Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Our mail gets delivered mid-morning, brought in and sorted at noon. Bills to the computer room, junk mail to the garbage and personal correspondence to the kitchen table where it waits, unopened, until after work. When I can relax and enjoy it like the special treat it is.  

I email and text, like everyone else. And I handwrite letters. Because cursive is a beautiful way to say what you want to say.

Whether it’s telling a secret…

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sharing big news…

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or just saying “You should be here!”

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The time we take to smooth down the paper, get the right pen, choose our words and physically form them on the page adds weight to our message and a personal touch to its delivery. In an age when a thought can be typed, sent, read and deleted in seconds, handwriting gives us the gift of a conversation that can be relived over and over again.

January 23, 2016 is National Handwriting Day.

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My gun-toting granny who was also a nurse, a fieldhand, a church organist and a cancer patient.

My grandma flushed out a thief who was hiding under her house, loaded him into her car, and drove him at gunpoint into town to the sheriff.

My dad, who was there, told me the story. Had I gotten it directly from my grandma before she died, I’d have asked, “Were you scared? How did you know he was under there? Would you have shot him?”

Family and friends are the people we think we know better than anybody else. But do we really? Maybe we would if we just took the time to ask.

For the past 12 years, StoryCorps has given ordinary people the chance to find out extraordinary things about the people they know by simply asking questions.

Through the program, people record interviews with someone who’s made an impact on their life, knowingly or unknowingly, relative, friend or acquaintance. The interviewer picks the questions and hopes the interviewee answers them. And most of the time, they do. The interviews (65,000 of them already) are stored at the Library of Congress and some of them air on National Public Radio.

Our lives are a series of great stories. Happy, sad, scary, exciting, funny, unusual. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are packed with the edited versions of the best (or worst) stories people want to tell about themselves. What about the incredible stories we can tell about others?

In my reporter days, it took tape recorders and reel to reels and notebooks to get the story; today, all you need is a smartphone and an app. StoryCorps has one. It lets you record your own StoryCorps-style interview and upload it to be preserved by the Library of Congress. It even invites you to take a selfie with the person you interviewed.

So, is your grandma tougher than my grandma? We’ll never know unless you ask.

A tale of two houses at Christmas

The light and the dark side of the holidays

 

We’re not Grinches and they’re not the Griswolds. We’re just neighbors with vastly different electric bills for the month of December.

You’ve seen the viral video of the house festooned with thousands of Christmas lights, glowing reindeer grazing on the lawn, neon icicles dripping from the trees, all pulsing in time to Mannheim Steamroller’s “Carol of the Bells”. My neighbors live there. We live in the dark house next door.

When we moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago, we were all on the same level when it came to decking the halls. Icicle lights on the eaves, luminaries lining the walk, wreath on the front door. Every house was different but together we made a companionable display of holiday cheer.

Then about 2010 or so, giant snowflakes appeared on the front windows of the house to the north. In the years that followed, a herd of glistening deer gathered by the shrubs, a forest of spiral rope light trees sprang up in the front yard, and endless rows of twinkling lights crisscrossed the shingles and siding. Then a big electrical box with cords and cables snaking across the snow and finally, the electronic carolers.

As the neighbor’s house got brighter, the rest of the block went dim. It’s not like we couldn’t compete; the rest of us just didn’t try to. 

When their display went up Thanksgiving weekend, my husband asked what we were going to do this year.

“How ‘bout a sign that says Ditto with an arrow pointing to their house?” I asked.

He suggested that maybe they wouldn’t think that was as funny as I did. I figure if you’ve lived by me for 20 years and you’re still talking to me, you must have some sense of humor.

But since they’re not dicks about it – their timer shuts everything off about 11:00 p.m. which is good since our bedroom and guest room both face “Viva La Christmas” – I took the high road, too. Our front deck railing is now wrapped in white lights which cast a soft glow on the “Peace” sign perching on the little wooden bench.

Though the neighbors’ decorations shout and ours only whisper, our holiday spirit is no less heartfelt. After all, it’s Christmas…and it’s the thought that counts. And I’m thinking a little peace on earth is just what we all need this year.

 

Remembering Mickey, a true free spirit.

Remembering Mickey, a true free spirit.

My grandma said Mickey Gulla was mouthy. Mickey said my grandma should lighten up. My grandpa didn’t say anything because he was married to one and liked the other.

Mildred “Mickey” Gulla died last week at the age of 94. She was a fiery Scandinavian sprite who was married to my grandpa’s friend, Joe, a big strapping Italian cop. They all met in the late 1970’s when my grandparents sold their farm and moved to town. I met Mickey not long after that during a visit to my grandparents’ house and saw her frequently when I was in the neighborhood.

Small in stature, big in voice, Mickey was the first adult that I called by name instead of “Mrs. Someone”. That was unheard of for us kids but she told us to and it was easy to comply because she was such a kid herself.

When I left for college, my parents moved and Mickey went from being my grandparents’ friend to my parents’ neighbor. Often when I came home to visit, she’d be puttering around the yard of her big brick house and we’d share a wave and a called greeting. The last time I really talked to her was Christmas of 2010. On a whim, I bought her flowers and my dad and I tramped across the street in the snow for a holiday visit. She was the perfect hostess, serving refreshments, sharing stories and pictures. At the end of the evening, she walked us to the door, squeezed my arm and said, “You’re full of piss and vinegar, just like your grandpa was.”

The following February she sent me a Christmas letter, unapologetically late with a good excuse: she’d tripped and fractured a hip, putting her in the hospital for nearly three weeks. The letter raised a good question (“When you were putting away your Christmas decorations, did you notice when you strip away all the tinsel and glitter, God’s real truth shows through?”), shared her favorite Charles Dickens quote (“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”) and revealed the secret to her long and happy life (“I’m having the best days of my life and I appreciate having everything I need. They are: my faith, family, friends, fun and food – lots of comfort food on cold days! That’s food for thought and thankfulness.”)

The letter ended in much the same way a conversation with Mickey always did, with her hope that I would explore the year ahead with good health and gusto. Like she did, right up until the end. We should all be so mouthy.

It took me eight years to run out of pictures. Today would have been my mother’s 70th birthday and I can’t find a single picture of her that I haven’t seen a hundred times already.

They stop at Christmas 2004, the year before she died from cancer. That’s one of the things you don’t consider when someone dies; there will never be more pictures of them. Sometimes another face takes their place in the line-up and sometimes those left behind just huddle closer for the camera to close the hole. Either way, the photographic evidence of their existence just…stops.

The camera loved my mother, at least the back of the camera because that’s where she usually was. The willing wielder of Polaroids, Instamatics, Minoltas and Sureshots. The camera-toting chronicler of holidays and road trips, family gatherings and the mundane moments of our everyday lives.

My sister and I, acting like we like each other, 1970's.

My sister and I, acting like we like each other, 1970’s.

“Come on, stand closer and act like you like each other,” she’d direct as we posed on street corners and mountains, by road signs and historical markers, on the rocks by the Atlantic, on the sand by the Pacific, in my parents’ living room for graduations, my grandparents’ dining room for birthdays, and in front of 39 years of Christmas trees.

It’s no wonder it only took eight years. My collection of photos with her in them is small though the archives of those she took are immense. I never have to wonder where I’ve been or who I am because she laid it out for me in photo albums and picture frames. So today I’ll start over with a fresh eye to a familiar face, beginning again with one of my favorite pictures.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Here’s looking at you.

My mom does Bogie in her dad's favorite hat.

My mom does Bogie in her dad’s favorite hat.

To raise money for any worthy cause, you need a flexible plan, belief in what you’re doing, and comfortable shoes.

The Thompsons, resplendent in pink, at “Viva La Vonda”.

Last weekend, our family put on a fundraiser for my sister-in-law Vonda who is battling breast cancer. For the past several months, a core committee of six – my sister-in-law Bonnie; niece Savannah; friends Jeanne, Judy and Lisa; and myself – planned and prepared for the event, amassing a small army of friends and family members to help solicit donations, hang flyers, sell raffle tickets, arrange for food and entertainment, and otherwise try to cover every small detail imaginable.

“Viva La Vonda” (good fundraisers need catchy names) became a reality on November 17 at a local community center that holds about 400 people. We nearly filled it. It was an evening of amazing highs and lows, moments of startling generosity and emotion, inspirational, frustrating and funny. Here’s what we learned and how it can help you:

Be a Gumby. You have to be flexible. Yes, the silent auction tables you spent hours setting up look wonderfully inviting but people will bring donations with them that night. Accept them graciously, throw up another table, have extra bid sheets handy. The beer at the “Beer for Boobs” booth may run out hours earlier than expected. Go get more. And when it runs out again, someone may step up and donate $100 worth of beer to keep you selling a little while longer. Someone did that for us. The free will offering chili feed could end 15 minutes early when all the food is gone. Most unfed people will understand. They’ll go up the street to the nearest restaurant, grab a quick bite and come back. Because they’ll know that cooking for a crowd of undetermined size is a crapshoot and they’ll appreciate that you tried.

Trust others…but not everybody. A real auctioneer works the crowd, fuels bidding rivalries and entertains while he sells. Hire one. Get a band that knows the guest of honor; they’ll play her favorite song at just the right moment. Put volunteers used to dealing with money and customers in the payment booth for your auctions. They’ll get it all figured out in the end, even when bidders are picking the wrong items up off the tables and spilling beer on the bid sheets. Realize that you can’t trust everybody. If you think people won’t steal at a benefit, you’re wrong. Whether it’s beers from a cooler when the bartender is helping someone else or palming a handmade necklace off the silent auction table, it’ll happen. If you find the perpetrator, punish accordingly. If you don’t, make amends to the aggrieved as best you can. 

Keep talking. People don’t come to events they don’t know about. The time to stop putting up flyers is when you can’t walk into any place in town and not see one. We used free public service announcements on our local radio and TV stations, did live radio interviews the week of the fundraiser, maintained a Facebook event page about it, and casually dropped it into every conversation we had for weeks. People may have been tired of hearing us talk about it but they remembered to come.

Don’t try to please everybody. You never will. Some people will complain about the food, the price of the beer, the selection of auction items, the seating, the parking, that they didn’t get a winning raffle ticket, that you’re not taking credit cards. We actually had one person who made all of those complaints, repeatedly, to nearly every adult family member working the event as well as to anyone who would listen to her. It was finally suggested that since everything INSIDE the building was not up to her expectations, perhaps she should see if things OUTSIDE were more to her liking. I don’t know if they were or not and honestly, I don’t care.

Kylar makes a lasting impression on the “Thumbprint” picture.

This time, it’s personal. When you do this kind of fundraiser, it becomes personal the moment you make their illness public. Vonda shares her cancer battle on her Facebook page and will discuss it with anyone who asks her. At the benefit, we wanted to give people more than just a chance to help defray her medical expenses; we gave them an opportunity to assist in her recovery. Everyone was invited to put their thumbprint on a special picture that now hangs in Vonda’s house and sign her “Hope” book, a scrapbook of messages that she can read whenever she needs a boost. One of the highlights of the evening was when she took to the stage with her husband Todd and son Daulton and thanked everyone for their love and support. Make it personal, because it is.

Celebrate the unexpected. Like a high school classmate willing to shave his head for cash donations. Or the moment you realize the freezer that you put 12 pounds of frozen donated meat into was actually not a freezer and you are now handing over a dripping bag of thawing burger to the highest bidder. Or when you notice the crowd is not just pushing tables and chairs back to make room for a dance floor, they are actually taking them down and putting them away so you don’t have so much to clean up at the end of the night. Or that the one keeping your workers’ spirits up is an exuberant four-year-old named Kylar who is proudly wearing a tiny tie-dyed pink t-shirt that proclaims “Stop the War in my Rack.” These are the moments that make memories, people.

Keep success in perspective. “Viva La Vonda” raised somewhere in the $20,000 range. Although the cost of fighting cancer is immense (I know this from my mom’s own lost battle), the money donated through the fundraiser is a great start. At the end of the night, when you can finally sit down, kick the shoes off your aching feet, and crack the beer that was thoughtfully hid back for you, keep this in mind: good benefits raise more than just money. They raise spirits, awareness, and support. You can’t put a price on that.

Vonda (right), our guest of honor, with her sister, Bonnie.

Headstones are the name tags the deceased wear to the afterworld. They tell who and what we were, how long we lived, and sometimes, how we died. Their epitaphs are literature’s shortest biographies and they serve as reminders that this was once a real living person worth remembering.

I’ve wandered a lot of cemeteries. My birthday is May 28 and regularly falls on Memorial Day which means as I was growing up, sprays of artificial flowers and 21-gun salutes often preceded cake and presents. In spite of, or probably, because of that, I like cemeteries. They’re quiet, peaceful, and have great stories to tell.

The headstone that, for me, started it all.

The headstones that speak the loudest to me are the children‘s. As a kid, it never dawned on me that some children never grew up, that they existed as perpetual Peter Pans in old photographs and the memories of the people who loved them in their all-too-brief lives. The first child’s headstone I ever saw was in the Presbyterian cemetery in Bancroft, IA. It’s an old cemetery by Midwest standards, with graves dating back to the 1800’s. This was one of them and what drew me to the headstone was the little lamb carved in the top. Why it sticks in my memory is because the child it honors was just over four months old.

I can’t imagine how the parents felt picking out that headstone. I was unable to have children long before I was of an age when I thought about having one so I will never be faced with that kind of loss. But so many others have, and I wonder how they ever deal with it. Here’s how one family did.

Jack and Marj Thompson are young parents, one still in college, the other a Masters graduate in 2010. They have two children, a four-year-old named Lily and a one-year-old named Cash. And in between the two, there was once another named Tehlula Lee. She died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 2010 before she was even two months old.

One day Jack and Marj were walking through Greenwood Cemetery in Brookings, SD, where Tehlula Lee was laid to rest and they noticed something unusual. Many of the gravesites for children had only temporary markers, some of them decades old. They decided to do something about that.

In July of 2010, Jack and Marj formed the Tehlula Lee Foundation. Its goals are simple: to provide permanent headstones for the graves of children and to educate people about SIDS. To date, they’ve purchased 90 headstones for children’s graves at Greenwood Cemetery, and are now working on doing the same for cemeteries in other area communities like Volga, White and Toronto. In addition to the name of the child buried in each grave, each headstone contains an image of Tehlula’s footprint and the epitaph “Every soul leaves a footprint”.

The Thompsons never questioned why the temporary markers at Greenwood Cemetery were not replaced before with permanent stones. Brookings is a college town with a somewhat transient population set in a rural area with an economy that booms and busts. Nor did they judge the parents and families, some of whom have thanked them for the gesture. Jack and Marj just saw a need and made the effort to fill it, creating an incredible legacy for a special little girl and honoring generations of lost lambs before her.

It’s a Sunday morning as I post this and while the urge to get all preachy is there, I won’t. Instead, I’ll say this: There are people in this world doing amazing selfless things, and thank God for that.

To find out more about the Tehlula Lee Foundation or to make a donation, visit their website or the foundation’s Facebook page.