Write It: Your Story is Everything

There is something about cold autumn days and gray skies that can transport me to my ‘life at home’ years ago in the 1970s. Not in a sad sappy way, but a gentle remembrance of running home from school through the woods behind our house, the trees naked with mystery, geese in formation honking their way south, and that crisp cold air that filled the lungs with energy and opened the nose to a plethora of aromas like wood smoke and damp decaying leaves, the leather of boots, the smell of books, and even the oily-metal smell of the inside my flute case.

In just a flash, I can see my father, mustached and still so young getting out of the station wagon with a hint of burnt tobacco still swirling around him. I can hear someone playing the piano, the house bustling with the sound of teenagers talking about basketball practice or musical play try-outs, with the warmth of home-cooking simmering on the stove, dishes clinking as the table is set, and a chocolate cake waiting on the counter; life was full and alive with busyness and sensory delights.

It is in stark contrast to what I come home to now, my nest empty, no dinner cooking or music coming from rooms upstairs, no voices full of possibilities…and so far from the landscapes of my own youth. Interesting, that’s all, just interesting how life evolves into worlds that we land in through circumstances. I’m not sure that I ‘miss’ that time in my life, but am quite sure it is only a brief turn of the page, like all things, and one needs to snap a picture of it in their mind before it is gone. Those everyday moments are a part of the intricate fabric of who we are.

More and more, especially as the seasons circle around so quickly now, I feel the need to share my stories with my children. Fortunately, they are good listeners, though like so many aging people who want to relate the now to then, I often get the preverbal, “We know, we know, mom, you don’t have to tell that story again,’ response when I am particularly reminiscent.

That’s where the benefit of writing down our memories, the times of our lives, comes in.

I was a sensitive child, and gratefully so, able to see and feel things even amid all the noise of life. That early, keen awareness gave me much to write about, even if no one reads it. That is what I get from writing; a travelogue of memories….a review, a sorting out of things, a sense of continuity and order, a reminder of who I am and where I came from, even as a new chapter begins to reveal itself, even if no one else remembers it the way I do.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, later 1950s.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, late 1950s.

Maybe there is some truth in the idea that everyone wants to be remembered, and somewhere down the line some curious child will open a book about their great grandmother and be….interested… in her ancient school days running home through the autumn woods. That would be enough for me, knowing that I might inspired that child to be aware…to be present…to even write her own story. Better yet, that she may see a bit of herself in me and come to understand some of her own mysteries.

But what if that never happens? What if my typed pages burn up in a fire or my CD of memoirs melts, floats away, or gets thrown in a trash heap of what is deemed ‘junk’ by some less sensitive person? So what? The act of writing has become a form of therapy for me; it’s cathartic and transporting, as well as a spring board that propels me forward. I’ve often wondered why people are so afraid, or timid, about writing their memories early enough in life that they might still have clear recall of the voices of people that mattered, of places they could still smell and clearly walk through in their minds. If I am anything, I am an advocate for the memoir of everyday people written BEFORE they are too old to remember.

Sure all the movie stars and celebs have already started to write their tell-all books, but that is not what I am advocating. When talking to older people, or even co-workers and people my own age, I’m amazed at the varied lives they have led, tours of duty, Peace Corp adventures, childhoods with dirt floors on Indian reservations, a year spent on the road with only a backpack, or a full career in some market that failed and brought someone to a new station in life. Their painful losses and proudest moments and how they moved through the changes that crippled some and inspired others, is worth the telling. Surely we can learn from each other, feel supported (and not so crazy), as well as empowered by theirs and our own stories.

Whether it was the damp autumn woods of Michigan, rows of cotton fields in Texas, or corn fields in Iowa that each of our young selves have run home through, our stories link us as human beings and are like an out-reached hand to help us along. We are not so alone. In sharing we become united in our commonalities and uniqueness. In writing we define and learn to embrace who we are, why we laugh the way we do, why we fear what we fear…or love with a cold, bitter bite, a sincere kindness, or warm lusciousness.

There was a time when I was intimidated by others proclaiming that they were ‘writers.’ I’d throw up my guard and rattle off my academic and work credentials like a badge in a battle of words. But, I have since met and read the works of countless everyday ‘writers’ whose words read from idealistic to sarcastic, from trite to profound, from simple to highly philosophical, and each not only have the right to call themselves writers (because, after all, that is what they are DOING), but I welcome the words of wisdom and whatever I can gleaned from their thoughts. They are a voice that needs to be heard, and I’m a willing listener…a warrior on the same side.

My father wrote his memoirs in the last year of his dying life. I was left with a pile of fragmented thoughts smeared with tears, some pages poorly ripped from notebooks leaving only half the story, some, I’m sure, were lost to no time left to tell. But, oh how I fell in love with the boy who became my father just through reading his stories. I learned things about him that he never spoke of, as if the pen was a secret key that finally opened up the book of his life. My mother, on the other hand, had twenty more years and despite my prompting, left me only a handful of little notes. She was a talker, so I learned to absorb everything our conversations could yield. I knew someday I would feel the need to write her stories for her.

My father was well-educated, scholarly, and well-versed in literature and history. My mother was, well, my mother. Her stories were sentimental and simple, even jokingly crude, yet just as important as my fathers. Even ‘the way’ we tell our stories reveal so much about who we are.  In both cases, I got an in depth picture of who they were and how they became the parents I knew and loved.  Though we are all bound to vanish from this earth, there is some comfort and satisfaction in knowing our stories may continue long after even our children are gone.

Maybe that’s not important to you. But if it is, than ask yourself, “What is it that makes me remember who I am?” Ponder that for a while and then start scratching out your thoughts. Pay attention to everything, but mostly to your senses and what memories they trigger. When you’re at football game, does the energy of the kids, the cheers, the announcer, the band, or the lights take you back to your days in high school? When you’re in church, does the light streaming through the stain glass, the smell of incense, and the hymns find you once again an eight year-old fidgeting in your seat or veiled on your first communion day? A cup of fresh brewed coffee, a walk along a river, the smell of a new car, the oil and grease smell of a gas station, catching fish off a dock with your grandchild, the sunrays streaming through the windows on a winter’s morning, or the sound of a screen door closing; at every turn there is something that triggers your memories, and you know this! Why not share where it takes you? Make a mental note, if no one is around to listen or too busy to care. Stop…and write down what you recall.

Don’t try to sound like a ‘writer,’ just use your own words and descriptions the best way you can. Remember the details; take yourself back into the scene. If it is sentimental, than let yourself weep. If it is painful, then bleed and heal. Pound out the demons, strike up the band, and be in the arms of your first love once again. Writing can do that all in a safe, almost magical way.

If it’s not for money or fame (hard to come-by in the writing world), than write just for yourself, and who knows, maybe someday…somewhere down the line…some great grandchild will open up your journal, your cookbook, your old work briefcase, or your hardcover published book….and read your story. Maybe they’ll find themselves in those same woods and see you there where your spirit still lingers…under a golden canopy of leaves on the same foot bridge where you had your first kiss.

The story is everything. Think about it. Without stories there would be no books, no movies, no poetry, no news, no song lyrics, nothing to listen to, nothing to tell, no conversations, no inspiration, and no reason to remember anything. Life IS just one story after another. Why not include yours?

Singer/composer Joni Mitchell wrote in her song, Hejira, “I know no one’s going to show me everything.
We all come and go unknown. Each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”  Surely, none of us can be completely known and remembered for all the complexities that we are. But in writing your story, you have nothing to lose, except the memory of you.

Your old aunt’s string of pearls are nice to touch. Your grandfather’s pocket watch a treasure in the glass dome on your shelf, but what of your aunt or grandfather? Who were they? Who were you? Believe me; someday someone will want to know. Summer field or autumn woods, antique treasures or a stack of old love letters; it’s all in the story. And it’s in the story, your story, that someone might find themselves. Write. Find yourself and leave your story. It’s a powerful legacy to pass along.

Written by Cynthia L. Currie, November 2015

“Crawford Road, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan,” Photography courtesy of Craig Goodrich

Memories Stuffed in Little Purses

“As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.” ~Victor Hugo

My mother had a quiet passion for little coin purses. We called them ‘change purses.’ She had them, lots of them, tucked away in her dresser drawers, in the night stand and her stored-away handbags. She sent them as gifts, especially to her granddaughters, handed random ones off to people who admired them, secretly slid a special change purse into the tightly packed suitcases of loved-ones leaving her home, and chronically gave in to the urge to ‘spend a little’ on a new one, or an old one at a yard sale, or a creative one at an art fair.

Maybe it was a throwback to her childhood days during The Great Depression, when people only carried change …‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ….and when paper money was rarely seen. The purse was as important as the coins it held, and my mother seemed to still value and delight in the styling of those little pouches. One of the charms of living far from home, was the arrival of brown-paper packages filled with a menagerie of trinkets, newspaper clippings, and little things my mother was giving away, which, even in my children’s words, was ‘such a grandma thing,’ and is now missed. Always, there would be a change purse buried in the box.

My daughter quickly picked up on the love of the little purse. We’d find change purses hidden away in her room and closet, carrying an orphaned Barbie shoe, a sparkly sticker, sometimes an unstrung bead or a dropped bird’s feather, and a penny or two. Sometimes we would find tiny pieces of ripped up paper, a small colorful collection of seed beads, and strands of doll hair cut from the head of some unsuspecting doll; a collage of tidbits that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, except perhaps in her beautiful mind. Good Lord, we were always so curious, and a little nervous, when we opened them.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

When I was little and we would spend our summers in our family cabin in Mid-Michigan, the summer wasn’t complete without a ‘trip to town’ and a stop at the old ‘Dime Store’ in Gladwin, Michigan. One time, my mother had given each of us little kids ten-cents for spending. That was big deal in my seven-year-old world, and we couldn’t wait to browse the wooden-floored, old-fashioned store with its aisle bursting of penny candy and childhood play things like pop-guns, paper dolls, coloring books, marbles, polished rocks, miniature puzzles, tiny games where we were challenged to line-up little steely balls into strategically placed holes, rubber snakes, whoopee cushions, wiffle balls and plastic bats, and six-shooters in kid-sized gun belts. My sister Clara and I eventually eyed our prized purchase, two little plastic change purses. Our eyes met, our hearts stopped; we knew right away that is why we had come to town. Those two little purses might as well have had our names printed on them. We were in a state of consumer bliss when we slid our skinny, silver dimes over the counter to the cashier. Fifty years later, we both still have them, and the sweet memory of that day.

My mother now gone, my daughter since moved away from home, I am here still holding on to a multitude of tiny money cases that once were treasures to those two beloved women in my life, plus a couple of my own. I even have one of my father’s. Worn leather with tiny travel decals now faded out; it was designed to look like a traveler’s suitcase of those romantic train travel days. I remember looking at it in wonder and seeing it in my father’s handsome hands that I loved so well.

Like so much of what we gather, hold on to, save, and cherish, I’m at that point in life when I’m incline to start letting these things go. Done filling rooms, no longer in hopes of finding a ‘big’ house for all my bits of antiquity; there simply isn’t a drawer or closet left for one more little change purse.

And yet, I look at them, this collection of my mother and daughters, and I put them back into a bigger bag and wait for another day; a day, when I am feeling courageous or maybe too feeble to care.

Sometimes I bravely muse at the possibility of selling those little change purses at a garage sale. I imagine some little girl, whose mother has given her a small amount of money to spend on some choice item during their day of exploring garage sales, eyeing my collection of change purses. I see her fingers plying the tartan, the beaded kitty, or tiny embroidery embellishments, her eyes wide open at the beauty of such a small purse that fits so nicely in her little hand.

I’m charmed by the thought of ‘giving them away’ for some other child to bring back to life just by hearing some coins jingle in its pouch once again.

I could do that; give them away, let them go. Except maybe not the little soft-haired cowhide one that my daughter loved to rub up against her rosy cheeks, or the one that my father carried for years with the tiny travel labels faded off, and certainly not the last change purse my mother carried before she died, her perfume still lingering on the green leather and tiny golden shamrocks, reminding me of her love of change purses, now almost as obsolete and devalued as the pennies people once cherished.

Memories, all stuffed in little purses, like little bits of torn colored paper, a tarnish locket, or an ancient Avon lipstick sample; holding, holding, holding…for someone like my mother, with a story, a child’s heart and a reminiscent smile, and a few coins to spare, to come along and carry away in a new pair of loving hands.

In the Blue Jay’s Call…

p956070856-5[1]     There is something distance in the singular cry of the blue jay that pulls me home to places along my trodden path.

Perhaps its sharpness awakens memories seemingly dormant that beg to be noticed just about the time one thinks they are forgetting. Whether in mid-conversation, quietly reading a book, or my hands plunged in hot soapy water washing the last of the dishes with my mind lost in thoughts of weekend plans or nothingness, that cry…brings me to a halt. I am transported, ever so briefly, but enough to recall steps, paths, and moments of wonderment along the way.

My youthful summers were often spent along the winding trails of the birch and pine woods around our summer cabin. A rough place, by most standards, made of log and mortar with a cinder block foundation; it was often cold with the wind whistling through the walls. My dad needed to build a fire in the wood stove on those Michigan mornings to get the summer day started, especially when we needed to be brave enough to visit the outhouse and wash up in the icy cold water pumped out of the earth from the well.  Built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) near Gladwin, Michigan, my grandfather owned the place affectionately referred to as the Ca-Ha-Bo club, which he frequented with his buddies back in the 1930s. My dad and his brother went along as early as 1936, fished, climbed, and played along the moist treacherous ravines and sunny sand mound roads.  My father made it his own in the late 1940s when he and his high school friends all decided to get out of the city and into the woods. In his dad’s old 1931 Essex with a rumble seat, they made a book of memories just being boys. Until the boys turned to men and began bringing their young families to the shabby old cabin along the Tittabawassee River which snakes through mid-Michigan, and then it was our rustic get-away until 1975, when no one was left to visit and it was sold.

We did a lot of nothing there, and the nothingness was lovely.

We colored and played cards for hours on the screened-in porch that look out over the river, fished off the dock and occasionally rowed out to the middle of the river with my dad, our bobbers dancing on the waves in waiting like our dreams of ‘someday,’ and returned with our strings full of perch and sunfish for dinner.  In the sleepy mornings, the air rich with aromatic cedar and pines, we would take our bowls out to the sand roads and gather wild raspberries and blackberries until our bowls and bellies were full and our mother of pearl finger nails stained red. These were the sweetest of times, no rush, few demands; childhood in its simplest form.

The sisters at the cabin

The sisters at the cabin

But it was our walks in the woods, passed spindly groves of birch and aspen, and then deep into the thicket that scratched our youthful legs, that was most daring and adventurous for me. Always with other siblings, there were moments when I wished I was alone. The sun light shone bright up above the canopy of leaves against that bright blue sky, as the ‘old Indian trails’ grew narrower and more difficult to navigate. Though we hoped to see a some deer or maybe a bear, with a brood of kids, some loudly thinking there were chieftains, we didn’t see much, except chipmunks and raccoons, and the ever present birds.

These days, when I hear the aggressive blue jay cry outside my grown-up home so far from those northern woodlands, and see all the sparrows and dove scatter in its presence, it is there that I am transported….to the sun dabbled path, the sisters out ahead, and in those moments when the call of the jay would echo through the forest walls making me shiver with aliveness and possibilities. What will I be when I grow up? Where will I live? When will I fall in love and who will he be? Until someone’s voice as shill as the jay would bark at me to not fall behind, I was happily getting lost in my own world.

There in the forest, where later in my teens, older sisters off with their important lives, the younger kids napping in the cabin, I would take my flute and walk to a clearing, where I would sit on a rock and listen to the deep tones of my instrument mingling with the fluttering leaves along the edges. I would sing, without holding back, and dream of stages and audiences, of flowing dresses and gentlemen extending their hand to dance with me…and of kisses…my rosy lips perched in a bow, eyes closed feeling the hand of the wind caress my face and comb its fingers through my hair. There on that rock in the clearing, I could create my own world. The blue jay, plentiful in those mid-Michigan woods full of oak trees, would call to me when the sun was high, or when it was getting late, wake me from my dreaminess, and remind me that I wasn’t alone in my aloneness.

I remember once, over twenty years ago, walking along a path in northern Wisconsin near the border of Minnesota in the woods at Amnicon Falls, when the blue jay made itself known. It was a troubling but exciting time for me, full of complications and cold hard facts. At one point, I was walking along a wooded trail just ready to enter a deeper, darker part of the forest, and the blue jay called its singular cry….echoing, echoing, echoing through the forest as I looked up into the blinding sun for that blue-winged alarmist. I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see much at that time in my life, but could hear the rustling of the trees in the summer breeze inviting me to move along. I could feel my footing…cautious but bold …and continued to follow my hearts desire…the bird and its call weaving through the trees, flirting with my senses, daring me to listen.

Many of us are highly sensitive to sounds and smells, which is sometimes a blessing and at other times a curse, for they can easily distract us when we should remain present and focused. I see this all the time in the classroom and gently bring a child back into reality, after allowing the student to quickly jot down whatever he or she was remembering for later use in their writing, something that was lost on me in the 1960s, when I was aptly labeled “a day-dreamer.”

The tinkling of glass wind-chiming can take me back to that screened-in porch, someone snapping their chewing gum to my mom happily ironing, the chattering chickadees in spring to a morning in Wisconsin when, through a tent window, I watched a flock of those black-capped wonders of endurance wake up the day all chipper with excitement. The sound of the furnace turning on in winter, its comforting hummm, sends warm goose bumps along my skin, as it did when I was a child, and cold, and would crawl under the bed to lie up against the heating vent. The sound of clinking dishes and people talking at the same time with the lifts of laughter, a couple bars of a song sung, and the bending sighs… can take me back to the kitchens of my youth, aproned women all busy gossiping and working at the same time; people now gone.

The sound of a train whistle in the distance, like the sound of the fog horns from passing ships off the coast of the great lakes; seagulls in the morning, geese in formation honking their goodbyes as they left the brilliant colored autumn behind, and the sound of hushed stillness … the woods covered in fresh snow…can transport me without warning. New sounds like the cicadas buzzing the trees at the height of a blazing hot afternoon in south Texas and fire truck sirens make me think of my boy playing in the yard with his trucks, now off on one of those big engine racing through traffic, and the southern sweetness of the solitary song of the mockingbird in the empty street of a late night…sharing multiple melodies it has learned along the way, to no one except itself, all so clear and distractive, yet surely meant for some purpose in this maddening world. Why else would the mockingbird sing, if not for us to stop and listen?

But, the singular call of the blue jay echoes through my ears into the years, and in its hard call seems to remind me, like it did then, that I am falling behind the others, that it’s getting late, that all around me are dark forests with unknown adventures waiting for me to boldly enter. Even here in my suburban kitchen, cup of coffee, dogs at my feet, and the constant rhythmic tick of the clock, that bully blue jay makes me stop and think and remember…I’m not alone in my aloneness, and it’s time to gain my footing for the path that leads forward.

 

Through My Father’s Tears

 “History is a guide to navigate in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
~David McCullough, American Author

dad alone by lake

Dad in his early teens by the lake

Just as ‘all who wander are not lost,’ all who ‘look back’ are not sad, depressed people living in the past. Through the popular notion that to ‘look back’ on one’s life is somehow an unhealthy indication that one is ‘living in the past,’ and that we should all just ‘let it go’ and move forward, we are being lead to believe that we gain nothing of value from the people and places we once loved or knew. As if to look back fondly, or with bittersweet regard and nostalgia, one must not be happy where they are. What does that say about our society’s interest and reverence for history, geography, and ‘home?’ Furthermore, what does that say about our respect for those that came before us, and, for that matter, how WE will be remembered, if at all?

Everywhere we are bombarded with daily reminders to ‘let go of the past,’ as if it’s a social disease to be curious, to tell stories, reflect, share pictures, delve into one’s family history, even attempt to unravel mysteries or heal old wounds that would, indeed, help people move forward. Yet, some of the healthiest people I know are well-versed in history with a calm acceptance of their personal past. In fact, they live more in the ‘present’ BECAUSE of their awareness of the past, than those who prefer to numb themselves in hopes of forgetting, or preach the ‘let it go’ theory because they don’t want to forgive or understand the motivations and circumstances of those that came before them. “It is what it is!” is the one- dimensional decree of the ‘don’t look back people .’ Maybe it’s a good intentioned defense mechanism, or fear, or ignorance, but promoting a overall attitude against ‘looking back’ is to me rather arrogant, as if all things begin and end with you or me.

Even as an elementary school teacher, I can see the sad decline of the social studies curriculum, limited acknowledgment of notable people, moments, and movements in our country’s history; limited space in the timeline.  And what of the poets and lyricists? Awwww….they make us think about the past, don’t they? There is no time for THAT! It’s all about the application of math and science to the detriment of a well-rounded education. In our need for the illusion of perfection, to rise above other countries, are we not losing vital learning experiences  that would only serve to make us a better country…better people? You know the old adage, “Learn from your mistakes?” Well, if we are not willing to talk about the past, how can we learn from any mistakes? What a terrible disservice to the present and future generations, who may not be that interested in hearing about old Uncle Bill and his dancing tattoos, or how their great-great grandfather was a ship captain on the Great Lakes, but at some point they may be. What will they have to draw on later in life when they have questions and we know nothing?

“An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them.” ~David McCullough, American author, from “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” April 18, 2005

Dad with his brothers

Dad with his brothers

Dad and Archie

Dad with his brother Archie

My father was a humble man, as many from the ‘greatest generation’ were. Born in 1929 on the onset of the Great Depression, he saw his share of sadness, poverty, and hard knocks in life. His sixteen year old brother, Archie, was shot dead accidently by a stray bullet in a ‘cops and robbers’ incident on the streets of Detroit in 1943. Daddy was fourteen and lost his best friend; his closest companion. Dad’s mother had a brain tumor in her late 40s and after her brain surgery, he wrote, “We had our mother with us for many more years but she was never more than 75% of who she was before. My wife and I were deprived of a beautiful friend. My children were deprived of a youthful, fun-loving, talented grandmother. The only thing not affected by her operation, was her sense of humor which was as sharp as ever.” And THAT is what I remember about my grandmother, her sense of humor. But, I also learned so much more about her through my father’s recollection of her earlier days when she was healthy and there for him. He painted a different picture than the limited one I saw myself.

Dad with his mother swapping hats

Dad with his mother swapping hats

At family parties or after dinner with all of us sitting around the table like a classroom of students drinking coffee, he would share bits and pieces of his life, and for someone like me, who truly was fascinated with social history, even the sad and unpleasant parts, I was the perfect student.

Several years before he was diagnosed with Lou Gering’s Disease (ALS), he was sharing a story with me about his father. It was more of an intimate look into his life than my father had ever shared before. Dad and I were not ‘buddies.’ He was always revered as ‘someone above me’ as many children, even in old age, perceive their parents. So I respectfully asked him if he would consider writing down some of his memories. He hee-hawed a bit, as older folks do, but I persisted. As a news writer in rural Minnesota, I saw this all the time. Older people just didn’t want to talk about their lives. Usually ‘other’ people would say it’s because it was too painful, but I always managed to get them to open up. Their resistance had more to do with humility than pain. I had a ‘girl-next-door’ quality in interviewing; they felt I could be trusted and was as interested as a daughter. I always was, but in my dad’s case, I was the real thing, and very interested. So, he told me he’d write things down as he remembered them, which, for you aspiring memoirist, is the best way to do it.

In my father’s case, time wasn’t on his side. Once we all knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer, he decided to follow through with our ‘memoir plan’ the best that he could. In my mother’s view, it was painful, not only physically (at first he lost control of the muscles in his fingers, and then later in his tongue so he could not speak clearly), but also emotionally. But, my father was a wise man. He had a choice. He could have sat there watching one TV show after another until he passed away, or he could ‘recall’ his life, walk through it again, and relive both the sad and joyous moments of it in order to pass those memories along to us, namely to me, because he was a man of his word.

My dad had a romantic soul. Even in that terrible year of a slow, unforgiving death, I knew he wanted to be remembered for more than what appeared on the surface; “father, teacher and coach.” There was more to him, as there is to all of us. In that way, we were cut from the same cloth. He was passionate and emotional, and at times sobbed uncontrollably. Tears make other people nervous because they assign their own beliefs to them. They believe tears must be bad, uncontrolled emotions, a sign of weakness, heaven forbid! Have a drink! Crack a joke! Numb that shit up! Yes, my dad cried a lot through the process. But in my mind, he needed to after a long life of being ‘the strong son and brother’ in the family, standing tall and taking care of everyone, as he himself faced one challenge after another, and then got hit with this final blow. Crying is a release. ‘Letting go,’ if you must, and sobbing is as natural as laughing, indeed it’s healthy to let the tears flow to help wash away the grief of lost time and people.

After his funeral, I took home a briefcase full of chicken-scratched notes, badly-typed stories, some on torn pieces of paper, smeared ink passages as if someone carelessly scribbled them out on a wet napkin. The text was full of big Polish names I wasn’t sure about, and places along the avenues and streets of the old Detroit where my dad grew up…places now closed up and gone. It was a mess of a project and took me too many years to compile, but what a gift! In his wake, he left a wide path of understanding, a portal into what makes us who we are, and a colorful slice of life that will never be seen again. He created room for forgiveness, a sense of history and belonging, and a place for others to stroll back easily into the past and find a piece of themselves.

What I admired most about my dad’s memoirs was how they were written straight up. No frills, no analyzing, no blaming or interpretations of why people were the way they were, other than the obvious socio-economic scene; they were easy to read. He seemed to share everything he could remember, from the everyday life of city boys playing in the park, to his first sexual experience in the woods, to his endearing friendships with the men who were still his best friends to the end, to the sweet simple romance between him and my mother.

“Our courtship was a series of parties punctuated by quiet walks and talks. Our favorite date was going to the Rialto on Gratiot and Mt. Elliot, then interrupting the workers at a local bakery and taking home a loaf of fresh bread and sharing it at her house on Kirby Avenue. I walked the mile from Canton to Kirby at least a hundred times. I knew she was the girl for me.”

The courtship of mom and dad

Mom and Dad courting

As I wrote and re-wrote his words, crying and stuffing bread in my mouth, I found myself falling in love with the boy who would become my father. I could see my young parents stopping at the 1940s bakery, them walking hand-in-hand down the darken streets past the once manicured lawns of a different Detroit. It was easy to imagine them sitting in my grandma’s kitchen by low light, sharing the loaf of bread and maybe a cup of coffee…the difficult goodbyes…and daddy walking that city mile home in the dark alone with my mother’s perfume on his collar. My only regret was that he was no longer with us, for I knew there must have been more that he just didn’t have time to write.

Sad? Yes, on some levels, but sweet as well. But, in the telling and sharing, the listening and receiving, there is a kind of awakening and freedom that comes from the voices of the people before us, and an awareness of why we are on the paths that we walk, why we love or distain the things we do, and why we can hear our parent’s voices in our own words. The perception that it’s an avoidable dark journey to look back, is that of people who don’t want to ‘feel’ anything, people not able to face the fact that maybe other people had rougher lives than theirs, or better. People who want to glorify or dramatize than own existence, rather than learn that we are all more alike than different. In fact, I think that knowledge of one’s family history and dynamics, and the acceptance of it, is necessary to be ‘truly present’ now.

I know there are people who had very difficult, unthinkable childhoods. I also know that many therapies designed to help those bearing the scars of childhood, are based on recalling and moving through those heartbreaks to heal. I did this, in a way, with my mother. Our weekly phone calls included many laughs and ‘how are the kids’ chats, but often we circled round to the ‘what happened when and why’ of our lifetime together, and respectfully we opened up those old wounds, explained, shared, cried, and healed our relationship. But, we had to open the door to the past to move forward. We had to become vulnerable, let our armor down, and be willing to feel something! The emotional gift of delving into the past together, my listening and appreciating all her stories of her life growing up, her feelings about my father and the years when we were babies, brought clarity and life-confirming affirmations and gave us both a kind of peaceful satisfaction that, regardless, all was forgiven through understanding and knowledge. We had no loose ends, and we both knew that when my mother left this world I would remember her for only the love and goodness she brought to my life. In return, I received wisdom.

There are a lot of broken people out there. Some drink or eat or drug themselves to forget. Some just hide their memories away, proudly carrying the banner of ‘be present’ when, in fact, ‘they’ are still stuck somewhere else. I think it’s time we stopped this overly romantic view of the ‘here and now’ and the warnings, especially to our young people, that looking back is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s time we try again to remember, to show respect, and honor those paths we and the people before us have walked, with a story. There are other banners like, “Everyone has a story to tell,” that can be plastered all over Facebook walls and encouraged in classrooms. How about we give a listen, read their writing, and learn from the past, if not for pure enjoyment, then maybe for a lesson or two. One look at a day on a social network or in a ‘test focused’ classroom or at the crap they call TV these day, begs us to reassess what is really important. Certainly history has to rise from the dead and enlighten us again, especially if it’s our own.

My father at college

My father at college

My father was the first person in his family line to finish high school. He was referred to as ‘the professor,’ as was common of college-bond kids back then. He earned a Bachelors of Philosophy (Ph.B) at a tough Jesuit university and later, after bringing eight children into the world with my mother on his teacher’s salary, he earned a Masters of English. He understood history, the human condition, and the need to teach children how to think and make connections. He had every right to be arrogant, but he wasn’t. He often worked two or three jobs, made a big pot of oatmeal on weekend mornings and coffee cake and donuts, like his parents before him, and let us shake on the sugary toppings in brown paper bags like easily amused kids with new toys. He sang old vaudeville songs in the station wagon with us, and enjoyed a smoke and cup of coffee with my mother who…well, had her own story, was a fireball of emotions, got in trouble with the nuns, was socially gifted and a sexy little thing to my dad right to the end. And in the end, he was recalling the simple things of a lifetime that stayed in his memory, worthy memories that he was, gratefully, able to share. In the process, I think we all learn a whole lot about ourselves.

“My brother Archie and I were constant companions. We shared the same bed, shared the same food and treats, played together, built model airplanes together, and went to the movies together. We did everything together. …My parents often were called upon to sing duets at house parties or whenever there were gatherings. My mother had an uncanny ear for harmony and my dad had a pleasant lead voice. Archie and I picked up on all their songs and managed to add a few of our own. When we went for long walks, we sang. When we had to wait in the car for a period of time, we sang. Even when we went to the outhouse together in the summer, we sang. That first walk to school alone without my brother after his death was the longest walk of my life.”
~ “Miles, the Memoirs of Walter Miles Currie

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Through my father’s tears and words I grew to understand the boy who lived inside my big, brave daddy. He grappled with fear, like we all do, yet seemed to be the strongest person in our whole extended family, and that just makes me what to be braver and maybe take another big step just for him.

If you want to embrace the ‘here and now,’ then you have to look back first, even if it hurts. It’s good to learn about the people who ‘shaped us,’ for better or worse. It provides us with roots to grow, so we (and our children) aren’t just a bunch of “fresh cut flowers trying to grow themselves.” When we grow, we experience emotions, and to ‘feel something’ is a healthy human response, at any age. It provides a connection, insight and understanding into the reasons why we do what we do. It awakens potential and sleeping dreams. It waters us, gives us courage, passion, or even a fire to change our situations, and it’s the very thing that will enable us to truly ‘be present’ and blossom into the whole human beings that the people before us had hope for when we came into the world. Look back, heal, write your own story. Believe me, someone down the line will want to know who you were…

 

 

 

 

How Far Have YOU Gone?

“People will tell you where they’ve gone; they’ll tell you where to go. But till you get there yourself, you never really know.”
~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Amelia’

If you’ve been around, you have stories. That used to be enough, when people had the patience to stop, listen, or read, and the imagination to see themselves in others’ recollections with intrigue or an appreciation of novel experiences. Today, a quote, a video (even a crappy one), or a tweet is about all that will hold the attention of, what I observed to be, a highly competitive and self-absorbed social arena. The old adage, ‘Quality not quantity’ doesn’t seem to hold much value in life experiences or in relationships, for that matter. It’s all about one-ups-men-ship, a bombardment of shocking facts and numbers, with no stamina to listen to or ‘read more…’

Occasionally, the lunchroom one-ups-men-ship topic drifts to a place where I once lived. I mean, really lived. Like my parents, storytelling was in the natural order of things. I learned to sit and listen, to mentally walk in their shoes, thereby experiencing the places and people that I knew I might never experience in my own life. This started at a young age, of course, before people bought into the concept that children have limited attention spans and are aching to go stimulate their brains with something more exciting like a video game which has resulted in, well, a host of new childhood problems that have run amuck.

Back in the teacher’s lounge, someone asked, how far north have you gone…south, east, and west? I’m sure the question wasn’t meant to elicit long answers, as we have all of maybe 20 minutes to inhale our lunches and get in a little adult conversation. But, of course, my early training kicks in, and a little excitement sprinkled with beautiful words in the hope of ‘getting others there’ starts to pulse through my storyteller veins, as if I’m sitting in front of a hearth with children at my feet who, ugh, are interested.

I lived in North Dakota for almost three years in my early 20s, through some of the meanest winters on record. I can still hear the frozen snow crunching beneath my boots and see my breath turn to ice crystals around my face…creating a snow-globe effect that was magical. Okay, on to the next person, who has miraculously driven through every state in the Union. I guess she wins; conversation over! And that appears to be what it’s all about these days; who wins with shortest, most dramatic comment.

People seem intimidated by the stories of others, as opposed to interested or curious, and terminology has changed. Lived-in, driven-through, or visited are not measurements that weigh the experience, anymore. One would argue that the questioner didn’t ask where we had lived. Yet, what is the point of ‘rating’ how far one has been, if they have simply driven through a corner of a state or stepped over a border only to yank their foot back with a proudly earned participation ribbon. That’s sort of like saying; I’ve had many lovers…in my mind (but not in my arms)! “North Dakota? It was dark and cold, I don’t know, I slept most of the way, but I’ve been there!! Ribbon please!”

Throw in the geocentric belief that everything where YOU LIVE is somehow bigger or better (as if one was personally in cahoots with God and had a hand in making it that way) and the attention quickly gets narrowed down to the, well, less experienced.

This is unfortunate.

Anyone who has ever LIVED in North Dakota, for instance, can tell you things that are anywhere from breath-taking, like seeing the northern lights dance across the plains, to horrifically desolate. The visual delight of seeing miles of indigo-colored flax in bloom, shoveling through the snow to get OUT of your house, and the dismals feeling of standing in a small grocery store in the dead of winter observing one’s choice of produce…a cabbage, an onion, and everything else is either rotten or not available; this, my friends, more aptly describe just how far north I have been.

Raised in the 1960s and 70s, many in our generation were all about leaving home as soon as possible. People strapped on their REI backpacks and headed out to hike the mountains, went off to ‘find themselves’ in far off places, thumbed their way down roads less traveled, joined communes, and left ‘the settling’ for later. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had never left. Yet, it was in the leaving that I learned to appreciate coming home. And it’s ‘in the living’ in different places that taught me how to appreciate other cultures and vistas, establish new friends, and navigate the highways of life. In short (if I must), I grew. I also found that I can ‘sit and listen or read’ other peoples’ stories without a need to one-up anyone. I just find it interesting how I am meeting fewer and fewer people that have this same sensibility. People just seem so uninterested in other places and life experiences other than their own.

A fellow Northerner and I were once dreamily recalling the beauty of autumn ‘up North.’ A Texas co-worker shook her head and said, “I could never leave Texas because I need the beach!” My friend, from ‘the land of 10,000 lakes,’ and I, from the ‘Great Lakes’ state, just looked at each other with puzzlement. There is safety in ignorance, I suppose, but it’s rather boring, and in this case embarrassing. When you try to explain the inland seas to people who have never seen them, it’s like trying to explain having a baby to a man. They don’t get it, and they don’t really want to know. End of conversation.

Photo by Alamy

Photo by Alamy

On another occasion, I was sharing my memories of Tahquamenon Falls, one of 84 magnificent waterfalls in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The falls are more than 200 feet across with a 48 foot drop, colored brown by the tannins leached from the cedar swamps which the river drains. Tahquamenon Falls is noted as being the land of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – “by the rushing Tahquamenaw” where Hiawatha built his canoe. Naturally, someone quickly piped in with, “Oh, WE have tons of waterfalls here! You haven’t seen waterfalls until you’ve seen Gorman Falls!” one of 28 waterfalls in all of Texas, most fed by rainwater run-off. So, when there is no rain, they don’t fall. But, really, why does ‘sharing’ have to be so competitive? “My falls are better than your falls, nana-nana-boo-boo!” Given my before said training, I was curious about Gorman Falls, and quietly listened to the other’s experience. She didn’t seem to want to know anything about the root-beer colored water that rushes through the Hiawatha National Forest. End of conversation.

Likewise, try to explain the smell of Texas….rich with the warm roasted aroma of BBQ in the air, the intoxicating fragrance of Mountain Laurels in bloom, or how quickly a big rain can turn into a flash flood, to a Michigander, and one is met with a raised eye-brow and a quick dismissal. They’d prefer to hold on to their limited belief that all of Texas is covered with rolling tumbleweed. Try sharing the joy of canoeing a river and having beaver and river otters playfully flirt with one’s paddles, and get met with ‘beaver’ jokes. Share one’s experience of the Ozarks and the beauty of Arkansas with anyone from anywhere, and get the ‘dueling banjos’ whistled back at you. Share the bounty of Wisconsin apple orchards and serenity of its pastoral scenery to someone from Illinois and you get the cow-town jokes. Really? Is there no judgment-free wonderment left in people?

In short, people don’t want to know ‘how far you have been,’ in any detail. In fact, it seems to make people feel threatened. Blinders on, ear-plugs in; they proudly talk up their little neck of the woods. They don’t seem to want to know what else might be ‘out there.’ What gets lost in this disregard for other’s experiences are the stories that inspire travel, geography, insight, romance, and …growth.

To me this is leading to a very shallow and uninteresting human condition. Not unlike celebrating a couple who has been married for 50 years, neither of whom even talk to each other anymore, in fact their disdain for each other may be written all over their harden expressions, yet everyone around them is celebrating their longevity; it’s all about the quantity not the quality of the years. Let’s not tell the ‘real’ story of their long marriage. No one wants to ‘read more…’ After all, we may learn something that shakes up our safe status quo.

How far have I gone? I stepped over the Mississippi River once. Do I win?! Of course, it was the mouth of the Mississippi in Bemidji, Minnesota, which at that time was a babbling brook. But, oops, adding more of the truth just took away from how cool (and short) my answer was. No ribbon for me! I lose, but not really.

My mother, who in the last years of her life shared a bounty of wisdom with me because, well, I would listen, told me that after awhile no one wants to hear the stories of older people, so you learn to just smile and nod your head like you’ve never been anywhere or experienced anything. “It’s a peaceful feeling” she said, “like letting go. You can’t tell anybody anything. They have to live it for themselves.”

Texas Hill Country road Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

Texas Hill Country road
Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

I’m so glad I lived it for myself, from the North Dakota desolation, to the playful river otters, the deafening sound of 50,000 gallons of water per second pounding over the Michigan falls, to those loves (yes, sir, heart break and all), and the serenity of a drive along the wildflower-edged roads in the Hill Country of Texas. You can have your life-in-the-moment tweets and your competitive snap to out-do others. I, for one, will gladly listen to your stories, but have learned not to expect the same in return.

I imagine there will be many empty hearths someday. Maybe the tide will change, and a new generation will have a need to sit, listen, or read about other peoples’ lives without the urge to one-up the story-teller, thereby missing the beauty in the ‘sharing.’ With any luck, they may change the bleak course of our social interactions, to include more engagement, and less judgment or need to prove their experiences are ‘better.’ That’s my hope, anyway, as I learn to yield with, ‘a smile and nod of my head.’

 

They Gave Me Gifts: The Hyacinth of Easter 1978

I had a difficult time my first year of marriage.  At only 20, I had married my high school sweetheart and was swiftly moved away from my family home in Michigan, not knowing I would never again be closer than a long trip home. I didn’t know the years I would miss, the family gatherings that would be lost. I didn’t know I wouldn’t be a vital part of the growing up of my younger siblings, would never participate in the lives of my nieces and nephews, and that the golden, but aging years of my parents would always have to be ‘a phone call’ away.  I didn’t have that foresight then.  I was young and romantic; devoted. I had lofty dreams of life in the Rocky Mountains, a white picket-fenced cottage with roses around my door, and promises of children of my own with a boy I only thought I knew. It was a lonely year, the first of many.

On that first Easter following my marriage of 1977, my parents and younger siblings came to visit me and my new husband at Western Illinois University where he was doing his graduate work and I, well, was busy being a supportive wife.  I will never forget the excitement I felt at their arrival. Every little detail in place, my new china and silverware was stacked and ready with cloth napkins in blue calico fabric that I had sewn myself. I had made my mom’s potato salad for the first time, and everything was airy and clean to make that good “welcome to my home” first impression. My heart was bursting with joy and anticipation! To be physically embraced by my father and mother again, to giggle and share my pretty ‘grown-up’ things with my siblings, to show off my ‘first’ little apartment and make dinner for all of them, was the height of my new married life.

My mother brought me an Easter plant, a single purple hyacinth.  I was so charmed. An unexpected gift, beautiful in its simplicity and so like my mother; I just loved it.  I can still see that moment of them walking up the stairs of married-student housing where I lived a rather solitary life of ‘wifedom,’ my husband often gone at classes or studying late into the night with ‘friends.’ I spent most of my home hours alone. So, I became very self-sufficient.  I worked in town at a local dress store, had a favorite spot at the drugstore lunch counter, a fragrant hippie shop and organic food co-op that I frequented, but I really didn’t have any friends. After living a life of constant company in a big family where ‘togetherness’ was the norm, it was both a great learning experience and a sad existence for a young bride. I took from it what I could. But to have my family there after that long cold winter, the earth rich with the fragrance of awakening, the remnants of old snow still lacing the edges of the roads, and the voices and faces that mirrored mine; I was in a sort of surreal bliss.Easter past 1978 in Illinois with Bill

We drove around the community and shopped in the quaint town square with the old stately courthouse at its center. My parents reminiscing about the Midwestern farming towns they had lived in gave a sense of continuity to my daily life. We strolled through some of my favorite shops where my mom bought some stained glass sun catchers to put in her kitchen window. She had them for years, saying that whenever she saw the light coming through the cherry red glass, she thought of me. I found them last October in the boxes of ‘junk’ that were to be given away after my mother’s death, and brought them home to continue to catch the light of our love. We went to Mass, and together with the family talk and shared stories the meal was made perfect even in the cramped space of our small apartment.  The weekend was too brief.

Life would be too brief. It would take years and years of driving home through miles of cornfields, across wide prairies, through northern forests and hours of shorelines, through the cycles of many seasons, for me to learn, really learn what my parents meant to me. I have nothing but a heart full of gratefulness for what my parents were able to give us in those post-WWII years of large families and stay-at-home moms in which I was raised. We were, by today’s standards, the middle-class poor.  We had our share of charity boxes of clothes brought to our house, hand-me-down toys, and meals of mostly mashed potatoes and gravy. But for everything they could not afford to give us, and for all the innocent mistakes that young parents stumble through rather hit-or-miss, I was saturated in love in their house. We were never in ‘want’ or deprived of education and opportunities to develop our imaginations, and music was threaded and laced through every step of our lives like the laces on our shoes.

Through their love and high value of education and music, I developed an appreciation and understanding of the human experience. Both have been my refuge and stronghold through all kinds of challenging situations. But, above all, the unconditional love of my parents, has kept me alive in times of despair, motivated me to continue to reach for my dreams, and given me the ability to fully love others. They exhibited what I have learned to be a true love… attentive, unwavering, and never ending.

The beauty of these immeasurable gifts is that long after I left home, married and married again, went through college, bought and sold homes, earned a living, raised children, and watched those two beloved people lowered into the cold ground, their gifts have been alive and fruitful in my life.

At Easter, Christians humbly observe the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and celebrate His return to walk with us throughout our lives, loving us, forgiving us, and embracing us with unconditional love. His love seems to reflect, in my eyes, the intentions of my earthly parents, their sacrifices and continual love.  Especially at Easter, with the green glow of budding trees creating a fresh lense on old hopes and dreams, I feel their reassuring embrace. I may be little goofy singing ‘Easter bonnet songs’ and over-stuffing woven baskets with familiar treats, but these are only extension of the rich life that I have led, due for the most part to my parents walking up the paths of my life with their gifts.

My little purple hyacinth eventually died despite my care, as did my marriage, and, in time, my parents. But, to this day I cannot look upon a hyacinth without seeing my mother’s soft round face, laughing and eager to see mine, coming up the walkway with that flower in her hands, with my dad’s big grin above her shoulders close behind.  The safety of their love was so strong and deeply rooted, that nothing could destroy it….not distance, not husbands, not mistakes, not the act of walking a down a broken road, not failure or any choice that I made.  It was there. They were there.  Even on this Easter weekend of baskets full of colorful foiled candy for my children and grandchildren and the aroma of those favorite family foods once again in the air…they are here in my heart as is my heavenly Father whose invisible hand is always holding mine, reminding me that I am never completely alone.

I never did make it to Colorado and have yet to get my cottage with a picket fence and flower garden around my door, but I will. I am still the romantic, but with a long journey of lessons on my side.  And, there will be a special place for hyacinth bulbs to bloom, glass sun-catchers in the window, a song to float easily from my lips, and a calm knowing that I am and always have been loved.

She’s Not Just Any Old Bird

 Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.

~Sir Walter Scott

Some 34 years ago, my young husband and I were driving through the Hiawatha National Forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in route to our new home in Sault Ste. Marie. We had been on the road for many hours, in fact days, having left frozen North Dakota in the middle of January, and had traveled across the snow covered northern highways of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most of the U.P. before nearing our destination. We were glad to be back in the woods, where the giant pine boughs formed a welcoming arch way over the road we traveled. It was breath-taking, even in the dead of night. It was cozy in the warm cab of our U-haul truck, with our car being towed behind. Perhaps the rumble of the robust engine was lulling us to sleep or we were in that travelers weary-mode not looking for anything eventful to break the steady stream of road, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a snowy owl struck our windshield, it’s wing-span covering the glass with an incredible bang, causing our hearts to jump and bringing us to a sudden stop. In the glow from our headlights, our boots crunched through the snow as we looked around and found nothing to make us think the bird had not survived.  It was a perfect snow scene, a cathedral of ice; peaceful, pristine, almost haunting.  In the serenity of that ancient, snow cover woods, he and I stood in silence hand-in-hand, dwarf by the trees and darkness around us, like Hansel and Gretel, a little afraid and bewildered, yet respectful of that moment, almost spiritual, we shared together.  Needless to say, we found ourselves wide awake and more aware as we climb back up into the truck for the last leg of our trip. We didn’t know it then, but the move was to bring a sad ending to our marriage, and we were to travel away from the peninsula we shared a love for on to other places and people. I have often thought that snowy owl was trying to warn us, but we weren’t awake enough to see what was coming down the road. Or maybe, it was just a freak incident.

Now-a-days, there are owls around my house most of the fall and winter season. That’s not unusual, except that we live smack dab in the middle of a rather bland suburb in San Antonio, Texas. It’s definitely not the Hiawatha Forest, but we still seem to have our share of mockingbirds, cardinals, chick-a-dees, finches, cedar wax-wings, warblers and the like without much of an offering from our feeders.

The owls perch themselves in the giant live oaks that surround our house and can be seen on chimney tops and on electrical poles. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen or heard those majestic birds; each time is rather magical, awe inspiring, unless, of course, you don’t want to hear them.

Such was the case when my mother died in October of last year.

I had learned years ago about the mythology of owls, the bearers of bad news, harbingers of bad tidings, and symbols of death. Seen as good and wise (as the teacher symbol) and in other cases the sign of evil and doom; the owl has been widely written about in poetry, play, and prose. It’s not just any old bird.  From the Inuit people of Alaska, Scotland’s Cailleach (the dark hag), to Disney animation, the owl has remained a mystical symbol, wise and ominous, a bird with a message or lesson.

So, it was puzzling when the day before my mother died, that an owl was perched and hooting on a low branch in our yard. Close enough to make our dogs growl, hair-raised and at alert, while the patio furniture vibrated from the intensity of the owl’s call. As odd as that seemed, I didn’t know then what I would know the next day.

The next morning, as I readied for work, an owl sat on a branch just outside my bathroom window. Its hoot rattled the pane and caused me to stop in my rush to brush out my hair. I could see him there in the shadows, could he see me? How strange to be so close, I thought.

That same owl, it seems, wanted more from me. As I drove out of the driveway, with the light of dawn breaking on the day, the owl flew down from that branch near my second story window and escorted me down the street a spell, hovering in perfect symmetry just over the hood of my car, in direct line of my vision. I had to stop, for my eyes were so glued on this incredible bird, seemingly guiding me down the street, I couldn’t drive. It lifted from my car and graceful flapped its downy wings in flight back into the trees on the other side of the street, while I sat there dumb-founded, and feeling ‘blessed’ that I should behold such a close look at this beautiful bird. I wasn’t thinking at all about harbingers of bad news or lessons. In fact, I was taught by that young husband years ago, that to see a hawk or owl was ‘good medicine’ in the Native American world, and I embraced that belief.

By afternoon of that day, I had received news of my mother’s passing. My mother was an avid bird watcher and keeper, her Michigan yard covered in bird houses, some make-shift, some whimsically covered in bright colors. From hummingbird nectar drips to the piles of Peterson’s Guide to Backyard Birds, it was clear she felt connected to winged-things.

It wasn’t until I was on the plane, indeed sitting above the wing, that it hit me. Numb from the shock of her sudden death, a little angry that she left me without a word, a sign, or even a laugh as she always did at ending our weekly phone chats; I suddenly remembered the owls. Did they know something? Wasn’t it strange that they came so close to me and loudly seemed to be grabbing my attention? Later I learned that two of my sisters had unusually close visits from owls in their yards in that same time period, solidifying my conviction that the owls knew something, perhaps were even my mother in spirit. How appropriate that would be, that she not be a little song bird upon leaving this world, but one who hovers and guides, keeping a kind of watch over her children from the trees.

Since then, the owls have continued to be so plentiful around our yard, that at one point I screamed at them to go away! They were, indeed, making me nervous and frighten. I just couldn’t handle any more bad news, and now they seem to haunt me more than please me.

Until the owl with the funky hoot could be heard, I just wanted to cover my head with a pillow at night. One evening we heard this strange loud sound like a messed-up duck call or a party horn with something stuck in it. We watched for many evenings. As the days moved into dusk, my husband and I would stand in the grayness of the naked-limbed trees and follow the movement of the owls around ours and the neighbor’s yards, looking for the source of that odd hoot, not even sure if it was an owl.

Though we couldn’t tell which one it was, we concluded that it was one of two owls that seem to visit every evening, and continue, even now as I write, to call to each other, one with a regular powerful owl hoot, and one with a broken odd sounding squawk. My heart went out to the owl with the funky hoot, as I wondered what happened to its voice. Could it have been met unexpectedly by a windshield one fateful night, like that snowy owl so many years ago, only to survive with a damaged, scarred vocal cord? Does its handicap make it any less of an owl, less able to contribute to the messages of news, good or bad, or call and connect to others of her kind? Certainly my hoot has turned to a squawk at times and has hindered the way I communicate my needs, my heart’s desire. How hard that must be for an owl’s survival.

I have always loved birds of prey, particularly the owl. My mother would want me to continue to respect them, regardless of their appearance at her grief-filled passing. And certainly, that little owl with the funny hoot has put a new spin on how haunting they have become for me. I see her, the owl that is, half-asleep, party-hat cocked to one side, with a horn in its mouth….trying to be like the others, and she just can’t be normal, or noble, or foreboding, no matter how hard she tries.  I needed her to bring my back into embracing her kind. Teacher, wise-one, harbinger of doom, whatever, I’m so glad they continue to hang out and hoot at my house. They remind me, even now in a silly way, that my mother is always with me…in winged-things and in ear-shot, and she continues to make me laugh, to stay awake and present, and to remember the lessons I’ve learned along my many roads. Perhaps, that was my mother’s message as she took flight, “Stay awake, Cynthia. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your journey.” Good medicine, after all.