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The Sunset Years

Eileen reach for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

Reaching for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

A little heartbreaker on my way back from workout this morning. A familiar elfin woman strolled down the street, her hands clasped behind her back. Should I ask her? Until a few weeks ago, she’d always been with her husband. The two looked like the movie trope about the sunset years, in which the elderly couple walks hand in hand, smiling. And something about her reminded me of my mother. They were a neighborhood fixture, along with the woman who walks her two horses, the young parents with the double-wide stroller and two wiemaraners, and the walking-talking lawyer, always on a moving conference call. But the couple was my favorite. I imagined my mother and father into their shoes, living their last years together.

I decided to ask.

She shook her head and said, “He passed away.”

I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled that I’d always enjoyed seeing them out together and had noticed his absence. I felt it now, and was sorry for her loss.

“He was brave to the end,” she said, with her faint German accent. Her smile was still there, politely friendly to this inquiring stranger. Her eyes watered.

I remembered sitting with my father on the couch in my parents’ living room the day after my mother died. My mother was everywhere and nowhere. The living room had been redecorated with the help of an interior designer, but the scheme was all her. She chose light gold for the walls, carpet and drapes to compensate for the days the clouds hid the mountains and the landscape turned gray. She hated the dark. Of course there were pops of red, her signature color: true-red cherry blossoms on the Japanese screen, pink-red cranberry glass on the window sill, wine-red velvet on my grandmother’s chair. Next to the couch were the leather-topped end tables for which she constantly admonished us to use a coaster; one had a cigarette burn. I couldn’t imagine her having caused it, even after a glass of wine. She gave up smoking a few times but never kicked the habit. In fourth grade, I conducted my first communications campaign, barraging her with block-lettered “ads” bearing the P.S., “I don’t want you to die!” In the end, smoking killed her, but dementia robbed us of her before that.

I didn’t know how my father would live without her. They were one until death split them asunder.

But in grief there was still memory. At least he still had her image, the moments bad and good. Toward the end, my father said he could no longer remember my mother’s face. That struck me as cruel on God’s part. How could she go missing?

The old couple, walking down the street, always holding hands, allowed me to construct an image of my parents together. A pretend game that gave them back to me, just for a minute. The couple never knew. I never said a word until today. When the woman turned to me, inside the protection of my car, her grief was naked. I hope I let her know that it mattered, that a stranger noticed her beautiful partner was missing. I hope his memory never will be.

Writer’s note: I’ve been silent while working hard on manuscripts for my Bennington College Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. Graduation in June 2016, fingers crossed! Most of what I’m writing doesn’t quite fit the voice of “The Henry Chronicles” but periodically you’ll find me back here! It’s now been two-and-a-half years since my father died. Sometimes it seems longer ago, and sometimes like a few weeks ago. I continue to learn from him even now.


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Going The Distance

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

On a good night, when the wine was flowing and we were gathered as a family around the dinner table, my father told jokes. My brother Bruce and I were given to puns of the worst sort, and for a time I specialized in the foul humor I picked up from the ad agency where I worked, but Dad was the family story teller. One of us usually handed him a cue, a short sidelong reference like, “There’s a pony in there.” Off to the races he’d go.

He straightened, there at the head of the table, and made eye contact with his audience as if to ask if we really wanted to hear that old story. His pause, his expectant look, was all he needed to gather us in.

There was one about the boy who found a strange spotted creature he called a “rarey” that began to grow so fast it threatened hearth and home, prompting the boy to load it in a truck and attempt to drop it over the edge of a cliff on a high mountain peak. The punch line? “That’s a long, long way to tip a Rarey.” (Insert groan here.)

But my favorite was the one about the optimist and the pessimist.

He avoided the usual start. No “once upon a time.” My father launched right into the action of the story, setting the stage. In the setup for the optimist and the pessimist, he described a family’s problem with a pair of twins. One looked on the bright side of everything, so much so that he could imagine no problem that could not be surmounted or that wouldn’t dissipate all by itself. The other saw only gloom and doom, and no matter what wonderful opportunities arose, he felt he was sure to fail. The parents decide to engineer a resolution by giving the optimist truly terrible Christmas presents and the pessimist, truly wonderful ones. The story ends with the parents standing by, confounded, while their optimist son gleefully digs in a huge pile of horse manure, exclaiming, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!”

My father loved to tell stories, but in the end, he left me a riddle. My father, who was doled out more than his fair share of dung in life, never gave up, never became bitter, never stopped believing in the possibility that things would get better. While many people become curmudgeonly as they age, he became gentler. Why? What drove him?

If my mother had her druthers, the answer would be faith. Her faith sustained her through the loss of her father while still in her twenties, the war, the loss of her daughter to leukemia, the death of her mother, and the long frightening years of my father’s struggle with heart disease. Resting on the levee of the river during one of our many walks, I asked my father if he believed in God. I wanted to hear him say yes. I wanted that little bit of reassurance that, when the time came, he would be welcomed into heaven to join my mother, even as the little doubter in my own mind wondered if that’s what really happens after we die. “I wish I could believe,” he told me. He just couldn’t make the leap from concrete reality to ephemeral faith. The closest he ever came to saying he believed in an afterlife was to say he looked forward to seeing my mother again.

Perhaps it was love that fueled him. Love, to my father, wasn’t about what you said, it was what you did. His place in the middle of three sons, with an emotionally abusive father and a bully for an older brother, had a lasting effect on his dedication to others. My grandmother lived out her last years in a convalescent home in our community. After he ate with us, my father took her dinner every night. I’ll be honest. I didn’t like my grandmother, and she didn’t like me (she thought I was entirely too outspoken, my father confirmed much later). Why my father would want to spend time with such a sour old woman I couldn’t understand. But in his last years, I saw my grandmother as my father saw her: she was a gentle woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering egotist. I remember how her face softened, how something flickered across her features, when my father spoke to her. His nightly visits were driven by more than filial duty. They were borne out of love.

Or maybe it was hope that kept him going. Within a week of his death, he still believed he could recover his strength, if he just got out there and started walking again. Anthony Scioli, a professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, has been investigating the link between hope and health. Writing in Spirituality & Health magazine, Louise Danielle Palmer summarized his conclusion, that “…hopeful people tend to be more resilient, more trusting, more open, and more motivated than those less hopeful, so they are likely to receive more from the world, which in turn makes them more hopeful.”

I’ve used a lot of trite quips to explain my father to others. “Like a Timex, he took a licking and kept on ticking.” His health challenges alone would have flattened most men: three heart attacks, three open heart surgeries and three strokes.” While we were growing up and he still had our college educations on the horizon, I know he felt he had to recover. He had to provide. That was duty. But how do you explain his dedication to come back from strokes after my mother died, after his duty was discharged?

He did it a step at a time. With the help of a physical therapist, he learned to concentrate on swinging his weaker left leg and striking with his heel. He had to think about each step to avoid stumbling. When he was in acute rehab at the UW Medical Center, I remember how proud of himself he was when he demonstrated the new skill he had relearned with the occupational therapist: he made me a cup of instant hot cocoa. Even now, when I write about it, I cry. To be so reduced by a stroke that completing the steps – take out a cup, fill it with water, microwave it, pour in the cocoa and stir – was an accomplishment. It could have been humiliating, but it wasn’t. It was a milestone. A good day. The medical professionals predicted he would be wheelchair bound; then they revised it to “he’ll never walk independently without a walker.” But he did. For years, he just used a cane.

Every day on our walk, he set a goal. Sometimes it was to make it no farther than the third driveway down. He felt the load in his chest, was breathing hard, but he rarely stopped short of his goal. When I said that most people would quit when they started to feel the strain, he simply said, “Every day I try to go a little farther.”

My father went the distance.

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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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“I Pray to Float”


Only two young children were brave enough to join Rev. Mary when she asked for help with the sermon this morning. They shyly approached the front of the church where Mary awaited with pens and index cards.

Staying engaged in the liturgy had been a struggle. I kept turning over and over in my head a comment that really bothered me. At a recent memorial service in the same Episcopal church, a visitor — someone I know well — remarked that they really hated canned prayers. “In our church, we think you should just talk straight to the Big Guy,” she said to me. “There shouldn’t be anyone between you and God.”

As I sat in church, surrounded mostly by gray haired people, reciting prayers together and warbling through nineteenth century tunes with eighteenth century lyrics, I could see how it would seem foreign, formal, maybe even forced to someone who gravitates toward a Big Box evangelical church.

But I found it welcoming and comforting, like being held in my mother’s arms.

For once upon a time, I did lean against my mother’s ample breast as she added her voice to the church choir. I, too, was a little shy. I disliked church school, which my brother dutifully attended during the grown up part of the service. Rather than sit alone, I joined my mother in the choir, and sang along as best I could.

I was also thinking about Memorial Day. Last year, I remember a man rose during the service and paid homage to a friend of his who fell in battle, long, long ago, when they were both young men. “I will never forget,” he said.

As the children stared up at Rev. Mary this morning, she explained that she would give them index cards and some pens to write a prayer. Their prayer would be read during the Prayers of the People, which came next. They were asked to give the cards and pens they didn’t need to someone in the congregation.

With trepidation, little Carrie began walking down the aisle. Mary said, “Just close your eyes and give it to someone.” Her blue sparkly shoes advanced methodically, first the right heel, then the toe, then the left heel, and the toe.

“Pssssst,” I whispered to her. “Psssst.” Her eyes still closed, she inched in my direction. At last she opened them and handed me a card.

On it, accompanied by hand-drawn symbols, I wrote this message: “For love and healing for those who served (and serve), and those who waited (and wait). May their hearts find peace.”

Ripples extend each time someone dies. They flatten in widening circles with time and distance. But the ripples remain even when they move beyond our sight.

Church for me is a time of communion. I’m not referring to the gathering of a supportive Christian community (though it is that), or the sharing of the sacrament that we call communion.

Church is a place where I feel close to my parents, and my mother in particular, who was a dyed-in-the-wool Episcopalian. It is a place that lives out of time, a place between this world and whatever follows it.

Poet David Whyte recently published this line:

“Beauty especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless; the passing moment framed by what has happened and what is about to occur.”

When it came time for the Prayers of the People, Rev. Mary read what little Carrie had written, her heart’s longing:

“I pray to float.”

This morning, I floated — thinking of those who have died, praying for those who remain, and held by the familiarity of a liturgy that is embedded in my bones.

(I wrote about my father’s service during WWII last year in this post and about my mother’s role holding down the homefront in this one.)


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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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Love Three Times Over

When my husband asked me to marry him thirty-two years ago, I’d have said yes right away, if I hadn’t missed the proposal.

That Christmas afternoon, I was downstairs, watching TV in my bathrobe, happy for a day off work. The gifting was over, I’d helped Mom get the turkey in the oven, and I was well and properly sated from our big holiday breakfast.

“Bets!” Mom yelled from the top of the stairs, “You should get dressed!”

“Why?” I asked her.

“Your brothers are coming!”

My brothers were not a good reason to vacate my cozy spot by the fire. I could have cared less if my brothers thought I had fallen to ruin.

A little while later, I heard a commotion by the front door, a very quiet commotion. Now a “quiet commotion” may seem like an oxymoron but it’s the only way I can describe it. The doorbell rang, my mother walked rapidly from the kitchen across the entry hall slate floor, and there was a quick squeak of greeting followed immediately by silence. Usually you’d hear greetings exchanged and conversation. The soundproofing between floors wasn’t great and my mother was by no means quiet.

The door at the top of the stairs opened and someone proceeded down the steps, the third from the bottom squeaking as always (left hand side, a dead give away if you were trying to sneak in or out). I leaned to the side of the recliner so I could see who was arriving.

My boyfriend, Todd, was smiling at me from the foot of the stairs. My heart performed a little pirouette and I jumped out of the chair and into his arms. He was supposed to be to be at his folks’ house in Sacramento.

We’d been dating for thirteen months, the last four long distance, while I tried to get a foothold in my chosen career by taking the second opportunity to come my way, an advertising agency in Los Angeles. The first I’d been offered after sending out seventy-five resumes: a plum job in the marketing department of a regional food manufacturer. In New Orleans. Todd had comforted me on the beach in Tahoe while I cried, weighing my decision. Taking that job would most likely lead to the end of “us.” It was just too far — too expensive — to sustain a long-distance relationship.

Commuting to see each other between Los Angeles and Sacramento had proven hard enough. We reserved cheap midnight seats from LAX to Oakland on Trans World Airlines. Back in the day, you could snag cheap seats without paying for them in advance. But even at fifty dollars or so a trip, we could only afford to see each other every three weeks or so.

Just seeing Todd thrilled me. Seeing him for Christmas was even better.

After dinner was over and we’d spent hours talking, it was finally time for bed. Mom directed Todd to sleep in my brother Dean’s former room below the kitchen. My room was on the far side of the recreation room. After long, luxurious kisses goodnight, I followed the house rules and retired to my own bedroom. On my pillow was a final gift, along with an envelope.

I opened the small square package to find a picture of the two of us taken a few weeks prior. We sat smiling beneath Todd’s mother’s flower pots on her front porch. The envelope turned out to contain airline tickets for two to Hawaii.

I ran back to his room and jumped on the bed, thanking him with kisses. We were going to Hawaii!

“Well?” Todd asked.

“Well, what?”

“Well, will you?”

“Will I what?”

“Did you read the back of the picture?”

The blank look on my face was his answer. “Go read the back! And look at the tickets!”

I returned to my room and flipped over the picture. There, on the back, was a proposal. For marriage. And the tickets were made out for Mr. and Mrs. Todd Stone.

My heart thundered. I was thrilled and terrified. This was not my plan. I was a product of the late 70s, when women were told they could have it all. I was fully subscribed to the idea that I would pursue my career full tilt and not have children until I was 35. First I would live my life. Marrying Todd would mean leaving my job and moving to Sacramento. I couldn’t see being a long-distance newlywed.

If I said “not yet” to Todd, I knew he would understand but the moment would be lost, deflated.

I returned to his room, where he waited impatiently. I said yes. We stayed up for hours, taking it in, talking (and not talking). We were engaged. Just like that. The planner’s plan foiled, a new life born.

But that’s not the end of the story. The next scene is what I thought of when I first awakened this morning.

That December 26 was my parents’ fortieth anniversary. Just before dinner that evening, Todd and I asked my mother and father to join us in the dining room. They stopped their preparations for a small cocktail gathering of friends — Mom was finishing some “pupus” and Dad was setting up the bar, fishing liquor bottles out of the small hutch that served as his liquor cabinet.

They broke into smiles when they saw my grandmother’s gold rimmed slipper champagne glasses. “We wanted to toast your anniversary,” Todd began. He popped the cork and filled our glasses. Tiny bubbles danced upward.

All four of us lifted our glasses in unison. Todd interrupted, “And I wanted to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

That had been part of our discussion in the early morning hours. Should he “ask for my hand” or announce our engagement? We followed tradition.

Forty years before, Mom and Dad had found a minister to marry them the day after Christmas, while Dad was given twelve hours leave for that purpose. It was nineteen days after Pearl Harbor. More attacks on American soil were expected. A submarine could sail right up the Potomoc and attack the nation’s capital. Granting leave for purposes of getting married was not part of the drill in Quantico.

Getting married wasn’t part of Dad’s plan, either.

After Pearl Harbor, Mom had cabled Dad that she was taking the next train east, to be married. Knowing the mortality rate of Marine Corps second lieutenants in war, he didn’t want her to be widowed and therefore had avoided settling on marriage, but it didn’t surprise him that she had ignored his objections and declared victory.

Today is a triple anniversary. Today would have been Mom and Dad’s sixty-second anniversary. Today marks the thirty-second anniversary of my engagement. And today is the first December 26 when neither Mom nor Dad are here to mark the date.

None of those anniversaries are forgotten.

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Trying to See

Bookmark by Tommy StoneAs I finished my last blog post, my daughter was quietly singing Billie Holiday’s hit, “I’ll be seeing you.” She sang the last line as I put the coda on my post.

After my father’s death, my mentor Jim suggested that I focus less on DO-ing and more on BE-ing. Other friends have passed along their systems for appreciating the blessings in our everyday lives including the 21-Day Gratitude Challenge. But I feel like I have to take a step even further back, back to seeing.

My third grade teacher observed that I could read quickly, but didn’t retain what I read. I was too impatient. My bedside table at home looks like a mini-library because I tend to start one book only to become distracted by another. I flit between categories: travel literature, memoir, nonfiction about death and dying, novels and what I like to call “Cheetos” literature for its complete lack of nutritional value and dependence on artificial coloring. Such escapist reading leaves nothing behind except the tell-tale orange ring around one’s lips.

I have to write a critical essay about a book that changed my life. That’s a tall order, one I don’t think I can fulfill. But the first book that came to mind was one I never finished. At the time, I found it beautiful but tedious. The book was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Since we moved from Davis to Sacramento, I have maintained a discipline about how many books I can keep. I have room for about 150 books, and it’s survival of the fittest. If I add a book that I want to keep, I force myself get rid of others. Otherwise the whole house will start looking like a giant version of my bedside table. I know I am at risk of book hoarding.

Why did Dillard’s book come first to mind when I didn’t even like it?

A handmade bookmark with a scalloped edge and yarn tie extended out of the book. The outlined letters were colored in with crayon, reading, “Happy Mother’s Day! Love Tommy.” On the reverse, Tommy had colored a tulip red and a vase robin’s egg blue.

It marked page 33, where I read this:

“Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, ‘not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.’ My eyes alone can’t solve analogy tests using figures, the ones which show, with increasing elaborations, a big square, then a small square, then a small square in a big square, then a big triangle, and expect me to find a small triangle in a big triangle. I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing…. I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry…. But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without my camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way, I am an unscrupulous observer.”

When did Tommy make that bookmark for me, I wondered? He might have been five, six or seven — young, anyway. If he was seven, Maddie was 12. And my mother was dying.

I worked for an international public relations firm where I led the firm’s West Coast health care practice. I was at a meeting of the practice in New York City when I got the call that my mother was in the hospital with lungs full of fluid. They confirmed advanced lung cancer, and expected that she had only weeks to live.

My boss told me to take all the time I needed. With the help of hospice, Mom stabilized when we were finally able to get her home. We watched her fade before our eyes for three and a half months.

When I returned to work, my functional boss had to deliver the ultimatum that came down from on-high. Get business up, fast. Mom, he acknowledged, had taken too long to die for the taste of our overseers.

Somewhere during that period, I was trying to read Dillard.

My impatience has caused me to miss a lot, but I find that the images are still there, and I am slowly making my way backward, making sense of my experiences. I am reconnecting with people who have been important to me, but with whom I had lost touch. I am visiting places and imagining them through the eyes of my father, as I did when I visited Marine Barracks last spring and summer. I am retracing my own steps and remembering how I felt when I walked the same path a year ago.

I am trying to see.

I’ll find you in the morning sun/ And when the night is new/ I’ll be looking at the moon/ But I’ll be seeing you.

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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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Darkened Windows

The windows of the corner room in my house were dark when I pulled in last night, which should have been no surprise. With a few exceptions, they have been dark since January.

I stopped the car in the driveway and thought about what was missing.

The glow of the television through the shutters was usually the thing that caught my attention. Even from the driveway, I could see images from the The Military History Channel strobing from light to dark in the shadowed room. In the foreground, Dad’s face was revealed when brighter images flashed on the screen. I could see him tilted back in his recliner.

He was waiting for me to come home.

As a teenager and young adult, I often returned home late. I’d turn the key in the lock as quietly as I could and take off my shoes so they wouldn’t make a racket on the green slate entry hall floor. At the sliding door that separated the hallway from the kitchen, one of our Springers would be snuffling along the half inch gap below the door. Slowly, I’d slide the pocket door open an inch or two, just enough to pat the soft brown head before closing the door and heading downstairs to my basement bedroom.

A few minutes later, it would start: Dad “buttoning up” the house. The springs of my father’s twin bed would complain and the wood floor creak slightly as he rose for his nightly rounds. Three steps to the end of the bed, another five or six to the doorway. It was quiet for a count of ten as he padded down the carpeted hallway past the bathroom, turning left into the front hall. Then a series of clicks: push-push, push-push. My parents’ 50s era house had buttons instead of switches to operate the lights, and none of us ever managed to remember exactly which switch operated what. So turning off the lights meant pushing the buttons to check whether everything was shut down. Then in reverse: movement down the hall, bathroom stop, bedroom door firmly closed, steps to bed, bed springs sounding their dissonant chord several times before Dad settled down. The house was secure.

This time last year, Dad would have been listening for the sounds of my return. He liked to retire by 10 p.m., but he’d often delay his bedtime if I wasn’t back. The bombs of Iwo Jima had decimated his hearing so much that he didn’t even turn on the television sound, relying instead on the closed captions. But something about the squeal of the garage door springs and the heavy whump of the door where we entered from the garage were within the range of his hearing.

When I peeked in, he’d be watching the door rather than the tv. “There you are, Bets. Did you have a good time?” He’d say he thought he’d retire, and I’d kiss him on the cheek. See you in the morning. “Shut the door, please,” he’d ask, so that the cat wouldn’t visit him during the night.

These days, his corner room is dark. And yet I feel he is still present.


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