90th Birthday Party

As I stood and chatted with old friends and neighbors at my mother’s wake, it saddened me that there was not the crowd I had anticipated. But she had left her friends and neighbors 2 years ago, when she had to move into assisted living near me. She was over 98, and most of her peers and all of her immediate family, except for me, had preceded her in death. As she put it, she was the last leaf left on the tree. That’s why I was so glad I made every effort to make sure she had the most wonderful 90th birthday party she could imagine. My mother was the event-planner extraordinaire, so it was hard for her to not take over the planning. It was not a surprise, so I let her make the guest list, and I let her plan the refreshments, but I did not let her choose the decorations on the cake or anything else.

There were 2 sheet cakes, as we had over 100 guests, and the church let us use their fellowship hall. One cake was decorated like a Scrabble board, because of her love of the game, complete with Happy Birthday written down and across. The other one was decorated like a piano keyboard, because of her talent as a pianist. As each guest arrived, they were handed a crossword puzzle game, because of Mom’s skill at doing them, in ink, with all the clues being about her. It created a fun way for people to mingle as they asked each other for the answers. One of the surprises was a chocolate fountain, a big hit with the kids. There was a copy of the newspaper from the day of her birth. Her Red Hat Society friends all showed up in their hats and posed with her for a picture. So did her Tri Kappa friends. Kara, along with some special friends, decorated the hall with balloons and flowers, and Steve brought crafts and games and entertained the little kids. Her great grandchildren at that time ranged in age from 2 to 7, and of course, there were precious photo ops. The best surprise of the party was having a local barbershop quartet emerge from the crowd, surround her and sing several songs to her. She was beaming, and so was I. It was a wonderful way to celebrate her life, while she was alive and well enough to enjoy it herself. Even though she didn’t get to plan it, she still loved every minute.

That night, after the grandkids and great grandkids had all gone to a hotel for the night, Mom and I sat by the fire with a glass of wine to bask in the glow of the day. “What did you enjoy the most?” I asked her. “Seeing all my family and friends,” she said, without a hesitation. That Christmas, Kara presented her with an artfully crafted scrapbook of memories from that day.

As I packed up the things from her apartment, after her passing, I was reminded of her love of history, travel, and the English language, but when I found that scrapbook, it was like discovering buried treasure. It is a memoire, in pictures, of the richness of her life

Rest in Peace, Mom

In 2009, my mother sat down with her pastor and funeral director and planned her funeral. I mean, she not only chose and paid for her casket, but she also chose the Bible readings,, the hymns to be played and the songs to be sung. I thought it was a little odd, but so typical of my mother. She loved being in charge, and would be, even after her death. I laughed then, but as I sat in the first row of the church for her funeral service last week, I understood that it was one of the best gifts she ever gave me. Not only did I not have to pick out a casket and wrestle with the decision about how much to spend, I had to make very few decisions about what would happen that day.

A year ago, Mom and I sat in her assisted living apartment and made a list of who to ask to be pall bearers and what to say in the obituary. See my post, “Have the Conversation.” (July 17, 2013) She even wanted to plan the menu for the luncheon after the graveside ceremony, but I drew the line there. “Do we really have to decide that today?” I asked. Pre-planning was 1 thing, but that was getting a little carried away.

The night before the funeral, I asked the pastor to go through the order of the service, just so I would know what to expect. I had questions too, like when we should walk in and when we should stand and when we should walk out. He read the order of the service to me and then asked if that was all right with me. “Are you kidding?” I said. “My mother has spoken.” We all had a good laugh about that, and I’m sure Mom was chuckling up in Heaven too. She loved her reputation as the boss. I honored her wishes for an open casket, a practice I detest, but I didn’t want her to come down and haunt me if I didn’t obey. We had the viewing or the visitation or the wake, whatever you want to call it the evening before the funeral. When I was a young girl, I thought that whole business was gulish. And then my brother died at age 29. Although his casket was closed, friends of his poured into the funeral home to offer their condolences. I didn’t even know a lot of those people, so it touched me deeply. Now, I understand why that part of the proceedings is necessary. Still, it struck me, as it has on the occasions of other wakes I’ve attended, that as more and more people arrive, it’s almost like a cocktail party, people standing around, catching up on each other’s news and telling stories, while all the while, a dead person is lying there. My family has already been given instructions, but just in case they forget, let me say here that there will be no parade of people gazing into my casket and saying how nice I look, because there will be no casket. For the record, I have spoken!

But back to my mother’s funeral. Her death was not unexpected. She was 98, and for the last 2 months, she had been in Hospice Care. Yet there were some last minute arrangements to be made. The 1 I want to mention today is the reading of the poem, thanatopsis at the cemetery. I have to admit that my mother had a flare for planning an event and topping it off with a dramatic and poignant moment, that bespoke of her love of drama and literature. She had wanted my cousin Carolyn to read the poem, but Carolyn died 4 years ago. I couldn’t ask Kara to read it, because it would be too emotional for her. I had forgotten to find a replacement for Carolyn, and at the last minute, literally, Kara suggested my life-long friend, Lynda. Perfect. A nudge from Mom? Lynda was a speech and drama teacher, and more importantly, she had loved my mother too. So, there we were at Antioc Cemetery, one of the most peaceful places in the world, comforted by the words of this famous poem.. I had heard my mother recite it many times at memorial services, but never has it meant so much to me. It was a beautiful day, Mom. Now you can rest.

Smile, You Are in Someone’s Memoir

Life is a series of billions of snapshots, many of which are pictures of you, doing millions of things, even smiling, talking, eating, walking, and many of them are bits of memory matter in the memoires of the people you touch. Just when you are convinced that nobody sees you, that nobody is paying attention, that you are invisible to the world, someone recalls a memory of you that you were unaware you were making.

Today after church, I had the opportunity to greet the pastor who served there many years ago. I remember him fondly. I recall one particular Christmas Eve, when after the service, as we were waiting for something or other, and this pastor had finished saying goodnight to everybody, he walked over to me and gave me a hug. We hadn’t been talking. I hadn’t expressed a need for a hug, but he must have SEEN SADNESS IN MY FACE, AND JUST briefly FOLDED HIS ARMS AROUND ME. That was it. That was my snapshot of a memory of him.

He probably does not remember that moment at all. What he does remember about me is the sound of my first Seeing Eye ® dog, Mindy, as she settled under the pew, and her collar chinked on the tile floor. Not only did he reminisce about that, but he also remembered her name. I was completely unaware of that little tinkling sound that signaled, to everyone but me, that my dog had lain down and had rested her beautiful golden head on the cool tile floor.

What I learned today was that no matter how insignificant you think you are, or, for that matter, how important you think you are, there will be snapshots clicking from any number of memory cameras, When you least expect it. It could be a gesture, an expression, or even an action that has nothing to do with anyone else, that could be recorded and brought out later to remind that person of you.

remember that old show, Candid Camera? And the catch phrase that everybody went around saying, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera?” Aside from iPhones capturing every little movement, significant or not, there are memory shots that as of today, I vow to try to make ones that I will not be embarrassed about when they become a reminiscence of me. Can I never frown? Never say a harsh word? Never be impatient with someone? No. I can only hope that those memories will be immediately deleted to make room for the ones that will bring a smile, like the image of a guide dog sleeping in church. .

Music, The Best Medicine

My mother sits in a wheelchair, propped up with cushions and blankets. What used to be a smiling face is devoid of emotion or recognition of her surroundings. I have come for a brief visit, long enough to hold her hand and tell her I love her. Maybe I would say a few other things, but I wouldn’t expect a response or any kind of interaction, because she is now unable to communicate. Because I can’t see her face or read her expression, I know it’s not going to be an easy visit. Then the music therapist arrives with her portable keyboard, and relief washes over me like a summer rain. The last time she visited my mother, Mom could interact to some degree. She even poked around a little on the keyboard, and the music therapist played the melody along with Mom and graciously called it a duet. Mother beamed with the pleasure of being in the company of another musician, someone who spoke her language. She was the happiest I had seen her in months. But not so, this day. The therapist unpacks her keyboard and sets it up so she can see the music and Mother’s face at the same time. She plays the first song and sings with her lovely melodic voice. No reaction. Undaunted, she sings another, and I try to sing along, but almost immediately, I choke up, because music has that effect on me when I am consumed with grief or joy. My heart aches, because Mother can’t play the piano anymore or sing or even hum along. Seeing that Mother needs a little more encouragement to be engaged, the therapist suggests I sit closer and hold Mother’s hands. Somehow, during the next song, I tell myself to pull myself together and sing to Mom. She can’t sing, so I’ll have to sing for both of us. I request a song that I know Mom likes and that I know the words to, “Ain’t She Sweet.” It’s an old standard, and it’s a little peppier. I belt it out for all I’m worth, and I’m praying that I’m getting through. Then we end with a few hymns. One of Mom’s favorites, and mine too, is “In the Garden,” but I only know the first verse. But I do know a little harmony for that one, so the therapist continues to play the second verse. Hearing that I don’t know the words, she feeds them to me before each line, so it sounds like I know the whole song. I’d never sung all the verses, and I have to tell you that the experience was at least as healing for me as for my mother, if not more.

Music is the expression of our hearts and souls. It is an international and Omni generational language. We sing lullabies to our babies; we sing camp songs around the fire; we sing love songs as we snuggle on the dance floor; we sing the blues; we sing patriotic songs to express our gratitude to our soldiers and veterans; and we sing hymns to our weary parents. Even though my mother doesn’t make a sound, I know that in her mind, she is singing with me. She and I have just spent an hour together in a more intimate way than we ever could with words. Her love of music is one of her legacies to me.

It’s a legacy I cherish and hope to pass along.

Goldylocks Goes on a Bike Ride

When you shop for furniture, do you go for comfort or style? Function or fun? I haven’t shopped for furniture in 15 years. My daughter Kara was enlisted for the task of driving me from store to store to store to find a sleeper sofa for my family room. It had to not only be comfy, but not so deep that I couldn’t touch the floor with my feet when not reclining. This doesn’t sound like a hard thing to find, unless you’re 5: 2’. That’s the height I was back then. Now, 15 years later, I’ve decided to update my living room. It all started when Cisco, my previous guide dog,

Munched on the couch cushions. I was going to wait until I was sure Dora wasn’t going to be destructive, but as I looked around the room, I realized that everything in it was about 30 years old. It was high time to bite the bullet and go shopping. So far, I’ve been to 9 stores, counting second trips to some of them, with 3 different willing and helpful friends. It’s amusing to me that when I settle on one sofa that my shopping partner likes and that seems reasonably comfortable, and then I drag another helper back to that store, the couch I liked before is awful. I find myself saying, “What did I see in this couch?” Then 1 helper likes a solid color and another one likes a print. A friend said today, “When I see something I like, I just go with that. I don’t worry about what fashion dictates.” I don’t have that luxury. I do have the luxury of having kind friends. I can only go on what fits my short little body. I’m a little woman with a little room in a little house. I find myself plopping into chair after chair, sofa after sofa, like a grownup Goldilocks. Only none of them is too big, and only 1 couch and 1 recliner are just right—I think. I need to recruit yet another helper to go back to that last store and be certain I’ve made the right decision. It’s a huge investment for me, considering the whole room is getting a make-over. I’m hoping this will be a tangible step in giving my life a makeover.

Yesterday, I got a vacation from the stress of dealing with the decline of my mother’s health and the pending enormous purchases, by going for a bike ride with 5 of my favorite cycling buddies from my bike club. It was a glorious summer day, with sunshine, light breezes, and low humidity. I mean they don’t come any nicer than that. And the way I like to spend a day like that is on the back of a tandem bike. I just pedaled all my cares away as we traveled over back roads to a little town with a popular lunch stop for locals and fellow cyclists. With helmet hair and sun screened faces, we enjoyed our lunch outside. I can’t remember a day I’ve been happier. Maybe it was the contrast; maybe it was the fabulous weather; maybe it was the great exercise; maybe it was that I had no back pain; or maybe it was being with friends my age. They all have life issues, just like me, but we left them behind for a few hours. It was good to sit on a bike seat and let Goldilocks continue my search for the perfect sofa another day.

Play Ball

030My Seeing Eye ® dog, Dora, is panting at about 10 pants per second, not because of the hour long walk we just took, or the hot weather, but we just played a round of ball in the back yard. It goes like this. I sit on a lawn chair, but I don’t get too comfy. Dora drops the ball into my lap. She lets go of reluctantly, but she knows if it’s going to go anywhere, she’s going to have to give it up. “Drop it,” I say, and she finally does. I stand up and throw it as hard as I can, but it doesn’t go very far, because I throw like a girl, and my back acts like an old woman. But Dora doesn’t care. She races after it and often catches it before the first bounce. Unlike any other dog I’ve had, she then rushes back to me, slamming into my knees, as if she’s going too fast to stop, like sliding into home plate. Then I coax her to drop it into my lap again, pick up the slimy thing again, stand up and pitch it into the back yard. Each time, she barrels into me with the fervor of a 9-year-old making his first home run. We do this routine about 50 times before she begins to slow down. It’s amazing to me that this creature who acts like her very life depends on getting that ball back to me in record time is the same creature who guides me safely across the street. But everybody needs a break from the seriousness of life. Even the President of the United States gets wrapped up in a soccer game. What is it about a man and a ball or a dog and a ball? I know, I know, girls like ball games too. But aside from wiffle ball, when I was a kid, I’ve never been very excited about team sports. Skating, skiing, cycling, and hiking have always been more to my liking. But I have to say that playing ball with Dora brings me a whole lot of joy. When I fasten the jingle bell onto her collar, so I can hear where she is in the back yard, and I say, “Want to play outside?” she gets so excited, she can hardly contain herself. It’s not the ball itself. It’s not watching Dora run free. It’s the interaction between us that’s just for fun.

Wiffle Ball

It was the summer of 1957. My mother had just learned to drive and had bought her first car, a brand new yellow convertible with a white top. I had enough vision to play endless hours of 4 square with my girlfriend next door. I was just beginning to study dance with Jack Louiso, a well known and respected teacher. Life was pretty good in 1957, for lots of reasons.

When I read a column in the paper the other day, I was immediately transported to the back yard of our neighbors, in that year. I was thrilled to learn that kids still play wiffle ball. Here’s the pitch that sent me sailing back.

Michael Arace commentary: Wiffle ball tournament held in yards of dreams. By Michael Arace The Columbus Dispatch “Fifty-one lawn chairs and home plate were planted on the Hayden family’s front yard on Sherwood Avenue in Bexley yesterday. The odd chair was for the umpire. The field stretched over the Plank family driveway and expanded across the Planks’ front lawn.”

We didn’t have an umpire, and we didn’t have spectators. Every evening, after supper, we straggled into the back yard of the Wepplers, who lived 2 doors down. We didn’t go to the front door. We just went around the side of the house and waited for Mrs. Weppler to come out and start the game. She was the pitcher, and another mother was the catcher. There were about 6 of us regular players of various ages and abilities. Whenever I came to bat, Mrs. Wepller would give me a verbal heads up, knowing that I couldn’t see the ball very well, so she would say, “Here it comes Mary. Ready, swing.” Sometimes, I actually made contact with the ball, enough that it got into my blood. It helped that dusk was the time of day when my vision was somewhat functional. I liked wiffle ball, because I could see it, especially when the sun went down, and it didn’t hurt if I missed the catch and it hit me. Well, it might sting a little, but not like a real baseball.

One evening, when I walked down to the Wepplers’, the back yard was empty. It was a Friday night, and it was early in the summer, and I had just fallen in love with the game. I was afraid that something was wrong. I went to the front door and rang the doorbell. Mrs. Weppler appeared and kindly told me that she didn’t play on Friday nights. “It’s our night to imbibe,” she explained. I had to run home and ask my mom what “imbibe” meant. It struck me funny that she chose that word to explain why she wasn’t available to play on Friday nights. But every other evening, she was out there for us. Our parents didn’t line up in lawn chairs, and Mrs. Weppler probably made up the rules along the way, according to which kids showed up, but it’s a summertime memory I treasure.

Today’s blind children can play “beep ball,” with a specially designed ball that has an electronic beeper inside. The rules are a little different from regular baseball, but it allows blind children, and adults too, the opportunity to enjoy the Great American pastime. Thank you Mrs. Weppler, wherever you are.