Alice: Praising My Mother-in-Law: Everyday Magic, Day 957

Yesterday, we held the memorial service for my mother-in-law, Alice Elizabeth Wells Lassman (obituary here). After crowd-sourcing some of the details for this poem from her children (including my husband), here’s what I wrote for the woman who was and continues to be so big in my life and heart. I’m deeply grateful for her raising some a wonderful son and being an amazing grandmother to my kids and all my nieces and nephews.

Alice

She was a fierce protector of all she loved,

a passionate holder of babies and truths,

and oil-painting and apple-pie-making devotee,

who fell in love with her driving teacher

and made with him a tumble of generations.

A lover of outside and tolerator of inside, she praised God

in the nuances of cardinals landing and starlings rising,

as well as in this very church, holding her candle high

on Christmas Eve, pouring her voice into the rolling river

of the hymn. She believed in angels and ice cream,

making something out of nothing, and the utter perfection

of each of her grandchildren. She was a mother defender

of the Jayhawks and the moral order, the power of reading

and making her own ketchup from homegrown tomatoes.

A sycamore admirer and petunia lover, she planted

a carnival of impatiences each spring, and because

she didn’t suffer foolish invasives lightly, she crawled

on her hands and knees to clear vinca from lily-of-the-valley.

She was a benevolent ruler of guinea hens,

letting them live out old age in the shade of the elms.

She was a rescuer of baby bunnies, abandoned kittens,

confused dogs, and even a monkey once.

She journeyed to the center and ends of thousands of

Reader’s Digest condensed books, Science News articles,

and Guideposts meditations. A traveler of great cheer

who delighted in Swahili phrases in Kenya, surprise blossoms

in Thailand, and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, she thrilled

with each new landing and returned home scrapbook-bound.

A voter and girl scout leader who believed in the strength of women,

she was a happy and frequent camper, a teacher of self-reliance

who made sure her daughters and son knew how

to whip up hamburger soup, do their own laundry,

and find their way around a library and prairie.

She was sure she knew, and that you had better know too,

the difference between right and wrong, and the price of freedom.

She was a stick-by-your-guns-even-if-you’re-the-only-one

beacon for babies and mothers, justice and hard work,

the essential goodness of humans, and the gift of being alive,

which keeps her heartbeat beating in time with ours

love by love by love by love by love.

Photos: (from top): Alice with her great-grandson Lucas, Alice and Gene with all their kids in the 1960s, Alice celebrating her 95th birthday, Alice and her twin plus her other sisters, Alice and a gaggle of grandkids, all looking cool

I Had No Idea! — Some of What Being a Mother Showed Me: Everyday Magic, Day 924

As part of a ceremony for a dear friend who’s about to become a mother, all the participants were asked how becoming a mother changed us. For me, answering that in is fullness would take several books or more, but for now, here’s what’s come to me about what motherhood has so far taught me. But first, a caveat: Being a parent as just one of many paths. I believe I would have learned other lessons and swam through other experiences, just as vital and valuable, so I offer these as just one summary of gems found on one of many paths.

I had no idea how how much unconditional love I was capable, and before becoming a mother, I only had a glance of this light I’ve now experienced panoramically. Yes, the intoxicating bliss-love of new babies, and to my great surprise, sleeping in bed with us for years because we had to be together. Yes, the sweetness of toddler-talk and sing-songy operas about going to buy shoes. Yes, the camping trips with a daughter in tutus and swirly dresses, and the middle-of-the-night whispering a son back to sleep when we were too sleep-deprived to put our clothes on right-side-out the next day. But so much more, especially when watching young adults driving their own lives.

I had no idea of how much their hurt would be my hurts when she or he was pushed out of the elementary-school-age or tween or teen hives, stung and bruised. I had no idea how hard it was to not be able to protect them from the pain of the world, or how much an illusion it is that parents can keep their children (and themselves) safe from cultural fucked-upness or peers’ cruelty or other parents’ judgments.

I had no idea what perseverance and love in action really meant, or how time and the life force are the greatest healers. I didn’t know what it was align ourselves with the power of the body and the mystery of spirit while pouring blue light, real or imagined, over a child to get him or her back to sleep after a nightmare.

I had no idea that the sweetest sound would be the youngest son laughing in his sleep, or the daughter alone in her room generic cialis online us singing a song she wrote while strumming her guitar, or the oldest son narrating a vision of women on another planet raising their hands while singing. I didn’t know how much I could bear listening to the same question thousands of times, or arguments for no good reason I could discern (except fear and hormones), or The Wizard of Oz book on tape a dozen times over a 14-hour drive. Or how I could bear my own pain as I drove away from him in front of his first college dorm, or from her in Minnesota, but then I didn’t know how distance makes no difference yet at those moments.

I had no idea how much I would love all of it, even the moments I hated and the times I fucked things up beyond what I thought forgiveable – the times I lost it and screamed at them, or tried to fix was clearly not mine to fix, or spoke when I should have stayed quiet, or didn’t step up when I should have, or made my love too thick or too thin – and then how we found our way to beginning again, holding each other and saying, “let’s start over,” and then starting over.

I had no idea how much we’d laugh ourselves into crying at movies that serve as family bibles – especially Almost Famous – or after extended family gatherings that show us how much we’re flourishing even out of dysfunctional roots, or while in the middle of the worst-tasting dinners during the longest road trips, or simply while watching Youtube videos about how Honey Badger Don’t Care or inventions that go awry. Or how we’re find pizza, cuddling under blankets, and even some laughter when the white’s tree frogs or rabbit or cat or dog or so many manner of reptiles died.

I had no idea what grace was until these three, and also how it doesn’t really matter how imperfect and human we all are because being a parent is just another way of being alive, just another path toward light and the sweet darkness, but also made of light and darkness. It’s a continual process of catch and release, welcome and say goodbye to, embrace and let go.

In Gratitude for Neil: Everyday Magic, Day 917

Neil, bottom left, last Hanukkah

In memory of Neil Salkind, who died today.

We sat at a small table in La Prima Tassa on a spring day filtering sunshine across our table, sipping tea and updating each other on our children. “Hey Pal, the thing is,” Neil said, “I want them to be happy. My job is simply to love them. That’s what we do as parents: we love them and want them to be happy.” I had just been inventorying my long list of anxieties about my kids when Neil’s words stopped me in my tracks. Yes, he was right, and I remembered his words a thousand and one times, reminding me how simple, and also at times, difficult it can be to love our children without any expectation but for their happiness.

I met Neil I-don’t-know-when through the Jewish center, probably in ’83 or so, and we immediately connected. We were both from Jersey, and the tone of his voice and his sense of humor felt like home to me. I looked for him during services and the annual Blintz Brunch, happy to simply be in his good humored company, laughing about whatever we could laugh about, which was almost everything, and occasionally sneaking in short in-depth talks about what matters in life, and what doesn’t. Neil wasn’t one for gossip, and instead directed his big energy toward what he loved: his work, his community, and especially his wife and children.

Neil was over the moon and past this solar system in love with Leni, his wife of over 49 years. They were the most affectionate couple I saw, whether sitting side by side for High Holidays, holding hands, leaning in to share a thought or memory, or around their home where Neil specialized in amazing cooking and baking (oh, his challah!). He adored Leni – her style, her stories, her art, her way of being in the world, and through his adoration he modeled for us a way to always show gratitude and wonder toward our beloveds. He also was enthralled with his kids Micah (and Micah’s husband) and Sara, and he reveled in their adventures, friendships, and accomplishments.

I also knew another angle of Neil: he was my literary agent before he retired from the grind, hustle, and thrill of making deals. He got Needle in the Bone, my non-fiction book about Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and he also tried valiantly to find Stephen Locke and me a publisher for Chasing Weather, our storm poetry and photography book. In the years we worked together in the book biz, he was consistently cheerful, supportive, and upbeat. We would do what we could, and he would bring great enthusiasm to the literary agenting, which he did.

He brought such enthusiasm to all aspects of his life, from setting out (with two other families) a huge spread for an annual Rosh Hashana community gathering held for years in his home to swimming competitively and in friendship with a long-time group of friends.

Then there’s Neil, the printer. Neil bought some old presses Ken’s dad, also a printer, collected, and he printed gorgeous letter-press broadsides with hand-set type. Recently, he did an beautiful and limited editing printing of a poem by Beth Schultz about the Jewish cemetery in Eudora. He printed my poem “Entering the Days of Awe” to sell as a fundraiser for the Jewish center as well as my poem “In Gratitude” as a fundraiser for the Transformative Language Arts Network.

Thinking of his work in printing “In Gratitude,” I’m struck by how Neil embodied a grateful life: he truly relished his connections with his friends, his community, his work (which was vast and off-the-charts successful as a professor, writer, literary agent, and many other roles), and especially his dearest beloveds. I’m grateful for what he showed me about living a grateful life, and for each conversation over coffee, lunch, or in the back of the synagogue, each hug, each time he called me “pal.” Here’s the poem he set and printed, which speaks of Neil’s legacy:

In Gratitude

The wind thanks you, unfurling over the worn

horizon so it can billow into night. The stars too,

whether talismans of light dying or just being born,

behind the small birds arriving or staying behind,

who balance gratefully on thin branches of coming winter.

The squirrel in the field, the hidden fox, the mammals

under and overground. The world is composed,

is composing itself anew even in a narrow time:

just before the red-winged blackbird folds

back in silhouette. Whatever act of kindness flies

lands in the heart of a moment, a seasonal marker

to illuminate why we live, a song of gratitude.

Loving Uncle Ron: Everyday Magic, Day 914

Another visit, another time to sort tools

It started with gerunds, a grammatical term for verbs that end in “ing.” To write directly and precisely, writers are supposed to avoid gerunds, Uncle Ron read in a tiny newspaper article that he clipped and sent to me.  He wrote me that when next we met, we needed to get to the bottom of this gerund business.

That was well over 30 years ago, and get to the bottom we did, along with picking up what we found at the bottom and tossing it back and forth over decades. The first time we talked about this in about 1985, I told Ron that some feminist scholars purposely used a lot of gerunds to reclaim the language shaped into sharp directives by men.  He thought that made sense, but mostly he questioned why people were supposed to write in as few syllables as possible; after all, what’s wrong with a little extra i-n-g-ing as you go? That may have made particular sense to Ron because he loved words, and loved to immerse himself in many of them for hours on end, talking until the cows came home and went out again the next morning.

But he did a whole lot more than talk. A former engineer who became a minister, marrying his beloved Wilma early in the process, and having four daughters (all who ended up with the initials JJJ), Ron liked to do things and get things done. Two or more times each year, he and Wilma would come stay with Ken’s folks (Ken’s mom is Wilma’s sister) on the farm to help out for weeks. Each day, Ken’s dad Gene  would go out with Ron to fix fences, clean out the eternally-refilling basement or barn,organize tools, or haul leaves and stack wood. Ron could seemingly build or fix just about anything, and he brought a lot of cheer to any job as well as a problem-solving spirit only an engineer-minister could mix together in the right potion.

Hauling Forest Around Too

Because Ron and Wilma were here so much, they became more like a second set of parents to us. This was somewhat formalized when we told the nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) — the day after our first son Daniel was born — that Ron and Wilma were my parents because otherwise, they wouldn’t have been allowed into the unit to calm us and the baby. Although Daniel was born at a nearby free-standing birthing center, because he inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out, he was slow to breathe on his own, and that week in NICU was treacherous for him and us. Having an extra set of very loving surrogate parents around reassured us, especially with both Ron and Wilma’s can-do, it’ll-all-work-out, have-faith-and-work-hard attitude.

Three years or so later, I was carrying another baby, Natalie, into my in-law’s house when Ron met me on the steps. I was frazzled and seriously doubting my ability to handle a toddler and newborn at once, and being sleep-deprived, broke, and in the middle of graduate school didn’t help. “What a fortunate baby!” Ron bellowed, going on to say how lucky our children were to have such smart and caring parents. Then he carried in the diaper bag and some groceries I had. He was like that — confident in a way that made me feel more confident, and seamlessly helping out however he could while joking around with Wilma, or co-narrating, in panoramic detail, one of their epic travel slide shows.

They made for a richer childhood for all our kids too. I remember when Daniel was about four years old how he paused making cherry pies with his grandma and Aunt Wilma — who were singing to him, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy…” — to run outside and ride in the wheel barrow Ron and his grandpa had ready for him. Rona nd Wilma juggled babies and dinners with us at many a meal at Furr’s Cafeteria or Perkins. Along with Ken’s parents, they were even waving to us from the porch of a friend’s house in Baldwin when we pulled up for a party that turned out to be a surprise baby shower for us. They were here, ready to lend a hand, share snapshots, and eat some hamburger soup with our growing family over many years.

When they weren’t in Kansas, they rode the circuit of their family, even hoofing it in a RV for a while. Ron and his son-in-law Jim built Jim and Judy’s house in Washington state, and Ron and Wilma babysat in Ohio, took a granddaughter on an adventure in California, or simply showed up wherever a moving van for a family member needed loading or unloading. They were outrageously active in their church, making a community out of strangers, and a tightly-knit family out of extended relatives.

This summer, we made the smarter-than-we-knew-at-the-time decision to visit Uncle Ron and Aunt Wilma along with other beloved family in Seattle. During that visit, I interviewed them about how they fell in love. It turns out that Ron asked Wilma out after he discovered the girl he first had his eye on wasn’t available. Wilma, clearly in love with Ron just as he was with her from the get-go, said she only agreed because she felt sorry for him. It’s somewhat of an involved story, but as they told it, as when they told many stories, they laughed at and teased each other, recalling how their first discussion was about which state was better, Washington or Kansas. “Well, anyone with any sense would know it was Kansas,” Wilma said although she’s spent a good part of her life with Ron in his native Washington. They turned their home states into states of love where people like me and so many others could feel supported, welcomed, and start to believe things were going to be okay.

Ron, Wilma, Judy, Jennifer, Joyce, Mark, and Ken

A few days ago Ron died at the ripe old age of 93 after a rich and vigorous life. Amazingly enough, one of his daughters, who had a condition with a life expectancy that she outlived by decades, died a few hours beforehand, the family able to be with each of them. I have no doubt that Ron is helping her navigate wherever they go next, and he’s doing so with his usual humor, cheer, and love.

Which brings me back to gerunds. By making a verb into a gerund, we make it into something more ongoing. I could say I miss Ron, but it’s even more immediate to say I am missing him, right in the state of feeling what I feel. I am loving Ron too, feeling so blessed that he was such a presence in our family, and through his presence, showed me a lot more about what family being family can be.

The Everyday Miracle of Rainbows: Everyday Magic, Day 904

I didn’t see my first rainbow until I was 12 on the day my newborn brother died. In the middle of our house stuffed with grieving relatives, my younger brother and I quietly sipped soup at the kitchen counter early that evening until I noticed something strange and beautiful in the backyard. Within seconds, all of us were outside, amazed by a perfect arc over our house while my grandmothers, first in Yiddish, then in English, hugged us and said this was the miracle God gave us after taking our brother.

Why I didn’t see a rainbow until I was 12 was because I wasn’t looking, not having imagined rainbows were possible in real life. Growing up in Brooklyn, then central New Jersey, there were also a lot of buildings, trees, houses, and shopping malls in the way.

After I married an rainbow whisperer, able to read the sky and aim us toward wherever the most likely rainbow is, I learned that rainbows, especially in areas of the country prone to late afternoon storms, can be everyday happenings. “Not rare but precious,” Ruth Gendler wrote about beauty in her book Notes on the Need for Beauty. Nothing could be truer of rainbows in summertime Kansas, where mountains and an excess of trees don’t get in the way.

How to see a rainbow? When the sun is nearing one horizon, and dark clouds fill the other horizon, look carefully at those dark clouds directly across from the sun. Although I’ve slept through many early morning rainbows, I do catch early evening ones. When our often southwest-to-northeast storms have moved past us, and the setting sun breaks through its western clouds, poof! There’s a rainbow somewhere.

Meteorologically, we know light , reflected, refracted and dispersed through water droplets, cooks up rainbows. Looking at the meaning gets more tricky although symbolism abounds bout light piercing darkness. After the flood, the crew, animals and humans, on Noah’s arc witnessed a helluva rainbow, which we can call a symbol of hope, miracles, redemption, new beginnings, and according to the tale and film Finian’s Rainbow, our heart’s deepest dreams coming true (check out Fred Astaire and Petula Clark singing “Look to the Rainbow”). Living in Kansas, we can never escape all manner of Wizard of Oz references (step outside of the state, and someone is bound to say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”).  But of course, we also claim one of the best rainbow songs and singers of all time — “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the ever-vibrant Judy Garland, who yearns to get the hell out of Kansas until she escapes. Then she yearns with all her being to be back under the rainbow.

Yesterday, walking into the Merc to buy a bunch of zucchini, one vibrant curve surprised me. As I stood at the entrance to the store in wonder, I pointed out the rainbow to a woman about to shop also. “Look like God has given us!” she said while starting to cry. “Yes,” I answered her. We both stared into the rainbow, taking many photos with our phones, which alerted would-be shoppers to stop and look up.

Driving home, it was rainbow slivers and half-arcs all the way until  a full rainbow, so vibrant and stunning that I couldn’t help but back myself up into the chigger-and-tick-filled tallgrass to take more photos. I remembered how the arc is just part of the full circle of a rainbow, which puts me in mind of a song Kelley Hunt and I wrote called “Miracle” with this chorus:

A round rainbow is called a glory.

What you survive in life is called a glory.

You never see the arc of it until after the storm.

To see the whole miracle, you have to hold on.

The workaday miracle is where you belong.

Last night’s rainbow, like the first rainbow I ever saw, soared over my home, reminding me again of the everyday miracles we’ve given, and also how we can never see the whole miracle until after the storm.