New Quilt, Old Treasures

         I’m again at a crossroads with my handsewn quilt, which is part creative expression and part investigative learning. I finished my first quilt during the 2020-2021 pandemic years, which is its own story. Since I was doing it at home alone, the internet became my best resource. Hand quilting is almost a lost art, and it’s been challenging to find answers to my many questions. I watch videos about quilting, and then adapt what I see to what I’m trying to do by hand. It’s interesting to watch a variety of quilters and their personal techniques, which helped me realize that although I’m doing a traditional sewing project, it’s also an open platform for my own creative ideas. I can literally make it however I want.

            I enjoyed quilting so much that I immediately started making a second quilt. I found a wonderful local quilt shop and proprietor who listens to my novice questions and admires my stitching. She often posts photos of new fabric and packets of squares already cut, and I fell in love with a bold color palette of retro prints. After agonizing for weeks about what to use as a neutral, I chose one of the prints in the set, a light gray with tiny dominoes. The quilt pattern I chose is called June Squares, and the blocks are now pieced together to form the body of the quilt. The next step is adding any decorative stitching I choose inside the neutral borders, thus the temporary halt.

            The gray thread I’m using doesn’t show up well with the tiny domino motif, so I had the idea of trying some different weights of thread for a bolder look. Also, my needle is very small, so I retrieved my sewing box out of the hallway linen closet in search of larger needles with bigger eyes.

            My sewing box is a Converse shoe box that I’ve moved around with me through the years. It contains the usual jumble of basic sewing essentials, but I found only small needles. The I spotted the vintage sewing box that belonged to my husband Gaylon’s mother, which has been in the closet for years. I decided to look through it for things that might be useful for my quilting project.

            Gaylon and I married later in life, and both sets of our parents died long before we found each other. I know my mother-in-law only through photos and stories and snippets of history she left behind. She had a helpful habit of putting small handwritten tags on heirlooms with information about who it belonged to or where it came from. I found this note inside the lid:

            “Sewing box used by Leona Carter in the 20’s thru 40’s, then by Vivian”

            Not only were some of the items inside the sewing box used by Gaylon’s mother, Vivian, but also his grandmother, Leona, starting in the early 1920s. Respectfully, I lifted things out one at a time. On top was a hefty pair of stainless-steel scissors, in excellent condition, and I instantly claimed them for my sewing table. There were various hooks and eyes still sewn onto cardboard, loose buttons, colorful spools of thread, a requisite red pin cushion with the little strawberry hanging off the top, and into it poked a wide array of needles. I also found a small silver thimble which fit my finger perfectly. I took the thimble plus a couple of needles and put everything back in order, the way she had left it for future sewers.

            I’ll add the handful of buttons to my own mother’s button box, also in the closet. I have memories of sitting on her bed, my small hands sifting and sorting the buttons like precious jewels, some 60-plus years ago. I’m excited to work on this next phase of my quilt using my newly acquired treasures. The shiny silver scissors are now in full view on my sewing table and have already become integral to my process. These newly found treasures are symbols of our joined lives, the piecing together of family histories into a new, colorful piece of art.

Love with Grace

My eyes teared up as I read the post on social media, written by a high school friend of my son, Ben. She’s recently posted several times about her sister who is in the hospital, hanging onto life as one body function after another fails. But the information has been limited with no other details.

That is, until today when she posted a message from her sister, who revealed that she has abused drugs and alcohol for most of her adult life, and it has ravaged her body. She wants everyone to know the truth of what is happening, and why. Her desire to come clean to people she doesn’t even know caused my tears. In doing so she’s also confronting herself, her reality. She’s in crisis but alert enough to know that if she survives this, it’s a gift to start anew.

There are parts of this story that speak directly to me. My son’s friend, now a woman in her mid-40s, is a beautiful, successful, happy person with a family and fulfilling career. Her sister seems to have taken a different life path. But they have a sibling bond that is strong as one takes care of the other in this most dire circumstance.

I take care of my younger brother who is in prison. My parents died years ago, as did two other younger brothers. He has no life partner or children, only me. Now a 62-year-old man, he’s docile, introverted, settled into a sparce life in a small cell with another inmate. He works in the kitchen, reads books and magazines, and watches TV. He calls me often and I always answer, hoping it’s only because he’s lonely and not because there’s a problem. I send money and give him sisterly, and often motherly, love. “Love you bunches,” we say to each other at the end of each call.

Some people turn their backs on a troubled family member that they perceive has made bad choices or see as weak or ignorant. We make choices to protect ourselves, especially when there are long established patterns of hurt. I think I choose to help because when I look back at my family life, unlike my brothers, I was lucky to have opportunities and outside support that changed my life path. I have survivor’s guilt. How did I get so lucky? And why?

The other part of the woman’s story that I relate to is harder to reveal. In my late 30s/early 40s, as a newly single woman, I got involved with someone who drank a lot of alcohol and did cocaine. This lifestyle felt familiar to me because of my alcoholic father, and my brothers drank and used drugs. I was devastated by the loss of my marriage and found that taking such a drastic turn from my past life into one of partying helped numb my pain. Then my first grandchild was born, and I stopped doing drugs. But I was involved in a lifestyle of drinking alcohol that I continued while dealing with my ongoing circumstance. It took a few more years to break that cycle.

It wasn’t all bad; there were successes and good things of which I’m proud. I earned a college degree and performed live music. I enjoyed my work and friendships. I spent quality time with my sons and their growing families. I also had to handle hard things including several deaths, my mother’s depression, and the arrest and conviction of my brother. But I still have regrets about the past. I put myself at risk, wasted time and energy on partying and hangovers, and lost my self-control and common sense. Eventually I reclaimed my life and gave myself another chance. Again, somehow, I was blessed with luck. I am extremely lucky. I’m thankful I didn’t harm anyone else, and I found a life partner who has helped me come to terms with my past. I believe that what I went through ultimately changed me for the better.

My life experience has given me deep empathy for people. I lost my precious son Ben to brain cancer in 2004. When I visit my brother in prison, I see other inmates’ loved ones ranging in age from newborn to elderly. Each one hurts just like me. How our life will evolve begins with the luck of when and where we are born. Life is hard. Trial and error, mistakes and redemption. I understand what my son’s loving friend is going through as she sits day and night by her sister’s hospital bed, hoping for a miracle. I also understand her sister. Love with grace. Have mercy.

January 2022, Here and Gone

It’s 2022 and January is already over. Where did it go and what did I do? Time goes by fast and disappears into the ether. I can’t get it back. Time moves forward whether I do anything or not.

I value time more now than when I was younger. I’m retired and the boss of my own time. I’ve always stayed busy, working a full-time job, while also making music. Time with my family and friends is a top priority. Finally, I have all the time in the world to do whatever I want. Yet time quickly fades from sun into twilight. I can never get it back. Why do I let it tick by with nothing to show? Do I take time for granted? Pandemic depression?

A few days ago, I read a sweet story in the New York Times about a second grader who handwrote a book and put it on a shelf in his local library. It’s got misspelled words and roughly drawn illustrations, but he set out to do it and is proud of his accomplishment. Someone at the library found the book and checked it out, and now there’s a long waiting list of folks waiting to read it. This boy is inspiring other kids to write books. It also inspired this grandma writing to you now. He was compelled to write a book and he did it. Creative people don’t question what it is they need to create, they simply do it. It’s their passion, a spark, a gift they were born with.

Unfortunately, some people learn from childhood to suppress that spark. Often it’s because of comments from insensitive authority figures. People of all ages are disadvantaged, busy, distracted, or overwhelmed by the complications of life. They hide that spark or push it down, but it’s still there, like a tiny seed under the dirt. Give it a little light and sprinkle on a little water, and it just might come out.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I do think of the new year as a marker to begin anew. While I wait out the cold Midwest winter, I’m working on some projects that I’ll talk about in future essays. I’ve got the time. Just now, I typed up this stream-of-consciousness piece about writing, with my only goal to not worry about perfection and get it out into the world.

Keep on flying, 2022. I’m grabbing ahold of your tailwind to see where it goes.

Toilet Paper Is the Least of Our Worries

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The United States is late to the party. The nation’s top leadership is unreliable, and we’re spoiled. We’ve been force-fed a superiority complex for years, meaningless against an unknown, fast moving virus for which we have no immunity. I could stay away from social media and news sources and live in a cloud of denial. Or, I could question the ramifications of the privileged way of life I live.

At the beginning of the pandemic I laughed about the toilet paper rush. The Covid-19 virus attacks lungs, not intestines. Why are people panicking over a lack of toilet paper? But as days go by and the threat of isolation looms long, I’ve started questioning my own dependence on toilet paper. For one thing, I now pay attention to how much I use. Do I really need a handful? Am I that afraid of touching my own bodily waste, created from the food I eat for nourishment?

Then I read an article written by someone outside of the U.S. who said that Americans don’t use toilet paper correctly. He listed the toilet habits of other countries, and their use of water for a thorough rinsing. He even suggested one could use soap and water…with their own hands. You’re washing your hands anyway, he said. Americans walk around with “stinky butts,” he claimed. No amount of scraping with dry toilet paper was going to help with that.

A good friend shared a personal story on social media about her upbringing in the Ozarks of rural Missouri. Her family of thirteen siblings had no inside bathroom or running water. She grew up using an outhouse and drinking water from a stream. Her main point was that she and her family survived that, and we can survive this. An incredulous reader asked what they used for toilet paper? Her answer is just what you’d expect…the siblings all vied for the index pages from the Sears catalog because they were the softest, she explained. Her post was directed at those hoarding supplies. But the overall message is that for the most part, we’re strong, resilient and adaptable.

Another friend emailed a group I’m part of and mentioned she had stocked up on facial tissue which she could use for TP if necessary. Except, I once read an article about the things we should not flush down the toilet, and the most surprising item was facial tissue. It’s made using a stronger weave of fibers that’s not meant to dissolve like toilet paper and clogs up sewer pipes. Who among us has flushed facial tissues down the toilet? I don’t now but I didn’t know any better the previous 60+ years of my life.

When I heard that schools were closing for the rest of the semester, my thoughts went to a friend, a retired teacher, who lives 70 miles outside of Kansas City. She is also a minister, and volunteers at the local food pantry serving meals and interacting with the people who utilize this service. She once told me that that over 70% of school children in that community rely on subsidized food. There are many, many issues more important than toilet paper, which is way down the list of things we can live without. As we spend more time in social isolation, watching the number of deaths rise and the financial world break down, our priorities will surely change.

In the meantime, stay home and stay safe. Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Create home projects, read books, write your memoir, make phone calls to friends and family. Ration your use of toilet paper — and everything else — while we figure this out. Peace.

 

 

An Angel on Earth

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Photo by Tejas Prajapati on Pexels.com

          She reached out to me online, inviting me to join a women’s holiday singing group. We connected on social media; I think she may have posted that she was looking for women harmony singers and I responded. At that time MySpace was still popular for musicians, and she found my page and listened to some of my original songs, noticing our shared love of strong harmony vocals.

We met at her house in a sketchy part of town, but that was Emily*. She loves people and lives without fear, and her neighbors seemed to watch out for her. Her home was full of reclaimed furniture and eclectic décor, reflecting her bohemian nature. The group of women she gathered were from different parts of her life, including me, a stranger that she trustingly invited into her fold.

Emily and I became instant friends, bonding over singing, arranging music, and shared life experiences. The more we talked, the more I revealed about my unhappy marriage and desire to make a change. She offered observations, but mostly she offered a kind ear as she listened to me work through my situation and possible outcomes. One night she showed up at my house in a snowstorm with a bouquet of tulips she bought at a flower shop sale. She seemed to intuit when I needed support and encouragement.

Finally, I made the decision to leave my husband and start a new life. I rented an apartment nearby and gave him the news, which went horribly. My new place wasn’t available for two weeks, so we agreed that I would sleep in the guest room as we transitioned into a separation. But our problems escalated, now heightened to a new level by my decision to move out. Living in the same house together became volatile. I was in crisis and barely breathing.

A week into this arrangement, Emily called to check on me. I had a bad headache, and she could tell I was upset. Suddenly, she said, “Hang up the phone, get into your car and come to my house. You can stay with me until your apartment is ready.” I gathered up some work clothes and incidentals and was in my car within minutes.

When I parked in front of her house, I saw white twinkling lights strewn about on the porch. Upon entering, candles flickered in the dimmed light. She guided me to the guest room, where the bed was made up, surrounded by plants and more strings of lights. It felt like walking into a spa; warm, inviting and comforting.

The next morning, I awoke to coffee, warmed slices of challah bread and the sweet tones of Joni Mitchell. We sat together, chatting about our schedules and planned to meet back at the house that evening for dinner. The rest of the week went on like this as I rested, cleared my head and made plans for my future.

That was a little over ten years ago. I don’t see Emily as much these days, as both of our lives evolved and grew in different directions. She surfaces once in awhile to invite me to vocal concerts or to do something fun, usually spur-of-the-moment, as is her way. Once she called out of the blue to see if I could pick her up from the airport after a trip overseas. “Of course!” I said. Recently she texted, asking if I could meet her at a recording studio to record vocals for a song she wrote to be included in a Jewish anthology of music. I was there in an hour. I’m happy to do anything she asks. Emily is a true example of an angel on earth, and I’m forever thankful for her presence in my life.

*Emily also appears in my story, “Changing My Attitude.”

So You Want My Return Business? Try Great Customer Service

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Finding Balance Through Yoga

 

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Like A Fox

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The fox didn’t seem to notice me.

Leavenworth National Cemetery is a place of serene beauty. Uniform white marble headstones, equally spaced, lie silent amidst manicured green grass. Each stone lists the branch of service, rank, name, birth and death dates of the person eternally resting below. Many have an engraved cross, or an added message.

Some of the words etched on my son’s headstone are: 1st Lt. Benjamin Grant Davis, December 7, 1975 to July 25, 2004. Beloved husband and father. U.S. Army, Airborne. I can’t remember exactly, or the order of the words. You might think this would be seared into my brain, but it’s the opposite. I don’t want to remember it. Sometimes I still get lost on the 50-minute drive to the cemetery. Because at a distance the headstones all look identical, I stop at the visitor’s center and enter his name into the grave site locator. Section 57 Row 9 Site 11. It’s engraved on the back of the headstone as 57 9 11, making it easy to see on approach, if only I could remember.

I go to the cemetery maybe two or three times a year, usually on a day when I hope few other people will be there. I take a small item like a guitar pick or seashell, a stone or a penny, that I lodge in the dirt next to the marble slab. Sometimes I take fresh flowers, and sometimes I take a photo of him to tape next to his name, knowing it’s temporary, but that puts a face to the young man buried there.

I sit on the grass in front the headstone. I touch the cold stone, feeling the deep crevices of the letters. I tell Ben how much I miss him. I look up and talk to the open sky where I imagine his spirit floats in the unknown. It’s always sad, and each time different. Sometimes I sit quietly and remember him, or sometimes grief wells up from within and I cry.

At one visit I followed my routine, sat down in front of the headstone and suddenly began to wail. I sobbed with the deep emptiness of a mother with her child no longer within reach. I cried words of loss, of a longing for his presence. I cried into my hands, no longer wanting to read the words declaring my son dead. Finally, I stood up and walked back to my car, needing tissues and a drink of water. I sat there for a few minutes, calming myself for the drive home.

A movement caught my eye and I gasped as the red fox trotted along the the front row of headstones. His head was up, eyes directed forward, long, full tail flowing straight out behind. His coat was a deep burnt orange, like a gleaming copper penny – the color of my son’s hair – vivid against the creamy white marble. He stopped for a moment to survey his territory at the marker of Section 57. Then the fox resumed his journey and disappeared into the border of trees across the road.

While driving home I thought about the fox and the possible meaning, if any, of his unexpected appearance. Upon researching foxes, I learned they are considered cunning, adept, and loyal to its mate, with acute mental and physical awareness. Foxes are nocturnal, which made his daylight appearance even more stunning. But on a day when I needed comfort, the fox became a reminder of beauty, that nature flows on around us, and of a drive for basic survival. Like a fox, Ben was a critical thinker, smart, and a loyal family member and friend. He worked hard to be the best officer possible, caring for his troops and the serious nature of his job.

I like the idea of the fox as a cemetery guard, paroling the grounds holding so many loved ones. And I love the connection of the fox’s fur and my son’s striking copper hair.

 

An Unusual Christmas

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While listening to a friend describe travel plans with her family for the holidays, I’m reminded of the Christmas of 2000. In mid-December of that year, my son, Ben, an eager new Army officer stationed in Kitzingen, Germany, suddenly experienced grand mal seizures and was rushed to a neurological hospital in nearby Würzburg. Doctors there diagnosed Ben with a brain tumor. The Army immediately discharged him from his duties, and arranged to send him to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C., with surgery scheduled for December 26.

My son’s father, his wife and I traveled together from our homes in the greater Kansas City area to Germany to be with Ben and his young family. Still in shock, we had a surreal early Christmas party for our two little grandsons so they could open gifts. Within 48 hours we all flew to Washington, D.C. while the Army quickly packed up the family’s belongings. At that time, there were accommodations for families on the campus of Walter Reed Hospital, and we were given rooms in which to stay throughout Ben’s surgery and initial recovery.

Now, 18 years later, some of the details are becoming foggy. I remember that my younger son, Zac, also flew to D.C., along with his three stepsisters. My then husband joined us there as well. Coincidentally, my daughter-in-law’s parents live in Alexandria, where she grew up, only about 30 minutes from Walter Reed. She and my grandsons stayed with them.

There we were in small, motel-like rooms at a hospital on Christmas Eve. Ben’s stepmother bought Christmas stockings for everyone, the felt red and white kind from a discount store, and used glue and glitter to spell out our names. We all rushed out to shop for small gifts for each person, like freeze-dried ice cream from the Space and Air Museum at The Smithsonian, or from drugstores or shops we passed by. That night we crowded together in one room to eat snacks and open our stockings. We listened to Christmas music on a radio. The next morning, on Christmas day, we went to Ben’s in-laws’ house to feast at their amazing Christmas buffet, drinking homemade eggnog while dancing and playing instruments along with their traditional Puerto Rican music.

On December 26 we sat together in the hospital waiting room during Ben’s surgery, which went as well as could be expected. The surgeon told us he removed as much of the brain tumor as possible, but that it was a glioblastoma multiforme, which we learned would eventually return and is always terminal. After a round of radiation treatments, Ben, his wife and children moved back to the Kansas City area.

We celebrated three more Christmases with Ben before he died on July 25, 2004. This same extended family plus more grandchildren and spouses usually gathers for dinner on Ben’s birthday, December 7, to remember him and the profound impact he had on all of us. This time of year is always difficult for me, as it is for anyone who has lost a loved one. The memory of that unusual Christmas of 2000, which wasn’t fancy or traditional yet filled with love, makes me smile.

 

 

Busy Brain

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Random thoughts swirl around in my brain. The writer in me intends to organize these thoughts into meaningful pieces about life, relationships and the world we live in. But, while meditating this morning it came to me that maybe I just have a busy brain.

Meditating is new to me. I’ve attempted meditation a few times in the past, and participated in some guided meditations lead by a facilitator. My own efforts at self-guided meditation usually become a random thought circus. One thought sneaks in, flickers, and sparks more thoughts.

A few years ago I decided to try yoga. I love it! Yoga helps me stay strong, flexible, and focused. Through yoga I’ve learned to calm down my brain and put disruptive thoughts on hold. I’m more aware of my breathing, and how to use it to benefit the movements of my body. I’ve learned to slow my brain down enough so that my yoga practice has an aspect of meditation, too.

I’m easily bored and am compulsively busy. I can suddenly attack a closet or stack of papers or my basement and get lost in it. This is usually at the expense of what I set out to do, which is to write. Many drafts of poems, essays and songs need attention. While I’m busy doing these physical tasks my brain is spinning, formulating thoughts and sentences for later when (if) I sit down to write…and then it’s too late. Can’t remember any of it.

I’m reading a book, “Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics,” by Dan Harris. Harris details his own efforts to calm his busy brain and body by meditating. He advises to start with one minute of sitting still with a clear mind. He acknowledges that some people use a mantra to meditate, but thinks even that can be distracting. Find a comfortable place to sit still, slow your breathing, clear your brain. If your mind wanders, simply start over. Harris says that meditation makes anyone who does it regularly at least “10% Happier,” and he created an app to promote this idea. Establishing a meditation practice, even for just a few minutes a day, can set a tone of intention for the day and help focus the mind.

This appeals to me. For a few weeks now, after breakfast, I sit in the solarium of my house, cross-legged on a wicker love seat, a pillow behind my back. I rest my wrists on my knees, usually with hands facing up, close my eyes and start with a simple mantra like “Clear mind, open heart” that eventually drops off to nothing. My mind wanders but I let myself start over again until I notice that my breathing is rhythmic and slow. When ready, I open my eyes and welcome my day.

These days, I’ve found another way to calm myself through flower gardening. Now that it’s Spring in the Midwest, the weather encourages perennials to follow their instinctive course. I love to fill pots with brightly colored annuals. My garden is anchored by an Eastern Redbud tree surrounded by hostas, Solomon Seal, Impatiens and Lily of the Valley.  As I weed and nurture the plants, my brain cranks away but my heart feels zen.

I’m getting better at calming the rapid barrage of thoughts that burdens me except today, when this strain of busy thinking sneaked into my consciousness. Stream of consciousness writing, maybe that’s my angle…where am I going with this? What? Hey, is that a dust bunny in the corner?