Tag Archives: memory

Connections

Dreaming

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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Something Happened

Official Portrait, Promotion to Colonel, 1959

Official Portrait, Promotion to Colonel, 1959

Most of my life, my mind has raced. While I was physically present, in my head I often was thinking about something else, half-attending, listening for what I had to sock away in short term memory while filtering many of the other signals and information that flew past my head. Way back, in first grade, my teacher reported, “I found that Betsy reads well in a second grade book, but has almost no comprehension of what she has read, so we gave this up for now.” To which my mother wrote back, “We’re reading aloud to Betsy more frequently so this may help the comprehension too. She’s had much less reading aloud than our other children. Her Dad is reading Oz books now.” (Thank heavens. Reading the L. Frank Baum series is one of the most important memories of my childhood.)

About seven years into my career, when I first began to achieve some success, a leadership styles assessment found that I was seen by others as analytical, decisive and self confident. That was the positive side of the coin. It also found that I was seen as detached, determined and independent. I was a woman on a mission, more focused on what I had to get done than building relationships.

Fast forward 17 years. Before I left corporate life, another battery of personality and leadership assessments found something quite different. According to the 16PF Fifth Edition Personal Career Development Profile (yes, that’s a thing), my personality was found to be most aligned with people who are most interested in “helping” professions, particularly counseling. “Are you interested in counseling,” the consultant asked.

“God, no,” I thought. I wouldn’t have the patience for it. But I wondered, how does someone change from “detached” to “receptive” and “attentive to others”?

Experience. Age. Or both.

I find myself doing what I often do — thinking about my Dad. Looking back on his aging process, I accelerate it in my mind until it resembles time-lapse photography, those film sequences that capture a plant as it transforms from a seed that germinates, pushes a green sprout toward the surface, shoots up toward the sky and blooms.

Memory is like that. I look back on the father of my childhood, adolescence, adulthood and now middle-age and I piece the images together until they become a narrative arc.

It was hard to get Dad’s attention when I was young. He looked distracted in most of our old photos, uncomfortable, often unsmiling. It wasn’t that he hated having his picture taken. In college snapshots, he looked relaxed and confident, maybe even a bit full of himself. In my childhood, he barely tolerated the ritual of the family photo. His mind was somewhere else.

Fast forward 70 years. Dad sat at my kitchen table savoring his coffee and the morning newspaper. When we conversed, I had his full attention.

His mind worked vastly differently in his nineties than it did in his twenties. When asked a question, he would pause for some time. In a social situation, well-meaning people might try to rescue him by filling the void with chatter.

But if you waited and watched, you could almost see his thought process. He would consider the inquiry, mentally find the correct file cabinet, and eventually the right memory. Sometimes, the answer would escape him for a while and he would say, “I’ll come get you at 2 a.m. when it comes to me.” When he stopped worrying about retrieving the sought-after tidbit, it often emerged as if by its own volition.

What would once have taken seconds took minutes, maybe even hours.

In today’s “New Old Age” column in the New York Times, Benedict Carey writes, “(T)he larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word….” Accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise, Mr. Carey reports, represent “crystallized” intelligence, which some scientists suggest actually grows over time, while “fluid” intelligence (short-term memory activities like remembering a phone number) shrinks.

I find this heartening. Every “woman of a certain age” I know complains of the annoying tip-of-the-tongue syndrome and short-term memory failures that seem to move in about the time we are finally rid of the equally annoying biological systems that plagued us from age 12 on.

This summer, I will start a Masters in Fine Arts program in creative nonfiction. Part of me is mildly terrified to engage with a group of students whose median age is likely to be under 30. No doubt their fluid minds will quickly digest the volumes of reading that come with the territory. While I try to remember them.

Dad is again my guide and mentor. His love of people — and literature — only grew as he aged. I don’t think it was just the easing of daily demands that enabled his internal life to flourish. Something happened to his patience. Something happened to his ability to savor, appreciate and feel gratitude. Something happened to his depth of understanding.

I’m praying for something like that to happen to me.

[Author’s note: One of my friends messaged this photo to me. Thanks, Kristin Warren Vandersluis!]

IMG950426

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Dad Deconstructed

Dad comes to me in pieces.

As I approached what would have been his 97th birthday, it was his smile that came to me, the smile I felt he saved for me, the one I thought of as my smile.

This week, I’ve been thinking about his voice.

During the years when he was at the peak of his career in the Marine Corps, his voice was a primary instrument of his authority. Years of practice leading men in war and ceremonial parades at Marine Barracks afforded him the ability to issue a command like a rifle report. Without moving a muscle, he could expel a directive so that it burst out of him, sharp and clean. It was the voice that brought me to heel when I was out of line, that sliced up my spine and froze me in my tracks.

After Dad was forced into retirement following his heart attack, his command voice was repurposed for domestic use. It became a vehicle for entertainment. When family or friends lingered around Mom’s dinner table, Dad might without warning boom, “Speak!” Having gained the startled attention of the audience — for it was an audience then — Dad would continue, “Speak thou fearful guest, who, with thy hollow breast still in rude armor drest, comest to daunt me!” His voice would slip into a conversational “just between us” tone as he launched into Antony and Cleopatra, “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; purple, the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them.” Or he would channel Richard Burton, dropping his voice a register, intoning, slowly, “Alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea! And never a saint took pity on my soul in agony.”

His Marine Colonel voice still made rare but memorable appearances. When my newborn son arrived home from the hospital with an inch and a half of black hair, standing on end, my five year old daughter approached her brother with a pair of scissors. Dad, reading the paper in our family room, suspected her plan was benign but as a father of five children knew something of the jealousies of older siblings. He ordered, “Stop! Put The Scissors DOWN!” For several seconds, she didn’t even expel a breath. Then she put the scissors down.

Dad’s voice continued to make an impression on my daughter, even though he never again raised it to her in anger, as far as I know. This week, I ran across a get well greeting in the form of a comic strip that my daughter created while in third grade to send Dad when he was hospitalized. The first frame was easy enough to understand: a drawing of a hand holding a balloon. The second frame stumped us for a bit. The hand held the balloon in front of a man labeled “you,” for my Dad. The speech bubble above him read, “tehupt!” In the third frame, the balloon appeared to be vibrating, rocked by Dad’s voice, and in the fourth, it had popped. Above the second frame, my daughter had drawn an arrow pointing to the speech bubble next to which she wrote, “My Dad said this is how you spell it.” She wanted to exonerate herself of any blame for the phonetic spelling of the call-to-attention drill command that Dad would demonstrate upon request.

Something happened to Dad’s voice over time. It dropped in pitch and took on a gravelly character. His voice, his calling card, led some people to falsely assume that he was a curmudgeon, or worse.

In 2003, after blowing out a tire on a new curb on a familiar side street in Tacoma, he decided to give up driving and moved to an assisted living community just two blocks from my brother Dean’s home. When I visited the first weekend after his move, I passed the front desk where I heard the staff member describing Dad at the request of a resident. “He’s very angry,” she said, “he might even be dangerous.” She had gone so far as to file an incident report with the nursing staff.

After a small stroke two years before he died, a speech therapist suggested we have an ENT physician examine his vocal chords with a scope, suspecting organic damage to the vocal chords. The physician found evidence that Dad had been experiencing acid reflux without knowing it. Although we tried a medication to control it, the damage was done.

In Dad’s last years, his voice was sometimes more breath than speech. He had to actively concentrate to gather his breath and push it through his vocal chords to produce sound. Reciting his favorite poetry required conscious effort to break the long passages into phrases supported by more frequent breaths.

Two nights before he died, when my husband came home from work, Dad was determined to greet the head of household, his host, properly.

“How was your day, sir?” he boomed, sharp and clean.

I hear it still.

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Seeing Mom Among the Flowers

A member of the Washington National Cathedral Altar Guild

Friday was my “Mother’s Day.” Mom, gone since 1999, felt so present to me all day. I came east to see my friend Sharon and the premiere of the documentary she produced about the author Elizabeth Spencer, “Landscapes of the Heart,” but also for a mission: I hoped to secure a date for my father’s and mother’s interments at Arlington National Cemetery.

Though it was Dad who I focused on during the past seven years, and Dad who died in January, the trip was about both of them.

After meeting with a representative at Arlington, I asked Sharon if she would mind visiting Washington National Cathedral. My mother always talked about it, and continued to buy the Cathedral’s annual Christmas cards long after we left Washington, D.C.

Washington National CathedralUpon entering the Gothic-inspired masterpiece, we walked up the center aisle and diverted to the right around a stage that was being prepared for a concert.

Like many European cathedrals, the nave and transept are embellished with small side chapels.

In the first of these chapels, below a round contemporary sculpture of Jesus’ face, stood a woman in a pink shirt and apron, stoop shouldered, slowly trimming the stems of lacy blossoms that she was using to complete the final touches on two symmetrical arrangements of pink lilies. Her salt-and-pepper hair was short, mostly gray, a little curly. Perhaps the last vestiges of a perm that was nearly grown out.

For just a moment, she was my mother.

The woman in pink was an Altar Guild member, one of the stalwart legions of the Episcopal Church Women who do so much behind the scenes in fulfillment of their faith and commitment to the church, in camaraderie with one another.

My mind involuntarily summoned the smell of damp linens, starch and heat, a visceral memory of one of my mother’s monthly turns ironing the altar linens. Just as readily, I remember the scent of fresh-cut stems when she trimmed a gladiola, a rose, a peony, or greens harvested from our back yard for an altar arrangement.

In the sculpture above the altar, Jesus’ eyes are closed, but his head inclines toward her. I don’t know if the image is meant to represent him in death on the cross, or is meant to express sympathy for those who pray here. Blade-like rays extend beyond his halo through which a jagged hole is blown.

Washington National Cathedral's Christ Child statueLater I learned the chapel memorialized those who served and died in wars. Near it, a bronze statue of the Christ Child welcomes visitors to the adjacent the Children’s Chapel. The statue is the size of a six year old, its palms polished to a sheen from all of the touches to its outstretched chubby palms.

It felt meant, just as the whole week has felt perfect. Here is “Mom,” creating a striking decoration for the War Memorial, within the hour that we have confirmed a date and time for her burial along with Dad, joining Midge in her resting place. And there, next door, is the Children’s Chapel, with the child Jesus extending his arms in welcome.

My brother Scott sent this reply to a note I sent to my brothers confirming the interment date. “Has anyone thought about what day it is today? Nice that we got this confirmation on the 14th anniversary of Mom’s passing.”

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A Man of Action Lives On

scream/photo by YnR under CC license

It happened in an instant. I had just picked up my brother at the airport and we were cruising in the center lane of I-80 headed east, just past Norwood. Explosion. Dust. To our right, a white pickup truck was suddenly 10 feet up the embankment of the overpass, tipping precariously, almost flipping. Then back down, bouncing twice. Landed, disabled, jutting into the far right hand lane. In those two? three? seconds we passed the woman in the truck, screaming so loudly that we could hear her through my nearly sound-proof car windows.

“Pull over!” Dean said, pulling out his phone and starting to dial 9-1-1. Then he opened the car door and prepared to walk back to see if the woman was safe,

My brother is the kind of guy you want next to you in the crunch. He didn’t hesitate.

This morning, the moment is still vivid in my mind. This morning, it occurs to my Dad must have been like that, the kind of man who would instantly be there for his Marine Corps brothers in a dicey situation. I am reminded daily that Dad isn’t really gone. He lives on. In us. We are his legacy.

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Real-life Giving Trees

Camphor tree

On our daily walk down Berrendo Drive, Dad and I often stopped to appreciate this beautiful camphor tree in our neighbor’s yard. There’s something almost human about her – so much so that the female camphor tree branchespronoun is what springs to mind. Her muscular arms seem to embrace the Hall’s home while her graceful, leaf-laden branches stretch out in welcome. Trees can seem forbidding, or forlorn, or, like this lovely lady, friendly. Upon seeing her, my Dad expressed his admiration by reciting lines from a poem he learned in childhood:

I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,

         

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;…
— Joyce Kilmer

 

sunset by betsy campbell stoneDad had a friend in our backyard, too. As the evenings warmed, we barbequed and dined outside. Dad’s eyes glowed with emotion as he gazed upward at the young redwood tree next door (at left in this photo). I saw that look on Dad’s face many times: awe of creation in all its variety, love of nature. He would mark the tree’s growth, noting that while he could still see the tip from our position beneath the roof of the porch, he would soon have to crane his neck to see where it met the sky.

I’ve always had the feeling of being in a relationship with trees. When I was five, we moved from Honolulu to Seattle after a disastrous couple of years. The ground had faltered beneath me: Dad had nearly died from a massive heart attack, and we lost Nana, my maternal grandmother, the year prior. I often fled to a tree in Roanoke Park, where hours slipped by as I invisibly watched people walk through the park or I curled up and let my imagination loose in lengthy daydreams.

That tree was my refuge and my friend, even as the redwood tree and camphor tree became my father’s companions. They may not have said much, but their reassuring gentle presence was a gift.

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“Be Careful What You Wish For…”

newpaper

I read the entire paper this morning – I mean, every section of the New York Times and some of the Sacramento Bee.

While being a caregiver can be deeply rewarding, every caregiver has her little resentments. My big one was never being able to read the paper before Dad took it over. When he stopped being able to read the paper in his last weeks, I was working too hard at caregiving to read. Reading the paper became symbolic of the freedom I lost as a caregiver.

Now, I have freedom, complete freedom to spend my mornings as I choose, reading the paper over a cup of coffee.

This morning I asked myself, “This? This is what you longed for?”

And I answered, “It wasn’t worth it. I’d trade a thousand mornings of reading the paper for a thousand mornings with Dad.”

 

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