Family Feud

September 15, 2022

House from the road, built by John Erickson in the 1880s.

I thought a week’s stay in the 1880s farmhouse built by my great-grandfather would be an uninterrupted time of peaceful reflection amid a busy three weeks of visiting friends and relatives in three states. It was not.

There was no Wi-Fi to interrupt the day, although I could get faint internet access on my phone from an upper bedroom. My first cousin Harold, Jr. was at the farm when we arrived, repairing one of the sheds. We came to know Junior as a frequent visitor and inveterate talker. As Cindy said, perhaps he was trying to make up for all the years during which our families were estranged.

The driveway into the farm, Olson Road, Palestine, Michigan

The writing tips from the Ingram Sparks 30-day writing challenge say there should be no zig-zags in the storyline — no flashbacks. I think I’m breaking several rules right now: Extra words: “now,” “I think,” and using a –, and a flashback. But I find it difficult to tell a story, especially a memoir, without using flashbacks.

Upstairs memories: looking into the hall from the north bedroom, and holding the heavy wrapped brick that held the swinging door open at the bottom of the stairs throughout my childhood.

The reasons for the estrangement of the families go back to 1954, when my Uncle Harold, who was about to turn fifty, married Emma. Until then, he had lived on the farm with his sister Viola and their widowed father, Olof. Both Harold and Viola worked hard on the farm, although Viola also taught school and managed the household. In Viola’s eyes, no woman was good enough for Harold, whom she adored, and she had already thwarted at least one romance. The story goes that Harold bought a diamond for Ruthie Malmsten at my father’s jewelry store, but Viola threw a fit and put a stop to the engagement. Ruthie was not good enough for Harold, although the families had been friends for years.

Eventually, Harold found a wife in Emma, a widow twenty years younger who had two young boys, Milo (8) and Lyle (6). I was at the wedding, met my new cousins for the first time, and was envious as they set out on the honeymoon with their mother and her new husband. I wanted to go, too. Emma and Harold had a daughter Sylvia in a little over a year, and two years later, Harold, Jr. was born.

As anyone could have predicted, there was soon trouble between Emma and Viola, who had bought a farm half a mile down the road from the home place. Before he was married, Harold fixed up the house with a remodeled bathroom and other improvements. He and Emma moved into Viola’s house, called Jacobson’s Place, after the original owners, and Viola continued to live in her childhood home and cared for her father and elderly Aunt Gerda, who suffered from dementia and ended her life locked in the very upstairs bedroom in which I was now sleeping.

Gerda died in July 1955, and Olof that September. There seemed to be no good reason for Viola to continue living alone in the relatively large house. Harold had to drive to the farm to milk the cows each morning and evening. Emma demanded that Viola move out so she and Harold and their children could move in. I’m not sure where Harold stood, torn between his domineering sister, who loved him deeply, and his wife, but I know the fighting between his wife and sister caused him much anguish.

 It caused me anguish, too. In the summer of 1956, I stayed with Viola in the house that was strangely empty without my grandpa, Gerda, and Harold. There were horrible shouting matches outside the house between Emma and Viola. I ran away and covered my ears, not knowing what was going on and, like Harold, not knowing whose side to take.

Eventually, Viola left the home of her birth that she said Grandpa had promised would always be her home. The farm had been left equally to Harold and Viola. The enmity between Emma and Viola never diminished, despite the efforts of my mother to try to reconcile the two. We were all miserable, and the hard feelings continued, even after Harold built a new house for his family across the road from the old farmhouse and allowed Viola to move back to the family home, which she never did. Instead, she rented the place to a series of renters, each seeming to result in conflicts and altercations. Harold died in 1976 at the age of 71. I think he was a broken man. My mother died in 1987, Viola in 1995, the third sister Elsie in 1999, and Emma in 2004.

By 1977 I was married and had lived in distant places for many years, although Viola sent me frequent letters until her death, and I visited when I could. The 1960s and 70s were times of family conflict and separation because of disagreements over the Vietnam War and other issues larger than the conflict between Viola and Emma. It wasn’t until my children were born that I realized how important family contact was to me.

 Harold’s children inherited his half of the farm upon their father’s death, but it wasn’t until Viola’s death almost twenty years later that they had complete control of the property. I don’t know how long the dairy farm continued after Harold’s death. Junior told me recently that whenever some issue arose regarding the property, people tended to go to Viola rather than to him.

The first time I saw Junior after his childhood was on the eve of my Aunt Elsie’s funeral in 1999, the day before he was getting married, late in life, like his father. In 2007, after the death of my husband, I returned more often to visit the remaining relatives. We organized a family reunion that fall. Harold’s daughter, my cousin Sylvia, came to the reunion, where I greeted her with tears in my eyes. I had not seen her, either, since she was a child.

 Now, fifteen years later and eighteen years after Emma’s death, we cousins are still working on building our relationships and healing the rifts of our parents’ generation. Those rifts have left a long-lasting sadness caused by the pain and separation that lasted fifty years in what was once a loving, close family. Those years can never be recaptured. “Love one another. As I have loved you,” (John 13:34-35) is such an important commandment, yet not always easy to follow, as I am sure has been the experience of families other than mine.

Here are six cousins enjoying time together in August 2022. Cindy, Mary, John, Linnea, Sylvia, and Harold, Jr. Milo and Lyle were not able to join us.

Reading Braiding Sweetgrass and Childhood Memories: June 27, 2022

Cattails in Autumn

I woke up shortly after three this morning. I don’t know why. Perhaps I subconsciously knew that this was the birthday of my two children, now thirty-nine and forty-three years old. But I wasn’t thinking of them, and I wasn’t worrying about world problems. I was wondering what had happened to the Global Entry renewal I’d applied for months ago. Where was the notification? Had I mislaid it? My restless mind would not let me fall back to sleep.

When I despair over the fate of Mother Earth and our nation, reading and reflecting on my past can provide balance and respite. So, I got up, taking Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautifully written Braiding Sweetgrass with me. Her book of stories combines scientific and indigenous knowledge. The chapter “Sitting in a Circle” reminded me of my childhood. Our small group of Elder Activist Readers has been sharing our responses to books on climate change and the environment for nearly two years. Each book has been enlightening and challenging us in its own way. Right now, we are reading and discussing Braiding Sweetgrass.

But before settling into the book, I needed to check on the Global Entry application. Luckily, I could log in with only a verification code texted to my phone. I discovered that the application was still in progress, just as it had been on March 17. Why? My husband got his renewal in two days. Maybe they think eighty-year-olds have no time to waste? Perhaps they discovered some secret in my past? I shot off a message to the help page (which still has not responded two weeks later) and returned to Braiding Sweetgrass and my childhood.

In the chapter “Sitting in a Circle,” Robin Wall Kimmerer takes a group of university students to the woods to discover what necessities of life they can find there. They joke about going shopping at the “Wal-marsh,” but are appropriately awed when they learn that cattails can supply almost everything needed to sustain human life.

When I was a child, cattails beckoned from the ditches along the roads in my Upper Peninsula of Michigan home. Although they looked near, they were difficult to reach without falling into deep ditches and getting wet. One day, my brother and I convinced our father to stop the car and pick some for us. It was fall, and the cattails were overripe. As we stroked the furry brown tails in the back seat of the car, they exploded into a storm of fluff that filled the air and clung to everything, much to my mother’s dismay. My father stopped the car and chucked out the offending cattails. He never picked any again, and even when they were green, they were never allowed in the car despite our begging,

t those fat brown tails and their dramatic tall leaves always fascinated me. It was not until I read Braiding Sweetgrass that I discovered the many uses of cattails. There is food in the stems, fruit, and rhizomes. Insulation and bedding can be made from fluff. Sleeping mats and roofs are constructed from waterproof leaves, and the protein-rich pollen is added to pancake flour. The stems also contain an aloe-like gel to soothe skin irritated by mosquito and black fly bites, and hands chafed from pulling the cattail leaves. I am sure local indigenous people could have told us about the many gifts cattails provide, but as far as I know, no one bothered to consult them.

In summers, we picked dandelions and braided them into crowns. But I was an adult before I made dandelion fritters. We made hats of ferns, but I have yet to eat the fiddleheads that emerge in spring. We learned that the plump, sweet red wintergreen berries and the not-so-sweet but still refreshing leaves that emerged from under the melting snow were good to eat at a time of year when little else was edible. However, we were cautioned never to pick and eat wild mushrooms, although we knew some people did. Our parents told us that one mistake in identifying a mushroom could mean death.

Although we were warned not to eat things we didn’t know about, beautiful sumac bushes with lovely, fuzzy pyramidal spikes of fruit grew on the roadside near my grandfather’s farm. “Poison sumac,” the grown-ups called it, although they couldn’t tell us whether it was poisonous. We picked some of the fruit and, risking our lives, sucked on it – discovering it had a slightly sweet, astringent taste. We suffered no ill effects, but our elders disapproved. There was no internet in those days, but today, I looked up sumac and found it is possible to buy sumac seasoning, make sumac lemonade, and use the berries for many other things. I also learned that the poison sumac plant is different and more closely related to poison ivy. I also discovered it is possible to buy ingredients made from the various parts of cattails.

We knew wild gooseberries and black and red raspberries were good to eat. We ate the sour chokecherries that grew on shrub-like trees in the fields, and juneberries that I later learned were called Amelanchier, shad, or serviceberry. Sometimes we found the branches of the juneberry bushes pulled down to the ground by bears, making it easier for us to reach any that were left.

 We ate apples that grew wild in the hedgerows along the roads. My mother told us the apples had probably grown from cores she had thrown as a child. They are growing there still – perhaps some of them from the apples I once ate and tossed.

 In August, the blueberries ripened, and word spread around town about where they grew the thickest. There were good crop years and bad. We had to watch for bears when we picked. Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal was one of the only books I had as a child that depicted a life like mine. Little Sal wore overalls, not a dress, and walked in woods and fields that looked like those I knew, not the manicured parks that passed for the woods in other books.

Kimmerer writes (on page 200) that the wildflowers and plants that flourish in old-growth forests do not return in the new-growth forests. My mother often took my brother and me into “Grammy’s woods,” a mature hardwood forest, where she showed us the spring flowers: hepaticas, bloodroot, dog-toothed violets, sweet violets, dutchman’s breeches, trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, lady’s slippers, and more.

My childhood friend Linda, who became an anthropologist, and I, now in our seventies, sometimes reminisce about our childhood adventures and reflect on how our explorations in the Upper Peninsula woods have influenced us. The eighteenth-century proverb goes, “Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.” Now we exchange recommendations for books and zoom lectures and try to acquire some of the indigenous knowledge we missed out on as children.

Elder Activist Readers’ Book List (in order of reading as of June 2022)

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkerson (eds). All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, 2020 (read Jan 2021)

Shalanda H. Baker. Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition, 2021 (read Mar-Apr 2021)

Arlie Hochschild. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, 2016 (read June 2021)

Kate Haworth. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, pub 2017 (read Jul/Aug 2021)

Lydia Millet. A Children’s Bible (a novel), 2020 (read Jan 2022)

Paul Hawken. Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, 2021 (read Feb/Mar 2022)

Kristen Olsen. The Soil Will Save Us, 2014 (read Apr/May 2022)

Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013 (read June 2022)

Plus, we watched: Kiss the Ground (video)

The Pink Snowsuit and the Flowing Well

While my friend Lydia and I were walking along the North Valley irrigation ditches the other day, we came across a narrow plank bridge. The path ended just beyond it, so we had to cross or turn back. As we got closer, it was evident that the bridge was wider than it looked from a distance, but after we crossed, I said to Lydia, “Go back to the other side again, and I’ll take your picture.” 

She ran back and forth more than once, and I warned her, “Be careful! Keep doing that, and you might fall in!”  There is such a thing as tempting fate. And I told her about a childhood incident when I tempted fate on a narrow plank one time too many

Lydia on the Ditch, Albuquerque, April 2022

I thought I’d write that story, but I soon realized I had gaps in my memory. What I did remember was my heavy, pink wool coat with matching snow pants and a hat that tied under my chin. Could I find a picture of a similar ensemble?

I tried a Google search, and although I found some pictures of 1950s snowsuits and girls’ winter coats, none of them looked much like mine.

I didn’t think I had a picture of me wearing it, but a search of my photo files on Flickr hit the jackpot. There I was, posing with what I intended to be a fetching look. I see a contrived smile, and eyes looking up from my demurely bowed head. Was I already at that young age channeling Audrey Hepburn? I don’t think I’d yet heard of her. 

Leonard, John and Linnea Hendrickson, circa 1952

My pink ensemble was more suitable for dressing-up than for sledding or skiing, but it was warm. The coat reached almost to my knees, and the heavy, lined pants kept my legs toasty. The hat, with its puffy crown and little brim, tied under my chin with a ribbon and was probably more decorative than practical.

Our father stands resolutely behind us with a hint of a smile, probably meant to please my mother behind the camera. His necktie is slightly askew behind his checked wool shirt, and his soft black beaver cap sits impressively on his head.  My brother, holding sticks or a slingshot, looks decidedly unhappy at having to pose. His jacket is unbuttoned, and our father is not wearing an overcoat, so despite the snow on the ground, it must have been quite warm, much like the early spring day of my story.

But there is one more bit of background before I can tell the tale. The southeastern section of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has many artesian wells. When a pipe taps into an underground aquifer, water flows freely to the surface. In some cases, the water pressure is enough that the water can shoot fifty feet into the air. A little research reveals that the area between Naubinway and Engadine (a distance of perhaps ten miles) has the highest incidence of these wells on the entire peninsula.

My parents were taking a Sunday afternoon drive in their two-toned green Chevy sometime in the early nineteen fifties.  My guess is that it was March or early April, with temperatures moderating, but snow still on the ground. My friend Danny and I sat in the back seat, but I don’t remember if my brother John was with us, and he doesn’t either.  We were traveling along that stretch of U.S. 2 between Naubinway and Engadine, and I begged to stop to get a drink at a very large flowing well where water bubbled into the air before falling into a pond surrounded by a swampy stand of trees.

Danny and I jumped through the wet spring snow until we reached a green, slime-covered wooden plank that stretched across the pond to the pipe from which the water poured. What fun it was taking turns running back and forth on that slippery plank to sip the water from the pipe. We did it again and again while my parents waited impatiently. 

“Get back in the car before you fall in!” my mother finally called, making the running even more fun.  

“One more time!” I called.

Then, dressed in my heavy wool snowsuit, I slipped and went head over heels into the icy, cold, slimy green water. The wool absorbed the water, weighing me down, but I struggled to my feet like a creature from the black lagoon and, with the help of my mother, who ran to save me, managed to climb onto solid ground. Green slime covered me and my pink outfit. Danny laughed hysterically as my mother poured the water out of my boots, stripped off my wet clothes, and wrung them out as best she could, leaving me dressed in only my underwear. She dropped the sodden clothes into the trunk of the car and wrapped me in a blanket. Danny and I snuggled under the blanket in the back seat and laughed all the way home. I suppose the snowsuit went to the cleaners. Or maybe I never wore it again.

Danny and I remained friends until his death, a year after our fifty-year class reunion. I’m sorry I won’t see him again this summer to laugh once more and share our memories of that day.

Danny Smith, 2012, Michigan

My Crockpot

23 January 2022

My Vintage Crockpot

How many electrical appliances in your kitchen are more than forty years old? Countless electric toasters, microwave ovens, waffle makers, popcorn poppers, hand-mixers, and coffee pots have come and gone in mine, along with an electric knife and a knife-sharpener-can-opener combination that I decided were not worth their counter or storage space.

I still occasionally use an electric frying pan that my brother and I bought as an anniversary present for our parents in the 1960s. It brings back memories of my college days in a first apartment shared by four of us who rotated cooking on a daily schedule. Jane owned the electric skillet, which we put to regular use, frying chicken, making stews, pot roasts, pork chops, hot dogs, and batches of chile (often using recipes from another cherished well-worn antique, the hilarious I Hate to Cook Cookbook by Peg Bracken that contained such memorable favorites as Chilly-Night Chili, Stayabed Stew, and Cockeyed Cake. I owned the cookbook, a gift from the irrepressible Gen Markle, one of my mother’s closest friends, who inscribed it (with my slightly misspelled name), “To Linnae with love, and best wishes for a happy and nutritious year.”

 I still occasionally still make Cockeyed Cake. But my usual stand-by these days is an Australian plain cake, which becomes dazzling with the addition of jam or jelly, fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, kiwis, raspberries, or whatever is available). A few dollops of Grand Marnier or Amaretto and lots of freshly whipped cream hold the layers together and cover the whole thing. I call it Australian Cake, although there’s probably nothing Australian about it. It was inspired by my friend Jenny in Melbourne, who not only added all the extras to the “plain cake” recipe found in an Australian cookbook but often presented it with the flourish of a ribbon wrapped around it, a particularly clever trick if you don’t have enough whipped cream to cover the sides.

But, my prized long-running-hit kitchen appliance is a flaming orange Rival Crockpot, one of the first purchases I made in 1973 when after four years of living on savings and meager graduate-student fellowships, I finally could afford to buy some extras. I had a real job, teaching at the College of Ganado on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, and there was a fairly new large FedMart store in Window Rock, a thirty-minute drive over the Defiance Plateau. The store was much like a modern Walmart or an old-fashioned general store, with almost anything one could possibly need or want, at a low price. 

I would fill my crockpot with stew meat, carrots, potatoes, onions, and maybe some celery, garlic, and tomato sauce or paste in the morning. Then, I would work all day, or spend a day exploring the countryside before coming home to a delicious hot dinner. As the ads for the crockpot said, “It cooks all day while the cook’s away.”

 I’ve never done any of the fancier things the crockpot is said to do, like make cakes or bread, but for years I’ve used it to make pot roasts, stew, and one-pot meals of various kinds. I also sometimes use it to cook dried beans, and in cold weather make hot spiced apple cider, or another old favorite from one of my mother’s close friends, “Hilma’s Holiday Glogg,” (pronounced gloog), a Swedish recipe that involves large quantities of burgundy, raisins, and cardamom seeds, served in teacups with a dollop of vodka or bourbon to top off the already-potent brew.

Over the years, I have relied on the crockpot, whether I’ve been dashing off to work or school, spending a day with guests, or hiking in the mountains. It is wonderful to come home to an aromatic hot dinner and is well worth the twenty minutes or so it takes to prepare the meat and vegetables or dried beans before rushing off in the morning, leaving the meal to cook safely for eight to twelve hours. The meat cooks first, the vegetables more slowly.

 I love the simplicity of this old pot, which unlike more recent and more popular incarnations with countless buttons to push for various settings, requires nothing more than an electrical outlet. Its three settings; off, low, and high, are operated by the turn of a dial. What could be simpler? I have looked at the new instant pots, but like my new-fangled oven, which requires an instruction book to operate all its bells and whistles, they seem unnecessarily complicated, although perhaps they can do more. Sometimes less is more, and after almost fifty years, this simple appliance still works perfectly. What more could I want?

Inscription in the I Hate to Cook Book, 1964
Chilly-Night Chili Recipe from The I Hate to Cook Book

Christmas Greetings 2021 from Kent and Linnea

It is one week before Christmas Eve, and I’m still not feeling the Christmas spirit, despite participating in Advent readings with a small group and attending a glorious performance of Handel’s Messiah. I brought the Swedish straw goat and a wooden Santa Claus up from the basement and put a wreath on the door this evening. Decorating done, maybe.

I was briefly tempted by the pretty Christmas trees from Mora, NM in the lot on 4th Street, but the thought of putting everything up and taking it down deterred me. I have not baked a single cookie (yet) or bought anyone Christmas presents (besides a tip to our faithful newspaper carrier). I’ve invited guests for Christmas dinner but have not come up with a menu. Unless we get inspired, we will not set out luminaria on Christmas Eve as we did last year when the neighbors came to the end of the driveway for hot cider and cookies, happy to see each other, even in our masks, after the long months of lockdown.

Kent and I were relieved to get our first Covid vaccinations in February and March – thinking soon Covid would be gone, and we could resume life as we knew it. As we all know, that did not happen, although the threat of death was much lessened. We traveled to San Francisco several times, happy to see the family and take long walks. In August we drove to Wyoming for a gathering of Kent’s high school class, and in October and November we ventured on our first pandemic era foreign trip to Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca.

We have much to be grateful for, but I am feeling sad for the future of the world. My generation, in the 1960s railed at what our parents had done, but now we are leaving behind a worse mess. Tomorrow, one full week before Christmas, would be my father’s 120th birthday.  He was born on December 18, 1901, and although he suffered from a burst appendix, smallpox, and tuberculosis, and survived the 1918 flu pandemic, he lived to be 90 years old. After more than thirty years without them, I still miss my parents.

We worked extensively on Kent’s book We Ran Away to Sea, writing and re-writing several times and cutting out enough stories to fill another book. We hope to finish it in 2022.

I participated in the local photography club through meetings via Zoom and moved out of the beginner level in the exhibitions, although I still struggle with Lightroom, Photoshop, and my camera. The judges especially liked some of the pictures taken through the glass of our small bathroom’s shower. So much for traveling to get good pictures!

Last night just at sunset, I drove to La Montanita Co-Op to replenish our supply of rye crisp. The Sandia Mountains glowed deep pink, as they often do in winter. When I returned, the light had faded, but a perfect full moon now hung over the deep-blue peaks. Had I looked more carefully earlier, I might have seen the pink mountains and the rising moon together, but I missed the opportunity.

Despite my lack of Christmas spirit, I don’t want to miss this opportunity to wish you all the blessings and joys of the season. May our hope be renewed. When I asked Kent if I should add anything, he said, “How about a little cheer?”

Self-Portrait through the bathroom glass

International Travel in Pandemic Times: Mexico

View from our terrace in Oaxaca

It is not all back to normal by a long shot. We have now been in Mexico for two weeks and are preparing to return home in three days. We’ll go shortly to see if we can now get a required Covid test that will allow us to board our plane for Dallas on Tuesday afternoon.

We asked at our hotel, found our way to a lab, which referred us to another. Rapid tests cost 800 pesos (about us $40) or a regular test with a longer turn-around time would be 2,000 pesos or $100. We have no idea what we’ll do if the test is positive and we can’t board our plane.

That is, of course not likely. Precautions here are much stricter than anywhere I’ve been in the U.S. We wore masks most of the time in our small 15-passenger van with the group of Americans with whom we traveled and shared meals and conversations for 9 days.

Here is what I wrote after our first day in Mexico City, and the same has held true in Puebla and Oaxaca.

Uber from the airport (Puerto 7) was easy and fast despite roads clogged with traffic. The driver was amazing, like driving a Grand Prix. The long line through immigration moved relatively quickly—maybe 1/2 hour wait on a Saturday night. The pedestrian streets near Zocalo were full of families until shops closed at 10 pm. It felt safe. We seem to be by far the oldest people on the streets and on the plane. I gave the Uber driver “two people with white hair“ as our description.

Almost everyone on the street was masked last night. We had our temperatures taken as we entered the hotel and a bottle of hand sanitizer was held out for our hands. What I realize is with everyone masked it is even harder for me to understand what people are saying in a foreign country than it is at home.

There are often long lines for getting into places, and many museums and churches are closed. All the staff in restaurants and shops are masked, and only people eating and drinking are unmasked.

I’m not sure I’m happy traveling in this new world, but I’m afraid this is what I’ll probably be living with for the rest of my life.

In the airport before leaving for Mexico. Never thought we’d be wearing masks nearly all day every day for more than two weeks.

Reflections on Mortality: Happy Birthday to Me

The Kitchen

May 19:

I sit in the kitchen this morning, thinking it may be my favorite room in the house. After years of indecision, we finally remodeled it, with Kent doing all the work.

While seated at the little round table at its center, I look at the lovingly crafted and designed cupboards — the lazy susan in the corner, the pullout-bin for trash and recyclables, the handy open-fronted drawer containing the paper towel roller with space behind it for an extra roll and dish towels. The under-sink drawers can be removed to access the plumbing (eliminating that dank, dark, hard-to-reach hole found in most kitchens). Also, under the counter beside the sink is a tall, narrow pull-out on which sits an antique ivory and red tin box from my grandfather’s house that holds dishwasher detergent, and above that, a nifty trio of towel racks on which to hang dish towels and washed recycled plastic bags. Above the drawers beneath the counter are wooden cutting boards that can be pulled out as needed. There are also vertical pull-out cupboards above and beside the refrigerator. Above the sink and in front of the south-facing window that looks out on the bird feeders and the spacious backyard is a light operated by pulling on a frosted glass knob at the end of a chain, so easy to reach just where it is needed.

May 29

I started writing the reflection on my kitchen ten days ago. It was the day after I’d had an echo-stress test on a treadmill and learned there is an abnormality in the walls of the left ventricle of my heart. Thus, I set about to contemplate my mortality. Yesterday, the day before my birthday, I underwent a nervously anticipated heart catheterization. I dreaded not only the procedure (although that was worrisome, too) but what it might reveal. I hoped for a small blockage that could easily be removed, enabling me to immediately run up hills like a twenty-year-old without gasping to catch my breath. But I feared that my arteries could be a complete mess and that I’d need a quadruple by-pass or worse. Neither of those scenarios unfolded. Instead, some problems will be treated with medicine, exercise, and diet, requiring some work on my part but no surgical intervention. I am grateful.

Today is my birthday. It is hard to believe I have completed seventy-seven years. I look back at childhood, adolescence, the college and young adult years, then marriage (later than most), two children, several careers, widowhood, adventures as a single person, and a second joyful, unexpected late-life marriage. Today would also have been my dear Ed’s 95th birthday and our 44th wedding anniversary.  He died just days after our 30th.

Last week I happened upon a Mary Oliver poem embedded in a beautiful ceramic bench on the grounds of the Harwood Art School in Albuquerque. It was not the first time I’d read this poem, but its closing lines, especially, spoke to me and seemed appropriate for this birthday morning when I am glad to have my body back. Thank you, Mary Oliver, and all the artists, holy ones, and mystics who help us live more fully.

“Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

—Mary Oliver, Poem 133: The Summer Day

Sisters of Sorrow and Hope: February 4, 2021

Audrey, Joanna, Linnea, Eleanor, and Melissa in 2014

We lost our dear Joanna this week, the first of our little group called Sisters of Sorrow and Hope.  We are alumni of the first cancer caregivers writing group founded in 2005 at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center by psychologist and cancer survivor Anjanette Cureton and artist, writer and cancer survivor Eleanor Schick. That group continues to this day as Family and Friends Journaling Together .

Members of that first group formed a tight bond. We cried and laughed and shared our deepest secrets, fears, and hopes. We lost husbands, lovers, parents, and friends. We encountered depths of feelings we had avoided confronting, and we supported each other.

Linnea, Ife, Anjanette Melissa, Joanna, and Valerie in 2016

Eventually some of us moved on (after those we cared for died). We no longer needed support to survive. New people joined the group, but they did not know all we’d shared with each other. It was time to make room for the new people with their fresh pain. But we missed each other. So, after a year or two, we informally connected again – no longer meeting weekly, but getting together every two or three months.  We realized how deep our friendship was and how precious the bonds that united us. We were sisters who shared our sorrows and our hopes.

We met in each other’s homes and shared food and wine along with our stories and writing. We continued the structure established by Anjie and Eleanor, who sometimes joined us. Check-in, meditation, writing, and then reading or sharing our writing. We scheduled our first Zoom meeting for early January 2021.  Then news came from Joanna that a recent CAT scan had revealed metastasized cancer and she did not have long to live. Her time was, indeed, short. She died yesterday morning, leaving her beloved dog Ziggy to her friend/sister-in -sorrow-and-hope/dog-walking companion, Melissa.

Joanna was not only our sister in sorrow and hope; she was a renowned cellist who shared her talent generously, playing in benefit concerts, the local Sunday Chatter group, and at the university’s cancer center.  She was also a devoted care-giver. Announcing her final professional performance at Chatter in 2017, the Chatter group shared a three-part video of the young Joanna de Keyser many years before, playing in a Master Class with Pablo Casals.

This morning I tearfully listened to that beautiful recording of Dvorak’s music, pondering the mysteries of life and death and our grief at our loss of Joanna’s talent, generosity, and friendship.  What happens to all our talents and all our accomplishments when we die?  Other than some bits remaining in memories legacies they are gone.  My thought is: be generous, give of ourselves now, for our gifts are ours for only a short time.

Blessings on you, dear Joanna.  May you be making music with Pablo Casals and the angels this morning.  Your spirit is with us.

Note: I just did a Google search for Joanna de Keyser. There are several recordings and stories about her amazing career, including a review of a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York; but to us she was mainly our cherished sister in sorrow and hope.

Pilgrim Walk and Reflections: Thursday, January 22, 2021

Treasures found along the ditch bank

My husband and I set off on our usual 3.5 mile walk along the North Valley ditch banks.At first I was busy talking with him, since we had been working separately all day and had lots to catch up on. By the time we got to our turn-around spot overlooking the Candelaria Fields toward the Rio Grand Bosque with the volcanos beyond, I had been quiet for quite a long time.

I never tire of the view from there, where we often see cranes, geese, small birds, and sometimes coyotes or hot air balloons. It is a special, perhaps even sacred place. The ditch points straight to Vulcan, the largest volcano. I wonder for how many centuries ditches, paths, or lines of some kind have pointed from this spot to the volcano. What had this land looked like 400 and 500 years ago, before the first Spanish came?

I took some deep breaths.  It had been a busy, difficult day. I raised my arms and clasped my hands over my head while focusing on Vulcan.  From the corners of my eyes I saw my open hands as they rose, framing the volcano. “Maybe now we are in better hands.” I was thinking of yesterday’s inauguration. Maybe I will breathe easier. Unbidden, the song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” came to me, and I clapped and sang as we turned toward home.

At the Alameda Drain, I let my husband hurry ahead. I walked to the edge of the deep ditch, peered down, and was happy to see there was still a border of ice along the edge at its bottom. I spent a long time looking at the assorted trash in the ditch, thinking of the muskrat I’d seen swimming and disappearing into a hole in the bank last summer. There was no water now.

The sky was patchy with dark clouds, white clouds, and bits of blue. The elm tree behind me was already showing signs of swelling buds. Birds flitted in the trees across the street. The mourning doves called. Snow covered the distant mountains. I studied the many grasses and small shrubs that lined the ditch. I was happy and at peace. Suddenly, right in front of me, I noticed two long narrow leaves that formed the unmistakable shape of a cross. I would have taken a photo, but I’d sent my phone home with my husband. I recited “Our Father” more than once. The world was so beautiful.

As I walked a few steps toward home, a bright blue speck in the dirt caught my eye. I thought of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. I bent down to pick it up. It was a little piece of glass. What it had come from and how it had gotten there; the only piece of blue anywhere? I recited a “Hail Mary,” and recalled some of some of the many images I had seen of Mary while walking caminos in France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Then, I spied something purple. It was a tiny fragment of brown glass (likely from a beer bottle) that had oxidized to form a purple sheen. This, too, seemed special. A piece of trash thoughtlessly discarded along the path had become something beautiful.

I continued walking, warmed by the sun, which had broken through the clouds. I looked at the yellow fruit of the nightshade that also lined the ditch, and I picked a small stem. At the corner where the ditch meets the street, I noted a new fence and gate of golden wood, topped with a wrought-iron sun with wavy rays. As I turned onto our street, South Peak was centered at the its end, the sun hitting its top. In my mind’s eye I was transported to that also sacred place I have visited at least twice after a long hard climb. I don’t know whether I’ll get there again; not now in ice and snow for sure. As the warmth of home enveloped me, I was grateful for my pilgrim walk. The frustrations and worries of the day had faded away and I looked forward to a peaceful night.