The Better Answer

I read this modern epistle of 50s-style housewifery in aghast disbelief!

My inconvenient memory sometimes dredges useless debris up from the depths of its deeps, making me ponder ridiculous junk all over again. So the other day, while tidying up my house, I suddenly recalled an article I’d read in a women’s magazine probably three or four decades ago. (Yes, I actually remember this crap. God knows why. The file drawers in my steel trap of a mind hang open and unlocked.)

It was probably picking up my little granddaughter’s toys that triggered the memory. But, in any case, I recalled an article published by a woman, the theme of which was something along the lines of coping when presented with an unexpected diversion from your plans. The writer described the fact that her husband, who genuinely enjoyed spontaneous dinner parties, was in the habit of calling her at her office and announcing, “I just asked the Smiths to dinner tonight. Is that okay?”

The article continued for several paragraphs, describing the writer’s actions to prepare for the sudden invasion of this dinner-expecting couple. She wouldn’t, she explained, rush straight home from work; instead, on the way home, she’d stop at the supermarket to grab a pre-roasted chicken, a bag of apples, packaged salad, and a prefab piecrust (if, she pointed out, she didn’t already have these items on hand in the refrigerator and pantry, in expectation of just such an event). Arriving home, she’d rush into the living room and swiftly grab all their baby’s toys–hence, the likely connection my undisciplined memory made to the long ago article–to corral them in the playpen. One assumes she’d also picked up said baby on her mad dash home; the infant wasn’t further alluded to in her article. She’d make a swift run through the living room to plump cushions, pick up newspapers and remove other detritus; then sling up fresh towels in the bathroom. She’d place the chicken in a warming oven, decant the salad mix into a bowl, and throw together an apple tart with the prefab piecrust–but, she explained, without peeling the apples. (Wow! Way to skimp on effort.)

What I most recall about reading this epistle of 50s-style housewifery is my complete, utter, aghast disbelief.

I was at that time afflicted with neither a marriage, a husband, nor a baby, but I could nevertheless envision SO many better answers to the question of, “I just invited people for dinner tonight. Is that okay?”, the first of which was, “Sure, that’s fine. What are YOU serving them?” Reading further into the article, that remark might have been coupled with, “By the way, it’s your turn to pick up the baby from daycare tonight. Oh, and don’t forget to clean up all your magazines and newspapers scattered around your recliner. By the way, what time is this shindig supposed to happen? It’s been a rough day. I want to get home and take a long, hot bath first.”

Of course, other scathing answers bubbled up in my brain like gas at the surface of a swamp. “What?! I’m getting my hair done tonight. My appointment at the salon is for 6:00 p.m. I don’t suppose I’ll be home until at least 7:30.” Or, “I can’t believe you forgot that your parents are coming for dinner tonight! I can’t stretch the meal I’d planned to feed two more people!” Or perhaps, “My boss just told me I’ll need to work overtime on the big project tonight. So I suppose this depends on whether you think we can get by without my income when I’m fired.”

But, realistically, there were so many other better answers to her husband than either the ones I invented or Mrs. Non-Liberated-Woman’s unbelievable plan of action. In her situation, the first one that would have hit my tongue was, “Why would you even THINK that’s okay?” Then there would have been the straightforward and plain-spoken, “That’s a decision that should be made by both of us. You’ll have to call them back and cancel the invitation.”

Of course, the very best and clearest answer when faced with the question of, “I just invited the Smiths to dinner tonight. Is that okay?” would have been, of course, “NO!”

I’ve wondered, occasionally, over the years, how many spontaneous roast-chicken-and-apple tart dinners the writer produced during the course of her marriage, and how long she and her husband remained married. And my answers to myself are always the same: “Even one would have been too many!” and, “Not very long.”

Enjoyed this? Then you might also like “Twenty-Four Hours Too Late”. You can find it in the Archives, below, dated November 22, 2017.

The Night of the Dragons

It had been a quiet day…

It was 10:00 p.m. on a surprisingly cool mid-July evening, and I was not all right.

The day had been a quiet Sunday, like many another. I’d done housework and run errands, and enjoyed take-out and a video with a friend

My errands had included a trip to the local ATM. Following my usual route, I’d driven up 9th Street in the nearby small town of Beech Grove, passing tiny Don Challis park as I did so. For the umpteenth time, I wondered to myself who Don Challis had been and why the park was named for him, before noting the excellent playground equipment. I should take my little granddaughter there to play, I told myself, as soon as she was well again; she’d been sick with Covid, but was recovering.

But the peace of the waning day had been shattered when my phone began to sound with one text after another: There’s been a mass shooting at Greenwood Mall on County Line Road!

I stared at my phone screen in shocked disbelief. Greenwood, the mall where, as adolescents, I and my friends had spent half our weekends, giggling and racing happily from store to store before refueling ourselves with burgers and cokes at the lunch counter of a dimestore. Greenwood, where my once-teenage daughter had attended driving school before obtaining her license. Greenwood, a mass shooting? It seemed impossible. Specifics of the tragedy were scarce, though, so I resolved not to engage with the news until details were available.

Then my daughter called. After days of recovery, little Morrigan’s fever had risen again. “This isn’t good! Call her pediatrician,” I advised. A few minutes later, my daughter called once more. They were heading to the ER.

I texted some friends and relatives about the situation, telling them that I was headed to the emergency room, and asking them to pray. One, blessedly wise, thought I was too upset to drive there on my own. She hurried to give me a ride to the hospital…the hospital that was on County Line Road. County Line, where Greenwood Mall was also located. We rode in painful silence past a surreal vision of endless strips of bright yellow tape; of police cars, blue and red lights flashing, parked every which way in the otherwise-empty mall lot.

I joined my family in the ER waiting room, and, heedless of her Covid infection, enfolded my three-year-old granddaughter within the circle of my arms. She was burning with fever, yet smiling; demanding to watch cartoons on my Kindle, which, anticipating a long wait at the hospital, I’d grabbed as I left the house. Finally, a nurse came to take the two of them back to the treatment rooms, and I was left alone in the nearly-empty waiting room.

Sitting near the reception desk, I overheard snatches of conversation about the shooting. I don’t need this!, I thought. Moving away, I tried to concentrate on the eBook I’d begun a day earlier. But after reading the same sentence over and over without comprehension, I realized that my usual anodyne, books, wasn’t working. Perhaps if I re-read something familiar… And so I turned to a series of light-hearted, fantasy mystery books which I knew to be rich with compassion and benevolence: Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales stories. Amusing books of tea-drinking, cake-eating dragons and their human cohorts, rife with pithy, gentle observations on human nature. I settled in with those familiar dragons for what I was certain would be a long wait.

Then I received another text, this time from my daughter as she, too, waited elsewhere in the hospital. There had been a second mass shooting…at Don Challis park in Beech Grove. Don Challis park, which I had just passed earlier that day. The park where I’d admired the playground, vowing to take Morrigan there.

Tears blurred my vision, scalding my cheeks, but I stoically tried to concentrate on my book. One sentence almost shouted out at me from the page: “That was a larger and more difficult thing than people realized, Mortimer thought. Just to be alright.”

I wasn’t all right, I realized. Nothing was all right.

Hours later, my daughter and granddaughter walked out of the treatment rooms, paperwork and prescriptions in hand. Morrigan’s illness was not resurgent Covid, but a severe bladder infection, a treatable ailment caused by dehydration from the fevers of Covid-19.

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At nearly 1:00 in the morning, I sat with the little one in the car as my daughter filled her child’s prescriptions at an all-night pharmacy. Chattering away at me from her car seat, less upset than excited by all that had happened and by being up so late, little Morrigan literally fell asleep mid-sentence, holding my hand. I smiled and gently disengaged my fingers to snap a photo of her exhausted small self.

It was 1:00 in the morning, and tragedy lurked at every corner of my world, but I was all right.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “The Miracle on Route 16”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It published on November 4, 2017.

My thanks to Kim Watt for allowing me to quote her delightful dragon, Mortimer.

We Need a Gender-Free Pronoun, Part 2

Relearning is challenging for the aging brain!

It is sadly true that, as one ages, the brain become less adaptable. New languages are harder to acquire, for example, but that doesn’t even begin to encompass the difficulties inherent in the aging brain. For instance, years ago I knew how to tie a bow—any bow; ribbons, shoelaces—so that it was always perfectly straight and equal. I could do this without thinking. Now I must stop before tying a bow to intentionally review the technique that prevents it from coming out lopsided and uneven.

So it’s often with trepidation that I approach all the new nuances of language and interaction. I find pronouns (and their accompanying verbs—how does one connect the pronouns formerly of multiple reference, they and them, with their attached verbs? Does one use “is”, for instance? Or “are”? But I digress….) The real problem is, of course, that for upwards of 67 years, I’d used only she/he, him/her. Relearning the use of a pronoun of multiple reference to indicate an individual is essentially to learn a new language, and therefore (as an aging person who can’t always remember what I ate for breakfast today), challenging.

Never was this made plainer to me than when I, in 2021, decided to revisit a church that I’d briefly attended years before.

Unfortunately, the non-denominational churches which I preferred were no longer available to me; the area where one was located had deteriorated badly, and I felt uncomfortable going there alone, while another had closed completely. Of the two Unitarian Universalist churches that I might have chosen, one was distant and almost devoid of parking, while I found the other to be sadly unwelcoming to newcomers.

So I decided to revisit a Christian denomination church I’d briefly attended, recalling it as a place of teaching, rather than preaching, an ecumenical lesson.

The church seemed much as I’d remembered, and I found a lot to appreciate in the “kindness and courtesy” message. The congregation was invited to a reception after the service, and I decided to attend. A welcoming committee noted new faces, and I was handed off to a small group of people of varying ages who fetched me a cup of coffee and kindly invited me to sit with them.

I noted one member of the group whose gender seemed indeterminate. Clothing, hair, face—nothing gave one a clue, and I, confused by a series of quickfire introductions (never my strength, anyway, putting names to faces and remembering them), couldn’t recall having been told the individual’s name. Conversation in the little group flowed easily, though, so I avoided putting my foot in my mouth by the simple expedient of not addressing the individual directly.

But when I went to pour myself another cup of coffee, one of the group members accompanied me and said softly, “I just wanted to mention that we’re all very careful of pronouns for Chell.”

I’d just taken a sip from my fresh cup, but somehow managed not to spit coffee all over myself and my companion. “Chell”, you see, was the slang that all my older Italian relatives used for “penis”. Coughing, I windmilled one hand for my companion to continue while choking out the words, “That’s an unusual name.”

“Their deadname is Chelsea,” he explained. “But here’s the thing: Chell can’t stand to be misgendered. If you use the wrong pronoun, they’ll cut you out entirely—refuse to speak to you or even acknowledge that you exist.”

“I see,” I said slowly. “Well, thank you for warning me. I would not want to upset, uh, Chell.” (Nor chuchee nor ookee, either—and, no, I don’t know how the words are spelled; I just know how to pronounce my family’s Italian slang and the various body parts to which the words refer!)

I returned to the group, but kept to myself the thoughts churning madly in my brain, which had nothing to do with this individual’s unfortunate choice of name. My deliberations went more along the line of, “Well, Chell is obviously too young to comprehend how challenging individuals of my age find it to adapt to this mangling of English grammar as was once beaten into us by ruler-wielding, knuckle-slamming nuns. And, honestly, if Chell wants to cut me dead and loftily ignore me, rather than gently correct any misuse of a personal pronoun, well, I’ve been dumped by better and more important people over the course of a long lifetime. And what was that in today’s message about making the choice to be kind?!”

Not needing such dissonance in my life, I smiled at but didn’t interact with that group again in subsequent after-service coffee hours, and, finding I wasn’t really as happy with the church as I’d hoped, attended only a few more services before quitting entirely.

But, as I’ve said before in these essays: We really need a gender-free pronoun upon which everyone can agree; one which has never been associated with either female, male, or multiple reference.

And, for the love of heaven, if your name is Chell, don’t ever associate with old Italian immigrants!

You might also enjoy “We Need a Gender-Free Pronoun” from June 23, 2021. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

The Hatred

I originally wrote this post with the intention of publishing it prior to the anniversary of the January 6 Insurrection. But I found I couldn’t bear to start the year on so sad and awful a note.

A few years back, pre-Pandemic (since that is how we all now date everything in our lives) an acquaintance informed me that we would not fall out over my blog post, “The Benefit of the Doubt”, written concerning his experience with the so-called “Love” booth at an Indy Pride event. As I explained in that earlier essay, it wasn’t entirely clear, from his description, what this “Love” booth was actually all about. I assumed that it promulgated love and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Or perhaps, I thought a bit wildly, the people manning the booth were there just to give hugs, like the great church-wide hugging plague of the 1980s. Still another possibility was that the stall provided information on ways the community might demonstrate love and acceptance to everyone of every race, creed and gender. My friend’s description of the booth left its purpose unclear, but he’d been very upset by the individuals operating the Love booth.

It seemed that, as he’d listened throughout the day to many very liberal, far-left comments by the people manning the stall (which was positioned right next to his own booth), he’d found himself wondering, was still wondering: Had he strolled over to that stall, wearing his MAGA hat, and explained to them his adamant view that then-President Trump was “our greatest President ever”, what would their reaction have been? Would the people manning the Love booth have considered him loveable, or even likeable? Or would they have reacted with anger? He was extremely doubtful, he said, that love would have been their reaction.

My blog post about that situation explored the idea that my friend assumed their response, rather than put his question to the test. He didn’t engage with the people manning the Love booth, providing them a chance to refute his position without rejecting him personally, or to talk through their differences.

So a few weeks after that event, when my blog post on the subject was published, my friend magnanimously explained to me that we would not fall out over my remarks, because: “You weren’t there. You didn’t hear it—the hatred”.

Unfortunately, once again, he made an unwarranted assumption. Because I was hearing it—hearing and reading and seeing the hatred every day. At the time, restrictions to written news commentary had not been established. Every news story could be commented upon; one rarely even needed to register on most news sites to leave a comment. Those comment pages were filled with sadistic, trolling statements; rife with cruelty that the overwhelmed moderators could not screen out. My highly-political and extremely conservative father constantly forwarded e-mails to me that, remarking viciously upon the viewpoints I held, made me cry. And while I personally eschewed social media, friends told me of the brutal statements that were posted to their pages. I’d even once sat, helpless and cringing, while two acquaintances nearly came to blows over their opposing viewpoints.

Hatred, I discovered, was not confined to any one group or any single position. People from both sides and corners of the fence slung insults and violent verbiage at one another. And all of it was escalating.

Trying to establish a middle-of-the-road position for myself, I read the news from multiple sources, both left and right, and was on each part equally horrified. What had happened to compromise, to the art of listening? How had our constitutional right to free speech fallen so far?

Then we held a free, fair and, yes, honest election, and Trump lost the popular vote for the second time, this time losing the electoral vote, as well. He had paved the way for doubt on the part of his followers by claiming the election to be rigged even before it happened. Having genuinely lost, he then totally refused to accept his failure. He did not even pretend to be anything other than that entity so despised throughout my childhood: a sore loser.

And so January 6th happened. Sitting paralyzed with horror, clutching my toddler grandchild within the protective circle of my arms, I sat watching while tears rained down my face. I watched it: the hatred, and the horrific violence fueled by hatred.

Months later, still engaged in attempting to maintain a fair and balanced vision of all that was happening in my country, I sat watching once more as Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham viciously mocked the PTSD suffered by those who had gallantly struggled to defend our Capitol on that ghastly day. Observing her derisive facial expressions, listening to her contemptuous remarks, I experienced it yet one more time: the hatred.

“You weren’t there. You didn’t hear it—the hatred.”

No, my friend, I did not need to be there on that long ago Indy Pride day to hear, to experience, the hatred. I have seen it a hundred, a thousand times, then and since: In banned books. In violent attacks on minority individuals and elected officials and their families. In defamatory comments toward those who hold differing viewpoints. In incitement to violence. In bigotry and racism from and toward people of every color, creed and gender.

I have seen it everywhere, on every face; heard it in every voice: the hatred.

And I despair.

You may read the original essay, “The Benefit of the Doubt”, by scrolling to the archived blog posts, below. It was published on July 31, 2019

A Missionary Trip to…the Hell You Say!

They went WHERE on their missionary trip?

Several years ago when I was in a long term relationship (that really should have been a quit-by-the-third-date association—I have since realized that I have incredibly bad taste in men, and pretty much sworn off them)…anyway… I was introduced to one of the Sig O’s good friends. We were all together for a local but tediously long journey to Someplace (i.e., immured in the car with no escape for a couple of hours) when the conversation rolled around to the recent homecoming of the friend’s parents, who had just returned from a Christian missionary trip.

Having been tossed the conversational ball, I, who disapprove of missionary trips as a matter of principle—more about that in a moment—asked brightly, “Oh? Where did they go on their mission?”

“To Ireland,” the friend replied.

I was totally bewildered. “Uh, isn’t Ireland a basically Christian country?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he replied quickly, shaking his head. “It isn’t Christian. It’s Catholic.”

After I’d replaced my jaw, I drew a breath preparatory to saying something along the line that this distinction would have come as very unwelcome news to my late, very devout, Italian Roman Catholic grandparents. Had anyone told PopPop or Grandma that they weren’t Christian, well, that person would have been in for at least a tongue lashing (probably in the very rudest Italian terms, some of which I can, quite proudly, quote), or possibly some very well-known and equally rude Italian hand gestures, or even a straightforward wallop right on the nose. I considered adding the information that, despite having left the church as a teenager, I myself had been raised Roman Catholic and certainly considered myself to be a Christian during those years.

However, my incipient protests were shut down by peremptory hand gestures and warning glares from the Sig O, who did not want to hear anything from the person in the cheap seats (i.e., me). Cautious regarding the Sig O’s easily-triggered temper, I swallowed my protests and subsided into invisibility in my corner of the car, not venturing to engage in the conversation any further. But thereafter I refused to ever spend (waste) time again with Christian Missionary friend. (I should have also refused to ever waste time again with the Sig O, but I’m a slow learner.)

Aside from the whole Catholic-not-Christian controversy, which I don’t to this day understand, I disapprove, as I mentioned, of missionary trips on principle—the principle being that I do not believe there is any one “true” religion, and that whatever people chose to believe (or not) is pretty much fine with me, so long as it doesn’t involve human or animal sacrifice. I’m sort of down on misogyny, burkas, and the summoning of demons, also (that whole “inviting evil in” thing has always pretty much bewildered me). But I’m pretty firmly convinced that most of the world’s major religions have, in their long histories, done one helluva lot more harm than good, what with pogroms and witch burnings, Bloody Mary and the Inquisition, torture and shunning and pious hypocrisy and bloodstained religious wars, and just general “man’s inhumanity to man”—not to even mention man’s inhumanity to all womankind.

My view of most religions is so completely cynical that I am neither shocked nor astonished by the constant sordid revelations of sexual crimes and egregious physical abuse committed by clergy of every faith, especially those that prate of chastity as a preferential state of being. Such hypocrisy is woven into the very patriarchal warp and misogynistic woof of those religions. I wasn’t even slightly surprised when abortion clinic workers recently revealed that they often provided abortions to the very right-to-life protestors manning their stations outside the clinic; women who, having had an abortion, informed the clinic workers that they were doomed to hell and then immediately returned to the picket line in a flagrant display of sanctimonious deceit.

Nope, as I view the whole situation from my admittedly-lofty-and-judgmental perch of contempt, if a person of any faith feels compelled to perform missionary work, then they might just want to consider shucking the agenda to convert others and first try leading by example: demonstrating by a life well and kindly lived that their belief system has genuine merit. They might also want to think about spending time actually working to make the world a better place by, oh, say, feeding the hungry, succoring the poor and homeless, eschewing racism, treating others as they wish to be treated, caring for the environment and the animals which share this planet with us, and simply being (as suggested in Ephesians 4:32) kind to one another–without requiring adherence to a particular set of beliefs as a prerequisite. Any of these actions might better serve both the Divine and humanity than hair-splitting quibbles about who is or is not Christian.

And, of course, initiating any or all of these behaviors in their own neglected backyard might prove to be a far wiser choice than hooting off on a “missionary” vacation to Ireland!

My cockeyed religious viewpoint can also be explored in “Tough Love for the Prodigal Son”, which was published March 30, 2018. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

Hiding in Downton Abbey

Okay. This was pretty intriguing stuff.

When the long-running British series Downton Abbey initially began, I read about it and shrugged, uninterested. Midway into the first season, though, a coworker, Dani, who was enjoying the show, urged me to begin watching it. I remained unconvinced. “I’ve seen Upstairs, Downstairs,” I told her. “Life can hold no more.”

The show was well into its third season one winter, though, when a weekend snowstorm headed for Indianapolis. Not a blizzard, shades of ’78; just a plain old Indy snowstorm. High winds, falling temperatures, lots of drifting snow. The storm was supposed to begin late on Friday night. If the power stayed on (always questionable when high winds combined with snow), I’d need something to occupy my time over a snowbound weekend. I already had yarn and hooks for a crochet project, and plenty of favorite books to re-read. But I’d watched every DVD I owned multiple times to the point of utter boredom, while I had no cable package and basically hated every sitcom and drama then running on network TV. What to do?

So when I headed out for snowstorm supplies to stock my pantry, I chose to make a longer trip down to the highway. There was a used video store tucked in the corner of that strip mall. I could load up on groceries before shopping for a couple of shows.

The DVD store proved a bust, however. I either already owned or wasn’t interested in any of the videos they had. Except…the first season of Downton Abbey. Oh, well, I thought as I laid my money down. Dani would be happy. I’d finally caved.

The wind was already rising that night as I picked up my crocheting and fed the first disk into the player. Snowflakes danced in the darkened windows as the theme music played. The telegraph operator spoke the first line of the series:“Oh my God!” Okay, this was pretty intriguing stuff, I admitted a short while later, realizing that I’d become so interested in the drama that I’d botched two rows of the shell stitch that I could usually crochet in my sleep.

And then they carried the lifeless Turk down the gallery in the dead of night.

I finally stumbled to bed about two a.m., having watched the entire first season. When I at last arose the next day, I didn’t even spare a glance for the snow-blanketed landscape. I just made a cup of coffee and fed the first DVD back into the player to rewatch the whole thing.

The real blessing of my fascination with the series came in 2014, when my sister-in-law’s mother passed away. Paula, the younger sister, had cared for their mother for years, living there in the house with Ellen, and found it troubling to return to their empty home following Ellen’s death. So we three staged a weekend sleepover to reintroduce Paula to the premises, staying up the better part of the first evening watching Downton Abbey, using the familiar scenes and characters to grease the skids of Paula’s difficult transition into a home without their Mom.

The world turned and turned, and we tumbled into 2018; I received a diagnosis of uterine cancer. Numb with shock after the phone call from my gynecologist, I reached out to Paula, and she hurried to stay with me that night. Once again we pulled out the first season. Watching the well-known plot, hearing the memorable lines, I found myself encased in a comforting familiarity, like pulling a pillowy soft blanket over the gaping wound of my fear and shock. I continued to watch select episodes of the series throughout my tests and surgery and recovery that winter—especially the one in which Mrs. Hughes feared she had breast cancer. It was all ineffably comforting.

Over and over again, watching the special features at the end of the series and movie videos, I’ve listened as the cast, the directors and producers and crew members, remark that it has been a privilege and a pleasure, if not a wonder, to be part of something which has touched the lives of so many people everywhere in the world—a show so beloved, so appreciated, that it has woven itself into the threads of our culture. Each time I’ve thought to myself, “If they only knew….”

Then my friend of 32 years, living 900 miles away in another state, died…and no one told me. I learned of her death through a dream, à la Joseph and the Pharaoh, and the aegis of a search engine. Renée had already been buried when I discovered the truth; I did not even have the comfort of a memorial service to say my goodbyes to her.

And so, knowing that a cherished character of my much-beloved series was to die in the second movie, which I had not yet seen, I hurried out to purchase the video. For I needed a funeral. I needed to weep for someone lost. I needed to hear the trite truth that life goes on, and that time heals.

I needed these people who did not really exist in order to mourn the unbearable loss of one who had.

Yet one more time I pulled the enfolding blanket of the fictional world of Downton Abbey across my cringing soul.

And it worked.

May the new year bring better times for all of us, and countless blessings upon you and yours!

Last Words

My father passed away December 12, 2021. I laugh now, recalling his final words to me.

I don’t recall my mother’s specific last words to me before she slipped into a coma while she lay dying over a long and arduous two weeks. But I do remember the last word I heard her speak clearly, and it still sends chills down my spine when I think of it.

She said, “Lying.”

At the time my mother spoke that word, I was standing with two relatives at the other end of the long, narrow hospital room. We huddled by the window, speaking together in whispers, while the TV above Mom’s hospital bed played some banal afternoon talk show and a nurse checked her vitals. Our relatives were asking me why my older brother was not there at the hospital with my father and me, and I explained, haltingly, reluctantly, about the family problems—Mom’s addictions and sometimes violent behavior–that had resulted in my brother removing himself from all contact with our parents for nearly 20 years.

Our relatives were shocked by the details I imparted, although in no way disbelieving; they were aware of Mom’s alcoholism and had always suspected her mental illness. Saddened, they spoke of the interventions they’d have made to our troubled childhoods had they known at that time the full extent of our problems. All of this was, as I said, spoken in whispers far across the room from Mom’s hospital bed, impossible for her, even had she been awake, or the nurse caring for her to hear.

But it was just as I finished my account of Mom’s problems that she spoke up for the first time in days, clearly and forcefully uttering a single word: “Lying!”

She could not possibly have heard me, any of us, whispering so far away or over the sound of the TV. And yet she had somehow done so, and protested, proclaiming me to be a liar.

Later, a cousin who worked decades as a nurse told me that she believed many of the dying are not actually tied to their own bodies as they begin to transition to the next life, especially when in a coma; their spirits go wandering. It was likely, she explained, that Mom stood right there beside us, listening to our conversation, and incensed at its content. Her explanation seemed reasonable. How predictable, then, Mom’s response, for she never did develop the self-honesty necessary to work with her addictions or control her rage.

I had cause to think of this event a lot when my father lay dying 12 years later. Dad had slipped from hospital to care home over a tortuous six months, never quite believing that he would not go home again. Finally, as his condition deteriorated even further, we prepared to initiate hospice.

I spent much of that last weekend at his bedside in the care home. He wasn’t truly in pain, although uncomfortable. He claimed not be frightened of death, but, as he explained to his pastor, “It’s just that I’ve never done it before.”

And he worried. He worried for the welfare of his little cat, although all of us assured him that Lucy would never be homeless, never sent to a shelter. We would care for her ourselves or find her the perfect family. (We did.) He worried over my younger brother, who had endured a terribly rough patch in his life, although he was now happy and stable. He even worried that the weather reported heavy rainfall coming in, and sent us scurrying from his room to reach home before the storm broke. And he worried because I was driving to and from the care home in a car with nearly-bald tires, and urged me to get them replaced immediately.

Finally, in those last few days, after asking me time and time again to apply lidocaine patches to his aching feet, he would beg me to stroke his hair, or to hold his hand. At one point he asked for both, and I, laughing and crying, trying to stretch across his bed both ways, exclaimed, “Dad, I’m fat, but I’m not that wide!”

But on the final afternoon that I spent at his bedside, Dad mostly slept. I sat at his laptop, going over his e-mail—the e-mail that he enjoyed so much and which had provided so much of his entertainment in the final years of his life—replying to contacts with updates on his condition. And as I sat there, working quietly, he suddenly woke and demanded loudly, “Rebecca! Did you get those tires?!”

Those were my father’s last words to me. The next night, after chatting amiably with a nurse, he slipped quietly into the final sleep of death.

Months later, driving down a nearby road, I glanced over at a newly-opened tire outfitters business. And I smiled to myself and nodded.

“Yes, Daddy,” I told his lingering spirit. “Yes, I did.”

If it seems I have been publicly mourning my father in my blog posts this year, well, yes, I have. But it’s my hope that these words touch others who may be enduring grief. And if you found something helpful in this post, you might also enjoy, “Emails to Dad”, published May 4, 2022.

The Christmas Card Pail, Revisited

This post (in its original form) first appeared in February this year, as I grieved my father’s death. In some spiritual traditions, one formally mourns a lost loved one for a year. This year, I have done my grieving publicly, using this blog as my vehicle of mourning, first for my father, then, unexpectedly, for my best friend. In just a few weeks, with one final post, Dad’s journey will be completed. Thank you, followers and readers, for walking this rocky path with me.

Shortly after taking down my Christmas tree and decorations, I start on my “First of Year Clean Out”. This event is separate and distinct from my spring cleaning, although a similar form of madness. But instead of attacking all the textiles—laundering curtains and pillows, blankets and throw rugs and quilts—and vacuuming, mopping and dusting little used or seen nooks and crannies and knick-knacks—instead of that, I attack paperwork. Rustling through the file cabinet, I toss old receipts and outdated files. I shred and sort and reassemble hard copy paperwork. Sifting through computer files, I delete mounds of unnecessary junk. Finally, I remove the big blue, oval carnival glass bowl from my china cabinet; the bowl where I have stored every card and note received during the previous year. Riffling through it, I remove all the birthday, thank you, get well, or various other cards that I’ve stored there. I read through them once more, appreciating and enjoying their messages. Then I return only a select few, the most precious of these, to the bowl before dropping the rest into the paper recycling bin.

CardBasket

But there is one group of cards which is never to be found in the carnival glass bowl: my Christmas cards. Far fewer these days, as rising postage costs deter sending cards, while for two years and some, quarantines, virus and lockdowns have prevented people from venturing out to purchase them, these cards, once read and enjoyed, are dropped into a winter white bucket, festively painted and decorated. At the end of Yuletide, when I “take down the Christmas”, I never remove my cards from the pail. Instead, cards and all, the bucket goes into storage with all the other decorations, awaiting another Christmas season.

Months later, on a day soon after Thanksgiving, the card pail again sees the light of day. Extracting it from where it lies nestled in the tub of garland and stockings, I take a break from my decorating and curl into an armchair, the container in my hands. Then, slowly, almost reverently, I remove the old cards and begin to reread them. Each is opened appreciatively as I scan handwritten messages and look at now-year-old enclosed family photos. Sometimes I re-read a letter included with the card, marveling at how much, and how little, has changed in the passing eleven months.

And often, I cry. For there, huddled within the standard, jolly or religious holiday greetings, lurks nostalgia and a touch of old pain: the card, cards, from those who have passed away during the intervening months. I open the pressboard to find and touch the loops and whorls of their signatures, once familiar, now never to be seen again.

One year, tears slipping down the curve of my face, I reread the letter, sent by surviving family members, describing the last weeks of a friend’s life. Denied (if he left the area of his medical service network) the dialysis he needed to survive, he went on one last vacation anyway, travelling to Hawaii for a few weeks. There he spent his final days in lush and gorgeous surroundings before returning home to close his eyes and die. I’d read this information in shock and dismay the year prior; this time I read it in renewed sadness, once more saying goodbye to a good and kind man.

In 2021, as I scanned the cards, I found included a host of pet sympathy cards, sent to comfort me for the loss of my best little cat just a few days prior to Christmas 2020. Bittersweet reminders of my sweet, mink-furred Bella hid there amongst the holiday greetings, drawing yet another tear or two and a sigh from the depths of my heart. I opened, too, the last Christmas card my father would ever send me—a simple card, probably a freebie received from one of the charities he supported. “Dad and Lucy Cat” he had signed it—the very Lucy cat whom I and other family members had spent six months looking after, as he slipped from hospital to care facility to death.

And so it was that this November I pulled the card pail out from the tub where it lay nested in garland and stockings. Carrying it to the new, uncomfortable armchair (the comfy old dark green one having gone to decrepit furniture heaven), I pulled out a card featuring an impossibly cheesy, adorable kitten peering from a Christmas stocking, and opened it to brush my fingertips one final time across the signature of my late, loved friend, Reneé. Cat Lady. “Reneé, Cymon, and Raja” the signature read, naming her beloved Sphinx and Persian cats as one would any family members, and I held the card to my heart for just a moment in a final goodbye to the very best friend of my lifetime.

Then, hands shaking just a little, I extracted all the condolence cards sent to comfort me for the loss of my father just a few days before Christmas during the 2021 holiday season. I mourned his passing once more, and then laughed a little, remembering how very much my Dad (although he would never say why!) hated Christmas! I recalled how, bringing a tiny decorated tree to him at his care facility, I was berated and scolded and told to “Get that thing the hell out of here!” I laughed one final time, shaking my head and rolling my eyes, considering his similarity to the pre-ghost Scrooge.

And then I placed them all, holiday greetings and expressions of sympathy, into the recycling bin, and, returning to my pleasant Christmas decorating, moved on.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Taking Down the Christmas”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from January 3, 2020

Mourners and Other People

My mother, Betty Jean Gregory, died twelve years ago this week.

When my mother passed away, my Dad, following wishes that she had stated many times, requested contributions to their favorite charity rather than flowers. Nevertheless, as always seems to happen in these circumstances, several people chose to send flowers instead.

Dad collected the cards from the senders to give me, since both of us knew that I would be the one writing the thank-you notes (because, after all, the donors needed to be able to actually read the notes, something that wouldn’t have happened if Dad, with his execrable penmanship, had been the one writing them!) But one card puzzled him. “Who could this be?” he asked, handing me the card.

“Betty was a remarkable woman” had been written on it, with only a first name below that sentence. But I recognized the name immediately as that of a woman with whom I’d been fast friends during high school. I explained the connection to my father, who had only the haziest memory of the friend of my youth, but conceded that Mom must have made a strong impression for her to have sent flowers to a funeral decades later, when we were both in our late 50s.

Yet there was another card from someone on whom Mom had made a strong impression, and that one I’m still relieved my father never saw. This was a purported condolence card which arrived in Dad’s mailbox fairly late after Mom’s passing and which he, not recognizing the return address and not wanting any more to deal with, just handed over, unopened, to me.

Thank heaven for that. Because this was not an expression of sympathy, whatever flowery sentiment might have been written on the stylized card. Included was a note from one of Mom’s coworkers of many years prior. The note expressed this woman’s complete elation that Betty Jean Gregory was finally dead. It vilified Mom with ugly names and shamed her with spiteful observations on her character, morals, and behavior.

I read the note with mild shock but little surprise. Mom’s mental illness and addictions had sundered nearly every good relationship she’d ever had, and earned her many enemies. It was sadly true that almost everyone who had attended her funeral had done so for Dad’s sake, or for my own; Mom died friendless.

I put the spiteful letter aside to deal with later and got on with the sad business of trying to find ways to help my father take an interest in life again.

Much later, I finally began to compose a response to the poison pen note. First, I explained that I was relieved beyond measure that my Dad had not opened the card and read her hurtful words; he, as an 81-year-old widower, did not need the anguish her spitefulness would have provoked. I remarked that I supposed taking vengeance upon a dead woman by saying these things to grieving survivors made the writer feel both powerful and vindicated.

And then I admitted, underlining the words, that I could not actually refute a single charge the writer had laid at my mother’s door. I was sure that Mom had treated her badly–worse than badly. Betty, I acknowledged, had been severely mentally ill. She displayed all the unpredictability, instability and cruelty of an alcoholic and addict. She’d probably wounded the letter writer to her very soul. I said that I was truly sorry that my mother had hurt her so much.

Finally, though, I took my own, perhaps cruel, definitely petty, revenge on the heartless writer, for I pointed out to her, “I’m sure that what you experienced with my mother was difficult. But you were an adult, a grown woman. If you think what you went through was bad, try growing up as a vulnerable small child under Betty’s authority. Consider what it was like being in her charge, helpless. That’s the person you tried (and failed) to injure with your malicious little diatribe—her already-wounded daughter. You didn’t harm Betty or her memory or reputation one bit. All you did was reduce yourself to her level.”

I slid my response into an envelope and mailed it. I never heard from Mom’s former coworker again.

Now, twelve years later, I must say in complete honesty that I did not actually mourn my mother. She, in her sickness, caused me too much harm; shamed me too much, hurt me too often. I felt mostly relief at her passing, coupled with a deep, aching regret that nothing between us could now ever be put right.

But I’ve thought many times about those two funeral cards, and the intense depth of feeling that each of them displayed: one full of unresolved fury, seeking reprisal for old injuries; the other honoring and memorializing.

And I’m glad, very, very glad, that my mother had at least one true mourner at her passing.

None of us are two-dimensional beings! I hope that you will read about my alternate, appreciative perspective of my complex mother in next week’s publication of this blog.

The Secular Light Show

November 13 will be World Kindness Day, and so I am revisiting this very applicable post from 2020.

In early November 2019, a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. The family noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss (i.e., jackass!) simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of small children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peacemakers, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas while intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness? How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season? Would he speak a word of loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb on garbage collection day? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

“Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

If you enjoyed this, then you might also want to read, “The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past”, which you can locate by scrolling to the Archives, below on this page. It was published on December 18, 2019.