The Flowers in the Garden of my Friends

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My father had two British friends, a married couple, who had at some point taken up residence in the small town where we lived. I remember they had a black, cast iron lion and unicorn on either side of the stone doorstep of their home. In addition, for years I had two small china ornaments they had given me. I don’t know how old I was when I visited with them, perhaps four or five. I can recall only their kindly smiles. When they passed on, they were buried in our local cemetery.

Two pink granite headstones marked their resting place. They were large, highly polished stones, and stood out among the simpler monuments. Every Memorial Day my father would purchase flowers and plant them on their graves. Although I don’t recall his telling me anything about them, they must have been special friends to him. He was one who believed in honoring those who had passed on. His own father died in World War I, when he was only eight years old.

For me especially, Memorial Day brings to mind my dear ones who have passed me on the road to the larger life, where they have their next assignment–whatever it may be. I have pictures of them, both in my mind and in reality, where I can catch a glimpse of them as they once were. Occasionally, though especially when I’m engaged in a task in my kitchen, I catch a whisper from someone I loved dearly and still do. They come into my mind and I see them smile as they used to do when we were together. It is as if they are telling me they are happy and well.

There is a smooth stone on my coffee table inscribed with these words: “My friends are the loveliest flowers in the garden of my life.” I treasure it as a memento from someone special who lit up my life for a time a few years ago. We were near neighbors and saw one another almost very day. A brave and valiant woman, she was a wonderful example of positive aging. Though she had many difficulties and illnesses she scarcely ever complained and did the best she could to carry on in a cheerful fashion.

In my mind, while I am fixing dinner, I often hear another of my late friends with whom I had many phone conversations: “What are you having for dinner that’s good?” she would ask. We would chat about cooking and trade ideas. In my recipe collection I have one of hers written out in her own handwriting. When I make a recipe  I was given by a late friend, it is especially tasty because of my recollection of its origin. How precious are the memories of those we have loved and now lost to time.

Memories of loving friends who have pasted on are such a treasure. They are a bouquet fragrant with the perfume blended from our combined experiences, the times we have shared, the gifts we have given one another. Memorial Day brings to mind many memories of my dear ones no longer within reach of the telephone or email. As I turn them over in my mind, I feel again the love we shared. I see again their smiles and welcoming arms and I have no doubt one day we will meet and share again.

Be Your Own Valentine

Heart and BellsWhen I was growing up it was the custom for valentine cards and gifts to be sent unsigned. I believe this was a tradition that dated back many years. The custom of celebrating Valentine’s Day goes back even further, to ancient Rome. It originated in a festival of the time called Lupercalia, after Lupercus, a nature god of the Romans who resembled the Greek god Pan. It also has roots relating to Juno Februata, honoring Goddess Juno. Then, young boys and girls drew lots to see who they would be partnered with for the year which began in March. The Christian church opted to keep the holiday and rename it, calling it after a saint who may or may not have existed.

I remember that one year when I was around the age of twelve, I received a lovely red, heart shaped compact. No one in my household would admit to giving it to me, although I suspected it had been given me by my father. He swore up and down that he hadn’t done it, and at the time I believed him. He had a very convincing way about him and made an excellent actor.  I remember seeing him in at least one locally produced play when I was growing up. He had an affinity for the theater.

When I was in the early grades, paper valentines were placed in a red and white crepe paper decorated box.  Someone was chosen to be postman and distributed the cards to the room full or classmates. There was no talk of partnering, nor of love, per se. Rather it was all about who got the most cards. Later on, I had fun making my own valentines and sending or giving them, and I have done this for many years. Many purchase them. Commercial valentines have been in use since 1800, and Worcester claims to be the originator of early ones, though others have made that claim as well.

My first husband and I met on a day early in February long ago. I wanted to send him a valentine, however, I could nothing but find only a humorous one. Although it was not very nice, it was all I could find so I sent it anyway. Fortunately for the five children we later produced, it didn’t ruin the relationship. Perhaps it was meant to be. The arrows of Cupid, a god of love also known by Greeks as Eros, sometimes do hit the mark. The Greeks have six words that express love: Eros: or sexual passion, Philia: family love or deep friendship, Ludus: or playful love like for children, Agape: or spiritual love/love for everyone, Pragma: or longstanding or enduring love, and Philautia: or love of the self.

The average Westerner saying, “I love…” may be expressing affection, or a preference—I love ice cream, or aptitude–I love to exercise. All these fit our definition of it. And they are all conditional upon our personal choices. Yet spiritual or unconditional love, the most difficult form of love is also the most beneficial for both giver and recipient. This is the love that endures. When I give myself the valentine of unconditional love, I can be much more loving to everyone else. In addition, I do not take issue with any faults, but instead regard with compassion the struggles of the one who is loved and express patience without expectation.

 

Honoring my Father on Father’s Day

Even though she didn’t like to cook, my mother would not allow my father to do so. She said he burnt everything. She had a strong fear of wasting food. Later I think he occasionally tended a barbecue, however they were not in vogue when I was little. I have early memories of him polishing the family silver. My mother didn’t do that and didn’t wish to even display it. We had many different pieces. They were family heirlooms, inherited from elders who had passed on. I remember a huge tea set with lots of shiny parts to it that rested on a big silver tray on a large wooden sideboard. My father loved and cherished it.

As it is wisely said, no one is perfect because God isn’t finished with us yet. Perfection may be something to strive for, and attaining it is most likely impossible. People are people and bound to mess up. Fathers can’t be perfect either. Some are cruel, whether consciously or unconsciously. I knew someone once who said that her father used to tell her and her brother to jump of the kitchen table and he’d catch them, only he wouldn’t. He told them he wanted to teach them not to trust what anyone said.

Doubtless he meant well. Perhaps he had suffered from believing, himself. My father would taunt me and my siblings when we made mistakes. He wanted us to toughen up, learn not to care what people thought. Did he succeed? I believe he did, however it took a while to sink in. Meanwhile, I resented his pointing finger and his “ha ha” followed by some negative comment. That was not all; we had a lot of fun together too, and he could be very kind. I once came home to the apartment my young husband and I shared to find him sweeping the rug. I didn’t have a vacuum and hadn’t realized I could sweep it with a broom. He used to give me lovely valentines.

He bought me my first washing machine—it was state of the art for the time, with a rubber tub that squeezed the water out of the clothes. He taught me how to dance, and he was a good dancer. He gave me money for years, an allowance that helped greatly when I was first married. Later on he paid for my health insurance because he wanted to take care of me. No, he wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t care. I loved him faults and all. He lived large and had wonderful charm. He had a lovely smile and he smiled often.

I miss him. Yet I miss most the father of my childhood and youth, when he was strong , energetic and good looking. He was a snappy dresser and loved loud ties and colorful clothing.  Bad habits and ill health took their toll. His later years were not happy and he declined mentally. It was difficult to see him so diminished. Yet once in a while the old smile radiated from his face and sometimes he told a joke or said something cute and funny that recalled the man he had been when I was little, and we used to build sand castles and jump the waves together.

The Many Ways of Cherishing, Part One

Dad with Snake Dictionary definitions of “cherish” tell us it comes from words that imply caring and holding dear. The French word “cher,” or “cherie” meaning dear one is often used as a term of endearment, especially in Europe. That and those we cherish are what and whom we hold in our hearts as precious. Keeping, implying more than just a momentary affection, is another dictionary definition of cherishing. I was thinking of this as I contemplated Father’s Day and the memories I cherish of my late dad.

I fondly remember our many sand castles we built on the beach over the years. On occasional weekends would go to my Great Aunt Alice’s beach cottage so he could get away from the incessant telephone calls from clients who thought they were having horticultural emergencies. No cell phones disturbed our peace, nor was there even a landline to the simple, somewhat primitive beach shack our family slept in. Our daylight hours were spent on the sand, in the water or weeding the beach grass from the path to it. He considered that his way of repaying his aunt for her kindness in lending us the cottage.

If there were big waves left over from a storm in the days before we delighted in jumping hem together. Standing waist deep in the water he would hold tight to my hands and I would leap as high as i could with him, while the waves battered at us before they threw themselves onto the beach. He would call us “brave girl” and “brave boy” as we waited for the next one to crest around us. The exhilaration of it is vivid in my mind even today.

This and other cherished images from my young years are fun to dwell on. I keep them in my heart, along with those of other dear ones, some of who have departed this life and others of whom live at a distance, whom I seldom see. I also think about and spend time caring for friends and family nearby. I do my best to keep in touch and make sure we stay current with one another’s lives. I do this with email or phone calls, or even texts nowadays. The many forms of communication are a great help to me in my efforts

However, in my attempts to cherish I have learned that not everyone looks at life in the same way. For instance as in the tale of the monkey who fearing it would drown, so kindly put a fish into a tree, I try not offer help just because I think it is needed. I also must be mindful not to impose my values on a loved one who may have a perspective differing from mine. Most important, I must make sure think before I speak to hear what I am about to say and make sure that my words come across as loving. Sarcasm has never served me well, nor have clever comments or observations that may unintentionally wound. Cherishing takes many forms; being mindful is an important one

 

I love to hear from readers and I do cherish each and every one of you.

Dust is Visible in the New Light of Spring

Spring water           One day years ago as a relatively new bride I returned to the apartment I shared with my then husband and our baby to find my father sweeping the rug.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Cleaning the rug,” he replied.

“Oh,” I said. I didn’t have a vacuum and didn’t know any other way to clean the rug. Now I did. I had never seen anyone sweep a rug before. My dear father smiled at me and suggested that perhaps Santa might provide me with a vacuum. I don’t remember if he did or not, but my father bought me my first washing machine some years later. He was a generous man. Also, I never saw him do any cleaning in the home I grew up in, so his sweeping was a great revelation to me. I have never learned to love housework but I have learned to do it more efficiently–except for dusting.

While I welcome spring and the new light it brings, I also recognize the need to dust. The new brighter light coming from a sun now, in the Northern Hemisphere, higher in the sky shines on all the surfaces in our apartment that have been neglected over the winter. Dusting is not my specialty. I have a tendency to get impatient or careless and damage or knock over items on shelves and surfaces. Stephen is far better at dusting than I, and thankfully he is willing to do it—in his own time. Sometimes this means waiting a bit.

Spring cleaning has a long, honorable history. I am thankful I do not have to haul my rugs out, drape them over a clothesline and beat them with a rug beater. These are now antiques. I remember them as being woven out of wood, like baskets, in the shape of several round circles intertwined. They had handles and were sufficiently sturdy to raise the dust from the rug and into the air to land heaven knows where—hopefully not back on the rug.

Before central heating or cleaner electricity and oil as opposed to wood fireplaces and coal furnaces, a good housewife washed down room walls every spring to remove grime from smoky fires and particles of soot delivered from heating vents. I remember coal being delivered to a coal bin in the cellar every fall. Now an oil burner has replaced that coal furnace. Cobwebs too needed to be removed. Windows had to be washed. Ammonia was in common use for cleaning them in days gone by. Horrid stuff! Now a vinegar/water spray does the job.

I am grateful for my vacuum cleaner, for the size of my apartment that needs much less work to clean than either of my past houses, and for a helpful husband who is willing to clean with me. The only thing I remember my dad cleaning was the silver. He polished it all himself because my mother would not. It is also true that we often had a cleaning person come; yet sadly it was my mother’s nature never to be satisfied no matter how well the job was done. I am grateful both that it’s not a hundred years ago, and that spring is on the way.

 

The Gift of Christmas Giving

Laura Dodge's Christmas windowOne of my fond Christmas memories is of my dad sitting by our living room fireplace wrapping and addressing his Christmas gifts to his workers and others with whom he had a working relationship. He was a horticulturalist and his company was on the North Shore where there were many fine estates and special gardens. He was good at designing views and helping the owners of the estates and their caretakers maintain their trees and shrubs.

His gifts ranged from cartons of cigarettes to bottles of whiskey and included neckties and other smaller items of clothing. Some were for the gardeners of the estates, some for those who worked under his supervision. His men and their foreman got the more expensive gifts. Each one was carefully wrapped and labeled. When I grew old enough to help him I delighted in doing so. All things having to do with Christmas have always been special to me.

Many years ago, on the advice of a spiritual teacher, I began cultivating an attitude of gratitude. This practice has since become much more popular, featured in books and by Oprah, on Facebook groups and on a variety of other sites. There is even a lovely, inspiring site devoted to the expression of gratitude called Gratitude.org. It features all sorts of good news together with thoughtful comments and teachings, as well as poetry.

As Stephen and I drove home after delivering the last plate of Christmas gift cookies, I thought how grateful I was to have an opportunity to acknowledge as my dad did, the kindness of those who had been of help. My token plates of cookies seem a small return for all that these people have done for us, yet they are at least a tangible offering on the alter of my gratitude.

Also, since I was a small child I have been the recipient of much for which I am grateful now, even though at the time I was not aware of the benefit. When I have the opportunity to do so, I acknowledge in my heart those who have been kind to me in the past as well as in the present. Some of them have passed out of my life and some have simply passed away. I remember them with gratitude and say a prayer for their happiness wherever they may be.

Thanksgiving is a fine time to be aware of that for which we are grateful, yet Christmas is my opportunity to express that gratitude in a tangible way to those whose generosity I hope to acknowledge. My life would not be what it is without the help I have received along the ways Those who have in the past, those in the present and even those in the future deserve my thanks as well as whatever I can do to pay it forward in gratitude for those who are too far for me to bring them cookies.

 

Fathers Can Be Nurturers Too

Stephen and FlowersFathers Day actually sprang to life in 1910, the same year as the day honoring mothers. However, Mother’s Day was established as the second Sunday in May in 1914 and took hold as a celebration much faster. Father’s Day also arose in other places, each unbeknownst to the other and was celebrated sporadically for many years. In 1957 Senator Margaret Chase smith proposed it be officially established the third Sunday in June. However in the end it wasn’t until 1972 that President Nixon signed a congressional resolution establishing it like Mother’s Day, on a continuing basis.

It may seem strange that it took much longer to establish a day for fathers, yet until fairly recently in our western society, their role has been more often that of the protector and provider than of the nurturer. My children’s father was a case in point. My first child was about 6 months old when I had to go out and leave her in his care. I asked him to change her diaper if need be. On my return she wore an unfolded cloth diaper, pinned at the corners with the rest of the cloth dangling between her legs. Men didn’t care for their infants then.

It delights my heart to see fathers caring for their infants or toddlers in public. I see them now in markets as well as on sidewalks, in crowds at gatherings and at the beach. This is a new phenomenon in our society and I believe it is an important step toward happier children and a more balanced family life. The tenderness of men is a strong instinct and one I am very happy to see given a chance to blossom. In many older families one or more animal companions may take the place of human children as objects of nurturing love. It is healthy to care for a dependent whether animal or human. The heart thrives on the giving of affection.

My husband Stephen has taken to fathering a collection of succulents. He has evolved a garden in pots that he tends and looks after, calling them “the babies.” Once in the years when we owned our home and had the space for it, I was the gardener in the family. Two years ago he began by purchasing one small succulent garden. It was entirely his idea and he cared for it throughout the summer. He enjoyed it so much that soon he purchased more pots and more succulents and began putting together more miniature gardens.

Now his original single pot has expanded to five and he cares for them tenderly. It makes me happy to see him visiting them several times a day, making sure they are healthy and have enough water and generally caring for them. There is no limit to the nurturing instincts of fatherhood. They can be applied to any and all of creation. Our world came into being with a combination of different energies motivated by a creative force that continues to this day. We are the gardeners here, and the more participation in its nurturance that can be encouraged, the better.

Tasha Halpert