Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wedding Notes

Just a day over three weeks ago, Ben and Alise were married in Helena, Montana, in a small Episcopalian church by her father, who is an ordained Episcopalian priest.

They were married before friends and family, whose love and encouraging wishes were surpassed only by the radiant look on the couple's faces.

The day before the wedding found me, Warren, and several members of Alise's family elbow deep in potatoes, onions, celery, and pickles as we peeled, chopped, diced, and otherwise prepped food for the wedding reception. Jenna, Alise's younger sister, worked on a large tray of Rice Krispie treats for the little ones at the wedding. The rest of us made gallons of potato salad and pasta salad.

It was a good start to the weekend's activities. We confirmed the writings of Khalil Gibran - "work is love made visible" - as we chopped and stirred and talked.

When the big day actually came, after the pre-ceremony photos, after the last minute concerns, I thought I would cry copiously throughout the wedding. There happened to be a box of tissues in the front pew where we were seated and I figured I would empty it out before the wedding was done. As it turned out, the tears spilled over only once: when Mona escorted Alise down the aisle. I think it was the combined glow of mother and daughter, sprinkled with Mona's own tears, that brought mine to the surface.

After that, I was dry-eyed. Happy, but dry-eyed. I think I was so caught up in the wedding - watching the couple, listening to the service - that I didn't have time to cry. I watched them pledge their love and commitment to one another. Joe talked about the wedding bringing family and tribe (Alise is Chippewa on her mother's side) together and I watched Sam and Jenna (their only attendants) wrap them in a blanket to symbolize the union. I answered "we do" along with everyone else when asked who would witness their vows and support them in their new life together.

The smile on Ben's face was the biggest one I had seen in many years. It was heartfelt, it was genuine, it was radiant. I saw it as soon as Ben's brand spanking new father-in-law gently turned Ben and Alise to face the congregation as a newly married couple.

As mother of the groom, I saw Ben's smile as a wonderful affirmation of something I already knew: they belong together.

Sam said it best. As best man, he was called upon to give a toast to the couple at the reception. Sam had stewed over this expectation a bit on the way west and we wondered what he was gong to say. When the time came, he rose to his feet, champagne in hand, and said (more or less): "I'm Ben's brother, Sam. I guess as best man I am supposed to give a toast. Well, I don't have any heartwarming stories or any pithy sayings to tell you. I just want to say that Ben and Alise are great people who are going to do great things and have a great life."

I looked at Warren; he looked at me. "Wow! Where did that come from?" We all cheered.

At the reception were tables loaded with food - the food we had made, the food other family members brought. One of Alise's cousins made the wedding cake.

There was love stirred into every dish. You tasted it in every bite.

You saw it on the faces of people in the room. Old, young, dark, light. All of us there for Ben and Alise. All of us there for the coming together of these two young people.

Like any event, not everything went as planned. There was supposed to be a mother/son, father/daughter dance to "Stand By Me." Instead, at some point Joe and Alise started dancing to something - a Queen number, perhaps - and Ben and I followed suit. At dance's end, my son put his arm around me and hugged me tight.

"I'm so glad you married Alise," I said. "She's a good woman."

"She is a good woman, mom."

I have written before about saying goodbye to Ben and Sam, knowing I am likely not to see them again for some time. I have yet to write about saying hello to my new daughter-in-law.

I first heard the name "Alise" in December, 2004, when Ben came home for Christmas during his freshman year at Reed. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then asked if he could fly back early via Helena, Montana. Why Helena, I remember asking. Turns out there was a young woman there who he'd met at Reed and he was invited to come visit her and her family. And her name? Alise, mom, Alise. Sam met her before I did on one of his occasional trips out to visit his dad. When he came back, he said "you'll like Alise, mom. She's a lot like you."

I still remain deeply flattered by the comparison.

I have called Alise my "almost" daughter-in-law for so long that I am still getting accustomed to the change in status. To my surprise, she took Ben's last name. At some point I know I will write out their combined names and stop and stare a bit at the envelope.

In looking back, I can sense the flow of the two days. Friday evening was the rehearsal, followed by a cookout, followed by our decorating the reception hall. Saturday was photographs, followed by the wedding, followed by the reception. Family stayed late to clean up afterwards. On Sunday, we came together again to watch them open presents, then spent the day at the lake. At the time, the weekend seemed packed.

Maybe it was. Maybe not. In the end, my memories are of the little things. The peacock feathers that were laced through everything - the bouquet, the floral arrangements, the boutonnières. The Playmobil cake topper that Ben bought for Alise. The Indian fry bread makers frying up a batch before the wedding, including a heart shaped one for Ben and Alise. Grandma Dorothy standing beside me in the receiving line and explaining who everyone from Alise's side of the family was, right down to the roly-poly baby - a great-great-grandchild of Grandma Dorothy's, by the way - who happily danced the night away in his mother's arms. Holding Warren's hand while Ben and Alise pledged their love.

And the smiles and the love everywhere - in every hug, in every bite, in every song, and on everyone's tongue - the whole night long.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Saying Goodbye

I have been saying "goodbye" to my boys since they were little.

"Goodbye, I'll see you after school."

"Goodbye, have fun at camp."

"Goodbye, let me know your plane got in."

Being a parent and watching your children grow up is one long series of goodbyes. Everything we do to guide them to adulthood is aimed at one day saying "goodbye" as they step into their new lives.

So why does it still hurt so much when that day comes?

When we were out in Montana for Ben and Alise's wedding, I had to say goodbye to both of my boys at the same time. The wedding weekend was over and Warren and I were leaving early the next morning to start our trip back to Ohio.

Ben now lives in Montana with Alise and I would be saying goodbye to both of them for who knows how long. And Sam was staying on in Montana for a week with Ben and Alise before heading further west to Oregon, where he will start at Portland State next month.

I've said goodbye to each of my sons many times and under many circumstances. But this time was different. Here was Ben, stepping into married life. Here was Sam, making some new and important life choices.

Our last day in Helena, the day after the wedding about which I hope to write soon, most of us went to Lake Helena for an afternoon of boating. Alise's father, Joe, took my parents and the boys' father and his fiancé out first, while the rest of us stayed on shore and talked about books and other things. Then Alise, Ben, Sam, Warren, and I joined Joe and Jenna, Alise's younger sister, and we went out on the lake for a couple of hours - my farewell tour, as it were, with the boys.

It was wonderful. I got to see Ben and Alise in a setting familiar to them, unfamiliar to me. I got to watch Sam, who back on shore said he was ready to experience life directly instead of through his computer, try out a new experience. We all got the chance to laugh and talk and joke and relax.

After we came in, we caravanned back to Joe and Mona's house for one last meal of wedding reception leftovers. We ate, we talked, I watched my boys.

And then it was time to say goodbye.

Sam was first. Sam, with whom we had had a most excellent time (well, if you didn't count the last ten minutes when we arrived in Helena and were looking for Ben and Alise's apartment) driving cross-county. Sam, who'd stood on the rail at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands, gazing endlessly, saying "I want to come back here and hike." Sam, who'd just yesterday stood by his brother while Ben recited his vows and then broke into a loud cheer when the wedding was concluded.

That Sam.

Sam gave me a hearty hug. "Okay, mom, goodbye until whenever! I love you!"

Oh, I love you so, Sam.

A goodbye hug from Ben. A long, hard hug from my firstborn, who I have watched over from afar for so long. "Thanks for coming out to the wedding, mom. I'm really glad you did. I love you."

My dear Ben, how I love you!

Then goodbyes and hugs to everyone else - Alise, no longer my almost-daughter-in-law, Jenna, their parents, Joe and Mona.

I told Warren I was ready to leave. And although there was a large lump in my throat, I was in pretty good shape as we left the room.

Joe and Mona live in a tri-level house, and to leave the living room where we were, you walk down a short flight of stairs to the front door. As we were walking down, I glanced back and saw Ben standing at the top of the stairs, watching us leave.

He had followed us out.

That killed me.

I have seen Ben only three times in the last five years. I don't know when I will see him again. He's almost 25, he's married, he and Alise are forging their own paths. Yet there was my boy - all grown to manhood - watching his mother leave.

Maybe it occurred to Ben that he wouldn't see me for some time. Maybe he just wanted to see his mom for a minute more. Maybe it was just coincidence (but I don't think so).

I held my tears until I was in the car, and then they came. I cried much of the way to the hotel. Not torrents of tears - more like a spring that fills a basin slowly until it wells over. I cried the same, slow way through the night while Warren held me close.

The next morning we left Montana early, driving into a golden sunrise. We exclaimed over the trip so far, we talked about the wedding and the reception. We told each other "I love you."

The road was brilliant before us. Adventures lay ahead.

And I silently bid my boys goodbye one more time.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Road Trip Lag

I know. I still haven't written about the wedding or our trip out there and back. I really will.


I'm just not there yet.

As of today, we have been home for one week. One week. After 13 days on the road, we rolled back into our very own driveway last Friday at about 6:00 p.m. Home.

It has been unsettling. Neither Warren nor I were ready to be back here. We were numb. I still am. I feel as if I have been sleepwalking through the week.

I don't like feeling this way.

A few weeks before we left, in the hectic rush we called "July," I had accompanied Warren to the Cincinnati area for an evening rehearsal. He was playing percussion in a small orchestra down there (two hours away) that our conductor Jaime also conducts. I arrived hot (no AC in the car) and out of sorts. Sitting in air conditioned rehearsal area, I penned a blog post that never saw the light of day.

That post ran as follows:

My bags are too heavy. I am sitting in a rehearsal hall in Batavia, Ohio. I am blessedly cool after a warm, sticky day and a two plus hour drive down in the sun.

I am sitting here writing (longhand) on the notebook I brought along. It was hard getting the notebook and pen out of the small canvas bag into which I had packed them. It was a struggle because the bag was too heavy. Even though it is small and I was only lifting it from the seat next to me into my lap, it was a struggle all the same.

My bag is too heavy.

I have packed it too full. Rehearsals are almost three hours. So I'd put a water bottle in to get through the evening. And the notebook and pen. Well, four pens in case I had some huge pen crisis.

My keys, of course, my wallet (which is a little credit card holder and is only 3x4), and my phone. Also some acetaminophen and some antacids.

And three books - two hardcover (small) and one paperback (trade size). The hardcover books are short and I didn't want to finish reading one and be without something else to read.

Oh, and my appointment calendar (yes, I still keep a paper one) in case I needed to make an appointment sitting here 140 miles from home, from my computer, and with my phone turned off.

My bag is too heavy.

Small wonder. I packed it too full of "what if" items instead of those things I really need tonight.

I am also thinking about the bag in the car, the one in which I packed a brownbag supper for us to eat. As we approached Cincinnati, I planned to start handing out sandwiches. But first I had to move the bag from the back seat where it was wedged in on top of percussion equipment, to the front. To accomplish this maneuver, I had to take off my seatbelt, turn around on the seat on my knees, and s-t-r-a-i-n to lift the bag. Not because of where and how it was packed in the car, but because it - yep - too heavy.

The bag itself is very lightweight. It is large, a little bigger than the reusable shopping bags that everyone is carrying these days. I am always lulled into packing it fuller (and heavier) because of the extra space.

So in addition to the sandwiches, it held two bottles of water (mine), two cans of soda (Warren's), a bag of chips, and some snacks for the drive because Warren is always famished after a full rehearsal. Only because the bag "has room," I put in the whole sack of animal crackers (14 oz) and the whole box of Nutty Bars. I don't mean I opened the box, removed the contents, and placed them in the bag. I mean I put the whole cardboard box in. After all, there was room.

And let's not forget the ice packs in the bottom of the bag to keep things cool (the bag has a thermal lining). I could have gone with two small blocks, but the larger block fits nicely. Never mind the weight, there's room.

Needless to say, the bag was heavy. Very, very heavy.

I could have packed a smaller bag - or taken smaller portions - but there was room, so it all came along.

Warren worries about me helping carry his equipment because much of it is bulky and heavy. His stuff is nothing compared to my bags tonight. If the Donner party had set out with our supper bag, they never would have resorted to cannibalism.

As I sit here penning these words, my mind keeps returning to my carrying so much when, clearly, less would have done amply. I weighted myself down unnecessarily with extra books, extra ice packs, extra everything, as if we would be driving to a remote plateau tonight.

My bags are too heavy.

Lately, I have been feeling burdened and stressed. Too many days where our schedules don't meet, let alone blend. Too many loose ends that keep unraveling. All this tugs at my peace of mind. There are bills which need to be paid, some tricky scheduling to pull off before we hit the road, and more than my usual anxieties about, well, just about everything.

My bags are too heavy.

Like the lesson with tonight's bags - tangible, physical bags - where I am struggling to lift even the smallest one into my lap, I need to unpack my mental bags as well.

This is where my writing started to unravel. I never got back to the writing and it never got posted. But as I struggle to regain my equilibrium after our trip, I find the words haunting and relevant.

Warren and I email every day - just a short note to start the day - and my continuing mood post-trip has dominated my comments to him. I wrote:

I think the trip shook me up the most in showing me how much I have let slip (in terms of reflection, energy, forward movement, small moments) in the jumble and push of this year. We have both been moving at the speed of light all year long - especially with some of the Symphony issues - and the trip was (even though fast paced) a shock to the system. It was like a mirror - and I am not sure I liked everything I saw about myself and our life (the pace, the hectic qualities) in it. I feel as if I am sleepwalking right now. I want to be alive all the time, every moment, especially with you.

I think that says a lot of what I am feeling. Packed and hectic as it was, the trip nonetheless allowed both of us the chance to get outside of our routines and everyday persona. For me, that was a huge (and shocking) revelation of just how far I have crawled into a daily routine of just going through the motions. Yes, I am working, yes, I am keeping house, yes, I am tending to my marriage and my friends and my family, but am I really paying attention to what I am doing?

Am I really living?

As I finish this post, it is late Friday morning. The first jars of tomato sauce are in the canner (the gardens were a wreck by the time we returned, but there are always tomatoes). I'm finally getting some photos of the wedding up on Facebook. We have had yet another busy week: every night this week, one or both of us has had a meeting or other commitment. Liz is with us for the next two weeks, and she has her own appointments: band camp, scouts. Tonight the three of us are volunteering at a fundraiser because the sponsor is so understaffed that we felt bad and said we'd help out. Tomorrow morning starts the moving of the Symphony office.

In short, this week has been packed and booked to the gills. No wonder I am still feeling disoriented and jarred.

Somewhere there is a solution, and as is always the case, I strongly suspect it is within my grasp. I am not unlike Dorothy in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy begs Glinda to help send her home, Glinda replies, "you've always had the power to go back to Kansas." The Scarecrow demands to know why Glinda had kept this knowledge from Dorothy and she says, simply, "she wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself."

I don't have Glinda to point out the obvious: my time and schedule are out of control. I don't have ruby slippers to click together and fix the problem.

I don't even have a humbug of a wizard to root around for a solution in his bag of tricks.

I just have myself. And Warren. And time.

Time to make the most of it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Grateful to the Dead

We just finished a 4600+ mile trip out to Helena, Montana, to see Ben and Alise get married. I will be writing about the wedding as well as the trip. Really.

It was a wonderful wedding. It was a great trip. I really will write about what we saw and experienced. But my first post-trip blog is about the dead. More specifically, it is about the dead I carried home with me on this trip.

The return portion of our trip was a chance for me and Warren to explore, as we are often wont to do. We had some Big stops on the way home: Little Bighorn, Devils Tower, Mount Rushmore. We also had a number of Little stops on the way home, including the Blue Bunny ice cream parlor in Le Mars, Iowa, and the Dvorak rooms in Spillville, Iowa.

It was a lot of fun sharing that part of the country (which I knew somewhat) with Warren, who had never been there. It was a wonderful opportunity for Warren and me to talk, explore, and connect.

The dead, though, were always with me on the return trip. Maybe it was the talk that Father Joe (literally and figuratively: he is both Alise's father and an ordained Episcopalian priest who performed the service) gave in which he referred to the ancestors on "the other side of the veil." Maybe it was the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer for celebrating special occasions. The prayer thanks God, "who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion." It kept chasing through my head as I watched Ben and Alise say their vows - five years earlier that day, I was about to undergo a second stem cell transplant. At the time, I didn't know if I would live long enough to see my older son graduate from college. And now I was sitting at his wedding, my hand in Warren's as we watched the joy light on our children's faces.

Whatever it was, I felt the dead - some nameless, some known - with me for the duration of the return trip.

One of our stops was Clear Lake, Iowa. Clear Lake is a small town in northeastern Iowa that gained posterity on February 3, 1959, when a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens, crashed into a cornfield shortly after takeoff. The crash site, located in a farm field about a half mile off a gravel road, contains a memorial marker to the musicians, and may be visited, provided you stay on the mowed access strip and do not harm the field crops.

The field crop this year is corn, which in this part of Iowa this year is growing particular thick and tall. Even though Warren and I were there in the early morning, the sun was already hot and the air was heavy and hot as well.

We walked slowly back towards the site. The corn formed a deep channel on either side of the strip of grass. You could smell the fields baking beneath the sun and hear the corn rustling. About halfway down the access strip, I commented to Warren that these were perfect "Field of Dreams" cornfields and I expected to see Shoeless Joe Jackson emerge any moment.

Warren quickly commented, "well, if Buddy Holly walks out, I'm out of here."

Buddy Holly didn't walk out. But by the time we reached the memorial marker, it was clear many, many people had walked in. The ground around the small marker was covered with offerings - coins, glasses, CDs, music, jewelry, pictures. Some articles of clothing were tied to a nearby stake, much like Indian prayer bundles. There was a second marker for the pilot of the plane, at which there were more coins, these all neatly stacked on the crossbar of the marker.

Fifty years after the crash, people still make pilgrimages and leave tokens to show they were there and that the musicians are not forgotten.

The day before we had been in De Smet, South Dakota. De Smet became immortal as the Little Town on the Prairie after Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her youth on the great South Dakota plains. De Smet, even on a day when the thermometer was reaching 100 degrees, has a high density of small girls and frazzled mothers trekking from location to location.

One of the stops in De Smet, at which we found ourselves the only visitors, was the cemetery in which Ma, Pa, and all of Laura's sisters are buried, as well as a number of other townsfolk whose names and personalities appear in the books. In contrast to the crash site, the Ingalls plot is pin-neat. That surprised me. I thought that some of those mothers and daughters, making their trek to and through De Smet, might have left a flower, a drawing, or even a clothespin doll. But there was no sign of anything, and no indication that memorials of any type, even a rock placed on the headstone to show someone was there, were ever left.

The cemetery was quiet and empty, except for the two of us.

Two days before De Smet, we had gone to the battlefield at Little Bighorn. In the last decade, the National Park Service (and this country) finally recognized that Little Bighorn means different things to different people, especially those coming from the Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes. Those tribes were the victors at that battle and there is now a memorial to the Indian warriors who fought and died that day. The memorial is an enclosed circle; visitors enter through openings in the wall. There is an additional opening in the wall that lines up with the memorial to the US Calvary soldiers who fell that same day. This is a spirit gate, placed there to welcome the spirits of the Calvary dead into the circle.

Little Bighorn is a haunting place.

Our ways of marking death are so varied. At the site of a long ago plane crash, people still walk a long fencerow to leave mementoes. In a windswept prairie town, the graves of those immortalized in the Little House series are painfully clean, almost as if Ma had her broom out on a daily basis. And in a remote battlefield where the battle began and ended 134 years ago in one bloody, desperate day, there is a gate for the spirits of all the soldiers - Indian and Army - to be at peace with one another.

As we walked down the corn row to the Buddy Holly crash site, a pair of yellow butterflies kept dancing in the air before us, almost leading us to it, as it were. It reminded me of the closing lines of I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a gem of a novel by Margaret Craven about which I have written briefly before. In the Indian village, all is still the night before the young vicar's burial. Only two residents are awake. One is Peter, the carver, who remembers that "in the old days," the soul of a man would return after death to the village in some other form:

Peter did not believe this literally. Yet it seemed likely to him that the soul of the young vicar would return to the village he had loved, as would his own, and surely it would be most inhospitable if no one was awake and waiting. Thus he dressed and sat on the top step of his house in the dark night, and hearing the rustle of some small night creature he, too, spoke softly, "It is only old Peter, the carver, who waits here, friend."

Those lines came to me as I watched the butterflies lead us to the crash site. They were nowhere in sight when we made our way back out to continue our trip.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On the Road

Sam at the Badlands in North Dakota.

The buffalo at the Great Northern Carousel in Helena (Of course, I rode it!)

Wedding rehearsal: mom Mona escorting
daughter Alise down the aisle
(Alise's dad Joe is performing the ceremony)

The Big Event is this evening. I can't wait!