Saturday, December 31, 2016

Inch One Hundred Fifty-One: Wrapping Up Another Year

Last year, I wrapped up the year by looking at numbers. This year, I am not sure where and how to begin counting. It is a cold, gray afternoon, the wind and occasional rain or sleet lashing the trees outside.

It has been a year of losses, starting with the death of Kim Lance, husband to my friend Judy, from a massive heart attack in early November. It hurts to watch Judy grope her way through the deep grief of losing her best friend. Their three children, young adults all, are finding their own way in a world without their dad. I think more than anything else ranging from the national election to bad diagnoses sprinkled too liberally over friends and colleagues, Kim's death and the resulting holes his death ripped in his family, his college (he was a chemistry professor), and the community have been the hardest losses this year.

On the bright side? The Cubs won the World Series and the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and its allies stood their ground and, at least for now, won.

I am penning this out in longhand, sitting in the living room. On the coffee table in front of me, all three menorahs are ready to be lit in a few hours for the eighth and final night of Hanukkah. Given the ugliness of the campaign and the continuing rhetoric of the incoming administration, I worry at what point my personal safety will be at risk to light a menorah, given the strong sense of validation the extreme and violent right took from the election results. Think I am exaggerating? Two words: Whitefish, Montana. How appropriate then that I am celebrating a holiday celebrating a victory against a regime that wanted to eliminate the Jews, albeit by assimilation and not genocide.

At a recent gathering of the Death and Dying Coffee Club (to join, you have to have an incurable and preferably terminal illness, typically cancer), one of our members put to us the question of what was our most profound truth learned in 2016?

"How far backwards we have gone in race in this country, I said gloomily, "because I truly believed we were better than this."

My buddy Corroto was a little more (emphasis on "little") sanguine. "That the only place I can impact is here, locally. All politics really are local." And by local, Corroto means block by block, right here and now. He said he could not affect Washington, our elected state and national officials, and maybe not even our own City Council. But he could make an impact here where his house meets the sidewalk. His new effort was picking up trash when he was out walking the dog, based on an example set by another neighbor.

Small? Absolutely. Inconsequential? I would say not.

Jews are charged with tikkun olam, repairing the world. Our duty is to make those repairs, no matter how small. Picking up trash when you walk is one way. Will I do that too? Maybe.

As I finish typing in my rough notes, I glance out the second floor window. The day is getting gloomier. All the same, I plan to put on my coat and head outside, walking out the year that is dying, girding myself for the one awaiting us all.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Inch One Hundred Fifty: December Legal Clinic

We wrapped up the 2016 year at the Legal Clinic this past Tuesday. It was a quiet night; the weather or the holidays or both may have kept clients away. All the same, we had volunteers showing up to advise, to assist, and to just be there. At one point in the evening, we had one volunteer playing Christmas music on the piano, three lawyers sharing tips and suggestions, and a young mother and her little girl eating a late supper at a nearby table.

One of the things I do after every Clinic is send out a thank you email to the volunteers. We are a unique model in that we do not have a board, do not have funding, and rely solely on volunteers to make this thing work. I try hard to make sure I let those who serve know how much they are appreciated.

This is the email I sent out:

One and all:

We finished the year with 219 clients, not counting phone clients. I have not been tracking phone clients (ones that a volunteer talks to when there is a burning issue and no Clinic anytime soon). IF we had 10 phone clients in 2016, and we may well have, then we have served 2500 clients since starting in October 2003. (Given that some early records are missing, I think it is safe to say we have sailed past that benchmark.)

Well done, everyone. Your time and commitment make Delaware a richer, more inclusive community. I especially appreciate that we all come together--tired from work, from life, from chemo, from too much on our personal/professional plates--and willingly set it all aside to do this month after month. 

Some shoutouts for last night's Clinic: Erin and Colin, who accompanied their mother, Karen M. (FOOD), and kept two children of a client wonderfully entertained for almost two hours (including some rollicking rounds of hide-and-seek); Karen M. and Sue P. for a year's worth of hot and delicious meals, including desserts; Doug W. for the concerned, patient look on his face as he crossed the waiting area to grab a handful of tissues to take to a crying client; Kate S. for jumping into Intake (and talking to the aforementioned upset client); Dave H. for taking a seat at the piano and playing Christmas music for us all.

Last night there was a young woman with a little girl--not a client but someone who gets services from Andrews House--and she ended up staying while her little girl ate some of the delicious Karen/Sue offerings. Mom explained to me that her daughter is in daycare about 50 hours a week while mom works (and there are two other older children at home) so they really look for time they can spend together. Mom took home leftovers from Clinic and extras from the Mobile Market; her daughter was ecstatic because we tucked the extra Santa napkins in one of the take-home bags. It made me appreciate how much Andrews House shelters us all, and how our Clinic sometimes serves those who aren't even there for legal advice. 

Thank you for a wonderful 2016. I'm looking forward to working with you all in 2017. 
My email prompted this response from Dave, who was one of the founders of the Clinic as well as the piano player:

Thank you all!

April's email causes my eyes to well up when I think of all that Mel and the Andrews House do for our community and how much this clinic has grown over the years despite having no real, official organizational structure.

At the outset of this endeavor back in 2003, we hoped to see a few clients every month and perhaps give them some direction and advice.  The clinic has now served more than 2,500 clients and routinely more than 200 a year.  It has a grant to allow some outside legal work.  It received another grant to remodel the basement of Andrews House into meeting rooms.  It routinely provides not only legal advice, but also nourishment- of body and soul- to those who come.  And, I like to think that it provides some of that same nourishment to those of us who volunteer there (along with a little CLE credit too!)

I cannot speak for others who were involved in the early days, but I could not have possibly envisioned what the clinic has become through the hard work of you as volunteers and Mel (and Don before her) at Andrews House.  It warms my heart to see it every month.  It strikes me that the clinic works without a formal 'board' or governing structure because it has taken on a life blood of its own- fed by too many volunteers who care too much about it to let it slip in any way.

I'm getting sappy now- but thank you all for your involvement in this project and for improving the lives of people who would otherwise have nowhere to turn to.  


Dave's email prompted this response from Mel, who is the Executive Director of Andrews House, our home since the Clinic's inception in 2003:

Good Morning all,
I didn’t expect to be so emotional this early in the morning.  I can’t thank you all enough for what you continue to do at the Legal Clinic and for our community.  I ditto Dave & April, the nourishment people receive (for body & soul) at the Legal Clinic, in addition to the legal advice in the kind and generous way you all have, is a such soothing balm to our clients.  It warms my heart every month I witness it.  Thank you for continuing to volunteer and for bringing food and supporting the Legal Clinic.  Andrews House is honored & blessed to be part of it.
Very Merriest Holiday wishes to you!

And finally this response:

You good people share good words and kind thoughts. Thanks to all of you for sharing your valuable time and abundant talents with those in need. (Those in need include us lawyers, of course!) God bless you wonderful people!

We feel always the spiritual origin and part of the Clinic, but maybe more so at this time of the year. From its very humble beginnings, the Clinic at Andrews House has carried on and been guided by a very clear and simply-stated mission, to help people in need of legal services. The Clinic operated simply. (For example, there used to be no food served!) It still operates pretty simply, but with some nice additions and many more clients and volunteers. The Clinic has grown into an important and valuable community resource (one of many emanating from and nurtured in Andrews House). On Tuesday, I took a moment in the hustle and bustle of the evening to stop and take in what was going on. April captured much of it in her e-mail. Your donations of good food and good cheer, David’s pretty music, and your shared, warm camaraderie, coupled with the concerns, problems, anxieties, and tears presented by clients, made for a poignant time. Apparently, many of us felt that poignancy. You all are doing good work, with simple kindnesses, Andrews House hospitality, and wise legal counsel.


The world is often a cold, hard place. This Tuesday night, thanks to the open hearts of many, it was a little warmer and a little softer.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Nine: Benjamin

My son Benjamin is thirty-one years old today. He came into the world early on a Monday morning, just past 5:00 a.m. I remember taking him into my arms and exclaiming, "Benjamin is here!"

Benjamin lit up my world that morning. He has never stopped.

Happy birthday, Benjamin.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Eight: Christmas Memory

Last week I wrote about my Aunt Ginger, with whom I spend more and more time each week. In addition to being physically frail, Ginger also has dementia, which has been making steady inroads in her mind. I am Ginger's caretaker; I watch after her money, take her to all medical appointments, and in general try to help her navigate old age as independently as possible for as long as she is safely able.

On Friday I took her to a medical appointment, and on the way home we talked about Christmas cards and how many people still sent them, and whether she had done hers yet (next weekend, Aunt Ginger, next weekend). This topic repeated for several miles, until we got back into downtown. Then Aunt Ginger said, still thinking of Christmas, "well, you know, the boys rung the bells and then it was Christmas."

I asked her which boys, what bells? Church bells? Sleigh bells? What memory was she dredging up?

Aunt Ginger was quiet for a moment or two, then said "Mom and Pop always had a tree, but it would be bare underneath. There were no presents underneath and we would go to bed Christmas Eve. Then in the morning, in the dark, some boys—it must have been my brothers—would ring a bell outside and that would be Santa Claus. Because we didn't have a chimney, he had to deliver to the house. And the presents would be on the front porch and we would bring them in and then have Christmas, because Santa Claus had been there."

She remembered that the presents were simple, and that there weren't a lot, because it was the time of the Great Depression. 

I know the house my Aunt Ginger grew up in, because it was the same house I grew up in. It had a long, narrow hallway from the front door to the first floor living room. I wonder whether the brother ringing the bell stood in the hallway, out of sight, and rang some sleigh bells. I wonder whether the presents were in the hallway as well; even in the 1930s, I am not sure my grandparents would have left presents out on the porch in the cold.

But I do not doubt the story, even if the details are fuzzy. The brothers would have been 13 or more years older and probably more than willing to join in the fun. Assuming my mother was in the picture, we are talking late 1930s, when Aunt Ginger would still have been in grade school and Santa still would have been real. I can only imagine the excitement on the girls' faces to know Santa had come and left something for them. 

The brothers are long gone. The family home was sold many years ago. More and more memories for my aunt are erased. But somewhere, in the swirl of Aunt Ginger's mind, there is the empty tree, the ringing of bells, and the joy of Christmas. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

One Hundred Forty-Seven: Ginger Rogers

I took Aunt Ginger to a funeral today. A classmate with whom she had gone to school all twelve years had died and Aunt Ginger wanted to be there. At 87+ years old, Aunt Ginger is starting to be frail and wobbly on her feet. The day is long gone when she could put on her coat, quickly walk the almost four blocks to the funeral home, and walk home, especially on a cold, gray day. Her physical decline, coupled with her advancing dementia, made me call her and say "I will pick you up and take you."

I did not know this classmate, Phyllis, although I had heard about her over the years. I'll give credit to the minister leading the service; he painted such a picture of Phyllis that I felt I did know her by the time the short service was over. The funeral home was crowded and Aunt Ginger sat right in front of me. As the minister recalled this or that story about Phyllis, I could see her head nodding in agreement.

The minister then called for anyone who had a story to stand and share it. One nephew spoke up about Phyllis's kindness to his mother during a lengthy illness and decline. Another family member spoke about Phyllis's lasagna. I stood up and told a story I have heard many times.

I introduced my aunt, explaining that she and Phyllis had gone to school together starting in elementary school. Phyllis's maiden name was Rogers. My aunt, whose proper name is Virginia, had already adopted "Ginger" as her name at a young age. The two would often walk home together. One crossing guard, no doubt a lordly 6th grader, would stop them and demand to know their names.

"What is your first name?," he would say to my aunt.

"Ginger," she would reply.

"And what is your last name?," he would say to Phyllis.

"Rogers," she would say.

He would then make them say "Ginger" and "Rogers" over and over until it was a duet of "Ginger Rogers," before letting them across the street.

When I finished my story, Aunt Ginger turned to the man next to her, who was one of Phyllis's nephews, and said "and that's a true story."

The Ginger Rogers duo stayed friends their entire life, despite taking markedly different paths through life. And today I am grateful I got to bring the surviving member to say goodbye to her partner from long ago.