Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we do have an impact on other people, whether we realize it or not.
My dad, who has Alzheimer’s, moved into a nursing home in February 2015. It was a transition my family both dreaded and anticipated. Would he be all right without my mom’s constant, patient presence? Would he get along with the staff and other residents? It was sort of like sending a kid off to college—except, of course, that young people leave in order to create their lives. Old people leave in order to gently finish theirs.
The first couple of months were rough, but eventually we settled into a new routine. That routine included my dad’s roommate, Harry. Harry wasn’t a typical resident in the memory care unit. He was fully mobile. He could still read. He could carry on a conversation so well that you’d wonder why he was there—until he let it slip that he would be driving his truck back to the Twin Cities later that night. Harry seemed like a guy you’d find telling jokes to the gang over morning coffee at a small-town café, or maybe over beers at a local bar: blunt and a little gruff, but with a twinkle never too far from his eyes.
One day Mom and I were in Dad’s room, talking to Harry about his long career as a trucker and farmer. Dad piped up, “I haven’t grown up yet!” To which, quick as wink, Harry replied, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you won’t make it.”
My mom, especially, enjoyed Harry’s company. On my dad’s sleepy or uncommunicative days, Harry would make her visit more interesting. He spoke Low German, as my parents did. Low German (“Plattdeutsch”) is a funny, expressive language. I had no idea what their bantering meant, but it was clearly a treat for both of them.
More than a year went by.
Then one day Harry was gone. Just gone. He’d died in his sleep.
Mom and I went to his funeral. The service, at a local funeral home, was well attended by extended family, but it didn’t seem like anyone had a particular connection to him.
But Mom and I went to pay tribute to Harry because, no matter what the story of his past life, he’d added humor and grace to a poignant period in our lives. He had become part of our story.
A couple of years ago I gave a spontaneous hug to someone I didn’t know well, someone who was dealing with an intense, ongoing family crisis. It was a parent-to-parent moment, a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment.
Recently this person made a point of seeking me out and telling me that my impulsive hug had marked a turning point for him. He’d been in despair, looking for a sign that life wasn’t as bleak as it seemed. And then I showed up. I was the sign.
I was the sign even though, at the time, I was probably at the lowest point in my life. Divorce. Struggling kids. Career disappointments. The sense that I’d failed miserably at everything I’d ever cared about. I was utterly broken—and yet my brokenness didn’t matter. In spite of it, I had become part of someone else’s story.
This week marks the beginning of another year of service in Reading Corps. At training today, my program manager shared an essay by Rachel Naomi Remen. The essay explored the differences between helping, fixing, and serving. As I came to these lines, I teared up a little:
So, yes, a crusty 92-year-old with dementia can become the bright spot in our day, and a middle-aged woman scraping along at the bottom of life can provide a foothold for someone who needs just that.
Whenever we share of ourselves authentically and without reservation, we are serving. We are whole.
Our apps have a life of their own, don't they? Recently Google Pictures began sending me notifications: X number of years ago on this day...
I was a bit startled to see this picture come up on my phone, out of the blue:
Creepy! But let me explain.
Five years ago my parents moved off their farm to a house in town (Mountain Lake). They moved in March, but the folks who would be renting the homestead weren't going to be arriving until August. So every week or two that summer, I drove from the Twin Cities to spend a few days helping them clean out the house and some of the outbuildings. It was a hot, dry, Sisyphean summer: Would we ever, ever reach the end of things to be packed or sorted or discarded? Would it ever, ever rain again?
The dolls in the above picture had been stored for years, maybe decades, in what we called the "chicken barn" (even though no chickens had lived there in my lifetime). Those dolls were my well-loved and well-worn childhood friends. My mom made clothes for them out of fabric left over from the clothes she made for me—in fact, the orange dress on the doll to the right came from the dress I wore on my first day of kindergarten.
The day we tackled the chicken barn was supposed to be very hot, so we got to work especially early. And when I discovered my long-lost dolls, I set them out to catch the sun's first rays. After being shut away in the darkness for so many years, they deserved a little time in the golden glow of a July sunrise.
Among those in my age group (early 50s), helping parents move is a common scenario--exhausting yet brimming with memories. So I won't stop with the dolls. Here are more photos from the summer of 2012. Maybe some of you will relate.
I'm pretty sure this cowboy-themed toy bin helped me learn my letters and numbers. And then there's KerPlunk, a canister of Tinker Toys, and a leather-stenciling kit that belonged to my brother.
Also in the chicken barn: the remains of my brother's purple-ribbon 4-H bug box. I think he went to the state fair with it. At one point it held a prized luna moth as well as a cecropia moth—true victories in the world of 4-H entomology.
Now for something pretty! This intricate tissue-paper flower was made by my grandmother, along with several others. I wish I knew the occasion.
These pictures are imbedded in my brain. The mountain one hung over the organ in the living room. The fruit one was in the dining room—but the troubling thing is, I had to really think to remember where it had been. And it's only been five years.
More pictures that had been around as long as I could remember. But by 2012 they'd been relegated to the basement, where my dad had made room for a computer desk.
This work of "art" was my doing. I put this puzzle together during all the snow days we had when I was in seventh or eighth grade. That was the era of my maroon body suit. (For some reason that's what comes to mind when I think of working on this puzzle.)
A weed missed by the mower seized its chance to really show off.
Even a key can be a sensory memory...its smoothness and weight...
and the way you had to feel for just the right place to turn.
I remember spending the better part of a day packing up the pantry.
But what good old-fashioned farm pantry it was!
During one visit I worked into the night and then took a few pictures.
The lattice work cast an intricate shadow, and the picnic table seemed to float in midair.
The view from inside the breezeway, facing the yard light and granary.
A mama cat named Babe was happy for some company.
Headlights on corn...one of the eeriest images there'll ever be.
Hard to believe now, but as a kid I did undertake sewing projects now and then, mostly for 4-H (and always under the watchful eye of my mom). The tennis dress and the skirt I made from these patterns both ended up in my daughter's dress-up basket.
The dust of a summer's work covered my Sorento.
A few sparse raindrops turned it into a canvas.
My daughter, then 15, came out with me sometimes and amused herself by taking pictures. This is one of my favorites. It's how I like to remember the farm: both dreamy and substantial, and always inviting you to get up off your feet.
is a children's book author, editor, tutor, mom of two young adults and one feisty cat, and collector of weird things.
My Reading Corps Service
Letters for Kids
A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree