Tag Archives: love

Driving Dad

My Dad gave lots of feedback, just not the critical kind. A while back I mused on the topic of my horrible adolescent makeup choices (tarantula-like eyelashes) and wrote:

I remember few rules from my youth. I wasn’t harangued to make my bed, come home at a certain time, do my homework, achieve better grades or get off the phone. I wasn’t told when I could start shaving my legs, or wearing makeup or start dating. I did want approval, my father’s approval in particular, and I knew what he admired without him ever saying a word. I was more interested in the brass ring of admiration than avoiding the sting of criticism or the pain of punishment.

When he moved to Sacramento in 2006, I was his driver. He had taken himself off the road in 2003, after he hit a newly installed curb and blew out a tire.

Unfailingly, when we were going from Point A to Point B, he would say something about my driving:

“I like the way you drive.”

In my impatient youth, it drove me nuts that Dad edged into the shoulder to let faster cars pass. “You’re going so slow,” I would think. Over time, I stopped thinking of this habit as disadvantaging our progress and started noticing the effect of his polite road manners.

He made room for cars trying to merge, waving them in. Seeing a pedestrian waiting on the curb on a heavily trafficked street, he stopped to let them cross. When someone politely waited for him while parallel parking or slowed slightly to let him enter a lane on the freeway, he extended his arm through the window and gave a brief salute. He was the kind of driver that made other drivers smile.

When he told me he liked the way I drove, he was acknowledging that I had internalized his road manners.

This was how he taught us: he initially explained something, then modeled the behavior, and then shut up. Except when we did something right. Then he said something complimentary.

One of his concerns about me was that I would never be physically active. With his history of heart disease, he knew that exercise could make the difference between life and death, or at least ability and disability. During my adolescent years, when my highest level of volition was moving from the couch to the dinner table, he went so far as to hand me the Canadian Air Force exercise manual, chock full of isometric exercises. I tried them a few times and quickly bored of them.

He must have been shocked to see me work out with a personal trainer in my 50s. She had me doing situps and jumping jacks, step ups and mountain climbers. She worked my tail off. (And I was paying for it.)

As I worked out on my back deck, I could see him watching me through the window from his regular seat at my kitchen table. He would pump his fist in the air, silently cheering me on.

“Atta girl,” he was saying.

When I drive, workout, and starting Thursday, return to graduate school to begin a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, I still hear it:

Atta girl.

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On Waiting

Mom as mother-of-the-bride

When I married, I knew I would never again live in Western Washington. Although I would return to visit my parents, the pleasures I took for granted would no longer be mine by right of residency. The thrill of accelerating up a steep road bracketed by thick stands of Doug Firs, glancing into the thick underbrush for signs of ripe red huckleberries on clear cut stumps or small animals making their way on padded moss floors. The contentment of walking along an isolated rocky shoreline, examining shells with a mental dichotomous key – one valve or two? – while overhead seagulls wheeled and screamed their victory cries. The rhythmic symphony of rain outside my bedroom window: the soprano tick-tick-ticking of droplets hitting the concrete sidewalk accompanied by baritone beats from the downspout and occasional bursts as pooled water slid through the slats of the upstairs deck.

When I returned to my family home in Tacoma in the early years of my marriage, I took mental inventory even before I got out of the rental car. Was it the same? Sometimes I could tell Mom had been out dead-heading the rhodies, noting a tidy pile next to the giant that reached to the gutter. Or I could see her handiwork in newly planted annuals in the front flower bed along with evidence of a futile attempt to sweep up the loose dirt that had spilled onto the concrete.

Anticipating my return, the front door would be unlocked, so I’d enter and set my suitcase down on the green slate entry floor. Did it shine, as it did when one of my chores was polishing it? Before Mom developed dementia, you could count on seeing an arrangement of fresh flowers – whatever was in season in the yard — placed on the drop leaf mahogany table in the entryway.

By then, Mom would have noticed my arrival. She would push the kitchen pocket door open, shoo the dog from underfoot and approach me. Her warm smile and twinkling eyes felt like an embrace from six feet away. What did she say? “Welcome home, honey,” I think. Did she call me honey? Or was it dear? Or just Betz? (It was rarely “Betsy.” She said she really meant to call me Betz but didn’t have the gumption to spell it that way.)

What I remember most, however, was not the visual details. It was the feeling.

I had the feeling that old 8601, my parents’ home, waited for me. Mom, Dad, the house and the dog (Meg, the Brittany Spaniel, in later years) all waited for me. The deadheading of the rhodies, the planting of the annuals, the fresh flowers in the hallway: they felt like preparations for my arrival. I don’t think I’m being egotistical here. I knew that I was important to my parents, and they waited in expectation on the afternoon when I arrived.

Something in me waited, too. When I met my husband a couple of years after graduating from college, I said to myself, “This guy is not going to leave Sacramento. If you get serious about him, Sacramento will be where you live.”

Hot and flat. Those were my two initial impressions of the Central Valley town. From the air, the valley floor looked like a crazy quilt of browns and greens, embroidered by curving ridges that partitioned flooded rice fields. After the lush tall forests of the Northwest, the ground looked bald. Colorful but bald. During the first summer of our marriage, Sacramento experienced 45 days over 100 degrees. Or as locals like to say, temps “in the triple digits.” It left me speechless. I didn’t even have a vocabulary for that kind of extreme heat. When I climbed into my VW rabbit, with its cloth and vinyl seats, it had to be over 200 degrees.

For many years – 10? 15? – I still felt like a foster child of Sacramento’s capitol. By then, I was a mother twice over, my career was established and I had a large network of friends and colleagues. When would it really feel like home?

Something in me had waited for that moment when I would arrive at 8601 43rd Street West. I inhaled, my lungs filling with crisp air cooled by the inland sea, smelling slightly of salt, earth and vegetation. Moisture penetrated my skin, plumping it after the desiccating dryness of California. I smiled, imagining the regeneration of the webbing between my fingers and toes – a Northwesterner’s inside joke.

My parents, the house, the area — all seemed to wait for me. But a part of me had been in suspended animation, too. I had been waiting.

Sometime in the past 15 years, Sacramento (finally) started feeling like the place I belonged. Maybe it happened after the death of my mother in 1999. Or perhaps it was after my father moved to be with me in his late 80s.

I thought about all this two weeks ago, as I waited for the arrival of my son from college. He had spent a couple of weeks tooling around Washington after graduating. I sped toward Sacramento from Santa Cruz, intending to arrive before he did. I wanted to be waiting.

During the two-and-a-half hour drive, I realized what a privilege it was to wait, and to be waited for. Perhaps my parents did not put their lives in abeyance when I visited, but it felt like they did. I felt cherished.

With both of my adult children now living in Sacramento, I doubt they have this feeling. Our lives are busy, bustling here and there. I’ve got stuff to do, and they know it. My world doesn’t screech to a halt when they’re around.

I cherish them, nonetheless. I should wait more often.


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Next to me, my great nephew sleeps on, lips occasionally twitching, elbow thrown across my chest, lifting now and then in dream-driven movement. Perhaps he hears the call of the referee while he stands at bat, primed to swing.

He crawled in at 6:55 a.m., having been told by his mother that he could come down and snuggle with me when he awakened in the morning. He pulled back the corner of the comforter of the guest bed and laid down quietly next to me. Within moments, his breathing slowed. He settled into a steady rhythm of deep inhales followed and forceful expulsions as he wandered the realm of dreamland.

Time has met the timeless. I am right here and nowhere else, reluctant to move lest I disturb this rare morning moment.

But simultaneously I am remembering how my mother and father snuggled grandchildren of similar ages.  When my brother, Bruce, began his family — a little earlier than he expected — he and his wife lived with us, along with his daughter, Sandy, who quickly grew into a bright and sunny toe-headed urchin with a ready giggle.

Dad was intense in those days, feeling the weight of financial responsibility for two children still at home, and Bruce’s new family. His proud Marine Corps frame slumped into a chair in the living room when he returned from work. He regrouped with a scotch on the rocks. Dean and I knew to leave him alone.

But Sandy did not. She toddled in to the living room in her little dress. Dad set the paper down in his lap and picked her up. It was time for their game. Sandy showed Papa her protuberant belly; Dad immediately pressed the frigid cocktail glass against her tummy whereupon Sandy exploded into waves of giggles. With each repetition, the pressure sloughed off Dad a little more.

As serious as Dad could be, he was always game for a round of Patty Cake, “Tom Tinker” or plain old “Sausages.” When holding a baby, he would lightly touch her forehead and say “Tom Tinker.” Moving down the little one’s face, he found “eye blinker,” then “nose smeller,” “mouth taster” and finally, “chin chopper.” At this last label, Dad tickled the baby’s chin and said in a low voice at double-time speed, “chin chopper chin chopper chin chopper!” After initial surprise, small eyes looked expectantly at him, ready for another go. Which Dad obliged, again and again.

I return to the moment, to the sweet child sleeping next to me. Son of that toe-headed urchin. I pull my arm out of the covers and lightly touch his forearm: utterly smooth, skin stretched tight over thin bones, not an ounce of flesh to spare. The tendon twitches just enough to twist his wrist ever so slightly to the left. He sleeps on, the arm bone connected to the wrist bone, the wrist bone connected to the hand bones.

Connected to me, to his mother, and before me, Mom and Dad.

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The Dam Burst

imageI wondered if I would cry — could cry — when my son graduated from college over the weekend. Water turned out to be the theme of the day.

At the interfaith baccalaureate service in the morning, where my son would sing with the Adelphian choir, a series of students shared their reflections one after another. They told personal stories, stories of coming out and trying to find a new way to relate to God and find a community, stories of hope lost and hope regained. They spoke with whatever vocabulary fit their understanding of Divine Mystery.  They sang and prayed for others.

We sat there, parents and family, faculty and staff, students and friends, listening and reflecting. For an hour, we became a community.

The morning light flooded through the chapel windows from the east, bathing my son’s face in gold. To close the service, the Adelphians sang Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home.”

Oh where is the road that will lead me home?”

The song took me back to that day in October 2012 when my “other mother” teetered between life and death. As her children and grandchildren gathered around her bedside, my best friend and I sang that song. And as we sang, “Miss Ann” slipped to the other side, to the place where her faith guided her, where her husband and mother awaited.

Four months later, a small group sang it at my father’s memorial.

As I listened to the choir, I could almost see my mother and father hovering. Was it a daydream? Was it my heart’s longing that brought me their image? Were they really there? It felt as if they were.

The dam burst, and I cried. My stomach pulsed with withheld sobs as I cried tears of joy for my son’s safe passage, of happiness for the moment of reunion with my parents, of compassion for the tribulations that many of the students had experienced.

Water turned out to be the abiding symbol of the day. Rather than the typical, somewhat overly long commencement ceremony, in which one waited for one name out of more than 600, Yahweh (for it had to be the angry God of old) decided to interrupt things with an outburst of Biblical proportions.

The wind picked up as the class representative gamely soldiered on with her remarks. The skies above us swirled in a circular pattern. If we had been in the Midwest, we would have been heading for storm shelters.

Next came the rain. It did not “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” Each was a swollen bubble that splattered into inch wide rings where it struck heads, blouses and trousers. Within minutes, those initial marks were obscured by rivulets from the flood that pounded the crowd on the field.

Then came hail and lightning. Running through sideways rain that rapidly filled gutters, those who didn’t leave in the initial downpour – the hardy families who were determined to hear that one name called – evacuated to the field house. We sheltered for nearly an hour before university officials made the call to resume the ceremony.

This morning, the words of “The Road Home” returned to me:

After wind, after rain, when the dark is done, as I wake from a dream in the gold of day

Through the air there’s a calling from far away, there’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home.

Rise up, follow me, come away is the call

With love in your heart as the only song

There is no such beauty as where you belong

Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home


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My Son Is Graduating. Will I Cry?

Tommy handprint and booties

I don’t know a lot about tears. They tell you that laughing is good for you, that it can add years to your life, even help cure cancer. But what about tears? What does it do to you if you rarely cry?

My earliest memory of crying was soon after my father’s massive heart attack forced him to retire and us to relocate to Seattle. I got in trouble for something. Dad was home, and I heard the slip and snap of his belt as it slid out of his trousers. I fled to my room and wailed.

“Stop sounding like a fire engine!” my mother yelled.

I cried because I didn’t want to be punished. I cried with rage at the injustice of it all. I cried because inside me was a great knot of feelings: grief over the death of my grandmother, shock over the jarring moves from familiar Maryland to foreign Honolulu and then overcast Seattle, fear that my father could die from a second heart attack, and profound loneliness because I was lonely.

Oh how I cried.

Eventually I got the message. I wasn’t supposed to cry.

My parents were of hardy western stock. Mom, only child of a short, scrappy attorney, learned to drive at 11 years of age so she could accompany her father while he hunted on the benches around Boise. Given his blood pressure problems, there was always the possibility she might need to drive for help. Dad grew up in Yakima under a “severe” father – his words — in a household where shit rolled downhill. His father criticized the eldest brother. The eldest took it out on Dad. His was the kind of family home where children were seen and not heard. His mother behaved civilly — as people would expect of the daughter of the town’s “grand old man” — while her husband left each night to sleep with his mistress. An open secret.

When bad things happened, my mother was unshockable. It wasn’t just that she was unflappable. It was as if a switch was flipped and she went into sergeant mode. She dealt with it — whatever it was — without fuss.

She expected the same of me. My brothers, all older, knew the rules without being told. They were the sons of a hunter, sons of a Marine.

Somehow I thought the rules would be different for a girl. I felt different. I wanted to share my enthusiasm, my indignation, my pain. I wanted to be held and comforted.

Rather than provoking sympathy, my expressions of emotion exasperated my mother (she would say outbursts). In early grade school, she would let me lean against her for a while — but only a while — before eventually complaining, “Stop clinging.” Mom was a big believer in shaking things off. Her biggest hero was her grandmother, who lived into her hundreds and was famous for her advice about illness, “Just make up your mind and shake it off by morning.”

Mind over matter.

I don’t mean to whine. (See? I had a pop up message in my head that said, “Quit whining.”) Or to blame my parents for being the stoics that they were. Stoicism has a lot going for it. Stoicism got Mom through the loss of her father while she was still in college, supported her through WWII, and saw both Mom and Dad through the loss of their daughter to leukemia.

This whole topic came up because I’ve been really mushy the last 24 hours. (Mushy? I know. It’s hard not to be pejorative.) I was looking for an old piece of family memorabilia and stumbled across a plaster mold of my son’s handprint and his first pair of real walking shoes. I almost lost it.

You see, he’s graduating from college tomorrow.

When I posted a picture of my find on Facebook, a friend advised, “Be sure to take tissues tomorrow!”

I wondered, will I cry? It’s not that I avoid crying. I simply can’t.

I’m not the family crier. My husband is. When we go to a movie with any kind of emotional moment, my daughter and I look over to him to see if he’s tearing up. He usually is. My husband comes from a whole family of criers. My best friends are criers. My children are criers.

When I was in therapy as a young mother, my homework assignment was to let the feelings in, to sit with sadness, to let myself cry. Crying, for me, took effort. When I finally would cry, it was as if the dam broke. I couldn’t stop.

So I wonder, will I cry?

I can feel my heart threaten to explode out of my chest. My son has overcome some really awful stuff to take that walk across his commencement stage. At times, in the past two years, I have felt as vulnerable as a new mom looking down at that gentle baby who looked in awe at the world around him. Wondering, how did this miracle happen? Will I be able to give him what he needs and keep him safe?

I don’t know if I will cry. I’ve been well trained. But I can tell you my heart is cracked open, hovering outside my body, waiting for tomorrow.


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A Quiet Kind of Influence

Betsy Campbell eyes 1975

When I was an adolescent, I made some very unfortunate makeup choices. One of my first signature looks was an alarmingly bright turquoise cream eyeshadow that I slathered on both eyelids. I thought it set off my blue eyes. With that metallic green-blue glowing from my lash line to my brow bone, I now understand that no one could have noticed my grey-blue irises. By high school, I had exchanged the eyeshadow for mascara.

My eyelashes, bent like hockey sticks by my eyelash curler, waved upward like hairy tarantula legs. In my mind, they said “ingenue.” To the rest of the world, they said, “mascara fetishist.”

When I sat at our dinner table facing the bay window, the bright chandelier turned the darkened view into a mirror. I was a great admirer of my reflection.

A little smile would come across my father’s face and he would say, “How is Ysteb tonight?”

Most memoirs and many novels have at their root an author who is coming to terms with her dysfunctional upbringing. Underlying their narrative is a turbulent upbringing that haunted them into adulthood with substance abuse issues and shattered relationships.

When I write about my father, I feel as if I am beachcombing. I walk slowly along the sandy beach, crossing miles of uniform sand granules, until I stumble across a fragment. If I walked more quickly, I’d miss it – something shimmering there in its beauty. But having seen it, I pick it up, hold it in my palm, turn it over.

I think now of all of the things my father could have said to me when I was trying on my young womanhood. He could have said, “What the hell are you thinking? Go wash your face!” Or, “No daughter of mine is going out like that.” Or, “I suppose you think that looks good?”

But he didn’t. Deadpan, he would wryly invoke my name spelled backwards, “How is Ysteb tonight?” Hearing that didn’t feel like a rebuke or even a criticism. I took it as, “Come back to the table, please. You’re not the only one in the room.” It felt like an act of love, even if there was a tease thrown in for good measure. I got the message.

I remember few rules from my youth. I wasn’t harangued to make my bed, come home at a certain time, do my homework, achieve better grades or get off the phone. I wasn’t told when I could start shaving my legs, or wearing makeup or start dating.

I did want approval, my father’s approval in particular, and I knew what he admired without him ever saying a word. I was more interested in the brass ring of admiration than avoiding the sting of criticism or the pain of punishment.

Recently, I learned that one of my acquaintances on Facebook is tired of my posting about my father. She thinks it’s time to get over the grief and move on. She has missed the point entirely.

I’m not grieving, I’m appreciating. My experience of my father was subtle.

He was just there, a quiet, predictable and strong presence even when he just referred to my twin in the mirror.

Sitting at my parents’ table, I didn’t appreciate what I had. It’s taken me four decades to get to the point I can see the beauty in his love and influence. And it remains with me.

Last weekend I attended a retreat where the facilitator shared this poem. The utter reliability of my Dad led me to take him for granted. Remembering the subtle ways he expressed his love for me, my mother and my brothers is a gift that keeps on giving.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

– Robert Haydon


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The Valentine’s Day Card Dilemma

Todd and Betsy Stone

My husband makes me happy. He gets me, even though I am a complex person. I get him, even though he is about as straightforward as a human being can be. The relationship between us is a reaction. We are better and more interesting together than either of us is alone. Even after thirty-one years of marriage and thirty-three years of couple-hood.

But I hate shopping for Valentine’s Day cards.

“You are my soul mate,” one read, in loopy script.

I have never felt that my husband is my soul mate. I’ve never told him, “You complete me,” movie-style, because it isn’t true.

I look at the racks of cards and mostly want to vomit. These are the sentiments that are supposed to express our hearts. There are the “big-strong-man” hubby cards that ooze with compliments about how virile and protective and kind he is. There are the “you’ve still got it, baby” cards that wink at continuing sexual attraction. There are the “old reliable” cards that speak of gratitude for years of steadfastness.

Valentine’s Day cards always make me wonder: is the problem me?

An article published by Aeon provided an explanation that made sense to me:

“…(I)dentities are not fused — they are shared. Profound romantic satisfaction is not about possession but about flourishing; the other person is not an extension of you, but a partner for a dynamic and fulfilling way of life….(T)he partners’ personal characteristics do not have to be the best in town — they just need to be in harmony.”

That rings true.

In the end, I chose a card with an up-close picture of a cow with a baying bull reflected in its eyeglasses, a jokey card. My husband got it, though: a reference to a funny, horny dream I had a long time ago that included a man sidling up to me and suggesting his secret fantasy. “I like to moo,” he whispered to me.

One of the most romantic things I ever saw written said very little. It was a photo of a plane, underneath which my mother wrote, “The plane that brought him home.”

Maybe the perfect card for my husband would say, simply, “It’s you I want.”

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Holding Hands

Holding on to love

The first thing my estranged cousin did when I met her was ask to see my hands.

Elizabeth took my hand in hers and looked at my finger tips. “They’re like mine,” she said.

I had never met Elizabeth. I didn’t even know she existed until she or her brother — I don’t remember which — wrote Dad a note after my mother’s obituary was published in the Yakima paper. You may not know us, the note said, but we are the children of your brother, Ed.

The year after Mom died, I took Dad to Yakima – a last chance, I thought, for him to see the old family home, connect with a few childhood friends before they were gone, and meet his niece and nephew.

Inspecting her fingers next to mine I saw no resemblance. Her fingers were delicate and tapered, capped by long nails that extended in white tips. Mine were of a sturdier sort, not ugly, but not something I would ever show with pride. I smiled and said nothing.

Elizabeth was looking for a connection, physical reassurance that she was a Campbell, like us.

My father had no doubts about her parentage. He accepted that Elizabeth and her brother were his niece and nephew. Family resemblance shone in their features. Though he loved his brother, who had so tenderly overseen the medical care of my sister Midge as she struggled with childhood leukemia, he could not understand how Ed could deny paternity. That rejection — the events leading up to it and following it — were part of the heritage of dysfunction that stemmed from their father.

I imagine that I am holding my father’s hand. Though he complained that they showed his age, I found them handsome. While Elizabeth’s fingers were thin and tapered, his were straight and square. His nails were near-perfect rectangles, the white base of his nail beds almost a straight line. The tips were filed to conform to the shape of his finger tips: neatly squared.

Mom and Dad often held hands. Especially when traveling in the car, he would reach over and clasp her hand. Her hand would linger in his.

As a teenager or young adult in the car with Dad, he would occasionally do the same with me. My hand would lay encased in the warmth of his. And it made me acutely uncomfortable. I had gotten to that age when physical affection, for more than brief moments, was awkward. If I snatched it away quickly, would it signal that I didn’t reciprocate his affection? What was the soonest I could gently withdraw my hand without seeming ungrateful?

By the time Dad moved here, Mom was gone. His primary physical connection was severed. Once Mom died, almost no one held him, rested their arm around his shoulder, reached over for the familiar three pats on the knee. Dad always said that we are a three pat family. Not one, or two, but three.

I had a special privilege as a daughter. Though my brothers hugged my Dad, and might rest their hand on his shoulder, they faced the added limitation of male-to-male contact. Or so I guess.

As I drove between my Dad’s assisted living community and my home, I often reached over and clasped his hand in mine. We would drive that way for a few miles, separating when I might need both hands to navigate an intersection. I no longer squirmed. I would feel the warmth of our hands together and think of the love that flowed between us.

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The Puzzle of the Angel

Every year when I decorate for the holidays, I stop to ponder a ceramic angel that I made in fourth grade. This year was no exception. Lots of my ornaments have memories associated with them: the yarn angel that my mother bought to represent my sister, Midge, who died before I was born; the Japanese silk thread ball that reminded me of our brief sojourn in Hawaii; the little German ornaments that my mother collected. The meaning of each is unambiguous. Only the little blonde ceramic angel has confounded me.

When I was nine or ten, my mother decided to take up a new hobby. We had recently moved to a suburb of Everett, Washington. Compared to our neighborhood in Seattle, a few miles from the University of Washington and an easy drive to the Opera House and downtown, suburban Eastmont didn’t have a lot to offer. For me, there was the attraction of “the gully” (an undeveloped gulch), a hilltop school ground that was perfect for kite flying, and quiet roads where I could safely ride my Stingray bike.

My Mom decided to try making ceramics, and she let me go with her. On a rural road, a small cottage with faded paint had been converted into a studio. Inside, in what might have been the living room, were shelves of casting molds. On the right side of the room was a counter where patrons poured tan or white clay slip into molds, forming a thin layer before being poured, leaving behind damp greenware. In the center were tables where crafters prepared their creations for firing, and once their pieces were hardened by the kiln, painted on details or covered them with an viscous blue liquid that would magically transform into a glistening clear polish. Animals and gnomes were frequent subjects, as were useful household items such as ashtrays. One of my first projects was a large ashtray with raised astrological symbols finished with a mottled brown and black glaze, which my mother proudly displayed.

If we were really lucky, Mom and I would arrive at the ceramics studio on a day when a new mold had just been placed on the shelves. New molds were sparkling white, but more importantly, unworn from constant use. The greenware from these molds, when ejected without mishap, had sharp, clean edges and smooth, unmarred curves.

Starting a new piece always made me hold my breath. At each step, I anticipated the problems that had spoiled my efforts so many times before. Would I drain the excess slip too soon, leaving the piece too fragile to maintain its shape? Would I fumble as I freed the greenware and dent it? Would I nick it when I scraped away the nearly-invisible seam where the two halves of the mold joined, or paint a line too thick, or glaze it unevenly?

In late summer, people had started in on Christmas decorations. I had my eye on a kneeling angel mold. Her feathered wings extended above her head, her long dress puddled gracefully around her legs, and her thick, wavy hair flowed down her back. Her hands were clasped in prayer below her smooth, serene face. I cast two, planning to make one a brunette, like me, and the other, a delicate blonde. The brunette was a disappointment. The dark brown underglaze contrasted too sharply with her porcelain skin. Rather than the brown mane I imagined, her hair looked like what it was: brown paint.

But the blonde was the angel of my dreams. I painted her dress blue, put a touch of color on her lips and carefully added fine blonde eyebrows to match her hair. When she emerged from the kiln, the yellow glaze had hints of darker hue, perhaps a residual from the brown paint I had used on her sister. She was pale, delicate and beautiful.

I placed the two angels on the bookcase on my room. Every time I looked at the blonde angel, I felt proud. Then school started up, and I forgot about her.

About that time, I had become friends with a girl across the street. Occasionally, we played at my house, but most of the time, we played dolls in her bedroom. Each day, however, we would have to interrupt while Dawn completed her chores. My primary chores were making my bed, cleaning my cat’s litter box and setting the table. Dawn was responsible for dusting, cleaning the glass coffee table with a foaming spray, and vacuuming. I never saw much of Dawn’s mother. When she was around, she didn’t greet me warmly as my mother welcomed my friends. I had the feeling I was underfoot.

One day, I noticed that the blonde angel was gone. I hadn’t thought about her in a while and I didn’t know how long she’d been missing. I looked all over my room, then around the living room and even the recreation room downstairs. The brown-haired angel was in her place but not her twin.

About two weeks later, Dawn and I were playing in her room. On her little dressing table was the blonde angel. I blurted out, “That’s my angel!” Dawn said that it wasn’t, that she had purchased it for her mother for Christmas. Our discussion turned into an argument, with me insisting that it had to be my angel. See how the paint on her eyebrows has a touch of brown? I painted that! Dawn held her ground. Finally, I played my trump card.

“My initials are carved in the bottom! I always carve my initials on the bottom of my pieces!”

Dawn turned the angel over. “It’s not yours,” she said. “See? It has felt on the bottom!”

An uneven green felt square was indeed on the bottom. Around it, frosted white nail polish glistened. It seemed obvious to me that Dawn had covered up my initials by using her mother’s nail polish to afix it to the base.

I knew it was mine, but she looked me squarely in the eyes and lied about it.

I wrote her a note. I told her that if it was so important to her to give the angel to her mother, she could have it. I was giving it to her. I didn’t want to lose her friendship over it.

After a few days, Dawn rang the doorbell. In her hand was the angel. She told me that she loved it so much she wanted to have it. So she had stolen and lied.

I’ve thought about Dawn every time I’ve put the angel on display. It’s always seemed like an important story to me but one without an ending. What did it mean?

Yesterday morning, my church pastor, Rev. Mary Hudak, told a story about her first grade classmate, Tina, who had stolen her pencil. When Mary told the teacher on Tina, Mary’s favorite teacher, Miss Haney, told Mary she knew. But Mary, she said, had two pencils, and Tina didn’t have any. Tina didn’t have lots of things that other children had. Miss Haney knew that Mary would not make fun of Tina for not having what the other kids had.

“I learned something about myself that day,” Rev. Mary said. She learned that her teacher knew Mary’s heart was big enough to sacrifice for her classmate. She learned something about herself.

My story had a different moral, but an important one.

It was about mothers. I couldn’t understand how Dawn wanted her mother’s love and approval so much that she would steal something her friend had made and loved.

My mother loved me enough to display what must have been the world’s ugliest ashtray. I didn’t have to do anything to prove my love for her. I was secure in her love, and she in mine.

I went to church expecting to hear a parable from Bible times. I came away understanding my own.

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Remembering One Year Ago

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

I awakened just before 5 this morning feeling anxious. As I flipped from one side to the other, my thoughts churned. Though I have plenty of things I could worry about and long lists of things I should get done, I can usually put those thoughts aside and go back to sleep. Not this morning. Why was I feeling unsettled?

Then I remembered one year ago. One year ago, I slept while my father’s nighttime caregiver administered hospice comfort medications at the maximum dosage.

I felt like I had hopped on a freight train that was speeding, careening, barely holding to the rails along a treacherous mountain route that cast dark shadows on our route. I held on, trying to avert disaster.

A week earlier, Dad had been on a plateau, as hospice put it. He was still getting to the table for meals, and we were still making forays for fresh air outside, albeit by wheelchair. I had begun to accept that he would not rally, as I had hoped when came on service with hospice December 20. The nurses had explained that he would likely decline in increments, alternating with periods of stability.

I was Dad’s life ring and he clung to me for security, never wanting  me to leave his side. When Todd and I went out to see a movie as a short break, Dad remained at the dinner table with the caregiver, not wanting to retire until I returned. There he stayed, exhausted, counting the minutes until I would return at 9 p.m. I was counting, too. After one brother cancelled his planned trip, I crossed off the days on my calendar until brother Dean would arrive that Wednesday.

Dad’s confusion increased. I sat next to him all day and surrounded him with pictures. At dinner that Monday night, he picked up the picture of my brothers on the kitchen table and said, “They were siblings, weren’t they?”

I broke out in hives. I wondered if it was a reaction to the antibiotic I was taking to resolve a lingering cough, or a physical manifestation of my own anxiety. First my palms itched, then the soles of my feet, then my scalp. As I sat talking to the hospice Chaplain, I furiously scratched my head, twitching from the attempt to stop.

After Dean arrived, Dad’s decline only accelerated. The afternoon of Dean’s arrival, I asked our new afternoon caregiver to make chicken cacciatore. The process turned out to be long and arduous, but the results were delicious. Dad ate heartily, displaying his best appetite in a month. The mood, for that eyelash of time, was celebratory.

But that night, the medications we had pre-dispensed for the hospice nurse weren’t adequate to control Dad’s shortness of breath and agitation. From 11 p.m. on, Dad awakened every half hour. The caregiver summoned Dean during the night to prepare more. At 6:45 a.m. Thursday, Dad attempted to get out of bed by himself, after three weeks of being unable to support his own weight. The caregiver intervened before he fell. Dad was exhausted by the effort.

On Friday, Dean supervised the final move of Dad’s belongings to my house. The afternoon was quiet, with Dad sleeping most of the time. His breathing began to sound increasingly liquid, although the hospice nurse had told us not to be concerned. Just the same, we arranged for a house call the next morning, while I would be out facilitating a strategic planning retreat and Dean would supervise Dad’s care.

When I left that morning, I told Dean to call me with whatever the nurse said. An hour and a half into the retreat, he called with the news to come home. Now. I bluntly announced, “I have to leave. My Dad is dying.” I called my son at school and asked him if he wanted to come home even though Papa might be gone by the time he arrived. He did. My brothers Scott and Bruce booked flights for hours later. As I sat calling family in the living room, I overheard my daughter comforting Dad by reading passages from his favorite poetry. I wrote about preparing. Dad was on his way.

That Friday night turned out to be Dad’s last.

Dean told the story of that evening at Dad’s memorial:

The night before his passing, he was too weak to come to the table for dinner, even in his wheel chair – so Betsy and I brought our dinner into his room. We set up a card table in front of his recliner, squeezed in next to him, and had a quiet time together. In retrospect, he was clearly starting to fade, although Betsy and I did not realize at the time how close he was to the end.  He was very sleepy during dinner, and seemed to be in a waking dream state: still connected to the physical world around him, but clearly seeing and responding to other things as well.  As we sat together, he looked at me with half-closed eyes and asked, “Dean, will you drive?” This caught me a bit off-guard, but I responded that of course I would. I wish now that I had had the wits to ask him where he wanted to go, but I did not. Afterwards, my first thought was that in his mind he thought we were sitting in our camper on one of our hunting trips, and that he wanted me to drive because he was too tired to carry on. What I’ve now come to believe is something else…. Our hospice nurse told Betsy and me that such restlessness is fairly common, and offered the belief that perhaps those close to death know they have somewhere they need to go, and are so determined to get there they will get up out of bed and walk right out the front door if you aren’t watching over them. Today when I look back on my father’s words, I think he knew it was time for him to leave, and that he wanted me to drive him there. I think he was asking me to take him home.”

Dad is home now. I miss him. But I am glad he is free.

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