Who Would Name a Dog Assy?

By 1959, Mom was ready to spread her wings. Dad wasn’t big on moving but he happened to mention to the St. Edmund’s building committee that we were looking for a new place to live. One of the members said his father-in-law had something available in Brookfield. When Dad found out the rent was $75 a month, he became interested. When Mom checked it out and told Dad it was a ten-acre farm and there would be room for a horse or two, he was sold. So, that year,we moved to Brookfield when it was still mostly open farmland with some subdivisions tucked in.

Assy in the snow

Assy in the snow

Our farm was owned by R.J. Kiekhever who lived in what we called “the castle” and owned 150 acres in Brookfield. There was a mile long stone road through woods that connected our farm to the Kiekhevers. We would walk through it to go to school at Brookfield Elementary. This is where we would spend the next ten years, along with four horses, a couple sheep, some goats, chickens, Daisy the duck,

Daisy

Daisy

many cats, and a dog named Assy–no, an “L” isn’t missing, you read it right. It’s pronounced Ah-see. We had visited a church in Assy, Fance during Dad’s Fellowship. It was high up in the mountains and we went to see it. On the way back down we stopped at a restaurant to have lunch. While we were eating a boy came along with a little dog and my brother Ed asked if he could have one when we got back home. Mom and Dad agreed and said we would name it Assy.

In the barn with Peep-bo and Assy

In the barn with Assy checking out Peep-Bo. This was the picture Mom and Dad used to design our Christmas card in 1959.

Dad eventually purchased a couple additional acres of land, one lot to our east that had a house and an apple orchard which was great for tree climbing.  I was so excited because now we had access to all those trees.

Dad met our future tenants while he interviewed for a YWCA expansion project. Harriet McKinney was on the committee. In typical Dad style, he told the committee about the house for rent. Harriet was interested and when the meeting was over Dad was introduced to her husband Gerald McKinney who played fullback at the University of Wisconsin. Dad stood there with the two of them on the sidewalk after the meeting and said to her husband, “Well I didn’t know you were black. Do you guys know this house is in Brookfield?  You may get some resistance.”

“Oh, we’ve dealt with that before. We can handle it,” Gerry McKinney responded.

“Okay,” Dad answered and that was the extent of his tenant background checks in those days.

The two of them started coming out to the house doing painting and helping out with other fix-up jobs. During this time, Mom was at the grocery store when a woman came up and asked her to sign a petition.

“What for?” Mom asked.

“Didn’t you hear about the couple moving into the house on Gebhardt Road? We have to stop it,” the lady snapped.

“Why?” Mom wanted to know.

“Well, he’s a Negro and she’s white and Jewish.” Mom didn’t sign it. Then we heard they took the petition to the McKinney’s neighbors to the east. The owner answered the door and they went in and talked. Have you heard about the Negro moving in next door? You don’t want a Negro living next door to you, do you?”

The neighbor said, “I don’t know. I haven’t met him yet.”

It was necessary to have the signatures of the neighbors on both sides of the house so that was the end of the petition.

I thought Mrs. McKinney was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen—she was like a Modigliani painting, tall and statuesque with a long black braid cascading down her back. Mr. McKinney was a strong, robust man with a big personality and an even bigger laugh. We did a lot together including parties at their house and I still remember that they even invited us to share in their Seder dinner.

One day after school, not long after the McKinney’s had settled in, I gathered my two best friends to climb the trees. They told me their parents wouldn’t allow them to go on the property.

I came to understand that fear of the unknown drives many decisions and emotions. I don’t remember what my friends and I ended up doing that day instead of climbing trees but I will never forget that day. As life goes, weeks then months passed and the rules changed. My friends’ father came to know the McKinney’s. The tension in his face disappeared and he told his daughters, “Why the McKinney’s’ are such nice people, I don’t care if you play in their yard, as long as it’s okay with them.”  And that was the end of it.

The McKinney’s were our babysitters when Mom and Dad went out of town on business trips and they were there for us if we got hurt. I came home from school late one afternoon and found Ed lying in the ditch by our mailbox at the foot of our drive. Our horse, Sam had thrown him and Ed’s head was about an inch from a big rock. He was calm and he looked up at me with his big brown eyes. Then I noticed the bone in his lower leg was sticking out over his boot. Mom and Dad weren’t home. “I’ll go get the McKinney’s!” I yelled as I ran to them as fast as I could. Mr. McKinney came running back and jumped over a wire fence. He got his pants caught and tore them good. Mrs. McKinney was in the middle of cooking a special dinner and ended up driving Ed to the hospital because there wasn’t time for Mr. McKinney to change.

I saw Harriet recently at a friend’s visitation. We talked about–what else?–the meaning of a life. She told me in her “Book” if a person can save a life they earn a universe. I told her it seemed that with both my parents—first Mom and now Dad—there was a sense that as they neared the end of their days on earth they questioned if they had done anything of any real significance. “Forget about all the beauty your parents created,” she said to me. “Forget about all the amazing places your dad made for people to worship in. Forget about all your Mom’s beautiful piano playing and singing, that and all the other things they did. They touched lives. You know your dad would always ask me if we had a church. When he couldn’t get us to visit his he tried to get us to go to the synagogue. When he wasn’t successful with that either he actually bought us tickets to an event at the synagogue and we finally went. Did you know I ended up becoming a teacher there and all our kids attended the school? Adam and David both taught there and Shahanna became Principal. Your parents have many, many universes.”

There’s something inexpressible about seeing people you love live on in those whose lives they have touched–like I felt Mom and Dad alive in Harriet McKinney that night. I would say that’s worth a universe. Oh yes indeed, life does go on and on!

Perennials

Mom with her perennials and Morning Glories which grew on the trellis behind her. I could never understand how those little flowers knew how to sleep at night and wake up each morning but I see them now as a metaphor of life…

Therefore, we do not lose heart, thou externally, we are wasting away yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

I Ate All the Chicken Salad

“We ate the chicken salad for lunch, we need more, and we need to have jello around all the time,” Mom said as she laid on her bed recovering from the adjustment to her pills the caseworker had convinced her to try in order to “simplify” things. It had not gone according to plan.

“Okay Mom, I’ll make some.” I had stopped by during lunch.

“You can make some ham salad so we use up that ham.”

“Okay. How do you make it?

“Just onions and mayonnaise. Debbie, we need to have big jars of mayonnaise and salad dressing around all the time. I don’t like those squeeze bottles.”

“You have a big mayo, Mom. Joanie got it.”

“We do?”

“Yes. Are you sure you don’t add pickle relish to your ham salad?”

“No, only onions.”

“Okay. Got it. Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You’re dehydrated.” Her mouth was dry as she spoke. “You need some water.”

“I’ll get some” Dad said. He had been sitting quietly at his desk. He was frustrated that the nurse had put Mom through undo suffering. “Honey, do you want ice?”

“Yes.” Dad left to get the water.

“Dad needs to swiffer mop the kitchen each day.” Mom continued. “Joanie says it gets dirty fast.” Joanie, my sister, came from Arizona to be with Mom and Dad through the months of Mom’s chemo. “He can do that. He needs some things to do or he’s just wandering around here.”  Dad had recently retired so he could be with Mom to watch over her.

“Here’s your water, sweetheart.” Dad handed it to her.

“Where’s the ice?  I said I wanted ice.”

“Right, I’ll get it.” Dad wore his concern on his face.

Oh marriage, I thought, if it’s a good one, it’s the place we feel safe to say what we really feel.

 

“Never mind.”  Mom took a sip.

 

I looked at Dad and then at Mom. That’s when I could feel the flu setting in—confusion and weariness—there was too much information stirring in the air, in my head. I had brought a stew along with me which I had made the night before and had put it in the oven to warm for dinner. My cure all. Make a stew—it comforts and soothes as it transforms everyday air into a whiff of heaven. We were waiting for the hospice nurse to return for her second visit. We needed to have a stew in the oven.

StewI got up and went into the kitchen to make the jello and ham salad. When I pulled the two pieces of the old metal meat grinder and the heavy blade out of the drawer to be assembled, I remembered all the Saturdays Mom and Dad had made Spam salad together for our lunch when we were kids. I started chopping onions and Dad took over the ham grinding. I thought of the song Grandma Wenzler used to sing to us when we were little–there was a little butcher man his name was Dunderbeck. He’s very fond of poodle dogs, sauerkraut and speck  For pussy cats and long tail rats are no more to be seennever mind, I’ll stop there.

Mom had come from her bedroom and was sitting at the dining room table ready for the nurse’s second visit. Dad laid a newspaper on the floor, hooked up the grinder to the side of the kitchen table and started grinding the meat.

“Are you sure you don’t want any pickle relish in this, Mom?” I was certain we always put pickle relish in ham salad.

“Okay, maybe a little.” Mom agreed, so I mixed some in along with the onions and mayo.

“Lots of mayo Debbie–I like it moist.”

I presented the concoction to her for inspection as Dad cleaned up the ham that had fallen onto the newspaper on the floor.

“It needs a little more mayonnaise.”  I returned to the kitchen. “And more pickle relish or I won’t be able to taste it.”

That’s the spirit Mom!

It took Mom three days to determine what it had been that hit her so hard that first meeting we had with our hospice nurse. She called me before breakfast on the third day and her voice was strong.

“Oh Debs, I figured it out. I told your Dad that it was the first time I felt as though I was being treated like I was dying–that my body was giving up. The nurse said there was no need to worry about my blood or liver tests. No need to take vitamins anymore. It was a change in approach as to how I was to live my life in the days ahead.  I have always lived each day of my life with hope. People need hope, even if it’s just for a day.”

I thought every new nurse should be required to memorize that statement. ‘Everybody needs hope, even if it’s just for a day.’ As soon as Mom could articulate what it was exactly she had experienced, she regained her dignity and spunk. She went to bed that night and slept soundly. Meanwhile, I knew we needed a new nurse. Dad agreed but gave me some instructions, “Whenever your brother Ed would have to deal with an ornery client that was giving the firm a hard time I would tell him, ‘Be sure to take the fruits with you.’ So I’m reminding you to take the fruits when you make the call. Do you know what they are Debbie?”

He made me smile, “I do Dad–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control.”  (Galatians 5:22,23)

“Very good. Don’t forget them when you make the call. We want to help her be a better nurse not beat her down.”

And that little story summarizes my parents approach to life—live with hope, have compassion and don’t forget the fruits. I made the call to Hospice and we were assigned a new nurse. Nurse Lucy. She was everything we needed in the days ahead.

I went to bed that night grateful for Mom’s strong spirit, Dad’s wisdom and our new, gentle nurse. I tried to come to terms with the fact we had no idea what Mom would be facing. She looked me in the eyes and told me she barely cried when her own mother died, “And you know how much I loved Mother. I just knew it was her time and that she was ready. I don’t want anyone crying over me. Okay?”

“Okay, Mom.” I lied.

No One Wants to Say Goodbye

I remember the day hospice came to call. It’s that day we keep at bay for as long as possible. Our caseworker was supposed to arrive at 1:00 pm. Mom had asked me to be there for the meeting. It didn’t help that at 2:00 pm she still hadn’t arrived. It might have been better to have tried to reschedule but we all waited—feeling like sitting ducks. I had carelessly kicked my boots off, was lying on the bed beside Mom, trying to be patient and began to feel an ache throughout my muscles. It was hard to be a cheerleader for hospice. This was not what I wanted–what any of us wanted. We only wanted the cancer gone, out of Mom’s body for good. Dad never stopped praying the words at every meal, “…and Lord, if it be your will, we ask that you heal Dolores.”  But Mom had suffered enough and was really preparing for it to be over.

When the doorbell finally sounded, Dad buzzed our guest in and joined Mom as she made her way carefully to the dining room table. I greeted the caseworker, all hostess-like, at the door asking if she’d like something to drink but she declined. I probably didn’t fool her or anyone else that I was really pissed off from having to wait for over an hour and that that frustration was further compounded by my deeper resentment that we were in this situation of needing hospice at all. I would never stop trying to understand how any of this was even possible.

My sense was that we were not off to a good start but I led the caseworker into the dining area where Mom and Dad were doing their best to be hospitable.

“We don’t need to check your blood or liver levels today,” Ms. Caseworker said as she settled into a chair next to Mom.

She was talking too fast. Her phone rang and she took the call. Mom, Dad and I sat there waiting for her to finish the call, tension building. I could tell Mom was not doing well. Get off the phone lady!  I wanted to scream. What are you doing?!  She finally hung up her phone.

“Are you taking any pain meds?” the caseworker asked Mom.

Oh come on. You’ve got to be kidding. What kind of question is that? My mom has fourth stage metastasized cancer. They had tried final rounds of radiation to help with the pain, but it didnt. They ended her chemo because it wasnt working and this woman is asking her if she has pain meds?  Arent they briefed? I sneezed. Oh no, I thought and sneezed again. I’m allergic to the caseworker.

Then the woman’s phone rang again. She answered it. I sneezed again. I’m grabbing that flippin phone and smashing it. Take cover Mom and Dad, Ive got this under control.

“Tell me everything you’re taking.”  Ms. Caseworker said as she closed her phone once again.

What? Can’t you get that from her doctor? Dont make her expound unnecessarily. Save her strength.

“Can’t you get that information from her doctor?”  I asked innocently enough but was ignored.

The caseworker kept asking questions in a low mumble so that Mom couldn’t hear her and had to keep asking, “Excuse me, what was that?  

Speak up Nurse Ratchit! I wanted to shout, giving her the name of the nurse she reminded me of from the Jack Nicholson film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Mom explained that the tumor in her skull made things sound like she was in a tunnel and politely asked if the caseworker could please speak up. Then she asked,

“What about my vitamins? Should I keep taking those?”

“No, you can stop taking those.”

I winced. What’s wrong with a few vitamins?

“Eat what you want. Are you eating? Do you have an appetite?”  The caseworker next asked.

Not anymore!  I wanted to say standing from the top of the table but the look on Mom’s face stopped me from moving. We sat there, Mom, Dad and me, sort of paralyzed by the situation.

Then Mom started going through all her medications for the caseworker, patiently, one by one. I sneezed again and everyone looked at me. Mom continued with the list and schedule of her pills. A debate soon ensued about the Docusate and Perdium she took to ward off any dreaded irregularity caused by the onslaught of all these meds. Mom made it very clear she wanted to take one of each and Miralax at bedtime. It wasn’t something she wanted to change. The caseworker insisted she take two of each and skip the Miralax.

”Let’s keep it simple,” she demanded after a back and forth until Mom finally conceded.

I was trying to like this woman. There was a faint resemblance to a childhood friend there. I was really trying to work with that and trust that this woman who was sent to be a nurse to my mother knew what was best for her and would help her “live” with cancer.

“What are in these two boxes?” I asked with forced sweetness, trying to change my approach as I reached for the two mysterious looking boxes she had ignored throughout the meeting. I shuffled through the pack of cards that sat on top of each box. The cards listed the names of the enclosed medications.

“You won’t understand. You don’t need to worry about those.” The caseworker said, preparing to leave. “Keep them in the refrigerator so you’ll know where they are.”

“So, we won’t have to administer any of them?” I asked, hopeful that we wouldn’t.

“Oh no. You will.” She clipped.

“Well then…I’d really like to know what they are for. If there’s an emergency, I might panic. That won’t be the best time for me to decipher what’s what.”  I was beginning to feel competent in my approach with this woman. No one was going to push us around. I felt a rush of blood in my cheeks.

“We have given you an entire pack of papers regarding the contents of each of these boxes—they are complete with every side effect known to man,” she said.

I only wanted a little translation of each Latin word–I never took Latin. For example, this one is for nausea and that one is for anxiety or whatever they are for. This woman was really taking me on. Was this a competition?

The caseworker’s voice rose as she proceeded into a lengthy monologue about the various levels of seizures that might lie ahead.

Seizures! No one wanted to hear about seizures.

I couldn’t stop her in time. Mom let out a shudder and then lowered her head to stifle her tears.

The caseworker turned to Mom, “Are you all right?”

“I’m just….It’s just…” then finally, the tears she’d been struggling to hold back since this woman told her she could stop taking her vitamins, flowed.

The caseworker turned to me and said, “See? That’s why I didn’t want to tell you.”

My eyes stung and I too lowered my head feeling responsible for my mom’s tears.

Luckily for Nurse Ratchet, Dad had remained quiet. Not because he was being kind or tolerant of her lack of bedside manner but because Nurse Ratchet had succeeded in confusing and confounding the wits out of him—out of all of us—with her terse instructions. He, as much as any wise soul knows, it’s best to keep quiet when you’re not sure of your position.

I, on the other hand, clearly hadn’t learned this yet.

Mom's favorite flowers grow back every year

Mom’s favorite flowers grow back every year

The Packers and Chili

It had been the week Hospice came to call. I couldn’t kick the cold that was settling into my chest. I’d given it to Todd and feared passing it on to Mom and Dad. All I needed, I thought,  was a day in bed and was grateful it was Saturday. Shuffling up and down the wooden stairs, back and forth across the chilly hardwood floor—bed to kitchen, kitchen to bed—I didn’t get dressed until 3:00.

Mom had just clipped some recipes from the paper that week and given them to me thinking Dad would like them. One was for Salisbury steak made with hamburger, onions and gravy, and the second was a pasta dish with shrimp. Getting enough calories into Dad, with food he could swallow easily, was a priority for her these days. She had always loved cooking for family and friends, trying new recipes, entertaining, but those days were gone and it was hard for her to accept. I tried to make up for it by searching for any comfort food recipe I could find—showing up at their condo with stews and casseroles. It made me happy to watch my parents appetites suddenly appear with good smells, candlelight, music and laughter.

On this Saturday afternoon, I was glad to find hamburger and chicken in the freezer. I made the Salisbury steak recipe and put together a pot of chicken soup. By 4:45 I was making mashed potatoes. It was already dark and the day had slipped away. I fought off the melancholy sneaking in. I needed to see Mom and Dad and know they were alright. They weren’t calling as often lately—I was the initiator now and I didn’t like it.

“Todd, I need to take this food to Mom and Dad’s. I want to get it there by dinnertime,” I said, knowing this wasn’t his plan for Saturday night.

“I’ll get the car out. We can go to the movie store after we drop it off.  What do you think—popcorn night?”  He asked.

“Awww, sounds perfect.” Could I love him more? He was there for me. My lonely feeling slipped away..

In less than 15 minutes we were in the car. “Hi Mom,” I said on my cell with a deep voice. “We’re just on our way out to run some errands and I’ve made a little extra food.” I didn’t want her to think I was worried about them. “We won’t stay because I don’t want you to get my bug.”

“Oh, Debs—we’re all set to make chili.  We’re going to make it together and watch the game.”  I had a sudden flash of normalcy. It didn’t take much for me to convince myself the cancer was gone and everything would go back to normal.

“Well, now you don’t have to make it.”  I said as I held the dish with the hot Salisbury steaks wrapped in towels on my lap, and balanced the pot of chicken soup between my feet. There was a long pause. “Or…you can have this tomorrow. See you in a minute.” I said goodbye and clicked my phone off.

“Can you believe that?” I said to Todd. “They’re making chili and watching the game. Everything seems fine.”

The condo was warm and cheery as always when we entered.  Mom was busy chopping green peppers and onions but holding her arm as she chopped in a sort of make-shift sling. I could tell she was in pain but she gave us a winning smile.

“Are you in a hurry?  I just need a little help chopping these vegetables. I can’t seem to make my hand work,”  Catching my cold was the least of her worries.

“Sure, I can help,” my voice was crackly, I struggled not to cough and put the food I had prepared in the refrigerator. Todd settled into a chair in the living room in front of the TV with his coat on.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“He’s tired. He was at the store for two hours!”  Her expression suddenly changed with concern. “I’m worried about him. It took him all that time to find the food on my list and he got the wrong things. Luckily, I had some extra beans. He got all small cans and the wrong tomatoes.

“Can you stir the hamburger, Debs?”

I grabbed a hot pad which gave a little pop as the slightly worn and frayed edge got singed by the gas flame.

“Don’t burn my kitchen down!”  Mom said as she walked out one end of the kitchen and Dad walked in the other, fresh from a shower.

“You’re doing my job!” He said, giving me a big hug.

“You chop vegetables, Dad. I’ll finish the meat and open cans.”

“Okay. I had a hard time finding everything on your Mom’s list.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out the list, unfolded the paper with the tiny, neatly scripted writing on it and gave it to me. I could barely read it myself and thought how my parents fit more words on a piece of paper than anyone I have ever seen. They never waste anything.

“That’s quite a list Dad and the store is really big. If you don’t know where things are that would take a while. I think you did great.”

Once the chili was assembled, I went to find Mom. Passing the living room I noticed Todd was out cold–head back, mouth open. The movie and popcorn might have to wait until tomorrow night.

Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed doing a crossword puzzle. She looked up at me—I’ll never forget how bright and innocent her eyes looked. I smiled. My porcelain doll, I thought–so delicate and so beautiful you’d never know her body was ridden with pain. I leaned over and gave her a kiss, told her I loved her and would see her tomorrow, then went to wake up Todd.

Food for the Soul

 

Making a Home in NYC

I didn’t actually own a home until I was 48 years old. I was in my second marriage–a second chance. Dad was helping my husband Todd and I move and he asked me to count how many times I had changed residence since I left home for NYC in 1978 with all of my belongings in a friend’s VW bus. He knew it was a lot. This took a minute for me to come up with the answer…I started counting…New York–at least five moves there. Short stop  back in Milwaukee with my parents before jobs as artists in residence at Tulane University in New Orleans, onto Steamboat Springs, back to New York, then back to Milwaukee, back to Steamboat, then to San Francisco for Dracula, Los Angeles–now that was a story–,  Cashiers, NC, Boone, NC, back to Milwaukee, Valdese, then to Chapel Hill, which another story… “Forty-two times,” I said after a long pause. I was in the theatre, an artist nomad, always onto the next gig.

Being in the theatre kept my first husband Justin and I on the road—or on the run some might say. We traveled from job to job, coast to coast and back again several times, in our old Ford Van named Hamlet. “He” carried everything we owned.

Newly married, our first place together was a six floor walk-up in New York, on the corner of Hudson and Perry Streets in the West Village. It was freshly painted white which was very appealing and covered a multitude of…well, let’s just say it made things look nice. Our bathtub was in the kitchen. The bathroom was a toilet closet with a pull cord hanging from the ceiling and it was also in the kitchen. The apartment was boxcar style–you walked from the kitchen through the dining/living space and into the bedroom. My favorite thing about it, apart from the light that streamed in through the windows, was that it overlooked someone’s garden. There was no hot water—we boiled that. We didn’t have any furniture when we moved in except a mattress and boxes with candles on top which served as our dining table. I always had flowers in vases. We collected odd pieces–cute little chairs, shelves, drawers–off the street which people had discarded and set on the curbs in front of their brownstones. We furnished most of our apartment that way.

When Mom and Dad came to visit us for the first time, they brought their sleeping bags–I must have told them our apartment was modest.They drove from Milwaukee to New York in their VW van packed full with a couch, a table and some real chairs. We had a fun time riding the subways together, sharing the sights and sounds of Manhattan, and cooking good meals in our “extravagant” kitchen

The apartment was great but the rent was high and we soon learned from other actors that you could be a superintendent (super) of an apartment building and get your rent free.

Justin found a new apartment for us where we could be supers just two blocks away. He was handy. In addition to making Hamlet run when he didn’t want to, he could fix a leaky pipe, or bring a radiator back to life.

Moving all of our belongings was a bit of a challenge because Justin was busy waiting tables and doing renovation work for the owners of a restaurant in the garment district. I was a nanny. One morning, I happened to notice a big pushcart on the playground of an elementary school. When I finished work that day I stopped by and asked the custodian if I could borrow it for a few hours. He said yes.

I pushed it home to Perry Street and parked it in front of our building. I carried our packed boxes down until I filled up the locked front corridor. I didn’t want anything to get stolen sitting on the sidewalk while I ran up and down for more things. I’d load the cart, push it down the streets, get the stuff up to our new apartment on the second floor, and go back for the next load. I had done this several times when suddenly Justin appeared. Someone had called the restaurant and told him his wife was pushing a big cart filled with things up and down the streets of Greenwich Village and he had better get home quick.

“Super” man to the rescue, he decided to fit everything else we owned on that cart in one load so he could get back to work. I had my doubts but he stacked it as high as his arms could reach. We set our cat Lady Randolph on top of it all like a queen in her castle. We said goodbye to Perry Street and pushed the cart together down Hudson Street to our new home. We did great—until the final corner. A wheel hit the street grate at the stop light in front of our new building and everything fell into the intersection. Lady Randolph took off. Justin was all sweaty and mad but all I could do was laugh as I ran after the cat. It was a skill I would develop—laughing in the face of adversity, looking for comedy in place of drama.

Justin and our son Charlie 1985

Justin and our son Charlie 1985

“What is a Home?”

My husband informed me that my blog is confusing at times because it’s not clear who’s talking (Dad or me). The reader has to figure out who’s saying what. I’m sorry about that—this is a work in progress. From now on, I will be clearer about attributing the words spoken to the correct person. (What a concept.)

This is me, Debbie, starting this story:

So it was 1958, we had just arrived in Europe and there was a major change of plan. We wouldn’t be staying with the German relatives while Dad fulfilled the requirements of his fellowship as my parents had originally hoped. The alternative? Well, fortunately, Mom had the knack for making a home anywhere.

“Perhaps,” Dad said,  “I should explain first the reason I applied for this fellowship. It’s many sided. Central, was studying church architecture but It also involved my faith, family life and various other factors. I’ll summarize by saying we were seeking an opportunity to stand back from our every day living to study life and architecture in other places and ages so that we could better understand ourselves and our own time.

We planned our itinerary so that our travels allowed us to study the various historical periods in approximately their chronological order.

After a week and a half in Spaichingen, during which time the three kids recovered from an illness that all the children on the ship seemed to have, we bought a 1954 Volkswagen and the papers, insurance, taxes, etc. required to drive in Europe. Our first problem was to get all the baggage and ourselves into the Volkswagen. We worked it out by removing the rear seat and arranging the suitcases to make a platform for the kids to play on, and left it at the hotel.

Our first reaction to our travels through Switzerland, Austria and northeastern Italy was that we were somewhat challenged. We found we could not associate ourselves with any group. Neither our budget nor our interests placed us in the “tourist” class with reserved hotels, guided tours, planned entertainment, etc. Traveling as a family with three small children kept us from being a member of the “student” group–youth hostels and the American Academy in Rome were out. We met G.I. families with small children who had been very helpful and friendly but obviously we were not in that group either. It gave us a very strange feeling to have the responsibility of a family with the only “home” available being a 4′ x 10′ Volkswagen.

Thinking about Dad’s story now, I can’t help but wonder what I would have done at this point, knowing my home for the next six months would be a 4’x10′ space to be shared with my husband and three young children, one still in diapers. I don’t even like camping for a weekend. At two and a half years of age, it was an adventure for me and I fit in the Volkswagen pretty nicely. At 28, like Mom was, I’m not so sure I would have felt the same way.

I did take a vacation once during my first marriage in a 1968 Volkswagen, so I have a little sense of what she must have felt. Justin and I traveled the entire southeastern coast for days in search of a camp-site on the ocean. They were all packed with people and trailers. We decided to keep driving instead of pitching the tent. On and on we drove. I slept, making a nest out of my seat. Though I had sufficient leg room and a pillow, it was hot, stuffy and mosquito-ee. I would have given anything for a bed and a shower. We drove and drove until we ended up back home. Home never felt so good.

I recently uncovered an essay my mom wrote entitled What is a Home?. This is a section of it:

“To me, a home is a place of happiness and unity with one’s family. A true home must consist of more than rooms and furniture with nice lace curtains…. It must contain something which will serve as a magnet to draw us back to. That something, I believe, is the warmth, tenderness and understanding of our families.

All families have their differences of course but these small difficulties only serve to strengthen the love and to make us realize even more how much we need each other. Basically, the real foundation of a home is our family and our desire to assist and comfort each other. We must never expect to get more out of our homes than we put into them. We must always be willing to do our part in making our home what it can be.” –Dolores Rahn 1948

Thanks for the reminder, Mom.

(to be continued)

Now this is living!

Now this is living!

 

Morning Buns

It was the last Sunday in October and Mom woke with an inspiration. She had watched the colors of the leaves changing from the window that year—taking in the brilliance one moment at a time. She craved a walk outside.

“Wake up,” she whispered into Dad’s ear. “I’ve had an inspiration. I want you to walk to the store with me. I want to get Morning Buns for breakfast.”

Morning Bun

A heavenly bun

Dad watched her as she rose slowly and walked carefully into her dressing area.

“It’s daylight savings time, darling. Let’s change the clocks first,” he whispered back. “Are you sure you’re up for a walk…?” He wondered where this sudden burst of energy had come from.

Mom was already layering on her fleece pants and hoodie. “Are you sure it’s this Sunday?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” he said more to himself than to her as he was fidgeting with the clock.

So together they went through the house, room by room, setting the clocks forward an hour.

This will mean the store is open by now, she thinks to herself as she sits down on the bench by the door to put on her shoes. She knows it will take her husband a while to get ready so she puts the tea kettle on and opens the door to get the Sunday paper. In the upper corner she reads the words: DON’T FORGET TO TURN YOUR CLOCKS FORWARD NEXT SUNDAY!

She considers leaving all the clocks as they are, so they won’t forget next Sunday, but instead sets to work changing them back, all the while chuckling to herself. It’s the little things that entertain me these days, she thinks, the funny quirks of growing old together.

Her balance is off and her breath labored as she reaches, once again, to open the door of the grandfather clock—a wedding gift from her mother over 60 years ago—to gently move the hands back an hour.

“I’m ready.” Dad says, zipping up his jacket.

“No you’re not. There are still clocks in my office and in the bedroom that need changing.”

“I did those.”

“You did those incorrectly. We were one week early.”

“Really. Huh.”

She made a small list of the things she wanted to buy at the store then, slipped it in her pocket, zipped her coat all the way up so it covered her chin, put on her cap, and they were out the door.

The fall morning air was crisp and the hill to the store, steep but she hustled up the sidewalk. Again, Dad was amazed at her energy. They were the only shoppers in the store and it felt as though they had entered a castle. The bright colors of the fruits and vegetables surrounded her. The smells from the bakery made her hungry—something she hadn’t felt in a long while. She savored each moment as she experienced it.

Dad went to the counter where the Morning Buns were usually displayed and found that there weren’t any..

“Honey, they don’t have any today.”  He was disappointed.

“That’s your problem,” she says in response. “You don’t know how to shop. You don’t read labels and you have to learn to ask questions.”

He had spent hours at the store just the day before, trying to find the items on her list to make chili. He had come home with the wrong beans and sizes of cans. She had been thankful for the extras she found stored in the cupboard.

“Do you have any Morning Buns?” she asks the baker with her contagious smile.

“Yes, I just don’t have them out yet.”  She turns to Dad and says, “See?”

They leave the store with two Morning Buns, a cruller, a jelly-filled donut along with the other things on her list.

The morning was magical—the movement, the air, the splendor of the food on display, as if it all were for them alone to enjoy. She marveled at God’s beauty.

“How amazing God’s earth,” she says as they walk home.

How amazing her energy this morning, Bill thinks as he walks closely beside Dee, carrying the groceries in one arm and holding her right hand with the other.

They sit at the kitchen table eating the fresh fruit and delicately layered, cinnamon crusted  pastry.

“Food has never tasted so good”, she says as the sun streams in through the window. It warms their shoulders and creates a rainbow pattern on the hardwood floor beneath their feet. It’s their first meal of the day and it will prove to be their last together.

Tappy the Mouse

“We have a problem,” my husband Todd says as I walk in the front door. It’s an early fall afternoon and I’ve just returned from a walk in the ravines with our dog Sam.

“What now?”  I ask as I enter the kitchen where he is sitting, not wanting to know.

“Rose caught a baby mouse and it’s on the patio—kind of fidgeting.” He says. “It looks shocked but it’s still alive.”

Rose is our cat.

“Well go kill it.” I tell him.

“You kill it!”

Todd heads back outside to work in the yard and I Google How to feed a baby mouse. I am introduced to Stuart on YouTube who is a big white mouse with pink eyes, and Matilda, who’s grey and smaller than the size of the quarter that has been placed beside her for effect. She’s nuzzling up to Stuart and he’s being very patient. This reminds me of Sam with Rose. My heart melts.

“Wait!” I yell. “Come here! Look at this! They’re feeding this little speck of a mouse some kitten formula with a tiny brush and she’s lapping it up.”

“I don’t want to see it.”

“Seriously, come and look. They’ve put the little thing in a shoebox and punched holes in the lid so it can breathe.”

“We don’t have a shoebox,” he grumbles.

Yes, we do. I’ll get it. You get the mouse.”

I go for the box and also grab a roll of unscented toilet paper, like the video recommended, and start tearing tissue. Todd returns with the mouse.

“Is it bleeding?” I don’t really want to know.

“No.”

“Put it in the box. I’m going to the store for kitten formula.”  I start to panic. Where do I get kitten formula? CVS. Hurry!  I say to myself. “We have to save the mouse!” I say out loud.

Mouse in a box

Mouse in a box

I return with baby formula and a little syringe. We can’t get the mouse to take the syringe—I go back upstairs in search of an eye liner brush.

“We should name him.”  I yell down.

Todd suggests Willie but that reminds me of my dad William and I don’t want to name this mouse after my dad.

“How about Tappy?”  Tappy reminds me of Danceworks, where I work. We need a Danceworks mouse. I get excited thinking about having a pet mouse at work and am certain everyone will take to him like I have—except for Elyse. She’s allergic.

“Sure.” Todd says about the name.

Tappy eats from the brush out of Todd’s hand just like on YouTube.  I can’t believe my heart is bursting over a mouse

We put him in the bathroom for the night with the lid of the box held open by a chopstick–so he doesn’t get claustrophobic?—and shut the door to keep Rose out.

We both dream of mice.

I wake up the next morning with a sore throat and fever. Todd informs me Tappy is gone. I think he’s teasing. How could it just disappear? There’s no way it could climb out of the box and get down from the sink. Then, it occurs to me Rose could have bounced the door open, gotten in, and eaten him. I’m heartsick and I can see Todd is not taking it well either.

Todd goes to work, leaving me alone in bed with orange juice, the mouse killer, and Sam.  Rose is being incredibly affectionate, cuddling up and massaging my arm.  I try to ignore the fact that she’s digesting a mouse and fall asleep.

010913 pt 2 066

Mouse killer

I wake up in time to see her dash towards the big red chair next to our bedroom window. I jump up and see her take a bat at Tappy. Then, tucking her paws neatly beneath her, she sits and glares at him. I discreetly reach out and grab Rose as Tappy lies on his back with his little feet in the air.

I lock Rose in the bathroom, grab the box and return to find Tappy back right-side up. I pick him up with a piece of toilet paper, put him back in his box and take him outside, thinking he might do better with a little fresh air.

The sun is bright and I sit down beside him. He plays dead for about two minutes as I sing to him. Suddenly, he scratches his little ear, opens his eyes and stares up at me. “Tappy!” I’m overjoyed.

I call Todd to see if he thinks I should let him go and he says he probably won’t make it on his own yet so I head back inside with the mouse in the box.

That evening, Todd brings home some of his leftover Pakistani rice from lunch for Tappy.  He holds the tiny creature in his hand and feeds him more formula.  “He was doing much better last night,” he says.

“Maybe he doesn’t like spicy. I’m sure he’s going to be okay,” I reassure myself. Tappy scaled the wall of the box, survived a great fall, and escaped Rose, twice. He’s already on his third life. He’s a remarkable mouse.

I share the mouse video we made on my phone with the ladies at work the next day and make plans to buy him a cage and a wheel after work. I call Todd on my way home, and he says, “Tappy passed.”

I immediately burst into tears and I am shocked at the level of my emotion over a mouse. I call my co-worker, Amy the tapper, who inspired the name. There’s something so happy about Amy–about people who tap. I thought a happy name and an organizational affiliation could save the mouse. She listens to my Tappy story.

At work the next day, the ladies ask about Tappy and we’re all a little sad together—because that’s the way Danceworks is. If you’re down, which is hard to avoid in nonprofit work, our saying is, “Get in the wagon. Someone will pull.” We support each other. It’s a special place and this probably has something to do with why people of all ages and abilities take dance and get moving with us.

Amy entering a staff meeting

Amy entering a staff meeting

I thought this was a silly story about a mouse but I realized it’s about heart and a group of people that tell you to get Tappy, to get moving, to experience the joy.

Epilog–Todd helped me bury Tappy under the Bleeding Heart bush in our back yard. I wrapped the tiny body in a white Kleenex and set him inside a bloom from my Peace plant. Todd dug a hole and I placed Tappy in it. When I started to sing “Kumbaya My Lord” we cracked up.

Rest in Peace little Tappy.

A China Cup of Love

We never know what a new day will bring—each and every one a gift in and of itself. On one day, my brothers and I were trudging up and down the narrow steps of our upper duplex in snow boots. On the next, running in our Sunday shoes up and down the wide open stairway of a big ship on the ocean. That is, until a crewman in an austere looking uniform, sternly told us to stop. We did. I thought he was the captain of the ship.

We arrived in Germany in 1958. Dad would spend the next six months studying European Architecturefollowing the itinerary he had submitted to the University of Illinois.

With Dad's relatives

Dad, Ed, John, me, Mom in front
Dad’s relatives in back

After Dad shared the experience of meeting our German relatives in Spaichingen with me, I had to set my notes aside for a while. My thoughts were mixed as I listened—I felt disturbed, disillusioned, and then saddened hearing about them in post-World War II. The realities and atrocities of the war, so removed from me personally, were suddenly connected to me by lineage. Being mostly German and hearing that members of my family lived in Nazi, Germany made me ashamed. It’s one of those things I had separated myself from–by an ocean and by decades–never asked about. I didn’t want to know how the battle to survive became a morsel of life—similar to animals in the wild surrounded by horror, but these were human beings. What values does one abandon in order to protect those one loves? When does a heart become hardened—numbed in order to remain beating? –Debbie

My Grandfather had come from Germany to America when he was 16 years old, which was around the time of the Civil War. My family members had been sending care packages to our relatives in Germany after the war when things were very difficult.

As Dolores and I discussed our trip, we thought one possibility would be to go to Spaichingen, in Southern Germany, where some of my relatives lived. We thought perhaps Dolores could stay there with the kids while I’d make excursions out to cover my scholarship requirements. I contacted some relatives, two sisters, who we had been sending our packages to. They lived in Balgheim, just outside of Spaichingen, and I asked them to suggest a hotel we might stay at. They gave me the name, Hotel Osswald–Alte Post. I wrote to the hotel and made our arrangements.

Our hotel in Spaiichingen

Our hotel in Spaiichingen, 1958

We arranged to take the M.S. Berlin which would land in Bremerhaven and then take a train down through Germany to Spaichingen. I gave the hotel our arrival date so they’d know when to expect us. On the way across the ocean, there were quite a few German women who had married American servicemen and were returning to visit their homeland. They said to me, “You mean you’re the first one to return from your Grandfather?”

“Yes.” I replied.

“Why, you’ll have a royal reception with a band to greet you!”

We landed and took the train to Spaichingen. I will never forget our reception. We got off the train and there was a wagon pulled by two horses with its driver. No band.  No crowd of people. We loaded the suitcases on the wagon which the driver took to our hotel and we followed along behind on foot.  At that time, Ed had just turned 4, Debbie was 2 ½, and John 1 ½ years old.

We got to the hotel and met Frau Klein, the owner and manager. She took us up to the third floor, otherwise known as the garret. We were there a very short time when we heard a knock on our door.  I opened it and there was a messenger who handed me a letter. It had been written by the two sisters to whom we had been sending the care packages. The letter had been translated into English by someone and it said,

“We are very grateful for the help you were to us after the war.  We never told you about the other relatives in town because we didn’t want to be a burden. We would appreciate it if you would not mention anything about the care packages you sent.”

The next day there was another knock on the door and we were asked to come down to the dining room.  We all went down together and there was a roomful of people—none of whom spoke English—and we knew very little German. The group, however, had an interpreter available for us. Their first question was, “Why didn’t you help us after the war?”

My mind immediately flashed to the letter “We would appreciate it if you do not mention anything about the care packages.”

“We didn’t know about you,” I said.

There was a lot of talk in German right then. It was very clear they didn’t believe us. After much discussion on their part, they went on with their second question. “Why didn’t America join Germany against Russia?”

“Because there were things going on in Germany that we could not accept.”

Further talk in German, then another question, “What things?”

“Well, the killing of six million Jews in concentration camps.”

Further talk in German. They said they didn’t know about concentration camps.

I didn’t want to get into a big discussion on their concentration camps so we didn’t discuss it further.

About this time, they got out a little book, handed it to me, pointed to a place in the book and said, “Großvater.” (Grandfather)

I looked over the book, trying to understand it, and finally had to ask what it was.

There was further discussion in German. Then the interpreter told us that everybody had to have the record of their ancestors for five generations in order to show that there were no Jews in the family. Small talk followed but that was the essence of our meeting.

We went back up to our garret and after I closed the door, Dolores said, “You’re not leaving me here with your relatives. Wherever you go, we’re going with you!”

Mom, Dad, Ed, John and I did end up visiting the two sisters who kept the care packages for themselves at their home in Balgheim. The first floor was a barn-like space for the animals. Their living quarters was above the barn and was kept warm by the heat the animals created. There were a lot of wool sweaters around. The smell from beneath, permeated the air above, soaking into their clothes, handmade bedding and braided rugs but the heat rose and kept them warm. The sisters served Mom a cup of tea in a china cup. Mom complimented them on its beauty.

John locking at the sister's livestock

John on the first floor of the sisters’ home.

I wonder what shame, guilt, or both they must have felt when they were faced with our arrival and showed up at our hotel that day along with their other relatives. What did they feel when their eyes darted between us and those from Schpaichingen who had called us down from the garret to confront my parents on their lack of care?  What the sisters didn’t know at the time was that Dad’s parents and brother were sending care packages to the others. None of them knew who was getting what. The support that could have brought them more closely together, further divided them.

How often do we excuse ourselves from the simple act of caring for others because we can justify to ourselves that we somehow deserve it, or that we have a unique situation with a special privilege? And how often do we end up with less because we were trying to get more? I certainly can’t judge my relatives for the things I know I am guilty of myself in a different context.

When we were preparing to leave Spaichingen, a small box arrived at the Alte Post for our family. It was the tea cup along with a matching saucer and plate. The most beautiful possessions the sisters owned.

I never knew about the cup but it sits on a shelf in Mom’s china cabinet. When Dad told me that part of the story, emotion washed over his face, slightly changing its color. “It was all they had,” he said–his eyes intensity piercing through my own.

Dad and I sat together quietly for a while. I had said harsh words about our relatives. I wanted to take the words back, but I couldn’t.

I wished I would have remembered that it’s simply not my place to judge someone else. Hopefully, next time I will. In the end, the best we can do for our own hearts and for others, is to forgive.