Over The Hill…

This week we celebrated the 40th birthday of my dear (and delightful) son-in-law, John. He is married to my dear (and also delightful) daughter, Christina. And he is the father of our MOST dear and delightful granddaughter, Lydia.

When we started thinking about John’s 40th birthday, I asked Lydia if we should have an “Over the Hill” party, with black balloons and silly jokes about getting older. She said, “NO! Daddy’s feelings might be hurt! And black balloons are ugly and not fun AT ALL.”

In a way, Lydia is right (about her daddy’s feelings). Defining the age of forty as the pinnacle of life — that future years will be diminishingly fruitful — is not just “mean” and “not fun at all.” It is a LIE.

Recently I found this quote: “Over the hill? Actually 40 years is just reaching the end of the foothills and looking up to the snowcap mountain range just ahead.”   So true! The “foothills of life” are NOT the end, but the very beginning of life’s journey. Those first forty years are a warm-up to the greatest adventure of our lives – the climb to the heights! A climb to the heights of… of what?! What are those “snowcapped mountains” that loom ahead of us?

In the physical realm, the heights “over the hill” can be our most productive years. They are the years when the mortgage (finally!) gets paid, 401K’s are growing (hopefully), and job promotions are more likely to happen.

These years can be challenging times for families. Often, they are the teen years for offspring. Years when fidelity in marriage is tested. They are marked by death-defying challenges (such as teaching your beloved teenaged son/daughter to drive!!!), and the inevitable (despite face cream ads) encroachment of aging. Definitely, these years can be likened to mountain climbing!

An interesting phenomena pops up during these “over the hill” years: late bloomers. A late bloomer can be described as someone whose talents don’t begin to “blossom” until later in life – after going “over the hill.” Here are some examples:

  • Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was 70! (I am sure she must have doodled a little before that!)
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when her first novel, Little House on the Prairie was published. She might not have put pen to paper if her daughter Rose hadn’t nagged her to write out her stories. Thank you Rose!
  • (Poor) Winston Churchill became prime minister of England at the age of 65, just eight months after England declared war on Germany in WWII. What was he thinking! Oh yes. Patriotism. Stepping into the job no one else could do.
  • My favorite: Teresa of Avila wrote her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, at the age of 62, while the Inquisition was scrutinizing her every word!
  • Me. My first magazine article was published in 1988. I was 45. (I find it humorous that I would ever list my name after St. Teresa of Avila – a DOCTOR OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH! And yet. She is what I aspire to be – a person who did what she felt God was calling her to do, despite her aches and pains (she had migraines and tinnitus!), and her stated desire to retire to her cloister and “sit and spin.” Ok, I don’t have any desire to “spin.”   But sitting – and not at a computer – would be nice! I plan to write an entire blog on St. Teresa in October, for her feast day (October 15) so stay tuned.

But, all that I just described — the achievements and challenges of life after 40 — are not really what’s alluded to in the quote I used at the beginning of this blog. What is that “white capped mountain range” that looms ahead of us?

Pope John XXIII said it best, though bluntly, in his Journal of a Soul: “I’ve got to get ready to die.” Ok. Perhaps now I’ve lost a few readers. We have such a knee jerk reaction to that word, DEATH. Maybe we don’t actually think of death as the grim reaper with a sharp scythe” out to cull us from the herd of humanity. But we act like it sometimes.

When Tom and I sat in the doctor’s office and heard the diagnosis, stage IV breast cancer, that had spread to my lungs, liver, and bones, I was too stunned to think. Neither Tom nor I remember much of what the doctor said after that – except, “The average life expectancy, with these cancer drugs, is…two years, sometimes more sometimes less.”

As I shared with you in my first blog, Walking in the Dark with the Prince of Peace, that was when Jesus Christ, that true Prince of Peace, stepped in, kicked out my fears, and filled me with the “peace that passes understanding.” And, this thought entered my mind: “Now I know what I’m to do. I am going to live the rest of my life GROWING in my knowledge and love of God, and spending quality, LOVING time with my husband, my daughters, my grandchild, my godchild, and my friends.”

Returning to our mountain climbing analogy, I think what John XIII really meant was, “I have got to put on my climbing boots!” And he did. He was sixty years old when he wrote the above entry in his journal. He died twenty-two years later, at the age of eighty-two. During those twenty-two years, he was elected Pope; he envisioned and called for the second Vatican Council; and two months before he died, he wrote his masterpiece Encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).   That was some mountain climbing.

So, that’s what I did that day in the doctor’s office, and what I try to do every day: “I put on my climbing boots!

I end this blog with a poem by Robert Browning:

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life,

For which the first was made.

 

 

 

 

 

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Another Anniversary

Today, August 4, marks the three month “anniversary” of Growing in Grace…at any age! I’ve enjoyed returning to the writing process after a three year hiatus, and I think in many ways, it’s brought healing to me. Writing, whether in blog form, personal journal, or letters to friends, IS a valid therapy for those going through stressful situations. In these last few months I’ve read at least four articles in cancer magazines (such as Cure, and Coping, – I love those titles!) that recommend writing your “cancer story” as a therapeutic way to deal with it.

But “writing therapy” is not just for us cancer patients. I’ve read other articles that have recommended writing projects (such as blogs and journals) for everything from the grieving process to post traumatic stress disorder. There is something in the writing process that helps the mind to wrap itself around crises of all kinds.

Before I began Growing in Grace, I spent a LOT of time arguing with myself about whether or not to begin blogging (shudder…I still hate that word, blogging). I did some prayer-journaling, asking myself (and God), “Why blog?” On this three-month anniversary, I would like to share with you a snippet of that journal:

Why on earth, Lord, in the midst of all this cancer chaos, would I tie myself down again to a writing schedule? My mind no longer works clearly – they call it “cancer fog.” Whatever it is, it’s murky, and words that once flowed freely seem to get stuck in the muck of my chemically drenched brain! I sense You calling me back to the keyboard, yet can this possibly be You?

[A “word picture”comes to mind, from an old fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, that seems to explain the reason why I should return to writing.]

My “work” [the actual writing] will be to fashion words into meaning…straw into gold. The straw is my life, my thoughts, my dreams, my regrets, my day-to-day struggles, my everything. The Gold is what God has done in and through it all …something I don’t see at all unless I take the time to really LOOK. And the writing process makes me LOOK. It is His work in my mind, as I struggle to find the words, that shows me the connections, the metaphors, the insights, into His workings in my everyday life. (Hmm. Maybe that’s why writing is such good therapy for cancer patients and others struggling with stressful situations….) SO. Why write? First, it is just for me. Doing the work (writing) helps me to see what is hidden.

This journaling process continued, listing pros and cons, why’s and why nots. You know of course, the conclusion; but let me share just one more entry:

I can also share with others who are struggling with such things as aging and all that comes with the gray hairs. I can share with those who face health crises such as cancer. And I can address that untouchable subject, approaching death. All straw. Scratchy straw, until God turns it into Gold. And He does! That’s what I can share.

So, friends, that’s what this blog is attempting to do. This three-month anniversary has been a good time to stop and take a look at Growing in Grace…. Where is it going? How can I do a better job of cooperating with God as He turns straw into GOLD? Prayerfully, I’ve decided to make some changes.

First of all, I’ve decided to stop posting every week. Instead, from now on, I will try to post twice a month, as “life” allows. The writing process needs TIME for careful editing – it IS a craft. First drafts are seldom finished products; they are often LONG and wordy, as have been many (most!) of my posts. I want to take more time to practice my craft, so to speak. Write. Rewrite. Cut. Paste. Rewrite again. The result will be shorter, tighter posts. I am SURE you will appreciate that!

I also want to sharpen my focus. The title of the blog is Growing in Grace…at any age! Those are very important words! How do we GROW when we are shrinking? (One 80+ year old friend recently shared with me that she has shrunk 9 inches!) And what is Grace? And why is aging such a difficult, heartbreaking, humiliating process? (Hey, if I were God — ok, take a moment to laugh! — I would have had us grow stronger as we grow older. We would simply live life to the fullest until it was time to ride off into the sunset! Such a life would seem much more glorious, much more dignified!) Actually, God really does have a marvelous plan in mind for us as we age.   That’s something I want to address in future blogs.

SO, dear family and friends, let me end this anniversary post with a THANK YOU. Thank you for giving me the opportunity share with you. You have helped me deal with cancer chaos and make some sense of it. And I hope I have shared a few things along the way that have helped you – entertained you, at least. Please know that you are in my prayers daily.

NOTE: this post is only 867 words long. Under 1000 words! That’s a first for Growing in Grace…at any age!

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First Mate Update

Hello – This is Captain Tom again with another update on the First Mate and her latest medical adventures.

All things have their time, and the time has come to decommission the Good Ship Cataract.  With the eye surgeries over and new glasses firmly in place (or is it “on face”?) the Good Ship has served its purpose.  So you might think the only proper thing to do would be to sail into port one last time and have a fitting ceremony commemorating our many adventures.

WRONG!!!!

Strange as it may sound, the First Mate did not sail into port, the “port” came to her.  Now you might argue that there are ports and then there are ports, and you would be right.  A “port” did come to her, but it’s not the sort of port where ships anchor.  It’s a semi-permanent medical device surgically implanted in her upper chest under the skin just below the collarbone.

She was starting to experience a problem common to many cancer patients.   The many blood draws to keep tabs on medicine side effects plus to the occasional IV infusions all need compatible veins in your arm to insert the needle.  Eventually scar tissue and other issues make finding a useable vein harder and harder.  The answer is to install a port.

During a day surgery, the port, about a half inch in diameter and needle friendly, is inserted under the skin in the vicinity of a large vein that runs across the chest.  The port has a tube or catheter on its back side that is inserted into the vein.  Inserting a needle into the top part of the port gives instant connection to the body’s blood system.  Nurses love them.

The port is fine, but there was some “collateral damage” from the surgery, mostly very tweaked and painful neck and back muscles from the position she was in during the procedure.  Once she recovers from that, the First Mate will be off, taking her Port with her wherever she goes.

The “P’s” Have It

This has been a week of “P’s” for me.  It started Saturday afternoon with our community band Playing in the Park.  That was followed by Pizza at our house and then it was Pickle making time.  Those Present, besides myself and the First Mate, were Lisa (daughter), Christina (daughter and mother of Lydia), John (son in law and father of Lydia) and lastly, Lydia (6 year old granddaughter).

My Part in all this was to take Pictures and stay out of the way.  Eventually I had to go Procure more vinegar and salt for the Pickle making Process.  The First Mate was busy, keeping things under control, and keeping out of any Pictures.

The following is a Photo essay on Pickle making.

It had been 7 years since the last family Pickle making bash.  Christina brought 25 Pounds of Pickling cucumbers and lots of onions.  We got dill, garlic, vinegar, hot Peppers, salt, alum and jar lids.  We combined our supply of quart jars and washed them.  Then, after Pizza at our house, the fun began:

 

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Get the dill ready.

 

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Bring the vinegar, salt, alum and water to a boil.  (This is the “hot stuff” to be used later)

 

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Start an assembly line to fill the jars with dill, onion slices, garlic cloves, hot peppers and, of course, cucumbers.

 

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Fill the jars to the top with the hot stuff and apply lids and rings

 

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And, if you are REALLY good, the last of the hot stuff exactly fills the last jar.

 

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33 jars in all. We will need to wait at least 4 to 6 weeks to see how things turn out.  The old family method was to open the first jar at Christmas, but I doubt we will wait that long.

 

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And here is the “SPECIAL” jar made just for daughter Rebecca.  She was with us only in spirit this time but 7 years ago she was here in body and spiced up a few jars with her own “special” recipe.  Somehow we ended up with a couple of those jars, and they were not dill pickles, they were fire pickles.  Lydia was concerned that we might be going to hurt Aunt Rebecca with our “special” jar.  Somehow, I don’t think so.

 

The house still smells faintly of vinegar fumes and onions but that should go away in a month or two.  The jars look so pretty, all lined up like little green soldiers, ready to march off to some cupboard somewhere.  And, maybe best of all, there were still two slices of Pizza left for lunch the next day.

After Picklemania, the next big event was the Port surgery on Tuesday.  Then on Wednesday it was the band Playing, this time in a different Park.  And on Friday, it was the successful Patching of a Punctured tire on the Prius.

Well that’s about it for now except, since this blog is called “Growing In Grace At Any Age”, maybe there should be something spiritual and something age related.  And “P” related. So here goes:

Praise the Lord!

Be like a Pickle and improve with age.

Bye for now.

 

Tom the Pickle Packer Photographer

 

 

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Let the Little Girl Dance!

Ok. Let’s begin this post with “full disclosure.” Be warned: I am the mother of three amazing daughters – Lisa, Rebecca, and Christina – and today I am taking this opportunity to do some BRAGGING about my middle daughter, Rebecca.

I just finished reading Rebecca’s second published mystery novel, I’ll Die at Your Wedding, and I am glowing with pride. Remember, friends: I am both a writer myself and a retired English teacher. I am also an avid mystery reader. I have read every Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout, and countless other classic (and contemporary) mysteries, multiple times!

So, though I am Rebecca’s mom, I am probably her worst potential critic. I wasn’t too worried about reading Rebecca’s second mystery, though, since her first one, Murder at the Arabian Nights, was so well-written. She has a talent for creating real characters that are both likeable and believable – characters you wish lived next door. On second thought, maybe not, since they keep finding dead bodies….

But now that I have finished I’ll Die at Your Wedding, I will have to wait. And wait. And wait, for the next book in the Belly Dance Mystery Series. Why? Because Rebecca is too busy actually belly dancing! Or flamenco dancing. Or composing movie soundtracks, or….

Rebecca is an artist, a singer, a composer, a jewelry designer, a comedian, a dancer, and of course, a published author! When God handed out the talents He lavished Rebecca with many more than she could handle. Hence the long wait between mystery novels! Grrr.

I share all this with you, first, because I am a mom and I love to brag about my kids. (Yes, you will be hearing more about Lisa and Christina in future posts, but I will limit myself to one daughter at a time…) But, since this website is called Growing in Grace…at any age, and is supposed to be about the challenges and the blessings of aging, there should be a “point” to this bragging of mine. Right?

So, let me tell you a little about Rebecca’s first dance teacher, Maria Morca. Early on in Rebecca’s dance life, she joined Maria’s performing troupe – and at that time, Maria was seventy years old! If you want to know more about this amazing dancer/teacher, go to her website (click for link).  While you are there, watch the video!!! The energizer bunny would have trouble keeping up with this octogenarian!

Maria Morca turned eighty-one this year – and she is still teaching and dancing. Amazing! I’m sure, if you talked to Maria, she would tell you that dance was in her blood, a part of her soul. As Maria says on her Home Page: “Dance brings out your inner beauty, femininity, sensuality, self-worth, and joy!”

Rebecca would heartily agree. Though her feet have become badly damaged from too much tapping (in flamenco dance) and every muscle in her middle-aged body screams when she puts it through hour-long practices, Rebecca has to dance. Shortly after the recent Orlando tragedy, she posted a message on Facebook that says it all:

Time to put on my flamenco shoes and practice dance. Like I was doing when the news broke all over the gym about the Paris shootings. Like I did in the middle of the San Bernardino shootings. Like now. I am tired of dancing in spite of the hatred and cruelty in the world, when my heart is heavier than my feet. But it is, in its own way, a small act of defiance, a statement that hate and bigotry cannot win. A number of the people in Orlando were dancers. I dance for them today.

When I read this, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I remembered another time Rebecca danced. She was about three years old and we were attending a folk Mass. The music inspired Rebecca, but the pews were just too restrictive; so she made her escape to the aisle and headed toward the front where there was lots of room.

I didn’t notice her escape until I saw her step up past the Communion rail and begin to spin to the guitar music. I sped out of the pew and started up the aisle to catch my whirling dervish; but I was stopped in my tracks by the voice of the celebrating priest — “Let the little girl dance!”

Another memory comes to me…my grandmother (Mom) sitting in the sunniest window of her summer home in Santa Cruz California. From the time I was nine, I spent a few idyllic weeks every summer with Mom.   Memories of those visits are some of my sweetest – but this one was a little different.

That day, Mom turned to me and asked, “So, Betty, what are you going to do when you grow up?”

“I don’t know yet, Mom,” I responded. “Maybe someday I will be a writer.”

Mom sat up straight and spoke in a voice she seldom used, the voice of authority – the listen to me, this is important voice grownups sometimes use. “If there is a writer in you, Betty, then write NOW. Don’t wait until someday! Someday might never come – or if it does come, you might not be able to write any more. Whatever is in you, in your soul, DO IT NOW. And don’t stop.”

(Mom was a talented artist in her youth. She had the rare ability to paint translucent white roses in watercolor, which I am told is quite a talent. But then she had eight children – hence, “no time” to paint.)

Mom shared with me how much she wished she had kept painting – even a bit here and there – when she was a young mother. Now she had all the time in the world, but crippling arthritis and dimming eyesight made it impossible to hold a brush or see the canvas. It was the only sad moment I ever spent with my grandmother, listening to her regrets.

So, what’s the “point” of all this reminiscing? I think it is partly a lecture to myself – and partly an opportunity to encourage those who will read this post. There are some things I can no longer do – ride a Tilt-A-Whirl for one (see last week’s post). And, though I once won a first place dance trophy, rocking and rolling to Ray Charles, I can no longer dance. (Walking is sometimes a challenge…) But those things are not a “part of my soul.”

Writing is – and that’s why I am writing again. I’m enjoying the “blog writing,” even though it’s frustrating to see how much my writing skills have rusted through the years of non-use. It IS true: if you don’t use it, you will lose it.

But something more than blog writing is stirring within my soul. It’s been nagging me for several years and I have always argued with it: It is too late. I am too old. Too sick. Finally, I have stopped arguing.

This isn’t the time or place to share with you much more than the fact that I am beginning to work on a “book project.” As I have said before, I think, cancer has a way of turning “somedays” into NOW days. And NOW is the time.

You might say that I am following in my daughter’s footsteps. No, I am not writing a mystery novel – I haven’t a clue how to go about that! But I will be writing about Mystery itself. (That’s all I will say for now.)

As I recently said in a former post, souls don’t age. But they do GROW. In fact they must grow or they will shrivel. Within each soul are “facets” that need cleaving. “Windows” that need polishing. Features that need nurturing. Those “facets” or “features” can be talents, like art or music or dance – or writing. AS LONG AS WE CAN, we should be developing those talents. We have got to stop waiting until “someday.” It is NOW DAY every day of our lives.

So, whatever your age or circumstances, if there is an artist in you, PAINT! If there is a singer in you, SING! If there is an inventor in you, INVENT! If there is a master gardener in you, GARDEN! If there is a writer in you, WRITE! And if there is a dancer in you, DANCE! Dance as long as you are able to get out of your chair and shimmy! If you can’t swing to the beat of the music as you once did, then tap your feet! As that wise priest said so many years ago, “Let the little girl (in you) Dance!”

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Tilt-A-Whirl Terror

“You’re getting old when you get the same sensation from your rocking chair that you once got from a rollercoaster.”

When I read this meant-to-be-funny commentary on aging, I did NOT laugh. In fact I shed a tear. “What?” you ask. “Why would such a silly standup comic one-liner bring tears?” Why? Because this last weekend, I experienced the truth behind the humor.

It had nothing to do with rollercoasters, though. I have never been a fan of the “kings of the midway.” It was all about a Tilt-A-Whirl, my all-time favorite amusement park ride. Until last weekend.

It had been over twenty years since I last twirled and whirled on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I don’t know why I stayed away so long. I’ve always loved amusement parks and we live only a few miles away from one of the best, Oaks Park, in Sellwood, Oregon.  I guess we seldom visited Oaks Park because it was “always there” and there was always a “someday” that I could count on. (There’s a lesson in that young readers…)

We had visited Oaks Park in recent years with our granddaughter, Lydia. In fact, Tom and I took her to the park for her first visit when she was only nineteen months old. Of course, she was too young then to go on rides like the Tilt-A-Whirl; but I looked forward to being the first to introduce her to my favorite ride when she was old enough.

But sad to say, when she was old enough, I was too old – well, not really old, just unable to walk the Oaks Park midway. As each summer flew by (Oaks Park is only open in the summer months), another health-related impediment stood in the way. First was the summer of the knee replacement. Then the summer of pneumonia. Then the summer from hell (before the cancer diagnosis.) So Lydia grew older, and discovered magic of the Tilt-A-Whirl without her Grandma. I was just happy to know that she LOVED it as much as I did.

As this summer approached and I was in better shape than I have been for four years, I looked forward to numerous trips to what is sometimes called “the Coney Island of the Northwest.” Most especially I looked forward to riding the Tilt-A-Whirl with my little (self-described) thrill-seeker, Lydia.

My first challenge was just getting on the tilting ride. (There’s a reason they call it the Tilt-A-Whirl.) Once we were seated, Lydia proceeded to tell me “the secrets of making it spin like crazy!” I laughed, bragging, “I know them all – Grandma’s a Tilt-A-Whirl EXPERT!” (Isn’t there a Scripture about pride going before a fall?)

From the moment the hellish tilting, spinning, dipping, whirling machine started, I knew I was in trouble. TERROR filled my lungs. Not the gleeful screaming of my youth, but sheer, heart-pounding, breath taking TERROR. [Words don’t describe it as well as the pictures. See Tom’s photos below. Yes, I did give him permission to post them – how could I not since they tell my tale better than I can with words!]

The rest of my time in the Park, though I fully enjoyed being with Lydia, Christina (my daughter), and Tom, I grieved over my experience on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I just could not understand my heart-pounding reaction to something that was once so delightful to me.

Pushing sad thoughts aside, I went on a few other rides. Tame rides such as the Carousel – but not on a horse. I sat on the stationary throne we used to (derisively) call the “Granny Chair” in my youth. And of course we spent quality time (and money) in the souvenir shop.

At home that evening, the grief continued. Tears were shed. It surprised me – how deeply I grieved this “loss.” I felt so foolish. Why was I crying for something so unimportant? I dried my tears and a stubborn determination to go back and ride the Tilt-A-Whirl again rose up within me. I just needed to get over this stupid, unreasonable aversion to something I once so loved! Right?

But then I thought, is it really so stupid? Perhaps a seventy-three year old cancer patient, on a mixed assortment of health altering drugs, should pay attention to those warning signs placed at the entrance to all thrill rides, even the “tame” Tilt-A-Whirl. With a weakened spine (from metastasized cancer in my bones) and compromised lung capacity (SCREAMING takes a LOT of breath!), perhaps I should listen to the TERROR still echoing in my mind. Perhaps, just perhaps, my days as a “thrill-seeker” have ended.

The next day at Mass, the Responsorial Psalm was, “Let the whole earth shout out with Joy.” Tears welled up in my eyes, and I almost lost it, remembering the unmitigated JOY I once experienced riding the Tilt-A-Whirl in my youth.

I looked up at the cross on the altar and asked, “Where is that JOY now? And suddenly my mind was transported back onto the Oaks Park Tilt-A-Whirl. My stomach lurched at the memory – that was not JOY, I thought. Then I “heard” (in memory’s tape recorder), the sound of a child’s laughter rising over my screams of terror. Lydia’s laughter (probably at her grandmother’s screaming). Lydia’s JOY-FILLED laughter! Wasn’t that why I wanted to go on the Tilt-A-Whirl, to experience Lydia’s JOY? As I type this, I can still “hear” her laughter

I think I get it. The sound of my granddaughter’s laughter, HER youthful thrill-seeking joie de vivre — that is a JOY. Better than any tilting, whirling ride. My soul can “shout for JOY” that I have such a beautiful memory! I do miss the spinning though.

PS   Those of you who love Tilt-A-Whirls might be interested in learning about its history and the way it works. Would you believe it has something to do with the chaos theory? Just click the word Tilt-A-Whirl.

PPS Enjoy the photos….

 

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The Bareback Rider

The process of writing for magazines, as I did for a number of years, entails gathering LOTS of miscellaneous tidbits of information, fragments of writings-in-progress, and finished articles waiting for the right publisher. Recently, I began to tackle that stack of odds and ends, the leftovers of a past life – my life as a writer.

Weeding through all the old memories was a painful process. Oh, I remember this! Why didn’t I ever finish that? Hmm. Why didn’t I ever get this published? The waste paper basket was soon overflowing with bits and pieces of long forgotten literary dreams.

As I was working on through the files, A-Z, I found the following personal essay, written over thirty years ago. I share this with you today because it fits with my last post, “Thrice Married.” If you didn’t read it yet, I invite you to do so before you continue reading.

 

The Open Coffin of a Bareback Rider

The first time I met my husband’s grandmother was a few months after she and her husband, Ray, had celebrated their 50th anniversary. Emma Wolf fit my image of a “Grandma” to a tee. Her graying hair, done up in unbrushed curls and protected by a not-so-invisible hairnet, and her sallow, sun-spotted complexion gave her a generic geriatric appearance. The “grandma look” was fully complemented by Emma’s clothing: a nylon flower print dress, always protected by an equally flowered bib apron. Brocade bedroom slippers and cotton support stockings added the final touches to the “Grandma costume.”

The likeness to my own beloved grandmother went further than appearances. Failing sight and deafness (only minutely corrected by bulky hearing aids) were common to both as was the crippling arthritis that trapped both women in a life of pain.

So this was old age? Somehow, in my mind then – and I suspect, in the minds of all young people – the “elderly” were a separate species. I saw the connection between childhood and adulthood, having made that transition myself. Even “middle-age” was an understood part of the life-cycle for me, since it loomed only a decade away (middle-age, to me then, was thirty). But Grandmas were…well, “Grandmas.” In other words, old.

Seemingly without a past and with a tentative future, they lived only in TODAY, weeding impeccable gardens, canning each fruit and vegetable in its season, and hanging their laundry outside on clothes lines – even though they owned dryers their children had bought them to make life easier. They were “Grandmas.”

“Grandma” was a cookie jar always filled and a candy drawer well-stocked – a Promise Land of delights for her grandchildren and a bain to health-conscious mothers.

The unique woman that was Emma Wolf remained hidden behind this age-façade for years, until one day Emma shared a tiny “snapshot” of her past with me. Oh, just as all “Grandmas” do, she had often talked about “When I was your age;” but somehow those words always sent my mind into a “once upon a time” foggy daydream. The reality of Emma’s “once-upon-a-time” youth never sunk in. Never, that is, until she told me about the bareback rider.

“I’d never seen a circus before, and was bowled over by the whole thing, but especially by the lady bareback rider,” she began her story, told mostly to entertain my five year old daughter, Lisa, who had just attend her first circus. The years fell from Grandma Wolf’s eyes – and from mine – as she continued.

“I couldn’t get over that young girl, not much older’n me, standing barefoot on her black stallion, as he trotted past us look-i-loos. I checked out her foot position and the way she held her arms out, graceful-like. I could do that, I thought to myself. And I planned, right then and there, to try it out the first chance I got.”

“Did you really try it, Great-Grandma?” Lisa asked in wonder.

Grandma Wolf chuckled. “Sure! Like I said, first chance I got. When no one was looking, I slipped off my shoes and climbed right on my palomino’s back. But I forgot about my stockings. They made my footing slippery, so over I went! Right on my arm. Broke it in two places.”

Lisa grimaced. “Ooh, Great-Grandma, I’d NEVER do that!”

“Why not, honey?” Grandma countered with a challenge. “How can you learn anything if you don’t give it a try?” Then her eyes took a trip backwards, remembering again. “Besides, it was worth the fall. I stayed on almost a minute!”

Lisa was delighted with Grandma’s story, so delighted I thanked God we didn’t have a horse! I also thanked God for opening my eyes and giving me a Kodachrome picture of Grandma, very different from the crippled, house-bound “black-and-white” picture I had before.

Emma Wolf died last month, at the age of ninety-six. Walking past her open coffin, I didn’t see the grey hair (still in unbrushed curls held in place by the “invisible” hairnet), or the sallow sun-spotted complexion, or the arthritic twisted hands. I saw instead a thirteen year old “Laura Ingalls” look-a-like — a Kansas farm girl, balanced proudly on her palomino — for almost a minute!

Although Grandma never went to Church, from things she shared with me, I know she had knowledge of God and a fledgling trust in Jesus. As I walked by the coffin, thinking of Young Emma, I also thought of the Scriptures that describe the return of Christ, with the Saints all riding on white horses. For one brief moment, I caught a spiritual glimpse of one young rider, dressed in white like all the others, riding bareback through the clouds.

The End

Last week I told you about a couple Tom and I met on our wedding day. A very old couple who had just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. I shared the experience I had as I looked at them – seeing, just for a moment, not two bent-over, rheumy-eyed and wrinkled OLD people, but a young couple, full of hope, on the brink of life.

Grandma Wolf’s story underlines this for me. When I look into the mirror today, I see a wrinkled, saggy-eyed, thin-haired old woman. (Cancer meds are miracle workers, but hard on the hair!) Yet, I am not old inside. I am still the young girl I was sixty years ago, bursting with youthful curiosity and a thirst for all that life beckons me to experience.

This may be a bit too “theological” for you – and I am NOT qualified to be “theological.” But here’s what I get from all this. The body is material – it wears out (ages). But the soul (the real person) is spiritual – it matures, yes, and should “grow in grace” every day, but it does not age. Souls might have scars but they don’t have wrinkles.

I once heard a Pastor say that, in heaven, we will all be thirty-three, just like Jesus was when he died. I don’t know if I believe that exactly; but I do believe there will be no toddlers and no old crones in heaven. Wrinkles and brown spots and rheumy eyes and creaky arthritic bones will not be anywhere in heaven. Grey or white hair might be, though. God seems to think the “hoary head” (grey or white hair) is a badge of honor! (Proverbs 16:31)

Ok. That’s enough “theology” for today! Until next time,

Grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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Thrice Married

Three times the charm, they say. If that’s so, then Tom and I have had a “charmed” marriage — we were married three times.

In my last post, “A Groovy Kind of Love,” I shared with you about the first time, when Tom and I were betrothed. The betrothal ceremony is, in essence, a marriage ceremony. Vows are exchanged. The only difference between a betrothal ceremony and a wedding ceremony, ecclesiastically speaking, is that the betrothal precedes a wedding ceremony – and only until after the actual wedding ceremony, should a marriage be consummated.

Our actual wedding day, (the second marriage ceremony) went off without a hitch. Well, sort of. Besides the usual pre-ceremony mayhem, the flowers were missing! The altar flowers, my orchid bouquet, the corsages and boutonnieres – there wasn’t a flower to be seen! But because I was in the Church Community Center getting dressed, I had no idea there was a problem.

Family and friends kept the missing flowers a secret from me as along as they could, fearing, I imagine, that I would fall apart and become Bridezilla personified. Waiting as long as possible – with only fifteen minutes left before the noon ceremony – they finally sent a nervous relative to break the distressing news.

But, surprisingly, I was not distressed. All the worry, all the anxiety that dogged me in the weeks just before the wedding day was gone. I no longer worried about whether my mother or uncle (both struggling alcoholics) would drink too much champagne at the reception; or whether the bride’s maids dresses all fit; or whether the weather would be too cold/hot/rainy/sunny; or even or not whether the flowers arrived on time. Getting married was no longer my focus; being married was the only thing that was important. I was at peace and missing flowers didn’t faze me a bit.

I smiled at the stuttering bad-news messenger and said, “No problem. Everything will be fine.” And it was. The flowers arrived with minutes to spare.

My most treasured “second marriage” memory (besides remembering how Tom’s knees crackled every time he had to kneel or stand!) was kneeling with Tom at the Communion rail and receiving the Consecrated Wine for the first time in my life.

For my Protestant friends, let me explain. As you may know, we Catholics believe that when we receive Holy Communion, we actually (really and truly) receive, not just bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Catholic theology tells us that even one crumb of the “bread” or one drop of the “wine” IS the living Christ Himself. (Tom’s last guest post, “How Much of the Infinite Does It Take,” goes into this a little more. Check it out.)

I don’t begin to understand. It is a Mystery. But because of this profound teaching of the Church, it is not necessary to receive under both “species,” (or, both the “bread” and the “wine.”) So, until the mid-sixties, lay Catholics received only the “bread” at Communion.

Very shortly before our wedding, the American Catholic Bishops issued a “dispensation” to brides and grooms on their wedding days, that the bridal couple only (not the wedding guests) was allowed to receive both the “bread” and the “wine.” It was considered the very highest of blessings. Today, when we have this privilege seven days of the week, we forget how blessed we are!

After the ceremony, we all gathered at my home for a simple reception. Photos were taken; the cake was cut, the champagne toast was given (no one drank too much!) and well-wishes were given by all. Finally, it was time to begin our married lives. Almost.

My grandmother had suffered a stroke a few weeks before our wedding, and she was not well enough to attend our wedding. Mom (everyone called my grandmother Mom, perhaps because she was the mother of eight and grandmother of dozens) was much more than a grandmother to me – she was a friend. In some future post I will share more about Mom; but for now, I will just say that there was NO WAY she was going to completely miss out on my wedding day! If Mom couldn’t come to us, we would go to her. And that’s what we did.

After hugs and goodbyes and the mandatory throwing of rice, Tom and I drove to Novato (about thirty minutes away from my home in Corte Madera) to visit Mom in the hospital wing of the Catholic Retirement Center where she lived.

Sister Bridget Kathleen (very Irish, complete with lilting Irish brogue) met us at the door, oohing and aahing over my wedding dress. With a broad wink she inspected Tom, still in his rented tux, and teased, “You, dear lad, are lookin’ lovely, too, I dare say. But let’s not waste a minute, dear-hearts, your grandmother is anxiously awaitin’ to see you.”

With that she whooshed us through a labyrinth of halls, singing, “Here comes the bride!” at the top of her lungs.

Mom’s eyes filled with tears when she saw us. Sadly, she couldn’t speak. She held my hand and caressed the tip of my veil as her weepy eyes drank in the happy, sad, sacred moment — one that is indelibly impressed on my memory.

Sister Bridget interrupted us with a stage whisper, “I don’t want to disturb this bonny moment, but when you’ve said your goodbyes, would you mind taking just a wee bit more time to come to our Chapel? Some of Mom’s old friends want to see you in your beautiful dress. And of course, they want to see you too, Tom, dear lad.”

Tom and I looked at each other. “What’s a “wee moment” more?” And so, after tearful goodbyes (this was the last time I would see Mom, but I am glad I didn’t know that at the time), we followed Sister back through the labyrinth.

About halfway down the first hall, she stopped at a closed door and knocked. “This won’t take long, dearies. Just a wee stop for some friends of Mom who can’t make it down to the chapel. (At this point, I wondered just how many friends Mom had.)

The door opened and a very old couple peeked out. The beam of JOY that spread over their faces knocked all impatience out of my heart. Sister Bridget introduced us. Of course I don’t remember their names, but I do remember that they had just celebrated their 75th anniversary!

We talked with them for quite a long time – and least I remember it as a long time. They reminisced about their own wedding day. He was just twenty and she was only seventeen! When we left them, I had one of those moments in life that are impossible to put into words.

This couple was OLD – he was ninety-five and she was ninety-two. Yet, looking into their eyes that afternoon, as we said jour goodbyes, I saw – I can’t explain it – two very YOUNG people smiling back at us, as full of youthful hope as Tom and I. I was stunned by the living paradox standing before me – but only for a moment, because Sister Bridget bustled us on our way.

When we finally got to the chapel, she stopped at the closed doorway, and said, with just a hint of sheepishness (maybe a wee bit of guilt…), “They have SO been lookin’ forward to this! I hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind what?” Tom asked.

“Oh, nothin’ dear lad. Just walk down the aisle, you two, and let them all see how pretty you look!” Then she opened the door with a flourish.

The chapel was full. Every Irish Sister on staff in the retirement home, along with a multitude of aged residents, beamed at us as we stood at the chapel door. (I KNOW my grandmother didn’t know that many residents!)

A priest in glistening white vestments stood at the foot of the altar, which was festooned with flowers. An organ began to play, Sister Bridget pushed us forward, and we walked down the aisle – what else could we do?

It immediately became clear that this was no “showing of the wedding dress for a few of Mom’s friends.” This was a wedding! The only difference between our ceremony that morning and this one was that it was not a Mass (and that was probably ONLY because there were rules at that time about multiple Masses in a day.)

Vows were said, rings were exchanged (we had to take them off first); and, for the second time that day, we were pronounced husband and wife and Tom was told to kiss his bride. (I don’t think he minded that part….)

After the kiss, we hurried down the aisle – but Sister Bridget stood in our way. She was holding a basket of little rice packets. “This will take only a wee bit more time,” she said.

The rice packets were handed out, and we were escorted (with flurries of flying rice) out of the Retirement Center and to our car. Thrice married, we drove away a wee bit dazed.

Three times a charm, they say. Looking back fifty years, I say, “Three times blessed.”

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