My Big Brother

This photo was taken just a couple of months ago. We were going out to lunch, and we had a blast. A really great memory!

The phone call came in the middle of the night – my brother passed away. He had been in a nursing home for a very long time – close to two years I think – with deteriorating health leading to congestive heart failure at the end.

He was eighty years old, so this is not a tragic loss, but he is my only brother. I can say that I’m ready to deal with this, that it’s been a long road for him, and us, through this illness, but in all honesty I’m not sure that anyone is ever really ready.

Memories rush forward in my mind, in a slide show of sorts, playing out the years.  Funny things, sad things, crazy things, all in a jumble. Perhaps I’ll be able to make sense of it as I go through the next few days. Iggy (I have no idea where that nickname came from) was a lot older than me; he had already graduated from high school when I was born, so we weren’t growing-up-together-siblings in the traditional sense of the word, but he did live with us off and on over the years, and when he wasn’t living with us he was still close by.

I think I was about eight years old in this picture — my big brother was really BIG!

I have no regrets, and that’s one of the best things. In July 2010, he had to have part of one leg amputated and I drove often to see him in the hospital. A day or two after the surgery he asked me not to leave him, and I was able to stay all night. The hospital staff was great – they brought me one of those recliners that all hospitals have, and I dozed off and on while the Three Stooges Marathon roared in the background. He also dozed, and we talked off and on. He told me secrets and talked about his dreams and regrets about his life; that night was the closest we had ever been. Our conversation was what I imagine siblings sometimes share, however rare it might be, and I will ever be thankful for that. The funniest postscript is that afterwards he didn’t remember that I was there! I’m OK with it, though – I remember.

I was in high school when he performed this prank. You can’t tell, but he drove across the lawn onto a narrow walkway between the patio and in-ground swimming pool. He was probably three feet away from the edge, although no one even blinked.

I wrote this poem last January, after a visit with him. Somehow it says more than I can manage right now:

On Visiting My Brother

He had just graduated high school
when I was born –
starting out to have his own life,
as I was, too.

He belonged to an older generation,
not really brotherly
as I was growing up,
but I adored him, and
he did offer to beat up
any boys who bothered me.

As the eldest sibling, his job
was to look after me,
but he was the one always in trouble.

He had a Harley, rode fast
with the Hell’s Angels —
I still can’t believe
our mother didn’t know.

So it seems only fitting, now
that he’s in hospice care
that I should look after him.
I, too, have a Harley.

Somehow, though, it’s not the same.


Retirement 101: The First Year

Just before I walked out the door for the last time

A year ago, give or take a couple of weeks, I took a photo of my emptied classroom and walked out the door for the last time. I posted that photo on Facebook recently as part of the “Photo-A-Day” project (the day’s topic was “empty”), and a friend asked me how “retirement 101” has been, which of course got me thinking, and so here is my testament to the year. It’s a bit ironic that I still seem to measure out the year in terms of the school year rather than the “traditional” calendar. Maybe that’s just the way it will always be, but I’m OK with that!

I was eager, in June, to start this new phase of my life, and my husband and I had big plans marked on the calendar for the first few months. We were not quite finished with some home renovations, and in July we began our 2011 Great Adventure, a cross-country road trip that took us 11,000 miles and nearly three months away from home. We returned to New Hampshire in late October, just a few days ahead of twenty inches of snow that had us wishing for the southern warmth we had so recently left behind. We finished our house project just before Christmas, and then the winter settled in.

I’ve never been fond of winter. I don’t like the dark or the cold, and I normally get the “winter blues” right after Christmas. But this year, since I was retired and home most of the time, it seemed to be darker and colder.  I did a LOT of reading. While we were on our Great Adventure, I had joined Goodreads, a social networking site based on reading — it’s a great site and I recommend it if you like to read. I entered many books I had previously read, and then started logging my current reads and even occasionally writing some reviews, something I had always wanted to do but never was able to keep up. Tally so far in my retirement: 44 books!

Being able to get away when it’s not a school vacation week is a wondrous thing! I flew to Florida to spend a few days with my sister, and to South Dakota to spend a few days with my son and his family. In April, we drove to Virginia to visit with good friends there. A couple of times, different friends “from away” came to spend a few days with us; one of the great things about our home renovation is that we now have space for guests to sleep. Yay!

In January I self-published a small volume of my poetry. The really exciting part about this is that people actually bought copies of it, and some even asked me to sign their books! (If you’ve been meaning to get one, here’s the link: All Stories Have a Beginning, Middle, and End.)

One of the biggest changes in our household this year has been my return to the kitchen. My husband retired a number of years ago, and he willingly and cheerfully took over the cooking so that I wouldn’t have to when I came home from work. (Lucky me!) But now it was my turn, and not only have I done that, but I’ve also learned how to cook differently. We eat more fresh foods, more organic, less meat, and virtually nothing processed. I’ve also learned to bake bread. Buying all that fresh food has been expensive, though, and we’ve decided to grow our own veggies this summer for the first time in many years. Not sure how all the rain we’ve been getting is going to impact the results, but our investment has been small and hopefully it won’t be a total disaster. A friend is organizing a community market for our town this summer, and I’m looking forward to having that as a great resource, too.

Creative pursuits have continued. In January I launched a “poem a day” project. Today is the 155th day of the year, and I have written 158 poems so far. There are many days when I don’t write, but there are other days when I pen more than one, so that goal is being met. The quality of the writing is another whole matter, and I’m not sure that the daily drill is worth it in the long run. The best poems were written in January and February, when I was not only motivated but had fewer distractions (because it was winter) and was able to spend time reading published works and thinking poetically (yes, it’s a mindset). Once the warmer weather arrived (starting with a crazy and unprecedented week in March), I’ve spent much time outside working in the yard, and less time thinking about writing poems. I tell myself that even bad writing can give me material to revise later, but the sheer quantity of work might make that impractical. I shall continue with the project, but it likely will be modified in years to come. I do want to maintain the regular practice of writing poetry, but I think a more flexible regimen will be more practical and will raise the bar of excellence. Maybe the daily practice can be modified to include reading (I can log what I read) as well as writing.

I love the “super zoom” on this camera; it’s equivalent to an 800 mm lens, and it’s great for the wildlife shots I like to take.

My interest in creative photography has expanded. I was able to purchase a new camera this winter, and with the arrival of birds and flowers I am having a lot of fun with it. Over the years, and especially as I posted photos of our 2011 Great Adventure, I’ve considered setting up a small business, selling my pictures. At first I envisioned doing this at craft shows, but watching my dear friend become a slave to that process turned me away from that idea. Another friend then steered me toward online selling and I am almost ready to launch my new photo gallery! I’ll definitely be writing more about that in the next few days and weeks.

Now that I look back on the year, it is clear that I have not been a slug after all!  I know I am hard on myself, and I continue to struggle with a need to accomplish something purposeful every day. I think my goal for the second year of retirement (see, there I go again, having to set another goal) will be to lighten up and enjoy myself. Sounds like I need to plan to be spontaneous . . . I think I can, I think I can!

Life is good, and I am truly grateful.

Learning to Bake Bread

When I was married the first time, my then husband baked all of our bread, and he took pride in that. Rightfully so – it was good bread, with special ingredients that would keep us all healthy and fit. I grew the vegetables, did the work to preserve the food – putting up jars of good relishes and tomato products, and freezing a whole winter’s supply of broccoli and other veggies. So we each had our domain, and that’s the way it was.

Twenty-two years ago we divorced, and eventually I fell in love again and remarried. In all that time, I never tried to bake bread, or make anything that included yeast. I can bake a mean, tender pie crust, great quick breads or coffee cakes, but there was always a deep reluctance to take on bread. It just seemed much too hard.

I watched my baking friends with envy and joyfully munched on their home baked breads, pizza crusts, and cinnamon rolls, wishing all the time that I could do that. So one of my goals in my newly retired status has been to take it on, but I was afraid to try. When my friend Lorna was visiting a couple of weeks ago, I talked about it with her and she declared that we would bake great bread together that very day – but of course we ran out of time and it didn’t happen.

Her visit ended, and then I flew out to South Dakota to visit my son’s family. My daughter-in-law not only bakes ALL their breads, she also grinds her own wheat into flour to ensure the quality and nutrition is at its peak. I’ve always admired her for that, and she makes it look so easy! When I returned home, I wished I had asked her to walk me through the steps – I’m sure she would have been delighted to do so. But I didn’t think of it until I got back to New Hampshire, realized that I’ve been retired nine months now, and still hadn’t made any progress.

How hard could it be? I convinced myself to just give it a shot. All I had to lose was some flour and part of one day. Yesterday, I just made up my mind to do it. A couple of years ago Kiersten gave me a recipe for oatmeal bread (my favorite) that she declared a good starter recipe, so I dug it out of the back of my recipe box, assembled the ingredients on the kitchen counter, and began.

I wasn’t at all self-confident while the project was underway. The recipe didn’t say how long it would take for the dough to rise, and it seemed endless. I had to guess at some other parts, too, but I’ve been at home in the kitchen long enough that I was able to just go with it and use my intuition, and eventually I had three loaves sitting on the top of the stove, rising. I was stunned when the dish towel actually had three good sized bumps – it was really rising! Into the oven with them, set the timer, and wait. It smelled yeasty and yummy, so I was cautiously optimistic.

When the timer buzzed the end of baking, I pulled out the three golden loaves, put them out on a rack to cool, and made the soup for dinner. When it was time to cut the finished product into slices – I was excited and nervous. I took a couple of photos first, wanting to remember this moment.

The slices looked great. On goes the butter – and – oh, it was heavenly. A little touch of sweet (molasses in the mixture) and great texture from the oatmeal. I could have eaten nothing but bread, forget the soup.

At the end of the day, I felt grateful – I had overcome an obstacle that I had built around myself, oh so many years ago. What a great feeling. It’s more than just about the bread; it’s about trusting yourself and taking a chance.

Life is good.

When Going On a Trip, Don’t Leave Your Suitcase in the Kitchen

This week has been exceptionally busy and fun, starting with a visit from my dear friend Lorna. We became lifelong friends during the few years when we were teaching partners. Our principal had an idea that we would be good for one another so he told us to go team teach English and Social Studies, with total autonomy and collaboration. When we found ourselves in the same classroom with the same goals, what resulted was an explosion of energy and magic. Not that we were perfect, by a long shot, but soon we could practically finish one another’s sentences, and pick up nuances in order to expand ideas for one another and truly challenge kids. We were teaching with joy, and it was good.  Although those years were short, we constructed a foundation for a forever kind of friendship.

Lorna lives in Prince Edward Island now, and so we cherish any time we can have together – we hadn’t had more than a few hours here and there for a very long time, so this three day chunk of time was heavenly. We spent the first day catching up, and the second day working together on some projects. The third day was just for fun. It was a great formula and it worked perfectly. We stayed up until outrageous hours of the night, woke up before the crack of dawn, and ate ice cream two days in a row – what could be better than that?

At the end of her visit I was leaving to spend a few days with my son and his family in South Dakota. And I do mean at the very end – I would actually be leaving my house before she did!  I tried to be organized and she was really supportive of me getting things done. At the scheduled hour of my departure I told her I was pretty sure I had everything I needed and if I didn’t have it with me I didn’t need it. There was a crazy moment when my husband and I were leaving and the company was staying, but we got into the car and sped off to the airport in the still-dark-and-way-too-early-morning.

A few minutes down the road my phone rang – we had left my suitcase in the kitchen. Lorna had raced up the hill to my stepdaughter’s house next door to use her phone – we no longer have a land line, so she didn’t even have a way to call us right away! We turned the car around and raced home, and there she was with the suitcase at the entrance to our very long driveway, giving us a faster getaway.

I still managed to get to the airport on time. Thank goodness she was there – I might have arrived at the airport early, sans suitcase!

So, I write this post from the kitchen in South Dakota where I have spent many happy hours. Kiersten brought the kids to the airport to pick me up, and there’s nothing better than arriving from a long journey into the arms and smiles of grandchildren!

I’m not sure of what the week will bring, but tomorrow I get to teach a home school art lesson; I’m going to have the kids play with mixing watercolors. They’ll paint donuts on the paper with plain water – lots of water so there will be surface tension, and then we’ll dab bits of colors into the water and see what happens. It will be an adventure, I’m sure. (Thanks to Lorna for the idea, AND for tripping over my suitcase.)

Life is good.

On Being a Life-Long Learner

One thing I enjoy in my new retirement is continuing to serve on the school district’s Professional Development Committee. Representatives on the team include staff from each school in the district, a school board member, assistant superintendant, and one community member. That community seat is now mine! The PDC has two main charges: first, to manage the state’s Department of Education teacher certification process. The other is to plan and facilitate training opportunities; thus, we sponsor a Common Workshop Day each March. All teachers from the whole district are required to attend and each year’s program includes a keynote speaker and a large assortment of workshops usually organized around a theme.

For a number of years now, I have been a presenter at about every workshop session on these days. I find teaching colleagues to be fun, and I’m willing to put myself out there even if I’m not the one with the most expertise – I’m OK with telling people that I’ll find the answer if I don’t already know it. This week we met to finalize all the workshops, and we realized that we were missing some key topics, including writing instruction. I volunteered to rearrange the sessions I had planned in order to take one on in writing instruction.

As I thought about it today, though, I think I will offer up a preamble to my content on that day. In the past year I have learned more about writing than I ever learned while I was employed as a teacher of writing. Writing blog posts on a regular basis has given me far greater understanding of the common advice we teachers hear from published authors consistently: “If you want to be a good writer, then write. Write every day.”  I now understand this on a different level than I knew it before. The best thing teachers can do for their students is to have them write — every day. It doesn’t even have to be “fussy” writing — have them write in journals, with or without topic guidelines. It’s the daily experience that matters. And while students aren’t going to be as self-correcting as I am, they will still be able to recognize improvement, and success leads to more success. At the very least they will be more able to produce more writing more easily, and in less time. I think teachers should write every day, too, but I also know that teachers are already overbooked and overwhelmed — which is why I am only now practicing that song.

Through writing the blogs, I have learned how to be more succinct, how to manipulate sentences to make them better, and how to be better able to recognize and toss out the parts that aren’t good enough, no matter how fond of them I might be.

And since this January 1st, I have learned even more. I made a resolution this year, to write a poem a day, and so far I’ve been successful. Because I love to write poetry, this resolution was not a chore, something I need to do to be a better person. This practice has been fun, and I look forward to it. But what I’m learning is that the actual daily routine has enabled me to be more easily in touch with metaphor and deeper meanings. It doesn’t even take a lot of time – some days it’s as much as a half hour, and other days it’s quite a bit less than that. My goal is not to win any awards with knock-‘em-over, top quality; my goal is to write every day, and sometimes I walk away with a first draft that goes nowhere. But sometimes I walk away with a surprise that makes me smile.

Today was one of those days.

The hardest part of my daily practice is coming up with a topic, so this morning I thought I’d write about how I really need new hair color because my gray roots are way too noticeable. I seldom think of titles first, but when I sat down at the computer the title of this one popped into my head instantly: “My Roots Are Showing.” Suddenly there was a flash of lightning in my head and I knew that the poem would seem to be about my family heritage, and then at the end I would twist it around to be about my hair. I had been looking at old family photos recently, and images of my grandmother and aunts had stuck in my brain. The poem itself still needs some polishing, but that’s OK – just having that great idea made it a good day.

My Roots Are Showing

The days are long; when I get up in the morning
I wonder about all the years gone by
so quickly.
Did my grandmother think this, too
as she went through the work of ages passed?

I look like my grandmother,
and aunts as well, certain characteristics
handed down through all those years.
Pictures declare it.

It shows in my gray
hair, like my grandmother’s before me.
I will fight this passage of time,
cover these roots,
keep myself young.

It’s the daily habit that makes that kind of thing happen. Words are powerful instruments, and the more we practice the better we get. Just write – a page a day of journaling, or whatever comes into mind. That’s the best writing instruction I have to offer. There is a connection between the pen/keyboard and the brain, and regular exercise will keep the writer fit.

Life is good.

A Christmas Gift, Three Years in the Making

The work area of my new space -- I love it.

I am the kind of person who gets a lot of ideas, many of which are grandiose and crazy – at least, that’s what my husband thinks. He cringes when he hears me say, “I have an idea . . .” because he knows it means he is going to have to build something or tear something apart to transform it into something else. He’s really very good natured about it all, though.

We moved into our present home in 2003; it’s very small, and I would do my school work at the kitchen table – grading student work, lesson planning, etc. Three years ago he agreed to my biggest idea yet: we could winterize our seldom-used one season porch and make it into an office for me. It’s a 12 x 12 foot space – plenty of room, with windows overlooking the yard and some of our garden areas. He got to work right away, replacing the old broken windows with new ones, and installing a new entry door to replace the screen door, since this would be the new entrance to our home.

That’s when we ran into trouble. In the winter, when deep snow covered the roof, the door wouldn’t open because the roof would sag. Work stopped while we figured out how to fix it in a way that would not only allow the door to open, but would also make the roof safe. The problem was compounded by the fact that the rafters also interfered with the door opening even when there was no snow. My husband is a very handy guy, but this problem was tough; he’s also not one to ask for help, so time passed and the cobwebs started to grow in the corners.

I tried to remain patient, but it was tough; I needed a work space! At one point, in frustration, I moved the kitchen table out of the house, bought a couple of two-drawer file cabinets and a ready-made countertop and turned the kitchen into a makeshift office. We ate in the living room. Still no solution to the door problem.

Last June, this is what it looked like! Yikes!

Then, a year ago, I visited my sister in Florida and discovered that she had a front door that opened to the outside. Aha!

We special ordered a new door, Doug was able to reinforce the roof fairly easily, and work (sort of) began again. Winter arrived, and it was just not possible to work out on the porch in the freezing cold.

By the time the ground thawed and the thermometer rose, all energy was focused on my retirement, scheduled for the end of the school year in June. The week I was officially retired, we started in on the renovations with new vigor. I cut and placed insulation in the walls – both the foam core and batts. Doug focused on the carpentry, putting up the bead board walls, bookshelves, and window trim. I painted everything as he worked.  Then we had another interruption: our vacation, our “Great Adventure” – the cross country journey we had been planning for nearly two years as the celebration of my retirement. We left the porch as neat as we could get it, and set out on what turned out to be a true great adventure lasting nearly three months.

We arrived home in October, and thankfully the weather remained warm enough that we could still work on the porch/office project. The climax of the work took place over a few days when Doug ventured up to the roof and removed the metal roofing, leaving the porch open to the sky. He placed foam core insulation which I had cut to size into the rafters, and batts on top of that. It was much easier to do this from the top down rather than struggling from the bottom up for several reasons. There was no ceiling, only rafters and metal roofing, and dripping condensation was a significant problem when it rained. We didn’t want to install the new ceiling before the insulation went in, and we had to fix the whole problem of moisture getting in there and ruining the new construction. Once the insulation was in place, new plywood went down, a layer of plastic and the metal roofing, which I had pressure washed. Fortunately we had no rain for the duration of that work!

Next , back inside now, the new ceiling went up, and the details of caulking, trim work, sanding, and painting moved the project forward.  We finished the room just in time for the Christmas tree to go up, and for the holiday snow village to be displayed in the curio cabinet, now out of the barn for the first time since 2003.

It was the best Christmas gift ever – my very own creative space. Office, art studio, reading room, library, whatever it might be called.

Life is good. Very good.

Family: It Matters

This may have been my first family reunion -- I was not even two yet!

I’m feeling pretty exhausted as I write this; my Aunt Priscilla passed away this week, and my husband and I made two round trips to Massachusetts in 26 hours in order to participate in the calling hours and services. As sad as it always is when someone we love dies, it’s also great to see family we haven’t seen in a long time; thus, it was a day of both tears and laughter.

Aunt Priscilla had been married to my Uncle Warren for sixty-six years, and I learned this morning that they met in kindergarten! They were married in the same church where the funeral was held, living always in the same community where my own dad was raised. I have seen photos of that wedding – my dad was in the bridal party, and it must have been stunning; Aunt Priscilla was truly beautiful. They were married in 1945, when Uncle Warren returned from the war.

As the story was told to me years ago, Uncle Warren turned 21 on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed (December 7, 1941) and he enlisted in the Marines the very next day, serving on a battleship in the South Pacific during the war. My dad was the oldest in the family and he enlisted, too, and was accepted into the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Dad apparently lied about his age because he was too old for the special forces — he would have been 34 on Pearl Harbor day, but he did it, serving in the Po Valley in Italy until he was injured and sent home. It matters — I’m very proud of both my dad and my uncle; a number of years ago I began researching the details of my dad’s service. He died in 1977, before I ever had a chance to find out a lot of things about him. I learned a few things from the military records, and then I asked Uncle Warren if he could add anything that he might remember. I was shocked when he told me, “You know, Marilyn, I’ve learned more from you about what he did during the war than I ever knew before. We never talked about it.”

My uncle and my dad – and the majority of other Shaw relatives – are introverts, and just don’t talk about themselves. How sad that so many of their stories have remained untold. We do have some stories preserved, though.

I love this photo of my grandparents.

My grandfather wrote his autobiography and my cousin Val made sure to give copies to those of us who wanted them – you bet I was first in line for that! And there are many old family photos – I have a photo from my grandparents’ wedding at the start of the 20th century, and even photos of my great grandparents back into the 19th century. It matters.

Today my cousin Bruce had his camera with him, and that made me chuckle. A keen interest in photography seems to be a family trait; my dad always had a camera nearby and as much as I tried to ignore it when I was growing up, his slides have been a gift I appreciate more and more as the years go by. I, too, have a camera with me everywhere I go.

I got to see several cousins at this family gathering, and I always love that; my dad’s side of the family has always been special to me. I cherish many wonderful memories of family events, especially all those cook-outs in the pine grove at our grandparents’ home. I didn’t know it when I was a child, but all those outings, picnics, sleepovers, birthday parties and Thanksgivings gave me a rock solid love and appreciation of family that have carried me throughout my whole life. I’ve always thought of “us cousins” as the third, and youngest, generation that began with our grandparents. Inside my own head I think of all those family dinners when our children’s table held maybe six or eight or more of us, and we giggled and teased and had so much fun — that’s where I still fit. That’s my first identity and it holds a place in my brain where all my values and virtues and rules of the road originate.

Cousins: Douglas, Dexter, and me, in 1953 in front of Grampy's garden

The Shaw family was large – my dad was the oldest of eight, and I was one of many cousins, too many to count, even, and most of them were right around my own age: Bruce and Dexter and Douglas and Monica and Claire and Caryl and Dennis, and others. As we all grew up and had our own families, and our parents aged and passed away, we have not remained as connected as we used to be. I will always be sad that my own children never got to have the kinds of “big family” memories that I treasure, but I will also remain ever thankful that I am part of this clan, as are my own children and grandchildren, even if they don’t have those memories. I try to tell the stories as often as I can; I, too, am an introvert, but I understand that those strong threads of family can make a difference, holding us tight and binding us together even when geography and time get in the way. It matters.

The pastor of the church, in his remarks about Aunt Priscilla this morning, told us things about her that I never knew, and it all matters. Rev. Starr also gave a reading at the cemetery that I loved, and he kindly emailed me a copy, which I copy for you here. I tried to find out who wrote it, and it is apparently not certain but often attributed to Henry Van Dyke.

“I am standing upon the seashore.  A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.  She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until, at last, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.  Then someone at my side says:  ‘There, she is gone.’ Gone where? Gone from my sight.  But that is all.  She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side.  And she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says:  ‘There, she is gone’ there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:  ‘Here she comes!’  And that is dying.”

It was a metaphor that truly resonated with me, since I grew up in the town where my mother also grew up, on the ocean. Her father, my grandfather, was a fisherman, sailing out over that horizon on a regular basis. It matters.

Life is good.