Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Paper Trail

I am not a collector of stuff.   Though I do have a few special trinkets, paraphernalia from our years in Central America and some special possessions given as gifts over the years,  we don't have a lot of non-necessities in our home.  As much as I hate to move, and I've done it enough, I've seen each major change as an opportunity to simplify my life.   I've always been this way.  My mom loved clean but didn't mind a few extra things lying around, her dining room table was ample proof of that.  Even as a kid I took it upon myself to keep that table cleared as much as possible, a never-ending task with four younger brothers and sisters who couldn't have cared less at that time. 
Larry has worked well with me on my need for tidiness over the years.  Well, that is except for his tendency to leave a paper trail wherever he goes. He'll write phone numbers and bits of information on tiny scraps of paper and leave them all around the house.  When I find them, often days or weeks later, he doesn't usually have a clue as to what they are.  Every once in awhile I'll commit the unpardonable sin, going into his office and peeking into or under his desk.  There is always paper, piles of it.  He seems to love the stuff: sermon notes, minutes from board meetings,  personal reminders, emails, letters.  You name it, it's there.

Then there are the boxes stowed away in our attic full of old bank statements, utility bills and the like.  The thought of all that paper makes me shudder.   I have mentioned more than once that I'd love to take a week off,  get a high-powered shredder and start eliminating it all.  But this is one of those subjects that has created some tension in our marriage, and I have learned to tread a bit more carefully when broaching the subject.  So I figured that if he goes to his reward first,  one of the first things I'd do is turn my music up full blast and start shredding away.  But if I were to precede him, I fear they would remain where they are.  I can just see my poor children opening those boxes and throwing their arms up in the air, wondering why their father hung onto all that stuff for all those years, leaving them to do all the work of sorting through. 
That brings me to today, our anniversary.  Thirty-six years ago I married a tall, skinny seminary student who is ridiculously romantic and terribly sentimental.  I'm neither.  So for example, if he's going to get me flowers, he's learned that I'd prefer a single rose over a dozen.  I reason that since they're going to eventually die anyways, why spend all that money?  This is what he's had to contend  with all these years, an overly practical wife.    
I had already had my coffee and watched almost an hour of news when he came shuffling down the steps this morning.  "I know what I'm giving you for an anniversary gift this year," he said.  "I'm going to start shredding those boxes of papers for you."  An hour or so later I heard the scraping of heavy objects being dragged across the attic floor and then the plod of heavy feet coming down two flights of stairs and then out the door to the office next door to begin that monumental task.  Except for a few hour's break in the afternoon to take in a meal and do a little shopping, Larry has spent almost the entire day on my anniversary gift.  
Lots of couples say they have a special song that they've chosen for their own, music that expresses how they feel about each other.  We've never had that, one song that connects the two of us.  But today I heard music, and though there were no words, the humming of the melody from behind the office door was all I needed to know that he loves me. 
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Monday, October 22, 2012

Mom and The Fourth of July


My mom would be turning 90 this year.  A lot of August 29ths have passed since she died more than 15 years ago, and there have been a few times that I've simply let the day go by without hardly giving it a thought.  I'm kind of bad about birthdays that way.  Sometimes I remember, sometimes I don't.  If my four kids weren't all born the same month I might forget theirs, but I get them all over with and then have eleven months break before I have to remember again.  It's easier that way.

There are other days, however, when I can't stop thinking of her, especially holidays.  She loved them all, perhaps in part because she enjoyed her kitchen and loved to bake, and what's a holiday without a few pastries and other goodies lying around?  She made the most delectable mincemeat pie with the flakiest of crusts sprinkled lightly with sugar for Thanksgiving, and the special fruit salad and popcorn balls that she and my dad made every Christmas have become traditions with my own family.  Memorial Day and Veterans'  Day weekends were excuses to make her decadent, walnut-filled chocolate brownies and ever-popular carrot cake.  I've never found a better recipe for either, and as I follow the instructions written in her own hand, I remember her and wish she were here to show me how to roll out the perfect pie crust for my strawberry-rhubarb pie.  I have yet to roll it out in a perfect circle like she was able to do with so little effort.

Yep, my mom loved the holidays and I'm pretty sure that food had a good part to do with it.  She enjoyed everything about it, the preparation as well as the eating.  Even the many letters she wrote to me over the years, and I have hundreds of them, include details on what she had prepared for dinner during that week.  I would say there's probably only a handful that don't have some mention of food in them.  My sister reminded me that she didn't like using the oven during the hot days of summer, but even so, she'd always manage to whip up some homemade biscuits for strawberry shortcake when the berries were in season.  And when the Fourth of July came round she was more than willing to put up with a hot kitchen to have a platter of Ol' Henry bars or a cake on the dessert table.

I never thought to ask my mom which was her favorite.  I imagine Christmas and Thanksgiving were right up there, but the day I miss her the very most is July 4th.  My mom loved America about as much as she loved us.  She couldn't get through the National Anthem without tears or see an American flag without placing her hand on her heart.  And if a flag passed by during a parade or a marching song was being played that stirred her, she would always stand to attention for a few moments.

I was in Alabama the winter she died.  She'd been sick for a long time, so when I got word that she was gone I felt mostly relief that it was over for her.  In fact, I was amazed at how well I was handling her death during those first months.  Of course I missed her, especially the phone calls and letters, but all in all I was doing pretty well.  And then July 4th came.  The day was full of activities: a pool party, a picnic, lots of people, lots of food.  But when I returned home that evening, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and loss.  Memories of past years' celebrations came flooding into my mind and I longed for those times again.  And I longed for my mother.

I'll be traveling home in a few days to spend the Fourth with my family.  We'll picnic at my brother's in Olean and go to Bradner's Stadium in the evening to watch the fireworks.  We'll get there a bit early and sit on the field on blankets and lawn chairs anticipating that moment when the sun drops over the horizon and the display of lights and sparkle begins.  But first, right when it's almost time, the Star-Spangled Banner will come through the speakers.  All will stand to their feet and some will hold their hands to their hearts.  It is then I will remember and stand all the prouder, grateful for my nation and my heritage.  It is especially at that moment I will miss her and wish she could be there. 

Friday, October 12, 2012


My friend Kathy's birthday would have been today. We were just a week apart in age and both of us lived on Chestnut Street in Weston's Mills.  I rarely got out of school for mine, only if it happened to fall on a weekend.  But she on the other hand never had to go to school when hers came around.  That's because she had the wonderful fortune of being born on the same date that Christopher Columbus bumped into a continent that hadn't been discovered yet and made it a national holiday.  I'll admit, at times I was a bit envious of her and wished that America could have been found on some other day,  like a week earlier maybe. 

When we were young we spent a lot of time together.  Because we were so close in age and only a few houses apart we just naturally sought each other out when needing something to do.  The Christmas we were ten we both got Mattel's Lie Detector Game.  We couldn't get enough of it, playing it as often as we could.  She never made it through the whole night at my house, she'd always get homesick.  But I'd sometimes stay overnight at the Williams where we'd sit in the middle of the kitchen floor for hours trying to figure out who'd committed the crime.  I still have mine by the way.

Most of the homes on Chestnut and Mill Streets in Weston's had kids, so there were often whole groups of us playing together. Certain games went with certain yards.  We used the Cassada's place for dodge ball because they had a side walk that divided their front yard in half.  Our place worked best for football and kickball and the Reese's field was perfect for baseball.  But one of our favorites was the gentler, quieter game of Mother May I.  That one was always reserved for the side yard at the Williams' house.  As for Wintertime, there was still plenty to do. Sledding, making snowmen and building fortresses kept everyone occupied.   And there was always the Mill Pond.  Kathy was a natural on skates, much better than I.  We spent hours there,  our absolute favorite thing to do during those cold months. 

But we didn't always get along. We were both bossy, liked to get the last word in and and have our own way.  At times our relationship was a bit strained.  I remember one day in particular  where we had a horrible argument  after getting off the bus and somehow ended up in my neighbor's yard.  It escalated to where Kathy took her metal lunch pail and hit me as hard as she could over the head.  I followed it up with a hard shove, pushing her into Sally Cassada's flowerbed that ran right next to the house. It was not one of our better moments. 

We were also pretty different.  She came from a family of all girls.  I didn't.  Her dad was Irish, so they were good Catholics, the kind that didn't eat meat on Fridays. When I had dinner at their house they always did this strange thing with their hands after saying grace and had a medal of some saint hanging in their car.  My family was Protestant.  She liked Elvis Presley and had his posters hanging on her bedroom walls.  I was more into Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. She was athletic and played intramural sports at school and she could do a great cartwheel.  I couldn't get much beyond a somersault.   I played in the band and auditioned for school plays, stuff that didn't interest her all that much.  By high school we were pretty much doing our own thing, and the only time I saw her was on the bus.

I went off to college for a year then decided to take some time off and find work.  That year turned out to be one of the hardest of my life, a second-shift plant job in an environment that was completely foreign to me.  Kathy just happened to be working in that same place and reached out to me almost immediately, ready to pick up where we had left off.  I grabbed hold, needing a friend and grateful that it was her.  

A year later I was back in school almost a thousand miles away.  I was glad, relieved to be gone from the place, but I missed my friend.  Our friendship had gone to a deeper level this time, far beyond Mother May I and playing games on the kitchen floor.  I'd been teaching children's Bible classes at the school throughout the year.  She'd gone with me a few times and with that came questions about my faith and why I believed as I did.   When I came home for Christmas a few months later she said she'd been waiting for me, that she was now ready to give her life to Christ. When I told her that she could have done that on her own, she said that it was important I be there. I was honored.  Humbled.    

Kathy had already been married for a few years when I met Larry and married during his senior year of seminary. Kathy wrote from New York and said she and her husband would love to take a little vacation and come to see us for a few days.  We were living in Wilmore, Kentucky in seminary housing in a very small apartment.  It had just one bedroom so we put the two of them on a sofa bed in the living room.  Kathy was concerned.  She knew that to use the bathroom she'd have to walk through the bedroom. Larry assured her not to worry, just to come right through.  Nothing would wake him up anyways, so he said.  He'd be sleeping like a baby.

I was suddenly awakened when a loud yell came from our bed followed by a horrible scream.  Larry had opened his eyes to see a white ghostly figure slowly making its way across the room.   As he hollered the startled apparition in the white nightgown began to scream back.  "I thought you were a ghost!" He was still shaking.  And then she started to laugh,  a wonderful loud belly laugh that went on and on, and the next day she was still laughing.  All these years later I still laugh out loud when I think about it.      

Kathy the morning after she scared Larry half to death
I saw Kathy several times over the following years.  I always felt that she was a much better friend to me than I ever was to her.  When I'd get back home for a visit she'd always try to see me.  When I came home for my brother's and dad's funerals she was there.  When she remarried, she made arrangements for me to meet her husband Kevin and to see her new home.  I spent an evening with her there.

I was living in South Carolina when I got the call from my brother Rex.  Kathy was gone, a blood infection of some kind had taken her life.   She'd had some serious health issues resulting from a botched surgery a few years earlier, but I'd never expected this.  I grieved as if I'd lost my own sister.

When I was a kid you always knew when it was suppertime at the Williams' house.  That's because Kathy's dad would stand outside when it was time to eat and call her home. Sometimes we were right in the middle of something and I'd wish she could just stay a few more minutes. But she never hesitated, not even once. She'd drop whatever she was doing and start down the road.  Going home.  There was no one with a voice like that.  It would boom and everyone in Weston's Mills would hear it.  The Father calling his daughter home.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Her Name is Fawn

Fawn came home from the hospital in this outfit 

My third child turned thirty years old today.  Her name is Fawn.  I've only met a couple of other people in my lifetime with the same name, and one of them had a rather peculiar spelling.  But it seems to fit her well.  If everyone was matched up with a particular animal on the basis of appearance, she could easily be described as a deer with her slender build, long-legs and big doe-like eyes.  Where her name's concerned, I'd say her dad and I got it right.  But we almost didn't.

Fawn seems to always be running a bit late.  When she calls she'll usually preface the conversation with "Mom, I'm running late."  In fact, of all four of my children, she was the only one that came after she was due.  The first two both arrived on the exact day and her little sister had the courtesy to show up early.  But Fawn arrived five hours after midnight, the day after.  No, she wasn't terribly late, she never is.  Just a little late.  I still remember my mother's call the evening before asking if my labor had started.  Nope, not yet.  She confidently assured me that I'd have my baby by the next day.  She was right.  I called her early the next morning to tell her that she had a new granddaughter.  She wasn't even the least bit surprised.
When I gave that final push during that early morning hour and heard we had a girl, I knew what we would call her, a name I'd loved since I first heard it while in college.  It belonged to one of the most striking girls on campus and had fit her perfectly.  When I called my mother that morning to tell her that we had a new little girl, she already knew her name.  In fact, it wasn't a surprise to anyone.  We'd told most everyone the names we'd picked out, both for a boy and a girl.

The name wasn't received well by some of our church people.  I attributed it to the area.  Bradford County is made up of mostly country folk, so I assumed they preferred more traditional things, including names.  Whatever.  I still liked it.  And besides,  they'd get used to it.  It would grow on them over time.   But the response of one especially close friend still bothered me.  "If you have a little girl, I'll love her," she had told me.  "But I'm not sure I'll be able to call her by her name."  Ouch.

As I held that new little baby girl in my arms on that first day, I called her by the name I had held on reserve all those years. But I was uneasy, something didn't feel right.  When Larry came in that evening I told him that I was thinking we might want to rethink this whole name thing. As much as I loved what we'd chosen,  I needed for others to like it as well. I asked him to bring me the  baby book of names from the house.
I hadn't remembered putting a star by the name Fawn in the little paperback.  But there it was.  I stared at it for a moment then ran it over my tongue.  It sounded right.  I continued to look through the book noting what else I had highlighted at some point in my pregnancy,  but I was only half-reading.  I sensed that I'd already found the right one,  certainly not as common as some might like, but one our friends could learn to live with.  When Larry later walked into my room,  I showed him what I had found.  "And we could use your mother for the middle name," I said.  He smiled. 

My friend Tina Laudermilch stopped at a children's boutique in Towanda, bought a little outfit and brought it to the hospital just a few hours before we were both to be released.  I opened the wrapping to find a red velvet outfit with puffed sleeves and a little white collar. "I thought you might like to have something new for her to wear going home," she said.   I felt the soft fabric and then reached to tear off the cardboard tag that was attached to the sleeve.  I couldn't believe my eyes!  I asked Tina if she'd looked at the tag.  She shook her head.  There imprinted was the picture of a deer, and above that in large bold-print letters was the word FAWN.

I have told my daughter many times the story of her name and how we chose it.  She has used it now  for thirty years and has thanked me over and over for not staying with the original.  She's not all that crazy about it either.   Actually, it's thirty years minus one day, for in the archives of one particular newspaper, she is known by another name, the one she had for that entire first day.  After I called my mother,  she contacted the Olean Times Herald that very morning and had a birth announcement placed in the paper.  It's in print that on that very day,  Friday, October 8, 1982, I gave birth to a daughter, Love Lee. 

Fawn all grown up.  She has lived up to BOTH of  her names!

Monday, October 1, 2012


I traveled to Olean a couple of weekends ago for a birthday party.  It was a big one.  My brother Rex turned 60.   His wife Gale rented the pavilion at War Vets Park right across  from Bradner's Stadium, our favorite place to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.  It seemed fitting.  Rex has always loved to watch things explode,  especially when they're high overhead splattering the sky with color.  There's no one I'd rather watch with than my half-man, half-child brother who shouts out in pure delight and joy at the best of them, his eyes never once leaving the sky.  A couple of years back he had the audacity to go to a major league baseball game on that day and watched the fireworks from the stadium there.  He said they were awesome, some of the best he'd ever seen.   But for me, that day wasn't quite the same.  

I still remember this washtub from my grandparents' house

Rex came along just thirteen days short of my first birthday.  We didn't always get along during those growing up years.  My younger brother Karl was pleasant and easy going.  Rex, on the other hand, was much more intense.  If I annoyed or upset him, which seemed to be quite often, he'd give me a good punch to the stomach, knocking the wind out of me and putting me to the ground.

We were still getting got along when this was taken

But occasionally we got along.  One of our favorite things was to go down into the canal that ran by our house and look for snakes and lizards.  One day we picked up a piece of sheet metal and were suddenly set upon by a swarm of yellow jackets.  I immediately went one way, he went another.  I came through the incident unscathed,  but Rex wasn't so lucky.  In no time he was covered with ugly red welts from the angry bees' stingers.  My mother, hearing the screams, came flying from the house, snatched him up and ran for the driveway where she proceeded to thoroughly roll him in a mud puddle.  Obviously he survived. 

Speaking of puddles, another incident I specifically remember involved a live lobster that my dad was going to prepare for dinner after he got home from work one night.  A meat cutter with five kids doesn't generally include lobster in his food budget, this was a luxury.  But Rex managed to spoil it for all of us when he got a hold of the crustacean and decided to take it for a swim after a good rain. I never heard my mother use one curse word her entire life, but I doubt she was ever closer than she was on that particular day.    I wasn't anywhere near when my father got home from work that night, but he never brought another one home.  It would still be several years before I'd get to taste my first lobster.  I had my brother to thank for that.

Karl would grow up to be the good brother

We loved to fish as kids, and nobody more than Rex.  We'd often walk to Haskell Creek with our poles and spend a couple hours just waiting for a bite. Honesty, I don't ever remember catching a fish in that place. I don't know if any of my siblings ever did either, but we spent more hours there than I could probably count.  One particular day I was standing high on the creek bank with my two brothers when Rex pulled back on his pole and gave it a hard yank, wanting to cast his line out past the trees and into the water below.  As the line jerked forward, I suddenly felt a sharp tug at my upper lip and then heard the snap of the fishing line. There, dangling from my mouth, was his hook and an entire worm, still intact.  First stunned and then upset, I begged him to ride home with me.  But fishing in a creek where we never caught anything obviously came first.  He refused.  But the good brother had ridden on ahead and my mother was waiting for me in the car as I pulled my bike into the driveway.  It would be several days before the swelling would go down because of the stitches,  and for the longest time there was a little bump on my upper lip where the hook had lodged itself, a continual reminder of that day and of my horrible brother.

I'm not sure if over time that little bump simply faded away or if just became so insignificant that I no longer noticed it.  No matter.  That's often how relationships evolve between siblings.  I grew up,  he did the same.  The crises of childhood somehow faded, no longer all that important. I'm not sure  when it was that I began to see my brother as a friend.  I just know that it happened.

Rex and his co-counselor at Circle C Ranch after a ride down a mudslide  
Around eight years ago I noticed that Rex was slowing down.  A lot.  Always full of energy, he was considered the fun uncle.  He loved  baseball, amusement parks and roller coasters and would often  set off  his own private stash of fireworks to the delight of his nieces and nephews.  One day I watched as he put on his jacket, it was as if he were moving in slow motion.  Something was very, very wrong.  We pushed him to see a doctor.  It was Parkinson's. 

When you don't see someone very often, you can't help but notice the changes.  Medications  help, but they don't heal, so he moves somewhat slower, tires more easily,  talks softer.   But he seems to take it all in stride and continues to see his life as blessed and lives it to the fullest.  

Oh, by the way, when I got to the party the first person Rex insisted I meet was some Bona's basketball player.  Rex is probably the biggest St. Bonaventure basketball fan out there.  He never misses a home game and is known by all the players and most of the people in the stands as the flag man.  That's because he has flags representing all the countries that these young players come from and waves them when they're on the floor.  He's even been written up in the newspaper and has been featured on the news. 

There's no bigger St. Bonaventure basketball fan than Rex

Rex has always been a bit crazy for sports.  He knows the teams, the players, the stats.  From the time he was a kid trading baseball cards he's loved the Yankees, and when baseball season is over, he's totally immersed in keeping up with his football team, the Buffalo Bills.   And then there's his beloved Bonnies that kick their basketball season off just as football is winding down. 

The party was scheduled from two o'clock to five.  It wasn't hard to see how tired he was, but there was someone else he wanted me to meet.  One of the bosses from work had come to congratulate Rex on his milestone birthday.  Rex is the manager of the frozen food and dairy department of a large grocery store in Olean, a physically demanding job.  And cold.  The last time I was there he was wearing gloves as he loaded up the ice cream freezer. He sometimes goes in early and often stays late.  It takes him longer nowadays.  But he likes to work and says he wants to do it as long as he possibly can.  He's well-liked and respected there. I can understand why.     

Five o'clock came and we began to take down the decorations and gather up the food and gifts.  We needed to head home, but Larry loaded some of the stuff into our car to drop off at the house on the way out of town.  We found the living room already full of people, some who had come a long ways to share this special day with Rex, and I knew that though the party was officially ended, the celebrating would continue on for a bit longer.   I hope that someone thought to set off a few fireworks in the backyard as the sun dropped behind the horizon.  There's nothing Rex would have liked more.

Rex in his Bills' jacket among his family