Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wrapping Up October

Yesterday was unseasonably warm for the next to last day of October. By mid-afternoon, the temperature was in the high 80s. Warren and I ate supper outside on the deck for what surely will be the last time of 2009, marveling at the t-shirt weather.

I have been getting into, through, and over a cold for the last two weeks, and still find myself tired and dragging by the evening. Last night was no exception. The unseasonable warmth held into the evening, so much so that it was cooler inside than outside. Mid-evening, with Warren's encouragement, I went back outside to the deck to "warm up."

What a revelation.

Our deck is on the east side of the house. The sky was heavily but not completely overcast, with the clouds moving at a good clip from south to north. The moon, almost but not quite full, was rising, tangling itself in the upper branches of the walnut tree. It was often obscured, but then, foreshadowed by the brightening torn edges of clouds, would startlingly reappear.

How long did I sit out there, watching the clouds scud past the moon? 10 minutes? 20 minutes? I don't know. I was lost in the light show. I had forgotten how brilliantly white the moon can be, how many ranges of colors there can be in the depths of the clouds.

Our yard was quiet, with only one or two laconic crickets chirping. But the cars and trucks on the highway a quarter mile away carried on the wind last night. A busy night, apparently. The wind was rising along with the moon, and I could hear a distant train whistle, probably from the tracks near my parents' house, on the edge of the wind's rushing.

How long has it been since I sat and…just sat? Apparently way too long because when I finally came inside, I felt centered and still.

Tonight is Beggar's Night and I am excited! For the last two years, we have always been out of town at a rehearsal. For two more years before that, I lived on a quiet side street which lacked sidewalks, so I saw no more than one or two trick-or-treaters. So this will be my first Halloween at home on a truly residential street in a long time.

I know what some of the children will be. Bobby and Meg, two doors down, will show up respectively as Harry Potter and a princess (Cinderella?). I know that because I was downtown yesterday afternoon, heard my name shouted, and saw them across the street with their dad, Meg waving furiously to make sure I saw her in all her glory. Katie and Nicholas, if they make it over this far from their house - three plus blocks being an enormous distance when you are very young - will be an unmatched set too. Nicholas is Batman tonight while Katie will be gliding around town dressed in a sari (her request). My friend Patricia's daughter Molly will be zooming by sometime as Tinkerbell.

I am looking forward to the faces and the costumes and the excitement. When my children were little, I was often the one who stayed and handed out candy, exclaiming as neighborhood children and school classmates trooped up the steps and held out their bags. The youngest ones would shout "Do you know me?," firmly believing that a swirl of glitter or pirate rags rendered them incognito. The teenagers would grin sheepishly, especially since I usually made them perform to get candy. ("Come on, you're 15 and out trick-or-treating? You gotta earn this candy!")

Those are my boys (no surprise) in the photo on a long-ago Halloween. Sam is 3+, Ben is in 2nd grade. Sam as a young child was terrified of people in costumes - from Mickey Mouse to monsters - and was none too comfortable wearing one himself. Halloween was a troubling holiday for him; he had to balance his fear of costumes against the lure of candy. You can tell from the way he is holding his hands that he was already troubled about the prospect.

Ben, on the other hand, loved dressing up. His first Halloween venture resulted in his saying, after the third house, "no thank you, I have enough candy," but wanting to continue going from door to door just for the fun of it. After Ben got the "as much candy as your sack will hold" part down, he often based his costume upon his favorite books. That's Gandalf the White there. For the record, I made the entire costume, including the hat, which was no small feat given my lack of sewing skills. It rained that Halloween; that ground length cloak swept up several gallons of water before a very soggy Gandalf returned home that night.

I get a special treat myself this ghostly holiday. Sam flies out of Portland late tonight and I pick him up at Port Columbus in the morning. He has already lined up an apartment, he starts looking for work this week, and my wandering boy is home again for…who knows? Welcome back, Sam.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Our Nights at the Movies

Warren's parents owned a movie camera and did a stunning job of documenting their home life from holidays to parades to visits from family to travels of their own. They left behind over 50 color reels before camcorders came along. The oldest date back to Art and Ellen's first apartment in Chicago when they were just newlyweds, before the move to Ohio, before the children.

Warren and I have started watching a few reels - not in any particular order - each night before heading to bed.

Warren has seen most of these before, although he has not watched them in decades. When he was younger, Ellen would routinely drag the children into the family room and make everyone watch home movies. As Warren and his siblings grew older and more insistent in their refusal, the home movie nights petered out.

Our homegrown Nights at the Movies have been a revelation for us both.

For Warren, it is a chance to see with adult eyes his childhood and youth. There is his grandfather Wilson, who died before Warren was two, walking alongside his daughter, Ellen, who is holding his infant grandson, Warren. There is grandmother Wilson, whose smile is even more infectious and inclusive on film than in photos. Here are Warren and his younger brother Brian, opening Christmas stockings and dancing with childish glee around their presents. There they are again, holding their new baby sister.

When Warren's grandmother Hyer appeared, holding a grandchild and smiling, Warren laughed and said "that is the only time you will ever see my grandmother smiling." A night later, when she appeared in other scene, still smiling, I looked at Warren and said "apparently your grandmother smiled a lot more than you remember."

For me, it is a chance to see Warren's past in both a fuller and more compressed way than looking at photos (which we have also done). Fuller because now I can see the smiles and the movement that give life to the still photos. More compressed because the scene hangs on the wall for a brief bit of time and then is gone, sometimes before it sinks in.

One of the reels we have watched included a few moments of Warren's high school graduation, which I remember in great detail because I was so enamored of him at the time. I gave a small gasp when Warren appeared immediately after graduation, talking to someone and smiling broadly.

I knew that boy. That boy, the one right there, is the one sitting beside me each night as we watch films.

Yes, I remembered that graduation well, but seeing even a glimpse of it again took me by surprise.

My favorite play is Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The entire last act has Emily, who has died in childbirth, reliving a day of her life. She has been warned by the other dead in the cemetery not to go back but chooses to relive her 12th birthday, exclaiming, "Oh, I want the whole day."

Emily struggles between her joy at experiencing life again and the pain of knowing how fast that life went and how much she took for granted. When Emily first sees her mother in the kitchen on this relived day, she can't help but say, "Oh! how young Mama looks! I didn't know Mama was ever that young." Moments before her father enters the kitchen, Emily breaks down and cries out, "I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another."

As I watch the home movies, I have some of that same bittersweet sense of time. Art and Ellen are so young, with their whole married life still before them. Warren is so young in his graduation gown. While the mind can accept that I am watching something from 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago, the heart lags behind. Like Emily, I want to say to these flickering shadows, "just look one minute as if you really saw one another."

Deep down, I think Wilder believed that most of us really did look, maybe not every minute, but enough that we knew the joy and beauty and gifts of our days. Our Town, to me, is a beautifully wrought reminder not to take those days for granted. As much as I want to have an Emily moment with the home movies, I suspect that the filmmakers, almost always Art and Ellen, had a sense of the swiftness of time. That may be why they filmed so much, to slow it down and hold onto it for a just a little bit longer.

There is a film sequence of Warren learning to walk. There are short clips of him standing holding onto furniture, of him walking with the sure aid of a parent's hands, of him walking holding his father's leg. Every few seconds of film, he is a little surer and a little closer to stepping off on his own. Then suddenly there is the little toddler taking stiff, jerky baby steps, but staying upright all the way across the yard.

Art is filming that last sequence; you can just see Ellen's outstretched hand beckoning her son towards her. When I saw it, I exclaimed, "Look! There you go!" Although I knew the scene was inevitable, I was excited all the same at seeing it. For that brief moment, watching that little boy walk was our relived day, was our moment in time captured so long ago by Ellen and Art.

Warren has repeatedly said Ellen would be delighted at our watching the movies that she loved so much.

I know she is.

Friday, October 23, 2009

October Gifts

Among the many books I read to my boys when they were little were the Bunny Planet books by Rosemary Wells. In the Bunny Planet books, the main character - a little boy or girl bunny - would have a terrible, awful day, then be whisked away at bedtime to the Bunny Planet where they would be given "the day that should have been." After a day centering on something very simple - a warm meal and a game of checkers while a storm rages outside, soup made from the first tomato of the season - the little bunny would wake up back in his or her own bed, restored and refreshed and ready to face everyday life again.

Those books were very reassuring, both for my boys and for me. We read one of them, The Island Light, repeatedly. That one began with the little bunny throwing up at school and even without my having seen the book recently, I can still recall the distressed eyes of the bunny as he looks up, stricken at what he has done.

The literary transition between the real world and the Bunny Planet was by way of a rhyme:

Far beyond the moon and stars,
Twenty light-years south of Mars,
Spins the gentle Bunny Planet
And the Bunny Queen is Janet.

I sometimes think I need a voyage to the Bunny Planet.

October has been a mixed bag.

On the one hand, it has been rich and generous with its gifts. The excellent opening concert for the Central Ohio Symphony (which now has a Facebook page!) My aunt Ginger's 80th birthday party (a good time was had by all, especially the birthday girl, who was completely and totally surprised). Our first wedding anniversary. Beautiful October skies. Flaming fall colors. Warren any day of the week and any hour of the day.

Riches beyond compare.

October has also brought some difficulties with it. In my case, it is last week's head cold that settled in my throat and caused me to be hoarse all week, leading up to being voiceless today. I canceled a walking date with Patricia this morning and just canceled coffee with Nancy later today because of it. I was pouting when I canceled the coffee date.

That's nothing, though.

October has brought phone calls and emails from friends with news no one ever wants to hear or read. My friend Larry, not Myeloma Larry but just plain old Larry, has just been diagnosed with lymphoma. His emails now come to me titled "a note from Lympho Larry." (That's cancer humor, okay?) He is meeting with his oncologist today to get the stage of the disease and the game plan for treatment. They think they caught it early (good news); it is the most common form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and responds well to treatment (more good news). The type he has - diffuse large B cell - is often very aggressive (not so good). When I touch base with Larry next week, I expect to hear a schedule of chemo and radiation, along with some really terrible cancer jokes.

The other call came from my colleague and friend, Doug, who started his call with "so what do you say to someone who has just found out they have cancer?" Not knowing where this was going, I asked "who?"

It was Doug. Doug with whom I have sat through more goofy court meetings than either of us thought we could stand, telegraphing our thoughts to one another with a carefully raised eyebrow or quick glance. Doug who has given his time and heart to community, church, and family. Doug whose innate decency shines through no matter when or where.

Doug's doctors are still deciphering and staging his cancer, but it appears to be stomach cancer (adenocarcinoma), past the early stage. Not the kind of diagnosis you want to hear. I have only heard bits and pieces since Doug and I talked earlier this week, but the bits and pieces I have heard from his coworkers are not promising or positive. When asked, one of them could only offer a few comments before his face fell and he said "I don't want to talk about it right now. It makes me too sad."

Where's that Bunny Planet when you need it?

When Doug broke the news to his staff at Adult Court Services (felony probation office), where Doug is the chief probation officer, they reacted the way you would expect a bunch of people who work in the criminal justice system would. One of his staffers immediately emailed the rest:

We all have had time to absorb Doug's diagnosis. Now it's time to think about how we are going to help him. Our focus need to be on Doug, Susan, and Rachel during the next few weeks and months. We need to start thinking about how we can help them. It could be cooking a few meals, cleaning their house, taking Doug to appointments, getting meds for Doug, (not the ones in our evidence drawer!!), grocery shopping, or even plowing their driveway when it snows. We all know that Doug is stubborn and may not want to ask for help, but we just need to jump in and do things for him and his family. I know Susan just started a new job so she may not have much time off to do things for Doug during the weekdays. We all have some vacation or comp time that we can use to help Doug do some things.

Doug really needs us right now. We all need to remember how many times we have gotten a call here at work and had to leave on a moments notice. It may have been a sick child, spouse, parent, or some other emergency. What is the one thing Doug always says when we tell him that we have to leave………."Take care of your family and don't worry about this place"!! Now it's time to take care of "our family". We are a family here. We are the 13 member, slightly dysfunctional, ACS family and one of members needs our help. We all know that Doug would do the same for us.

Let's be thinking about what we can do to help him, Susan, and Rachel. I would like to have an office meeting soon and discuss more ideas of what we can do.

Doug has done a lot for all of us. We may not always agree with some of his management decisions, but we all realize we have it pretty easy here. Who else would let us create our own schedules and pretty much come and go as we please. Let's take some of our time and show Doug how much we appreciate him and appreciate working here.


(I asked Carolee before writing this post if I could include her letter. Thank you, Carolee!)

When I read something like that - a spontaneous outpouring of care and concern, when I think of Doug, who has traveled over some hard roads in the past and is now facing the hardest one of his life, and of all the people in his life who will be there to help him make that journey, when I think of Warren calling my friends today because my voice won't carry, I realize I don't really need to visit the Bunny Planet. Not today, not ever. I may not always get the day "that should have been," but it is moments like this - life like this - that restore and refresh me and leave me again grateful for every moment that I have.

This one is for Doug. We're all with you, big guy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Aunt Ginger

Aunt Ginger is our family's Depression baby. She was born 80 years ago today, just 11 days before the stock market and the American economy crashed resoundingly into the Great Depression. My mom would come along six years later, which makes her a Depression-era baby as well, but Ginger gets the honors for being born in October of that infamous year.

Ginger is the aunt who in the old days would have been called the "old maid aunt." Ginger lived with her parents and never left home until after both were dead and it was time to move on. She never married, although she has enjoyed a rich and colorful romantic life. She never had children, unless you count the 28 or 30 (I can't remember which) nieces and nephews, of which I am one, as well as the countless great-nieces and great-nephews, who populated her life from her teen years on.

She has lived at only two addresses her whole life: the house my grandfather built over on the east side of town and in which she was born, and the apartment complex she moved into when she was 49 years old. Just recently, several of us spent a weekend moving her from the upstairs apartment she had lived in since 1978 to a downstairs apartment so she didn't have to climb stairs anymore.

Ginger was the family babysitter. Many of those nieces and nephews grew up right here in Delaware. She babysat most of us and, in more than one case, she babysat our children when they came along. My boys were often the recipients of Aunt Ginger's babysitting. During those years, she lived a little over two blocks away from our house. When Aunt Ginger was slated to babysit, my boys would stand on the sidewalk looking down the street, waiting to catch a glimpse of her. Whether it was one or two of them out there, the reaction was always the same: a whoop, a shout of "Ginger's coming!," and an impromptu little jig right there on the sidewalk.

Ginger never learned to drive. She tried to learn at least two different times in her life, but Ginger and a seat behind the steering wheel were a bad match from the outset. My mother has long told the story of driving with Ginger in the passenger seat, back when my mom was a newly minted driver, and coming to a railroad crossing. Mom started across after looking carefully right and left. Ginger also looked right and left, spied a locomotive headlight way, way, way, way down the tracks, and screamed "TRAIN! A TRAIN!" My mom promptly panicked and stalled the car out in the middle of the tracks. As mom tells the story, she had a tough time concentrating on starting the car and getting off the tracks with Ginger shrieking nonstop next to her.

Now imagine Ginger behind the wheel of a car and you will understand why she never learned to drive. From the limited tales I have heard, it was in large part because now when she shrieked ("A CAR! LOOK OUT FOR THAT BIKE! THERE'S A SQUIRREL!"), she was shrieking at herself and the whole enterprise was too fraught with tension to continue.

During her working years, Ginger relied on co-workers to get to the factory job she held for over 40 years - the only job she ever held. She rode to church with my parents until they started attending different congregations, then found rides with fellow church-goers. She and my mom go grocery shopping without fail every Friday, so that takes care of getting groceries from store to home. (When I was a kid, my brother and I would meet her at Albers and lug her groceries home in a wagon.)

Otherwise, even now, Ginger walks just about everywhere, weather permitting. As a result, despite chronic and severe asthma, Ginger has probably enjoyed the best health of all of her sisters and brothers. Still does, in fact. She will be the first to tell you that she is slower than she used to be, but then she will smile and say "but at least I'm still walking,"

Despite her lack of driving skills, Ginger is a well-seasoned traveler. She was the one who took us on a Greyhound bus to downtown Columbus annually to see the Lazarus Christmas windows and then shop in the flagship store. She traveled regularly to Florida for winter vacations, she visited Mexico with my cousin Anne, she flew out to see me in Portland when I was in the northwest and then later in California, when Ben was little. I have a photo of the two of them asleep in the back seat of the car after a long day in the Sierra foothills, his little boy head with its dark hair nestled close to her great-aunt head with its silver hair. She even flew to Europe when my brothers were stationed at various army bases in what was then West Germany.

In recent years, Ginger has started volunteering with our local Meals on Wheels. Hazel drives; Ginger delivers. She loves it. I think she gets a kick out of volunteering to serve "the elderly," being one of that group herself.

Not bad for an old maid aunt who never learned to drive.

Ginger has taken a good deal of ribbing over the years and not only for her lack of driving skills. She was almost always the straight man in a family full of wisecrackers. "Miss Priss" was one of many monikers she collected over the years. Like her namesake spice, her tongue and temper are sometimes sharp, which usually only served to spur on the teasing even more.

Some of those wisecrackers will be here later today. Unbeknownst to Ginger, there is a party this afternoon at this house. Ginger's only surviving sibling, my mother, will be there, of course. So will a cousin who I have yet to meet (cousins in the family at that generational level were a rare commodity). So will a number of Ginger's nieces and nephews, my siblings and cousins, most from around here but some coming from several states over to celebrate her 80th.

It will be a Skatzes gathering, which means it will be noisy and crowded and full of jokes. We planned a potluck; Jackie and Mark are bringing the cake, I'm making the chili. I still haven't figured out how to get Ginger from her apartment a block away to here without giving away the whole surprise, but I'm working on it.

I don't know how my cousins and brothers view Ginger, but she has been special in my life. When I was a little girl, we all lived in separate apartments in the Flax Street house, and I would often escape to Ginger's rooms. There I would rifle through her jewelry, listen to her LPs, and tolerate her putting polish on my nails (which I would then methodically scrape off). There was a bond between the two of us, maybe because I could always talk to her when I couldn't talk to my own mother. I still can. And hope to for years to come.

Happy 80th, Ginger!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Gardens Are Gone

The gardens are gone. Well, not exactly. There is still one pumpkin vine with a pumpkin that I am hoping can hold on just a little longer until it ripens, and there are still a few pepper plants close to the house that have so far avoided the frosts, but for all practical purposes the gardens are over and done with for this season.

Sunday I spent several hours outside, pulling up pumpkin vines, digging up an elderly peony bed so the rudbeckia can expand next spring, cleaning out the front landscaped bed. Although I work at almost anything in the yard, my heart is really in the vegetable gardens and I am a little sad to have had to put them down. (I admit, though, that I am looking forward to a brief respite until it starts all over again.)

I learned a lot this year, this year in my gardens. For example:

1. Seeds work. If you plant and water them, chances are overwhelming that they will sprout. When I start seeds indoors next winter, I now know I don't need to plant three "for insurance" in every seedling pot. One will do it.

2. Broccoli plants grow faster and larger than anything else, especially when given a head start indoors. They then doom every plant around to live in their shadow. Next summer, those bad boys are going down to the sod garden.

3. Cilantro smells great, but I rarely used it.

4. The artichokes were beautiful, but I ran out of growing season before they even thought of flowering. They also hogged a lot of garden space once the broccoli was pulled. Next year I plan on growing them in large containers.

5. Ditto growing the cherry tomatoes in containers. Those poor little things got overshadowed by all the big tomatoes.

6. Garden charts are worthless if you start moving plants around.

7. I can't go all summer without weeding, but I don't have to be a fanatic about it. Even "lackadaisical" is adequate.

8. I'm buying onion sets next year.

9. There is no such thing as too many tomatoes, but there is such a thing as too many tomato plants in too small an area.

10. Chives live forever. Back by Warren's shed, I found stands of it from my mother-in-law's gardens of decades past. I transplanted them and, once the broccoli came down, the chives took off.

There are probably more lessons, but these are some key ones. Except for the biggest one of all: a vegetable garden is a compressed lesson in life and death.

Oh, I know, that last point sounds so obvious. Or hokey. Or both. But I have found that I sometimes get so caught up in the little pictures - the weeding, the harvesting - that I miss the Big One. So I'll say it again: a vegetable garden is a compressed lesson in life and death.

Working in the garden all season - from those first sprouts in the cold of March to pulling up the last tomato plant just this past Sunday - brought me closer to not only seeing but also understanding the cycle of life. There were miracles every time I turned around. There was the promise of spring: a sprouting seed, a swelling blossom. There was the rich season of the summer: the tomatoes weighing down the vine, the broccoli after a rain, the bees landing on and lifting off of the pumpkin and zucchini blossoms. And then there was the coming of autumn: the plants stripped of their strength, a stray tomato rotting on the ground, both gardens quietly giving way to the dark and the cold.

I try every day to look for small moments of great reward. Some days it is harder than others - not because they aren't everywhere around me, but because I am not always in the frame of mind to see them for what they are - gifts of the everyday. And every day the garden gave me countless small moments of wonder and awe, just outside, right out there in the back yard.

French existentialist Albert Camus wrote, "in the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." As I type these words, it is a cold, rainy morning. The gardens are bleak and sodden in the gray light. It is a long way from today to the first sun-warmed tomato of next summer.

But I am already imagining that first tomato, that invincible summer.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Once a doctor says, definitively, "you have cancer," your world is never the same. It - the realization that you have this insidious disease - never really leaves. Even in the best of worlds, which is how I often view my life, cancer is always somewhere nearby - one aisle over at the grocery, three rows back at the concert, just stepping off the elevator as I get on. Inevitably, it sometimes slips a little closer and colors my outlook for a time until I brush it back to the side yet again.

Last Thursday evening, Warren and I attended an open house for a new senior housing community in Delaware. Many of the speeches were about community: the community of seniors living there, the greater community of Delaware. While the speakers talked, I looked around the atrium seeing who I knew. I saw my friend Donna, who works with our local seniors agency, across the room.

When I was younger, I used to imagine an "ideal" old age. Assuming that most of my women friends and I would outlive our husbands or significant others, I imagined us all coming together in a community setting, perhaps living in closely linked cottages, not unlike this new senior community that just opened. We would share tea and great-grandchildren's pictures, swap books back and forth, attend movies and concerts together, and admire one another's gardens. It was a vision not unlike the new senior community that was being opened, and hearing the speakers brought my old dream to mind.

So when I saw Donna, who is funny and feisty and bright, I automatically thought "Donna would be a good friend to add to that village."

And right on the heels of that thought, which had made me smile, was this one: "I'm probably not going to live long enough to put together my ladies' community."

Warren was standing right next to me and I half-turned away from him, not wanting to alarm him in case that bleak thought was on my face. But the thought clung tenaciously to me, and this morning, in the truck as we drove out of town, I told him what had gone through my mind, adding, "it makes me sad sometimes. Especially when I think of leaving you…"

I didn't finish that sentence because it is hard to talk when your throat suddenly closes up with emotion.

Warren had to swallow hard himself as he replied "I think about that sometimes too."

We drove on in silence for a little while. Thoughts of all kinds kept chasing around in my mind, refusing to slow long enough for me to grab and articulate. Finally, one lit on my tongue.

October started off with a frost - not a hard one, but brisk enough to lay waste to most of my garden. Improbably, some of the pumpkin vines not only survived but have continued to produce blossoms. Warren had pointed that fact out a few days ago and this morning I walked down to the sod garden and took a photo of them.

Those blossoms will never turn into pumpkins. Their season is over; the sun is growing ever distant and cooler. The next frost may be a killing one. They are bedraggled and surrounded by dead and dying vines, but they still open up every day to greet the morning light.

Now, in the silent car, I mentioned them, adding "if that's not a sign of hope, I don't know what is."

I don't know what my future holds. None of us do. I know what I hope it holds: many years yet of family and community and friends and, most precious of all, Warren. But I don't know for sure and as my oncologist once said, in a different context, "you have one bad card in that hand you've been dealt."

Knowing that just strengthens my resolve to live all the more deliberately and purposefully.

Although my season may be much shorter than I hope, I will take my cue from the pumpkin blossoms. Let me open to the morning sun - no matter how distant and cool it may become - and celebrate the day.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Beautiful Swimmer

Callinectes means "beautiful swimmer" in Greek, something I learned when reading about the Chesapeake blue crab, whose taxonomical genus is Callinectes.

I love that word - the sound of it (well, the way I think it is pronounced) and the image of it.

Callinectes. Beautiful swimmer.

I am a swimmer, but I am not a beautiful swimmer. I am a fifty-three year old still carrying way too much steroid weight and don't look at those Skatzes Women veins on my left leg swimmer who swims the side stroke when I swim, which I try to do two to three times a week at the nearest Y.

But I love the word Callinectes all the same and often roll it around in my head while I turn laps. I think about having it imprinted on my swim bag, which instead has the fading character of the Reed College griffin on it.

I am not a beautiful swimmer, but when I swim, I forget the steroid weight and the veins and the ravaged knee joints, savoring instead the cool weightlessness of the water. When I swim, I become one with the water, which is beautiful.

I learned to swim as a young girl when my mother signed us up for lessons at the old Delaware pool. Many summer days, she would send my older brother, my next younger brother, and me off by bikes for the afternoon, with strict instructions to start riding home when the 4:00 rest period started.

The summer scent of my youth was chlorine.

My boys were water babies. Ben's first home was an apartment complex in central California with the ubiquitous outdoor pool; he was in that pool from his toddler years on, learning to swim when he was four and a half. Sam, who grew up here, learned to swim the summer he was five.

When the boys were little, my across-the-alley neighbor Sally and I would pick a summer day to load up our four children and spend the day at Lake Erie, swimming and splashing and reading and eating. I would often stretch out in the sun-warmed shallows, closing my eyes while the water lapped around me. I would stay in the water, half dozing, until the sun and the water dissolved (if only temporarily) the considerable worries and stresses I carried around back in those days.

[Note: A day at Lake Erie came with its own stresses. Sally recently reminded me of the lake trip that resulted in the worst sunburn of Sam's young life and how he whimpered and cried for a half hour of the two hour trip home until he fell asleep, knocked out by the pain.]

Once the boys got to the age where the lake (and everything was) was "boring," I more or less stopped swimming. I started swimming again in September, 2005, just as soon after my second stem cell transplant as my doctors would allow.

I haven't stopped swimming since. For me, it is tangible evidence that I am still here, that I am holding the cancer in me at bay. I think "If I can swim a half mile today, then I can't be too sick, right?"

Several friends have told me they would never swim for exercise because it is too repetitive and too lonely. It is the repetition and the solitude that I like. When I slip into the water, I am alone with my own thoughts. With luck, I fall into a meditative rhythm while I count off laps in my head. There are no emails or phone calls to answer. There are no pressing chores that need completed.

There is only the water, the cool, blue water.

Often, I will finish my swim by floating on my back, just letting the water hold me up. I explained to Margo once that I learned to back float from a very good teacher who said "just pretend you are going to bed on your back" and then told the whole class to "lean backwards until you fall - the water will catch you." That teacher got it right: you have to trust the water to catch you, to hold you.

Many decades later, I think of her when I finish my swim, as I often do, by floating on my back. My laps are done, I have confirmed once again that I am alive. I take a breath and then I launch myself from the side walls, trusting the water one more time to catch me, to hold me up, to give me hope.

Callinectes. Beautiful swimmer. Beautiful life.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Today started out as one of those kind of overcast, not really much of anything weather days, other than cold when the wind went gusting by. I got my flu shot yesterday morning and was still feeling achy and chilled from it. A good friend has just been diagnosed with lymphoma. Welcome to Cancerland again.

That kind of day.

I walked to a noon meeting, stumping along pretty much oblivious to the neighborhood. Yeah, yeah, the leaves are starting to turn and all that, but it's not like they were contrasted against one of the brilliantly blue skies that October brings.

I was in my own little world. While I walked, I started turning over "to do" lists in my head. I could make a dozen of them - the list of court work that needs done, the list of household chores that needs done, the list of yard work that needs done, the list of home projects that needs done.

All of my lists turn on the phrase "needs done." All of my lists are needy.

Heck, I'm needy. At least today.

The meeting was contentious. A colleague gave me a ride home. When I got here, I sat here tired and achy and frustrated from the meeting.

I had a second meeting at 3:00 and so set out again.

But as is often the case, it was an entirely different trip. The sun was starting to break through the clouds and by golly, those maple leaves on Franklin Street are stunning, aren't they? A block from my front door, I noticed my aunt Ginger, who will be 80 shortly and who lives one block away, walking towards downtown as well. So I caught up with her and we walked and talked and laughed together for four blocks until our paths parted. The afternoon meeting was short and sweet and afterwards I strolled up the street with a fellow commission member, eyeing the wares at the midweek Farmers Market.

The sun was brighter as I walked home and the leaves even more brilliant. I thought about an invocation I heard Tuesday, the gist of which was to be aware of the wonders of life, as God meets us at every turn. On a fall day like this, it is hard to ignore that call to wonder.

I'm now back home, about to tackle supper. I'm still achy and chilled from my flu shot. There are still towels to be folded and dishes to be washed. There are still tasks to be undertaken and completed.

The almighty "needs done" lists, though, have receded in my mind for today. They have been replaced by a very short one that should carry me right on through:

1. Take a deep breath.
2. Take another.
3. Repeat as necessary.

Monday, October 5, 2009

One Year

Last night, Warren and I raced to our downtown movie theatre to watch "Julie and Julia," which I had wanted to see and which I enjoyed immensely. Our last minute movie going was a small celebration sandwiched in between a busy weekend and a busy week, because tonight there is a Symphony committee meeting that we both are attending and any celebration tonight will be of a silent nature while we share homemade apple pie and ideas and thoughts sitting around a big table.

Our reason to celebrate?

Just one year ago today Warren and I were married on an early fall evening at an outdoor setting here in town, with two of our four children, our "almost daughter" Amy, and my parents in attendance.

My boss, who is a Municipal Court judge, presided. The groom and his son arrived more than fashionably late, so much so that I wondered whether Warren had gotten cold feet at the last minute.

Lucky for me, he had not. Son David had a last minute fashion crisis that resulted in switching from jeans to slacks (his dad's), borrowing a belt, then punching a new hole to make the belt work.

The ceremony, once the other key player had arrived, was short and, as they say, sweet. Everyone was smiling, starting with the judge. Afterwards, we fed the three kids, then drove David back to Akron, where he attends college.

Our one splurge for an otherwise almost free wedding (the license being our only expense) was that we had our wedding rings made by a local artist, Sharon Abood. Before we met with her, Warren and I talked about what we wanted in rings. We were in agreement about plain bands, but differed on materials. I want a brass ring, like a carousel ring you grab for another ride. (I haven't written yet about carousels, but trust me, that post is coming one of these days.) Warren wanted one of bronze, as cymbals and gongs are made from bronze.

Sharon is very warm and funny and we had a lot of fun working with her. She listened to our ideas about materials and then suggested a compromise: make the ring of "new bronze," which is a brass/copper mix. It seemed a fitting blend of our two lives.

Sharon is also a romantic. As we talked, she suggested a silver lining, to prevent allergic reactions to the metals. Sharon then smiled and said that perhaps we could consider the silver "symbolic of your wedding - that it is a silver lining in your lives."

It certainly has been. And continues to be.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

October Report

We had the first frost of the year - a sur- prisingly strong one - last night. Even before I knew there was a frost advisory, I had already made up my mind to spend some of the morning in the gardens, putting them to bed for the year. The last several days had been cool and rainy, and the garden was looking more and more bedraggled and done.

I probably spent about two hours culling the last few tomatoes that weren't waterlogged or rotting, picking peppers, pulling pumpkins from the dying vines. As I pulled tomato vines, I discovered a couple of onions overlooked earlier and I added them to the pile drying in the basement. I clipped all the basil to make pesto to freeze.

It was drizzling lightly while I worked and my shoes caked with mud as I moved through the garden. The flu season has begun in earnest here and I found myself thinking "great, all I need to do is get chilled and overdo it."

I don't think I did.

Later in the morning, my mom called to tell me there was a frost advisory: did I want anything from their garden? Sure I did. So I drove out to mom and dad's and picked the last of their peppers and took the last zucchinis, which dad had already picked for me. I lugged home a sack full of vegetables and added it to the collection on the floor.

The days and nights are packed at our house right now. The dying garden, a hallway makeover, the Symphony rehearsals for the debut concert, name it, we have it going on. Two
nights ago there was the soft hiss and faintly sweet smell of pumpkins stewing on the stove. Last night I stripped basil leaves while a pumpkin loaf baked. During the night, the last of the fresh tomatoes dried in the oven. There are wonderful combinations of smells - peppers and pumpkins, cinnamon and basil - when you walk in our front door. Come what may, our larders are full. I look at the shelves of canned goods and the laden freezers and think we may go all winter long just eating the bounty of our gardens.

October is my favorite month of the year and I love that this one started off with a kiss of frost. I love October for what it brings: the sharp, chill air, the splendor of the dying year. The leaves are starting to turn around here. Both of our half birthdays (which we note if not celebrate) are in October; our wedding anniversary is as well. My aunt Ginger turns 80 later this month, the day after the Symphony opens its season. It is a four star month all the way around.

Many, many years ago, sitting in my 6th grade English class, I penned a poem that began, "There's nothing I like better than a bright October day." The girl is long gone, but the sentiment still holds true.

October, October, October at last.