Memorial to the victims and survivors of the 35W bridge collapse sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, next to Gold Medal Park. There was a dedication and opening ceremony for the 35W Memorial, August 1st, 2011. It is a quiet place where water falls over a granite wall inscribed with the names of the 145 survivors, and the words:

Our lives are not only defined by what happens, but by how we act in the face of it, not only by what life brings us, but by what we bring to life. Selfless actions and compassion create enduring community out of tragic events.

Last week, I listened to survivor Lindsay Walz tell her story from the perspective and wisdom of the passing of time (you can read her story at this link). On August 1st, she painted details on the back brace she wore for injuries sustained when the bridge collapsed. In addition to a broken back, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She states that everyone’s recovery is as unique as their experience on the bridge that day. Some people are still dealing with ongoing crippling pain and can’t work. They can’t do things they used to take for granted. The survivors stay connected through a Facebook page; they are still there for each other.

The night I passed by Bohemian Flats, under the new I-35 bridge, and around the bend to the Memorial, I saw 13 steel girders lit in neon blue, one for each person who lost their lives. I felt compelled to slow down from all the busyness of summer, and remember their names. (To learn more about their lives, there are biographies at the links.)


________________________________

Sherry Engebretsen
Sherry Engebretsen knew how to take care of details, especially when it came to her daughters.

 

Artemio Trinidad-Mena
Originally from Mexico, Artemio lived in Minnesota for about 10 years, and worked at New York Plaza Produce in south Minneapolis for almost a year.

 

Julia Blackhawk
Julia Blackhawk had recently taken a new Indian name. The 32-year-old from Savage was given the name Thunder Woman during a pow-wow at Easter. Her uncle, John Blackhawk, is a Winnebago Tribal Council member. He says Julia was a kind person who always showed respect for her elders. And he says she had one attribute that was very special.

 

Patrick Holmes
Patrick Holmes, 36, of Mounds View, was found dead at the scene of the bridge collapse that same night. He was on his way home from work. His wife, Jennifer, heard the news a little after midnight.

 

Peter Hausmann
Peter Hausmann, 47, was a computer security specialist worked at Assurity River Group in St. Paul. The company’s president says Hausmann was a quiet leader and a man of faith.

 

Paul Eickstadt
Paul Eickstadt drove a delivery truck for Sara Lee Bakery for 14 years. He was just beginning his shift, on his way to Iowa, when the 35W bridge collapsed. Eickstadt, 51, lived in Mounds View. He is survived by a brother and two sisters.

 

Greg Jolstad
Greg Jolstad’s friends called him Jolly “because of his name, and because that’s just how he was.” Bill Stahlke remembers ice fishing almost daily, as teenagers, with Jolstad and Jim Hallin on Knife Lake, near the Jolstad family farm. The three haven’t missed a winter on the lake in the nearly 30 years since they graduated together from Mora High School.

 

Scott Sathers
On Aug. 1, Scott Sathers left his job in downtown Minneapolis at Capella University, where he worked as an enrollment director, approximately 40 minutes later than usual. Sathers called his wife Betsy at 5:50 p.m. from Washington Ave. and 35W, where he was about to get on 35W to go north to his home in Blaine.

 

Christina Sacorafas
Christina Sacorafas was running late, and called her friend and fellow dance instructor, Rena Tsengas, to say she would be late. But Sacorafas never made it the Minneapolis church where students in her Greek folk dancing group were waiting for her to begin class.

 

Sadiya and Hanah Sahal
For Ahmed Iidle, the I-35W bridge collapse has brought a double loss. His daughter Sadiya Sahal, 23, and her 2-year-old daughter Hanah were headed to a relative’s house when the bridge crumbled beneath them.

 

Vera Peck and Richard Chit
Vera Peck and her 20-year-old son Richard Chit were traveling in the same car when the bridge collapsed.

 

________________________________
Related to posts: 40 Days, 8 Flags, and 1 Mennonite Choir, Memorial — Day & Night, Bridge To Nowhere — The Great ConnectorFear Of Bridges, Thornton Wilder & Bridges, Minneapolis At Night, The Name Game (What’s In A Name?)

Resources: Hundreds turn out to dedication of 35W Bridge Memorial, New 35W bridge memorial honors those who died — and the community that disaster brought together, Remembering the Dead, Bridge survivor on 5th anniversary: ‘The day I got to live’

-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, August 5th, 2012

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By Bob Chrisman



Allen Cemetery on the outskirts of Gower, Missouri serves as the final resting place for my mother’s parents and some of her aunts, uncles, and cousins. Names like Patton, Divelbiss, Pogue, and Williams mark the plots of family members. Every Memorial Day we decorated those graves. As time passed and more relatives took up residence among the tombstones, we didn’t attend to as many of the graves. After my father’s stroke in 1969, which left him bedridden, and my sister’s departure to teach a distance away, we decorated fewer graves because my mother didn’t like to leave my father alone for long.

After my father died in 1984, Aunt Vera, my mother’s younger sister, and her husband, Uncle Howard, joined us for the annual, grave-decorating trip. Neither one of them drove anymore so they gladly came along for the outing and the lunch that followed. I would swing by their house, just up the street a few blocks from where my mother lived, and pick them up.

Uncle Howard had a great sense of humor despite the hardships of his life. He managed to find something funny about most everything. Going to the cemetery provided him with an opportunity and a captive audience. Much to my mother and aunt’s chagrin, my uncle always told me the same story on the way there.

“Bob, did I ever tell you about buying those cemetery plots?”

Although I had heard the story many times in the past, I would say, “No, Uncle Howard. What happened?” With that question he launched into the story.

“Your mom and dad and Vera and I made an appointment with Eldon Lee. You know Eldon Lee, don’t you? He was the funeral director and caretaker of the cemetery. We drove out to Gower one evening. We picked four spaces right in a row. The girls decided that we would be buried boy-girl-boy-girl.

“Eldon Lee put your father’s name down first, then your mom’s, and then he started to write my name. I said, ‘Eldon Lee, hold on. I’m not happy with this arrangement.’ They all looked at me like I’d lost a marble or two, but Eldon Lee put down his pen to hear me out.

“I said, ‘When you die, you lay down for your eternal rest to get some peace, don’t you?’ Eldon Lee nodded his head. ‘Well, how much rest and peace do you think I’d get planted between Lucile and Vera? Not much. I can tell you that right now. You better put the girls together between Len and I so all that chatter between the girls won’t disturb us in our graves.’

“That’s why your mom and Vera have places next to each other.”

He laughed in that mischievous way of his. My mother and Aunt Vera sighed. Aunt Vera said, “Oh, Howard.” No matter how many times I heard the story, I laughed. I could imagine my mother and her sister gossiping in the grave while my father snored on one side and Uncle Howard tossed and turned on the other end.

Uncle Howard had another routine that he started when we pulled up the gravel road into the cemetery. He never failed me in doing this one, which irritated my mother and aunt beyond words. That made it all the funnier because they should have known it was coming, but it always appeared to take them by surprise.

My mother and her sister decided which set of graves we would visit and in what order. My Uncle Howard pointed at new graves we passed.

“Look, Bob, see that one? Hey, you girls, would you pipe down? All your talking drives the ground squirrels away. I’m trying to see how fat they are. Looks like we’ve added lots of new dishes to the graveyard buffet lately.” He laughed.

That stopped the women’s conversation. Aunt Vera usually said, “Howard, that’s no way to talk about the dead.”

“I guess you’re right.” He paused for effect. “But, they’re dead and they don’t care about my little joke.”

Mom said, “Howard, someday you’ll be lying here in the ground and you won’t want someone talking about you like that?”

“You’re right, Lucile, but I’ll be dead and I won’t care. I’m so little and skinny the ground squirrels will be very disappointed when they lift the lid on my coffin. They’ll probably look at one another and say, ‘Ain’t much meat here. Let’s move on.’” Then he’d laugh and I’d join him.


Uncle Howard and Aunt Vera's headstone, photo © 2010 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.




Uncle Howard hit the buffet line in April, 1990. Aunt Vera followed in December, 1993. In February 2008, my mother joined them. My family won’t add any more people because we have scattered all over the country.

On January 1, 2009, I drove up to the cemetery to pay my respects and to remember the stories of my childhood. When I entered the cemetery I found myself looking for the new graves and the ground squirrels. I stood at the graves of my parents and my aunt and uncle. I listened as the cold wind blew through the place. I didn’t hear Mom and Aunt Vera talking. Maybe Uncle Howard’s plan worked. I hope he enjoys his eternal rest in peace.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. For Memorial Day 2010, we published Desecration Day, Bob’s humorous yet moving piece about a grave decoration day that got a bit out of hand.

You can see these other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members: Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He also published these pieces about the life and death of his mother: Hands and In Memoriam. And he produced a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad.

Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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By Bob Chrisman



After my father died in 1984, my mother made semi-annual trips to Southern California to stay with her step-sister-in-law, Aunt Gladys. Uncle Roy had died a couple of years before my dad did. I would fly out to spend some time with them and then accompany my mother home.

During my first visit, Mom and Aunt Gladys announced their desire to decorate Uncle Roy’s grave at the VA cemetery in Westminster, California, near the Pacific Coast. At 90 my aunt had stopped going. “I’m not as quick on the highway anymore. I’ll leave that to you.”

We loaded the car with grass trimmers, scissors, throw rugs, plastic buckets, dishwashing liquid, sponges, old rags, and rolls of paper towels. My aunt directed my driving.

“Take that exit. Now be careful, Bob. A lot of these people aren’t paying attention. Lucile, look. Honey, did you see those mums in front of that grocery store? Weren’t they beautiful? Roy loved mums.”

I moved into the right lane to head back to the store. Aunt Gladys wanted mums. And my mother would want to make Aunt Gladys happy. One right turn, three left turns, and 15 minutes later we pulled up to the store. They climbed out while I parked.

When I caught up with them in the store, they had removed all the pots of deep red mums from the rack and lined them up for inspection. My mother and my aunt handed me the mums they eliminated as possible choices.

“Here, put this back where it belongs.” While I redecorated the mum display, they narrowed the choice down to three.

“Bob, you pick the one you think is the best one.”

I chose, but my choice wasn’t the best one so they bought the one they had already agreed on.

That done, we headed toward the cemetery.


A sign greeted us at the entrance:

The level of the cemetery has been raised by several inches. If you have trouble finding the gravesite of a veteran, please contact the manager located on the property.


We drove to the spot closest to Uncle Roy’s grave. My aunt and my mother tottered across the grass. I, the beast of burden, unloaded the trunk and followed.

“Now, he’s here somewhere. Lucile, you don’t think they’ve moved him, do you? That sign said something…”

“No, Gladys, they only put more dirt on top of him.”

I found the spot. “Here it is.” I dropped all of the grave decorating equipment and took the bucket to get water.

As they spread out the throw rugs, Aunt Gladys said, “Lucile, I don’t remember the grave being this far from the road.”

“Gladys, it’s always been here.” Mom yelled at me. “Don’t fill the bucket too full. We don’t need that much water.”

They had donned their gardening gloves and hats and set to work. They trimmed the grass around the stone. They scrubbed the marker with old rags and dried it with the paper towels.

“Roy and I bought an in-ground vase. I can’t remember exactly where it is, but I’ll find it.”

She pulled out a knife with a long slender blade and stabbed the ground like Anthony Perkins slashed at Janet Leigh in “Psycho.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Aunt Gladys, please stop.” Mom didn’t say a word. Stab, stab, stab.

“I need to find that vase. It’s buried here. They better not have removed it. We paid good money for it.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Wait. Put the knife down. I’ll go to the office and find out where the vase is.” Stab, stab, stab.

My aunt worked up quite a sweat. “Okay. I’m tired. Why don’t you go to the office. We’ll keep ourselves busy while you’re gone.”

I ran to the car. I knew they wouldn’t wait long to do whatever they wanted to.

I drove to the office. As I entered the building, the air-conditioning hit me in the face like a block of ice. The hot and humid outside air vanished in a room where you could have hung meat without it spoiling.

A cheery young woman asked, “Hello. May I help you find your loved one?”

I smiled. “My aunt is stabbing her husband’s grave with a knife to find the in-ground vase. To avoid injury to her, can you tell me where the buried vase is located?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open.

“Let me speak to the manager.”

She disappeared only to return with a rotund man dressed in a robin’s-egg blue polyester, double-knit suit. The exertion of walking from his office to the desk had turned his face beet red and he mopped his brow with a white handkerchief.

“I’ll show you where it is.”

I asked, “Do you want me to drive?” I wasn’t sure he would fit in the rental car.

“No, I’ll take my car. Suits me better.”

He climbed in a huge car, exactly the same color as his suit and rolled down his window.

“Lead the way.”


When we arrived at the gravesite, I pointed to my aunt and mother busily working.

“That’s them.”

He nodded and waddled off, wiping his head and neck as he went.

When I arrived at the throw rugs, grass trimmings and dirt covered both women. The manager stared at the ground, his jaw agape.

Aunt Gladys said. “Honey, we don’t need him. When we couldn’t find the vase I paid for…” she looked up at the manager. “…we simply dug a little hole and planted the mums on top of Roy.” She looked very happy. They both did, but the manager didn’t.

“You…you can’t do that.”

“Can’t do what, young man?”

“Can’t go around digging holes in the cemetery. It’s…well, it’s grave desecration.” His color had grown much redder. Sweat poured off his face. His handkerchief looked sopping wet. “It’s against the law to dig holes here.”

“If we had been able to find the vase, which, I will remind you again, we paid for, my sister-in-law and I wouldn’t have dug this hole.”

He took out a pocket knife. My aunt grabbed her knife, prepared to fight.

He stepped next to the stone. He jabbed in the ground and dug out some grass.

“Here. Right here.” He stood up with a smug smile on his face.

My aunt ignored him. “Lucile, look. It was right there all the time…under a foot of grass and dirt.”

“Next time, ladies, please don’t dig a hole.” He snapped his knife shut and waddled back to his car.

“I think I’ll report him. Grave desecration? What a bad attitude these young people have.” She extended her hand to me. “Help me up.”

With both of them on their feet, I brushed off their clothes. I gathered everything, wrapped the knife in an old rag and dropped it in the bucket. I packed the stuff in the trunk.

When I went back to help them to the car, I heard my aunt ask, “I think we did a lovely job, don’t you? Roy would be pleased.” My mother agreed.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. Desecration Day is about his Aunt Gladys and his mother. Other pieces about his aunts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He published two pieces about the life and death of his mother — Hands and In Memoriam.

He also wrote a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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Happy Birthday, Mabel Dodge, Taos, New Mexico, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Happy Birthday, Mabel Dodge, Taos, New Mexico, photo © 2007-
2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.







tombstone in winter;
knowing Mabel’s ghost lingers,
we write for our lives







I’ve felt the ghost of Mabel Dodge Luhan. She walks the adobe halls of the house at night, creaking on the steps leading down into her bedroom. It was pitch black the night of her visit. The dogs of Taos were howling in the distance. I didn’t look up from the hand-carved bed frame. The frame that I once read Dennis Hopper wanted to chainsaw into pieces and remove from the room. Someone must have stopped him.

Mabel would have turned 130 years old on this day. Those who benefit from her artistic vision sit on black cushions in silence; it’s the first week of what will be a year of study with Natalie. Whatever you think of Mabel or Tony (and you can hear an earful from the locals around Taos), together they created a pulsing creative space at the foot of Taos Mountain. One large enough to hold them both — and the rest of us, too.

Mabel’s grave is in a lonely corner of Kit Carson Memorial Cemetery. I visit there every time I am in Taos. Below is an excerpt from an article by Henry Shukman when he was hot on the trail of the ghost of D. H. Lawrence. It’s a fitting tribute to Mabel. Sometimes people are remembered most for the things they leave behind. Happy Birthday, Mabel. I hope you didn’t think we’d forgotten.



It was from the foot of Taos mountain that Mabel Dodge Luhan — heiress, patroness, columnist, early proponent (and victim) of psychoanalysis, memoirist and hostess — planned the rebirth of Western civilization. She moved to Taos from the East Coast in 1917 and fell in love not only with the place but also with Tony Lujan (later anglicized to Luhan), a chief in the nearby pueblo. She promptly left her second husband, married Tony and expanded a house on the edge of town, turning it into an adobe fantasy castle (what Dennis Hopper, who owned it in the 1970’s, would later call the Mud Palace), and began to invite scores of cultural luminaries. The idea was to expose them to the Indian culture she believed held the cure for anomic, dissociated modern humanity. After dinner, drummers and dancers from the pueblo would entertain the household.

Today her house is a museum, guesthouse and literary shrine all in one. For anyone on the trail of Lawrence, it’s the first of three essential ports of call. As I make my way up the groaning narrow stairs, the sense not just of history but of peace hits me: no TVs, no telephones. Instead, the deep quiet of an old, applianceless home. There are a bathroom with windows that Lawrence painted in colorful geometric and animal designs in 1922 to protect Mabel Luhan’s modesty, and floorboards across which Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Wolfe creaked. (In fact Wolfe stayed only one night. He arrived late and drunk, decided he didn’t like it and fled the next morning.)

- D.H. Lawrence’s New Mexico: The Ghosts That Grip the Soul of Bohemian Taos by Henry Shukman, from the NY Times, Cultured Traveler, October 22, 2006



Winter In Taos, Taos, New Mexico, November 2001, C-41 film print, photo © 2001-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Winter In Taos, grave of Mabel Dodge Luhan, born February 26th, 1879, died August 13th, 1962, Taos, New Mexico, November 2001, C-41 film print taken at my first Taos Writing Retreat at Mabel’s House, photo © 2001-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



In a cold like this, the stars snap like distant coyotes, beyond the moon. And you’ll see the shadows of actual coyotes, going across the alfalfa field. And the pine-trees make little noises, sudden and stealthy, as if they were walking about. And the place heaves with ghosts. But when one has got used to one’s own home-ghosts, be they never so many, they are like one’s own family, but nearer than the blood. It is the ghosts one misses most, the ghosts there, of the Rocky Mountains. …because it is cold, I should have moonshine …

— D.H. Lawrence from Mornings In Mexico


-posted on red Ravine for the 130th birthday of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Thursday, February 26th, 2009

-related to posts: haiku 2 (one-a-day)WRITING TOPIC — HAUNTED, The Vitality Of Place — Preserving The Legacy Of “Home” (with photos of Mabel & Tony and links to many of their contemporaries)

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Letting Go, Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Letting Go, funeral pyre on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.




It’s one of those gray days in Minneapolis. A storm kicked up her heels last night, a gale force blowing through my dreams. Mr. StripeyPants is draped over a soft brown blanket next to me on the couch. I grabbed my small red greenroom eco notebook of haiku. There they were — the scratched syllables of a day on Lake Michigan.

I looked at the photographs from the writing retreat a few weekends ago. The funeral pyre popped out at me. After we arrived at the little cabins in Wisconsin, we learned that the matriarch of the family-owned business had passed away earlier in the week. She was in her 90′s.

The family gathered to pay their respects. And when we walked on the beach that morning, we passed a tall wooden spire, a testament to her memory. At lunch, an adolescent boy in a black suit paced the pine needles next to our cabin, crumpled paper in hand. He glanced down to the page, out over the blooming tulips, then, lips moving, back to the page.

After dinner, and a day of silence and writing, we looked out the picture window to see the funeral pyre burning. Moths to the flame, we could not help but step out to the porch. We talked quietly among ourselves, but mostly, we stood still and watched. Bearing witness.

It was humbling. In a few minutes, it started to rain. At the same time, a gust of wind burst through the skirts of the white pines and blew out to sea.

Then, complete stillness.

Later in the evening, we were chatting by the fire, and what sounded like gunshots echoed across the beach grass. Fireworks. That’s the way I want to go out. A gangly fire on the beach. Wind blowing my ashes out to sea. Rain to quench my thirst. Giant starbursts in a Full Moon sky.

That Saturday, I wrote these haiku. And to the matriarch — though I did not know you, I know The Grandmothers. And for a few days, I knew the place you called home. Rest in peace.




standing in the sun
waves crashing all around me
pale face, flushed and hot


puffy cirrus clouds
spread cream cheese over the land
gulls dive for crayfish


summer’s in the wind
the moon fell into the lake
jack-in-the-pulpit


waves gently roll back
in a giant concave bowl
anchor beach grasses


sun’s reflection glares
afraid of my own dark thoughts
dead fish rolls to shore


monkey mind is fierce
I don’t know what I’m doing
morning turns and breaks


funeral pyre burns
wind gusting across the lake
all eyes were watching


no understanding
of that kind of letting go
not for me to know 




On The Beach, Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.                         

  To The Wind, Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.   Phoenix, Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.  

On The Beach, To The Wind, Phoenix, Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.




-posted on red Ravine, Friday, May 30th, 2008

-related to posts: PRACTICE – Blossom Moon – 15min & haiku (one-a-day)

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Mother Mary as in a Dream, Raton, NM, photos © 2008 by
ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Last Wednesday afternoon I found myself in one of the best spots I could imagine, with my parents and oldest sister, and in the company of my beloved grandparents and best-ever uncle. We were in the cemetery in Raton, New Mexico, where Grandma, Grandpa, and Uncle Pat are buried.

I get my love of cemeteries from Mom. I didn’t know how much she loved them until this visit. I usually go to cemeteries with my dad; each Memorial Day we make the trek to Costilla, the place where his parents are buried. But on this particular trip Mom asked if we could stop in Raton to see her parents and brother. “I love cemeteries,” she told me as we left our relatives’ headstones and began exploring the grounds.

We walked all over the cemetery. The dry grass crackled under our feet. Most of the headstones were small and unassuming.

“Oh, there’s Joe Gourley,” Mom said. Joe was the son of a rich man in Raton, who Mom still calls “Mr. Gourley.” Joe Gourley, the son, went to war. When he came back he shot himself. Mom did the math in her head to make sure this was the right Joe Gourley, the one she knew who killed himself. “Yep, that would be about right.”

The June day my grandmother was buried here, we attended a funeral mass. According to my imperfect memory, it was a High Mass with incense and big drops of Holy water splashed in our faces. The priest, dressed in white robes and a white cap, bellowed a sermon of doom. I don’t know why this particular service seemed so gloomy to me — it was held in 1985, when I was 24 and gloomy myself — but I remember it plucked the chords of the guilt side of our Catholic faith. I felt resentful and confused. Was he talking about my grandmother or were his messages intended for us?

My relationship with Catholicism is complex, influenced, I think, by Mom’s own complex relationship with the Church. She rebelled against Dad’s absolute piety, and she strained against the rigidity — the intolerance — with which some Catholic priests ruled their parishes in those days.

If pressed, she might be apt to say something like, “I don’t believe in God.” Yet she was a believer. She was just unwilling to concede the fact.

At the rosary held for Grandma the night before her burial, Mom sat in the front right-hand side of the church. A benevolent Virgin Mary dressed in blue and white robes stood silently in the nicho of a wall facing Mom and her youngest sister, Connie. My grandmother’s death was a blow for my mother. Mom called my grandmother “Mama” up until the day she died — she still does. They were close, talking for hours each week. Mom cried and cried through the Our Fathers and Hail Marys. At one point, she peered through her veil of tears and saw that the Virgin Mary was crying, too.

“Tears came down her cheeks, we saw them!” Mom pleaded afterwards. Both she and Connie saw the tears. Later on, before the funeral mass the next day, we went to see if the Virgin Mary statue had raised porcelain tears on her cheeks. There were none. Still, I believed.


      



Beverly Donofrio in her book Looking for Mary says that when the spirit of the Virgin Mary is nearby, so too is the smell of roses. I remember Mom used to like everything — lotion, perfume, candles — that smelled of roses. Old lady smell, I always thought, even though for years of birthdays and Mother’s Days, I gave her rose-fragranced-anything-I-could-find.

I can’t recall now the last time I thought to give Mom anything having to do with roses. It’s only today that I remember how much she loved that unmistakable fragrance.


One of the photos I took on Wednesday caught my eye as I pored through the shots from that day in the cemetery. It is a small statue of Mary. She sits on the ground, a short distance from the marble headstone of the person she graces. All around the Mary statue are needles and small branches from a nearby pine. I have picked her only because of who she is, not because I know the person buried there. I have to almost lie on the grave myself to get down low enough to photograph the statue.

In the photo of her I notice a shaft of light, thin and almost imperceptible, coming down over her right eye. She is completely white, but there on that right eye is a speck of dirt exactly where her iris would be.

It is not earth-shattering. It is not the stuff that draws throngs of believers. It’s dirt and a small ray of light. It could be nothing. It’s easy to miss.

I call Mom and tell her about the photo. “Oh, really?” she says. She sounds intrigued. A lot has happened in the 23 years since her mother died. Over the years and through various family crises, my mother has turned to her imperfect faith and made it something all of us can hold on to. She prays a rosary every day. Her rebellious self has changed. You can still see remnants of it but she no longer rebels just for the sake of rebelling.

“What do you think,” she asks, “is it a little miracle?” I tell her I’m not sure but that I’ll bring by my computer so that she can see for herself. “I believe in miracles, you know,” she tells me.

I do know. I’ve never doubted that about my mom. That’s one of the gifts she gave to me and all my siblings.



Shaft of Light, Raton, NM, photos © 2008 by ybonesy.
All rights reserved.

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I’m looking at my ruddy face in a small, round, silver mirror. I look older than I remember. Thick eyebrows, salt and pepper hair; it looks the grayest to me right after a haircut. There is something about the way it lays across the black plastic smock, and falls in shredded pieces on to the floor. Accents of changing color. I don’t mind. It is my grandmother’s hair.

I have a little pouch under my chin. I hate to admit it. Blue eyes that used to be hazel. More blue with age. I don’t often look in a mirror. Once in the morning after my shower to spike my hair. I’m a fluff and blow person, not much fiddling around. I look in the mirror when I brush my teeth. That seems strange and I don’t know why I do it. I am looking into a mirror now. It was suggested in the Writing Topic on growing older; I thought it might push me (over the edge?).

The body gives out, breaks down. Elasticity is lost; wisdom gained. I don’t have a problem aging. Life is easier now than it was 20 years ago. I’m 34x happier. I worry that I won’t get everything done I want to do before I die. That goes back to the Bucket List. I don’t have any control over that. I am where I am. I’m in my 50’s.

Fifty used to seem ancient to me. Forty seemed ancient, too. I couldn’t imagine being 30. Decades have passed. The older I get, the more I know who I am. I have this theory about aging. I believe people become one of two things:  happier and more settled in who they are. Or angry and bitter. That’s black and white. I’m sure there is gray. It’s something I have noticed. And so I keep watching to prove my theory right.

Old, cranky, bitter, judging, hoarding, fighting imperfection, not able to accept that the body is aging. Graceful, happier, wiser, content with who they are, willing to not be perfect, to pass the torch, giving what they have to the next generations to come.

Maya Angelou turned 80 years old on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Do you think Martin knew he would not live to grow old? Or that Maya thought she would reach the age of 80? There were many articles written about her on April 4th. She is of the giving and wise variety. Yet she hasn’t shrunk from her responsibilities — as a woman, as a writer.

If Martin Luther King were alive, he would be one year younger than Maya. She was an aid to his cause, all those years ago. She still speaks for him through the way she lives her life. Think of everything she has seen.

I ran into a conversation between Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. Maya, one of Oprah’s mentors, was talking about living according to your principles. She is a Clinton supporter, and under constant pressure, remains loyal to Hillary. She has written a poem for her. Oprah is outspoken for Obama. They debate, have long conversations. They each stand strong, loyal to their candidates. They are respectful. They remain friends.

You can talk about spiritual principles. Or you can live by them. Talk is easy. Cheap. Principles are the hardest to uphold when we want something. Or in the face of adversity. Angelou said courage is the most important principle – because without it, you can’t really live up to the others. We might think we want to live at all costs. And then something comes along we are willing to die for.

If you think about Dr. King, he had an offer to go back to a seminary and teach for a year right before he died. He wanted to go. To rest. But he knew it would feel like he wasn’t fulfilling his obligations. So he stayed true to his vision. And went to Memphis to support the sanitation workers. He marched at the front of the line, even though he was tired, worn out. And he dropped his head in despair when a group of young marchers at the end of the line erupted in violence. Maybe at the end, he felt old. He was not perfect. He was human.

I started thinking about Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King and their great courage. I pale in comparison. When I look at what they have each been through, I wonder why I complain about the obstacles that fall my way. But I have learned not to compare myself. Not to anyone. Not to other artists, or writers, or teachers. My demons are mine. I earned every age spot, wrinkle, and wart. I’m not young anymore. Yet I am the most alive inside I have ever felt.

Growing older — it is harder to keep the weight off. I could lose 20 pounds. You can’t see that on a blog. My friends look to my vibrant Spirit. My family loves me unconditionally. So does my partner. The mirror tells me I look sad. Tired. But my eyes are bright. My heart feels heavy. It will not last. It will pass. When I think about dying, I think about looking down on loved ones, urging them on toward their dreams, smiling, holding the space. The way my grandmothers Ada and Elise do for me.

When I visit the South with my mother, we often visit gravestones under plantation magnolias in ancient cemeteries. The history is there. We didn’t create it. But we carry it. We walk among the dead, recall living memories. The pilgrimage, for me, is to pay my respects. To those who have come before. I am in the lineage of the Southern mothers, fathers, grandfathers, great aunts, and grandmothers whose graves I visit. They are not there. My memories of them are.

I drive past the homes where relatives used to live. Some remain in the family. Some belong to complete strangers. I don’t know them. I never will. But I have to bear witness. I don’t want the dead to be forgotten. I don’t want to be forgotten. I want to be remembered. And so I remember and honor others.

Visiting graveyards, a wrinkle in time. The living commingling with the dead. It might sound morose. But I don’t think of it that way. In Kit Carson Memorial cemetery, Mabel is buried not far from the black, wrought iron around the Carson plot. She would not be amused. The more I think about it, the more I want to be scattered to the wind, high over some tiny, rocky beach on the Oregon Coast. No gravestone. No marker. I want to be remembered as a free spirit. Though no writer ever feels free.

I’m staring in the mirror again. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

You are.


-posted on red Ravine, Friday, April 11th, 2008

-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – GROWING OLDER and the post, 40 Years

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