Decorating a Christmas tree is a tradition I have always loved. When I was a kid, everyone in the family helped hang the many ornaments, some home-made and others store-bought, on the real pine tree that had a place of honor in the living room. Back in those days, people embellished their trees with strands of tinsel, which my mother insisted had to be placed individually on our tree. No throwing handfuls of tinsel at the tree and hoping it would magically spread out for us!
(Of course, we all did “cheated” as soon as Mom wasn’t looking.)
When Dan and I established ourselves as a family, we continued this tradition that was cherished by both of our families. Again, decorating the tree was a family endeavor. How I loved our Christmas trees! I would play the song “O Christmas Tree” in its honor while I admired the ornaments and the twinkling lights. Christmas without a tree was unthinkable!
Then my husband died four months before Christmas in 2012. Celebrating Christmas became a chore, and decorating a tree lost its allure. My daughter came one year and put the tree and other decorations up—and I did appreciate having the holiday cheer around. But I never felt like dragging all of the boxes out of the garage and going through the effort doing the job by myself. I settled for a two foot tree that I could decorate with a few small ornaments. It wasn’t the same—but at least it was a tree.
About a week ago, I decided to put up the tree and decorate it like we used to.
Removing each ornament from its storage box brought back many memories. Seeing ornaments that were gifts from students, or that I made reminded me of when and where I acquired it. Some of them date back many years. For instance, I have two decorations that I bought when I went to Toronto many, many years ago with a good friend. There are ornaments I made, including a stuffed Santa and several ceramic pieces. A strawberry that a dear friend made for me twenty years ago has a place of honor on the tree as does a heart shaped ornament inscribed with ‘Happy Birthday’ that I received from my Aunt Noel and Uncle Jack when I turned forty. Another beloved aunt, Virginia, gave me one of the original “Elf on a Shelf” figures back in the 1970’s—and it, too, occupies a space on the tree. Needless to say, a few of the decorations were made by my now-adult daughter when she was in preschool. Hanging those ornaments on the tree brings back memories of the delightful, curly haired child she was. I love the idea of Santa, so quite a few of my decorations are Santa-themed.
It seemed that each ornament held some memory that reminded me of someone I love—many of whom are no longer with us. Two very special ornaments were made by my Mom many years ago. She cut ovals out of red velveteen fabric and then she embroidered our names on them. Originally they were embellished with paper bells which disappeared long ago. Whenever I touch these ornaments, I feel closer to my Mom.
When I was finished with the tree, I was delighted! Not only was it beautiful, but it reminded me of all of the people and happy times who were part of my life.
I just returned from one of two visits to my hometown of Buffalo, New York this summer—the first to attend my brother-in-law’s funeral and the second, to celebrate a family reunion. I reworked this blog post from four years ago. I hope you enjoy it.
Buffalo, my home town. Name by French trappers, according to legend, after the river that flows through it. The Queen City of the Great Lakes, famous for snow storms, chicken wings and the Buffalo Bills and the Sabres Hockey team.
Buffalo is becoming an “It” city–with a newly revived waterfront that includes busy Canalside ( a terminus point for the Erie Canal), and the Inner Harbor. The lakefront is crowded all the time, as is Larkin Square, another historic area that is jammed with concert-goers, food truck aficionados and people enjoying the lovely summer evenings Buffalo offers. Travel through the Elmwood Village and admire the wonderful gardens that are lovingly tended, making Buffalo’s Garden Walk in July a highlight of the summer for garden enthusiasts from all over.
Buffalo is the place where I was born, attended grade school, learned about the world, came of age and earned two college degrees. The place where I made my first communion and was confirmed. The place where I fell in love, married and raised a child. The place I spent my happiest days and some of my saddest days. It is where my parents and one of my brothers are buried, and where two of my seven siblings live now.
It is also a city of uncommon beauty—wide boulevards lined with mature trees that are crimson and gold in fall, elegant public buildings—some designed by the most famous of American architects. Situated on Lake Erie—one of a chain of inland seas—cooled by breezes from Canada, it is circled by a necklace of Olmstead parks—green oases for the working class. Populated by the children of immigrants who came here to find the Promised Land and by the descendants of slaves who found refuge at the last stop on the Underground Railway.
I ran away from its harsh winters fifteen years ago looking for endless summer which I found here in Florida.
And now I wonder if I am called back to that place I never stopped loving.
I see a city rich with opportunity, full of the promise of intellectual and spiritual growth. A city where I can attend theater, concerts, and visit art galleries easily. (There is a saying in Buffalo that everything in the city is twenty minutes away…and it’s true.)
I can sit in bistros and watch the bustle of the world go by—and eat wonderful food and not have to mortgage the house to do so. I can drive through neighborhoods and admire Arts and Crafts style homes next to Frank Lloyd Wright houses.
I can be soothed by the rhythm of waves rolling into the marina, enjoy a sandy beach or drive to the undulating hills south of the city.
And I can be among those I share a history with—who have known me all of my life—who love me for who I was and am now. People whose memories I share, who loved the same people I loved. I can be among the next generation in our family, and revel in their beauty, intelligence and goodness. I can see our family’s heritage and the future in their eager faces.
Buffalo is aptly named. It’s is an earthy name—unpretentious, it isn’t a beautiful sounding word, rather one that jars a little. The same way we are jarred by the real thing—by reality. It is a genuine place filled with people who feel authentic.
The moment I arrive in this city—my city—I feel the joy of arriving home, like returning to the warmth of a mother’s embrace.
Image of Buffalo skyline at night courtesy of city-data.com
After my recent shoulder surgery , I went to a rehabilitation facility to hasten my recovery. It was an unusually pleasant place—attractive, clean, with attentive staff.
During the ten days I stayed there, I experienced something that shook me to the core of my being.
I was much younger and healthier than the typical resident at the facility. It was like being a teenager at your grandparent’s fiftieth anniversary party.
Like most facilities of this nature, the staff provided stimulating experiences: entertainment by local people, bingo games, and movies. I attended several of these functions because the days often felt incredibly long. I soon realized that most of the people who attended these functions were “long-term residents”—a euphemism for people whose memories and personalities had been ravaged by aging.
I went to a community birthday party one afternoon. (The draw for me was the cake and ice cream!) I chose to sit at a table with a man and his wife—people I saw every day. They appeared to be in my age range so I thought that we might be able to visit with one another. The woman resembled me somewhat—she was obviously of Irish descent, with dark, wavy hair, dark eyes and fair skin.
But when I attempted to chat with the couple, it soon became obvious that the woman had dementia. I watched as the husband tenderly attended to her, spooning ice cream into her mouth, and wiping her lips and encouraging her to take sips from a cup of punch.
At one point, I looked at him and smiled. A tear trickle down his cheek. I wondered if I reminded him of his wife in better days; and that my presence was a reminder of all that had been swallowed up by his wife’s illness. It felt like entering into his private hell.
Looking around, I realized that the staff who took care of the long-term residents could have been me at the height of my teaching career. And the long term-residents could be my future.
It was chilling to see my past and (possibly) my future.
I feel blessed to be surrounded by so many wonderful people.
But consider this: my life took a drastic left turn on August 25, 2012 at 10 p.m.
My husband died.
I thought I was ready—six months of watching him die in bits and pieces should have prepared me. But it didn’t.
I went through the motions, appearing to be in control for several weeks.
Then I laid down on the couch and stayed there for months.
What dragged me out of my monumental funk?
Family and friends.
First it was my sister and sister-in-law who made me accomplish the important tasks necessary when someone dies.
I joined two key groups—a Widows Club and the Singles Club. These were the people who got it; the people who understood my pain and let me talk. I continued to participate in my Writing Group: a gathering of intelligent, vital, and interesting women who shared my passion for writing. Through that group I had opportunities to express my creative self.
The next three years brought challenges I couldn’t imagine: three surgeries, two bouts with MRSA, and then cancer, the deaths of my beloved brother and sister, in addition to several friends and other relatives.
My life raft through all this turmoil was family (of course) and the friends who stepped in and became a safety net.
Yes, I feel blessed.
It’s not a club I clamored to join. In fact, none of the members wanted to join it.
We were recruited in the harshest of all possible ways.
The initiation was almost as difficult as any street gang’s—we had to experience the death of the person most of us would call “our best friend, lover and life partner”—our husbands.
My inaugural date is coming on its third anniversary this August—the day Dan died.
I now know that joining this club has helped me to make sense of all that happened in the eight months preceding my husband’s death. I’ve had many opportunities to share stories and memories, and I’ve received empathy and sympathy, but never pity, from the other women. Knowing these women who have experienced what I did, and have continued to thrive, encourages me.
I see the common threads that are woven through all of our experiences: the feelings of loss, of being adrift, the anger, the sadness, and the confusion that follows the death of a spouse or partner.
Through the sharing, I’ve felt a lot less alone than I did before.
And on a more upbeat note, I’ve had some fun with my widow friends. We socialize, enjoy one another’s company, and have bonded individually and as a group. I’ve even learned to laugh again.
Losing my husband was a trauma. But I am grateful that the Widow’s Club was here, so when I went into my
Picture courtesy of Pixabay
The most unwelcome of all visitors called on me recently.
This visitor is never welcomed and usually not greeted with any enthusiasm.
If fact, when you, your friends, and family find that it has called upon you, they, like you, are worried concerned and fearful.
The visitor was cancer. The “Big C.”
It intruded into my life sometime in late January with the “incidental” discovery of a (thankfully) small tumor in my right kidney. Unbeknownst to me, it had been there for two years—but recently had started to grow.
I felt overwhelmed at first with the myriad decisions I had to make. Where to seek treatment? Should I go back to where my family is (now that I am a widow) in Buffalo? Stay here in Florida and lean heavily on my circle of friends? Could I still go on my much anticipated trip to Hawai’i? Would I survive? What would be the financial and emotional cost to me, my daughter, family and friends?
I finally came up with a plan—and after much consultation, thought, and prayer, I decided to stay in Florida and seek treatment at the Moffitt Cancer Center in nearby Tampa.
Happily, my surgeon Okayed my Hawai’i trip and I blissfully spent some magical time there.
My friends have rallied around me, doing all of the things I need. My family supported me in my decisions—and best of all, the surgery was a great success—so far.
I still have weeks of recovery to look forward to, but I’m trying to do more and more every day.
Writing this blog post is a huge breakthrough for me. Up till now, I’ve kept the “news” of my cancer limited to family and friends. I did make a onetime status update on Facebook as a courtesy to those who correspond with me on that venue.
Sometimes I wonder why I was so reluctant to go public (as it were) with my cancer diagnosis.
I wonder if by not announcing it, I’ve made it less real to myself. Or if I was trying to fool myself.
No matter what, I’m looking forward to being a cancer “thriver”—which is what my many friends who have looked this unwanted intruder right in the eye, and stared it down–call it.
There are certain dates that are more meaningful than others. One of those dates is April 10,1983. That was the date my Mom passed away after almost two years of coping with lung cancer.
I remember that day with crystal clarity.
It was a Sunday—a week after Easter. The weather was perfect: warm and sunny. I had attended noon Mass and then rushed to my parents’ home to see my Mom. It was around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. When I got there, it was obvious that Mom was dying. I helped my Dad change her nightgown and then kept vigil with him as she left this world.
The priest came and gave her the Last Rites. At one point, shortly after she died, I was aware of her soul—her anima—leaving the room.
My brother Michael was there with his wife and boys and I remember my sister Susan being there, too.
Eventually, the rest of my brothers and sisters (except for my youngest sister who was in Honduras doing research for her doctorate) assembled at the house.
As the daylight waned, we sat on our parents’ bed and talked about our Mom and our loss. It was both sacred and comforting to be able to be together in that way.
Now, all these years later, all that’s left is memories. I wish I could hear Mom’s voice one more time, or sit and talk with her again.
So much has happened since then. Our Dad died only a year and half later, babies were born, my sister and another brother got married, one of my mother’s children died too soon, my husband died, the grandchildren grew up and great-grandchildren were born. The family faced many crises and survived.
While time has tempered the grief, I still mourn for my Mom. She was only 60 years old when she died. We never got to see either of our parents grow to be old. They are preserved at a certain age and time in our memories.
Yet, I still yearn to spend one more minute, hour or day with my mother.
Emma loved her boots. It had taken her a whole year of babysitting the brats down the street to save enough to buy them. Before she went to sleep each night, she would count and tally the total of the bundle of bills that had accumulated in an old shoebox under her bed. Then she would subtract that total from the cost of the coveted boots.
Chastity, her best friend, went with her every time she stopped at the store to try them on. Emma would slip her feet into the boots, feeling the stiff leather as it touched her calves. The fur on top sometimes tickled her legs, but she didn’t mind.
The sales clerk had gotten used to seeing Emma and Chastity at the store. Emma even knew her name, Marcia Anderson. Emma would seek Marcia out and look hopefully at the woman. Marcia would peer over the glasses that were perched on the end of her nose.
“Sure,” she’d sigh, “go ahead and try them on—again.” Then she’d shake her head and lean toward the other clerk and whisper something. They both could barely contain their amused smiles. Neither woman would admit it, but they enjoyed watching Emma prance around the store in the camel colored boots.
Now the boots were hers. She carried the clumsy square box into her bedroom and set in on her unmade bed.
Emma reverently removed the boots from the box, and caressed them as if they were kittens. The special silk blend socks she purchased to wear with them made it easier to get them on.
She turned each foot this way and that, marveling at how the boots looked. Then she walked in front of her full length mirror, watching her feet. She squealed with delight.
“I can’t wait until everyone sees them,” she exclaimed.
Then Emma grabbed her beach bag and towel from the closet floor and rushed downstairs.
Her mother’s expression said it all. She raised the spatula she was wielding like an extension of her arm.
“For Pete’s sake, Emma. Why are you wearing those boots today? Aren’t you going to the beach? I told you they were impractical for Florida!”
Emma sighed and rolled her eyes. “You just don’t get it, Mom.”
The door slammed and she clomped out into the bright sunshine and 80 degree weather.
In the last two years, my life has been turned upside down by the death of my husband and then my brother.
These deaths affected everyone in my family—including my brothers and sisters.
Shortly after my brother passed away, one of my other brothers was “zinged” (his word) by a Face Book “friend” over the death of our brother.
Which leads to the question, is nothing sacred?
My first reaction to my brother’s posts about forgiveness and kindness were to want to beat this woman up—and I am a pacifist. I was utterly astounded that anyone could be that insensitive. Making a joke about our beloved brother’s death was beyond comprehension.
But, is that what’s happening? Is nothing sacred?
I wonder. Religion is fair game and tradition is fair game. Does this lead to less civility?
I’m not sure. I do know this.
Some things are sacred.
Death. The loss of a loved one is a heart-wrenching experience. Memories are all that’s left. And the ones left behind are alone, lonely, and sometimes frightened. They need kindness, understanding and solace, not a lame joke about death.
Religion. A person’s religious beliefs should be sacred, no matter your own feelings about religion. I casually mentioned that I pray every day when I was out with friends a while ago. While they were respectful, they were incredulous. The idea of a mature adult praying struck them as somewhat odd.
Confidences. The secrets people share shouldn’t be fodder for gossip. I once knew someone who would worm her way into someone’s life, become that person’s confidant. and then regale everyone with the secrets her victim had shared. I admit that this is an extreme example, but gossiping is just as devastating—just on a smaller scale.
Being kind and caring in an increasing cynical and angry society isn’t easy. Personally, I’d rather be the exception than find myself mired in the muck of cruelty and insensitivity.
Valentine’s Day—a day devoted to purchasing flowers, candy and jewelry and maybe something a little naughty for your significant other. Many folks feel it’s overrated as a holiday. It’s too commercialized, and benefits only the florists and candy makers, and of course, Hallmark and American Greetings.
I disagree. To me Valentine’s Day is a day set aside to celebrate love and all that means in our lives. It’s really not about cards, candy and flowers, although there’s nothing wrong with any of that! To me Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to stop and think about all of the people we love. It’s the perfect opportunity to tell others that we love them, appreciate them, and that they make our lives better.
Does that require flowers, candy or trinkets? Not really. It does require extending good wishes for a happy day to the special people in our lives.
All of our holidays are over commercialized, in my opinion. So using that as a reason to shun Valentine’s Day seems quite lame.
Think of how much better our lives would be if we celebrated Valentine’s Day every month; if we took the time to appreciate, love and cherish others.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Picture credit: www.2littlehooligans.com