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.

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That’s What Friends Are For

English: Albert Einstein Français : portrait d...

Albert Einstein - Image via Wikipedia

A week ago I learned that a former student of mine died; he was only 23, and it was unexpected, one of those tragedies that force people to step back for a minute and think about how precious life is. This student’s mother had been a paraprofessional in my classroom for a number of years, so I reached out to see what I could do to help. Turns out, there was a lot that she needed help with.

Fortunately, I was able to get a few other people to help, too, and sharing the load makes a huge difference.  It made me remember why I have always loved living in this small town. When the important stuff happens, people are willing and glad to come forward to help. And it’s good, because people will say, “I can’t do more than this, but I can do this,” so everyone knows where the boundaries are. There were enough people pitching in this week to truly ease the burden on the family, and I’m glad we were able to do it.

For a small town, though, we seem to have had more than our share of death among our young people. For years, I’ve kept a hidden list, and written several poems about the losses. Illnesses and accidents, some of the deaths were even violent – far too many tragedies in a town with a population of fewer than 5,000 residents. With this week’s loss, I’ve decided to stop counting. It’s just too sad, and I think adding someone’s name to a list demeans the significance of that person’s life.

At the memorial service, which was held in the largest funeral home in the area, it was standing room only and of course many attendees were this young man’s friends – all too young to have to say good-bye this way. At the end of the service anyone who wanted to share a story or memory was invited to do so, and several friends and relatives came forward.

Most of them spoke about all that they had learned from him, and it really got me thinking. This young man was not a star student in school, although he did enough good work to pass. I found it intriguing that his friends and family spoke with great emphasis about how much wisdom he possessed, and how smart he was.  We never can know what goes on inside a person’s mind, and he was paying attention to his own curriculum, which did not necessarily include writing research papers and citing sources.

I save lists of topics that students choose for certain projects, and it’s in my records that he chose to do his hero project on Albert Einstein. It fits with all the remarks made at the funeral.  I am truly glad that his friends and family paid attention to his wisdom.

I think that when a person is born, there is a ripple effect in the universe, like the ripple in still waters, and all the people who know that person are affected and influenced by that person. It changes history, even if it’s just a little bit. The ripple this young man made in the universe while he was with us will make a difference, and his legacy will live on in the good things his friends and family will hold in their hearts.

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.

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.

Me and Georgia O’Keeffe

I have written several blog articles during the last few weeks that I never published here, I think mostly because I didn’t take the time to polish them while we were traveling. But in my head I know that I wrote them, so there’s a disconnect for me between what I’ve actually published here and what I THINK I’ve published. One of those essays is about our visit to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch, and I do want to share this with you, dear readers, even though it’s long overdue.

Pedernal, as seen from Ghost Ranch

On the last day of our stay in Santa Fe, my husband and I drove out to the Ghost Ranch, some 70 miles to the north. We were able to join a “Landscape Tour” of the property (now owned by the Presbyterian Church), piling into a small bus with a very knowledgeable volunteer and a dozen other visitors, to see parts of Georgia’s country — places where she actually walked, seeing the very cliffs she painted, and seeing her mountain, Pedernal. She said of Pedernal: “It’s my private mountain . . . God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it.” (Quoted from “Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tours,” http://www.ghostranch.org/museums-and-activities/o’keeffe-tours)

It was about 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art when I first saw her work (thanks to my sister for that amazing visit to New York), and it was love at first sight. I knew then that I wanted to take photographs that would reveal the deepest parts of my subjects, through close ups and specific focus points. Is it strange to form a connection between a painter and a photographer? I don’t think so – it was a seamless leap for me as I realized, oh so many years ago, that a photograph can be just as artistically well designed and well crafted as a painting. I’ve been working at it ever since. With digital technology at my fingertips now, it’s way more fun and way more creative than it used to be. I do also love to paint, but I am a much better photographer than I am a painter. Perhaps that’s a choice I’ve made somewhere along the way.

The Cliff Chimneys look different today due to some landslides, but you can still see her perspective.

Going on the Ghost Ranch tour, for me, was something magical – and I left with hundreds of new photos as well as a strong desire to pick up a paintbrush and figure out how I can take what I know about O’Keeffe’s amazing abstract art and make it my own. I don’t want to imitate her work, but the simplicity and depth of her paintings touch me in a way that makes me want to create art that conveys a similar love of the subject. I’ll be working on that for awhile, I think.

We have been “back” in South Dakota for several days as I update this article. Visiting my family here has been, as always, a joy. Yesterday morning my daughter-in-law asked me to give the girls a lesson in using the watercolor paints I bought for them earlier in the summer, and we had such a delightful time, laughing and painting. None of us wanted to stop when it was time for lunch, but we had to, and have planned to continue painting upon my next visit sometime later in the winter.

Tonight, I read a book to the kids that they had checked out of the library just this morning: Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe by Kathryn Lasky. Of course I was thrilled at the chance, and it was fun to add more information about O’Keeffe than the book revealed. My seven year old granddaughter was enthralled and wanted to know more. I turned to my computer and brought up a YouTube video interview with O’Keeffe which I think truly made it real for her. At one point where the interview gets a little dry I asked her if she had seen enough, and she emphatically said, “No!” She watched the whole thing, and then we looked at images of O’Keeffe paintings, (this link will take you to the painting of the Cliff Chimneys that I photographed, above) and she loved it all.

What greater gift can there be between granddaughter and grandmother than for that passion to be passed along?

Life is good.