Tuesday, March 3, 2015

How Ann Patchett Helped Me Deal With My Response to My Mother's Death

This recent piece by Ann Patchett helped me deal with the conflicted feelings I experienced over the death of my mother. In 1976 she suffered a stroke following the placement of a pacemaker. She never walked, spoke or moved her right side following the stroke. She was 82.
 At that time she and my father had lived in St. Petersburg, Florida for 10 years, following a move from Massachusetts. I lived, and still live, in Pennsylvania. When my brother called and gave me the news about her stroke, I flew to Florida to see her.
On my first visit the doctor said, “Shall we stop the blood thinners so she’ll have another stroke and pass away?” I said absolutely not.  I had hopes that, with speech therapy, she would regain at least some speech.  That never happened.  
As long as she exhibited some signs of improvement, Medicare provided good coverage, and she was housed in a rather nice room in a nursing home in Florida. When it became clear that her situation would not improve, the coverage ran out, she was moved to a dismal little room in the back. I was horrified.
With the encouragement of my husband Bob I flew to Florida and had her moved to a nursing home in Ambler, Pennsylvania, not far from where we were living. This was a nicer place, and she was kept comfortable there. I was teaching high school at the time, and I visited several times a week after school.
Mother lived there for two years until she suffered heart problems and passed away. I clearly recall visiting the hospital after work and being told that she had passed away during the night. I did not feel sad. My overwhelming emotion was relief that her two very difficult years were over.  
Mother had grown up in a Catholic family in Cleveland, but had not been a practicing Catholic since marrying my father, an agnostic. However, in her heart she never stopped being Catholic. So I arranged for her to have a Catholic service at a local church.  I believed, and still believe, that was what she would have wanted.  My four children, then all in their teens, came from all over the place for the service. We enjoyed the reunion. It was not a sad occasion.
Ever since that day when I learned from the doctor that Mother had passed away in the night I have looked back on receiving that news and wondered at my inability to feel grief. “What is wrong with me,” I asked myself? Ann Patchett’s piece has helped me to put those sentiments to rest.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Thoughts About My Father on Father's Day 2014

It’s mid-June, and Father’s Day is upon us. As I work in our gardens, my thoughts revert to my early life with my father. Each year for the past few, I have planned to sort out my feelings about all this and write something. I’ve started and stopped several times. It’s not easy to get it right. I don’t think I’ve got it right this time, but it’s a start.

I had a complicated relationship with my father.  I don’t believe he would have remembered it that way. He doted on me, an only child, except for a much older half-brother, who did not live with us.

He was involved with all my activities, and was instrumental in directing my choices. No cheerleading. Not dignified. No “hanging out” with the other girls from school: “A waste of time.” No “popular music.” Trash.  He did want me to learn to play the piano. I took lessons for 12 years. Now I find it hard to find the motivation to take it up again. He wanted me to learn to figure skate, and I eventually joined the Skating Club of Boston. For me, it was for the joy of skating. For him, it was so I could meet “nice people”. The club at that time had a restrictive policy towards many ethnic and racial groups. That was just fine by him.

I recently read the best seller, Girl Gone, by Gillian Flynn.  It is a rather far-fetched story. Did the husband kill his wife? Or did she just disappear? I didn’t particularly care for the book, but one part of it resonated with me: the part about Amazing Amy. The parents of Amy, the “Girl” in the novel, are the authors of a popular “Amazing Amy” children’s book series.  The title character is modeled after their daughter Amy, but where the real Amy comes up short in whatever activity she takes up, the Amy in the books comes through with flying colors. Of course this creates discomfort in the real Amy, and leads to the way things turn out for her. I identify with that girl. Dad always compared me with acquaintances of mine who were more attractive, dressed better, were more popular, got better grades (I got a “B” once in high school) and on and on. I felt that I never quite measured up, though I don’t think he really saw it that way.

 Recently I read an article about a group of fathers and daughters making a pact that the daughter should refrain from any sexual activity until she married. Pictures that accompanied the article showed the father and daughter with arms around each other, pledging faithfulness and trust towards one another.  If such a movement had existed when I was a teenager, I sincerely believe dad would have considered it a great idea. I’m not sure what I would have thought back then. I do know now that I felt severe constraints on my dating activity, but, looking back,  I think it’s one of the reasons  I caved when the question of whether I should live at college or commute from home. I commuted. That way he could supervise my every move, and be sure that I’d come close to the Amazing Amy profile.

And college. I can’t recall ever actually choosing to go to Radcliffe College (now Harvard).  My dad told me he regretted not enrolling me at Radcliffe when I was born. I resented the very idea, but when it came time to send in applications, Radcliffe was my first choice. I got in. Looking back, I believe I would have been happier elsewhere.

Now, still, everything reminds me of Dad. He’s still looking over my shoulder. I think about him every day, although he died in 1976 at the age of 89. Just recently I saw an HDTV production of Wagner’s Parsifal. That was one of dad’s favorite operas, especially as he got older. He loved opera, and especially adored Wagner. Every Saturday afternoon he would listen to the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast while Mother busied herself with some household chore and I did homework or something. He explained to me the convoluted stories of many of the operas. Our house was filled with music, not just on Saturdays, but nearly every day. It was indeed a part of my life. I’m sure that’s why I love opera, and especially Wagner, now.

Dad held very strong opinions about nearly everything. He would argue, heatedly, with anyone who would listen to him to push his point about ridiculous things, like how mosquitoes got into the house: through a hole in the screen? Down the chimney? How long, or short, to cut the grass? His surviving neighbors still chuckle about these things.

But his opinions about what was “worthwhile” in life are the ones that have stuck with me. For example, his opinions about the arts: literature, music, fine arts. Pop music he dismissed as “junk” and I was discouraged from listening to Frank Sinatra and other luminaries of the day. We had a huge record collection of classical music, all 78’s at first, and then “long play”. He taught me themes from major symphonies when I was a little kid. We had a book that put words to many of the themes, and I still remember most of them. “Schubert will soon come in; let him in, let him in.” “Jove, great Jove, mighty Jove” = Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. 

He had strong opinions of what he called “modern music.” He liked Stravinsky and Ravel and maybe Bartok, but anything more “modern” (Roger Sessions, Neilsen) was not worth listening to. He and Mother had a subscription to BSO, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and once in a while I would go in Mother’s place. A member of the second violin section, Melvin Bryant, who lived around the corner, and husband of my perfectionist piano teacher (but that’s another story) used to drive us downtown for the concerts. It was interesting to get his take on a program. Mr. Bryant did not care for Leonard Bernstein’s habit of conducting from the piano. 

My parents’ living room bookcase held leather-bound, gilt-edged sets of Thackeray, Trollope, Sterne, and Dickens. I used to look at the titles, but never took even one of them out to read. They seemed too precious. I bought paperbacks of these same novels to read when I was older. Dad told me the stories of many of Dickens’s best known novels, and I read them myself when I was old enough. He took me to see the David Lean movie version of Great Expectations, and I’ll never forget the impact that had on me.  I’ve watched it many times since then, and have read and reread the novel.
I did my undergraduate honors thesis on “Symbolism in the Novels of Charles Dickens.” (I had transferred to The U of P for my senior year. I got married to a Harvard pre-med guy at the end of my junior year at Radcliffe. This guy came with my dad’s seal of approval. Eventually the marriage did not work out, but again, that’s another story.)

One outcome of all the Dickens reading and study has resulted in my now husband Bob’s and my yearly trips to Santa Cruz, CA to attend the Dickens Universe at UCSC. A Dickens novel is chosen for study each year, and scholars come from all parts of the world to present lectures. Last year’s novel was Edwin Drood, along with The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, a friend and colleague of Dickens. My dad loved Dickens, but I can’t imagine him sitting through the rather abstruse lectures at the Universe.
I recently read Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.  A product of her own time, Tomalin focuses on Dickens’s real-life relationships with women, and how those relationships shaped his portrayal of women in his books. It has come to light recently that Dickens had an affair with a much younger woman, Ellen Ternan, an actress, and that his involvement with Ternan precipitated Dickens’s ditching his wife of many years. His wife, Catherine, had borne him 12 children. I wonder what Dad would have thought about that. I’m sure he would have had an opinion.

And then there’s gardening. Oh, boy. That’s when Dad haunts me as I dig up weeds and plant new stuff. He was a great gardener.  Every time I put in a plant, pull up a weed, or try to deal with some bugs, I can hear him telling me I’m not doing it the right way. Sorry, Dad. I do the best I can.

I think this is Part I of a much longer piece. I’ll see where this leads me.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 Christmas Letter

Greetings, All, and Happy Holidays,

I’ll start out with 2013 disasters: (1) Golf club swing gone wrong late in March, in the midst of a golf lesson.  Sammy took a big swing and accidentally socked Bob on the arm – ulnar fracture: Surgery > rehab. (2)  Rav4’s steering went wonky on my 80th birthday trip to New England.  Car upside down in ditch.  Side airbags and seat belts  > no injuries. (3) Hand surgery for me for ring finger tendonitis  > rehab (4) Diagnosis of lactose intolerance for me. (5) Back problems for Bob > exercises.

Otherwise it was an excellent year. We went to Santa Cruz and San Francisco in January, and saw Clifford, Dixie, Adrienne, Judah and Zoe, and did a little birding. We bird-sat with Bert & Les’s famous over-wintering Rufous Hummingbird. We watched many of Sammy & Ethan’s basketball, and later, baseball games. As part of my 80th birthday celebration we attended a Red Sox game, visited Linda and Blase at their farm, and visited Bill in Vermont. In late September Jim and Sharesa came to see us and we all toured Philadelphia, driving by all our previous residences.

We saw Sam Cush perform in a couple of excellent Severna Park High School musicals. Sam will graduate HS this year; Biz will graduate from Towson with a MS. Andy & Tom both live in New York now, Andy in BedStuy, and Tom in Williamsburg. Tom has a job with Fox TV, and Andy works for Animal New York.

We went to Belize in late February to meet Don and Carol Scott there. It was a birthday surprise trip for her. Oscillated Turkeys, Emerald Toucanets, Mayan ruins at Lamanai, and a ferocious chigger attack.

 We had Common Redpolls at our backyard feeder, an unexpected  treat. I did a program on “Birding the 5” (California Interstate) for Wyncote Audubon Society, and lined up speakers for WAS 2013-14.

In March, because of Bob’s broken arm, we hired a landscape company to clean up the yard. They did the lawn all summer too. I spent a lot of time gardening from March to September. Mostly flowers out front.  After more power outages we bought a generator and had an electrician install the hook-up. We have not needed it yet. With the Rav4 totaled, we settled on a Nissan Rogue. We like it a lot so far.

In May we went to Magee Marsh in western Ohio again, and had an honest-to-goodness fallout of warblers and other birds. We even had a halfway decent look at a Kirtland’s Warbler. We ran into a lot of friends there, as usual. All things being equal, we’ll go again in 2014.

In early June we went to Alaska with Road Scholar. We flew into Anchorage, rented a car, and drove to Denali to meet the rest of the group. We spent 5 days at Denali, and drove south to Moose Pass.  We made a few driving trips to Seward, and did a day trip out on the Kenai Fjord.  The major highlight was a trip in a Cessna to see glaciers from above. Alaska is amazing. We want to go back.

In August we went to Santa Cruz for the Dickens Universe. The Mystery of Edwin Drood this time. We stayed most of the time at Cliff & Dixie’s, and also visited with Adrienne & family in SF. We helped Zoe balance on a borrowed bike, and read her lots of bedtime stories.

I still attend HDTV Met operas and Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. Bob comes along sometimes. We’ve both enjoyed Cheltenham Township Adult School trips to different parts of New York.

End of the Year Summary of Books I read in 2013

January: The Moonstone, Willkie Collins (for the upcoming Dickens Universe) - reread
Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk, another book about Turkey.

February: Middlemarch, by George Eliot.  I hadn’t read that one since college. Terrific.
The Theban Mysteries, by Amanda Cross

March: Charles Dickens, by Claire Tomalin, now a movie, "The Invisible Woman"

April: The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, reread after we saw the movie
A Song of Ice and Fire #1 by George Martin, the first in the "Game of Thrones" series

May: Code to Zero by Ken Follett

June: The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (for Dickens Universe) - reread
A  Song of Ice and Fire, #2 and #3

July:  A Song of Ice and Fire #4

August: A Song of Ice and Fire #5
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver, about butterfly migration. Not one of her best.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.  I identified with the “Amazing Amy” theme
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, one of the outstanding reads of 2013

September: The Cuckoo’s Calling by (really) JK Rowling. Not one of her best.
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, about Afghanistan
The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon.  Based on a true story, but hard to believe
Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy, by Peter Carlson.   Journalists caught up in the Civil War.  Very powerful.

October: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Very interesting. Glad she’s gone back to writing novels, instead of contemplating her navel through memoir.
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, about the Washington U crew team that won the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Very inspiring.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt . A painting taken from the bombed out Met Museum. Excellent read.

November: God and Baseball by JH Sauls. I didn’t finish it. Enough said.
The Kurt Wallender series (four books) by Henning Mankell. Good murder mysteries.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Native American life.

December:  The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. New Zealand gold mining. Excellent read.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Reads like Young Adult.
The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Terrific history of an interesting period. If I don't hurry up, I'll still be reading this one into 2014.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Yellowhammer Effect

The Yellowhammer Effect

A few years ago, when Bob and I took a Sunbird Tour and visited the Czech Republic to do some birding and hear some music, we were treated to looks at a variety of birds, many of which were well known to the European members of our tour.  I pointed to a colorful bird that was perched high on a tree and said, “What’s that?” A member of the tour said, “That’s a Yellowhammer. We see those in our backyard.”  “Oh, said I,” recognizing that what was an everyday bird for some was not an everyday bird for all. I should have remembered that lesson when we took a Swedish gentleman out birding in New Jersey.

This is how it worked out. A week ago our friend from Sweden, Magnus Aurivillius, had some unexpected time off, and he messaged me to ask whether we would be free to take him out birding somewhere. Bob and I had nothing special to do that day – Bob is still recovering from surgery on a broken arm – so we said, “Sure,” and arranged to meet him downtown at the hotel where he was staying, near the Convention Center. 

We decided that a trip to Belleplain, NJ would be the best choice for this time of year. It has wonderful habitat, and is home to a variety of nesting birds, many of which would still be vocalizing, we hoped. 

So we picked him up at 6:30 AM and headed south on the Expressway toward Routes 55, 347 and 47. We stopped at the usual WAWA, picked up sandwiches and continued on toward Belleplain, a short distance away. (The drive there took about 2 hours.) We stopped along the dirt road whenever we heard vocalizations, and found Worm-eating, Black-and-white and Pine Warblers, among others. 

We went from there to the bridge on Sunset Road to look for Prothonotary, Yellow-throated and Hooded Warblers as well as Northern Waterthrush.  We had luck with the Hooded and the Yellow-throated, but the others were nowhere to be seen. Magnus was happy to see the Yellow-throated at close range.  He had not seen one for several years.

We had lunch at the picnic area at Nummy Lake, where we enjoyed the company of Chipping Sparrows and Common Grackles. 

Next stop was along Franks Road to look for tanagers. We had great looks at a female Summer Tanager, and saw Scarlet Tanager singing from a treetop.

But here’s where the Yellowhammer Effect came in. On our way out of the forest we saw a Gray Catbird in the bushes on our left. I said, “Do you want to look at a catbird?” Magnus enthusiastically said, “Yes, I’d like that!” So we all got out of the vehicle, and he carefully examined every field mark on the catbird.

We who live here in this area take catbirds for granted. A pair nests in our backyard every spring. But to Magnus, catbirds are seen very rarely, and only on a trip to North America. We had not considered that in making our plans for the day.  If we had, we would probably have taken him to a spot closer to home, like Forbidden Drive or Tinicum, where he could have seen our everyday bread-and-butter birds: Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Downy and Red-bellied  Woodpeckers, Song Sparrow, American Goldfinch, and, of course, Gray Catbird.  Then we would not have spent so much time driving. Next time he visits and wants to go out birding again, we’ll stay local.