My Grandmother’s Zinnias

Born in 1879, My paternal grandmother’s life was as different from mine as possible. Prior to World War Two she had visited Italy almost annually. She loved it there and even sent money to help out the family of her gondolier—the equivalent of a taxi driver for the canals of Venice. When I was born, she asked that instead of being called “Granny,” she be known as “Nonny,” a variation on Nona, the Italian word for grandmother. She was very fond of me, her first and only grandchild until eight years later when the first of my siblings was born.

She wasn’t a cookie baking, knitting “granny” sort. She was a forceful, energetic, woman whose hair remained a light brown with occasional gray roots between visits to the hairdresser, for all of her eighty years. She enjoyed my youthful company and we spent many afternoons playing card games or going to the various church fairs that occurred all during the summer months while I was growing up. She would give me money to buy pony rides and trinkets from the White Elephant table while she checked out what was being offered to the people attending the fairs.

For her, because she ran our local church fair for most of my childhood, these were a kind of business trip. One year she had a circus theme and hired an elephant. It was brought from upstate New York for the day. I remember riding on its back in a howdah. The elephant spent the night in our garage, though I was not allowed to visit it, I remember hearing i trumpeting. She enjoyed life and participated in it to the fullest. I loved it when she shared bits of her life with me. It was a very different one from the one I knew, as different as mine was from today’s grandchildren.

She was a passionate gardener and grew lots of flowers as well as vegetables in a number of gardens presided over by Mr. Patch, an Irishman with a squeaky voice. I remember that he wore overalls and seemed always to have a gardening implement in his hand. There were two narrow flowerbeds beside the gravel walk that led to her front porch. Each and every year they were lined with Zinnias. I can see them even now, so bright and strong, like her. I never heard her complain or bemoan her condition. She was an inspiring example of strength and fortitude as well as generosity.

While some of her attitudes and opinions were old fashioned—she believed that a “lady” ought not to have a job or work for money, she kept up with current affairs and read three newspapers daily. She also did volunteer work and gave generously to charity. As I advance in age I have grown to appreciate her more than ever. She loved life. Born in a time before automobiles, during the twenties through thirties and forties, she drove her Pontiac through every state in the union. She passed on in 1959. I feel fortunate to have had her in my life for as long as I did. She was a fine example of aging in a positive way, and as I too age, I am even more grateful to her.

Keeping the Peace without Sacrifice

toys, 2 lambs It was the custom in my family when I was growing up to invite a non family member to the holiday dinners held at the home of my grandmother or my Great Aunt Alice, so that there wouldn’t be any “rows” as they were called…what could be termed family arguments. People were more likely to be on their best behavior with a relative stranger or at least a distant relative in their midst. The family I grew up in was rather vociferous.

My parents tended to discuss their differences at the top of their lungs. Their shouting made me cringe. They must have grown up doing this. My father and his mother my grandmother, used to have loud disagreements. My mother once told me they would telephone each other, call and then hurry to be the first to bang down the phone. My mother also talked about the “fights” she had with her sister; she too grew up in the habit of loud disagreement. Disliking my discomfort, I resolved when I grew up there would be no fighting in my family.

When neighborhood children played in my yard, they knew if they provoked conflict they would be sent home. If my children were to begin fighting I would separate them and send them to their rooms. In addition, if I strongly disagreed with something their father wanted or said, I would wait until they were out of earshot before I discussed it with him. I had determined there would only be peace throughout my entire household. No one was permitted to fight.

There is one problem with doing away with conflict entirely: any resentment or unhappiness can linger and come out in sneaky ways, like cutting or sarcastic remarks or other hurtful behavior. Even today I have to watch myself if I haven’t expressed my personal upset. I am liable to say something mean or unkind and call it a joke when it really is not.

However, in those days I didn’t know how conflict could be resolved while taking people’s feelings into account. I have since learned about conflict resolution and about ways to carry on discussions in a reasonable fashion. The “talking stick” method means one person gets to speak without interruption while holding a talking talisman. When he or she is done, the next person holds it and has his or her say. Even young children can learn to abide by this method.

Keeping the peace does not mean keeping silent, it does mean expressing oneself without being judgmental or vindictive. Feelings can be expressed and people can agree to disagree. What is important is to learn how to express negative feelings responsibly. I can say, “I feel,” not “you make me feel.” When I take responsibility for how I feel, others can do the same. When I speak my truth with kindness, I evoke the same response. When everyone listens, resolutions can be arrived at and peace can be made without anger, resentment or the sacrifice of anyone’s well being.

Judge Not or be Judged by your Judgment

Rocks and Flowers with ShadowsMy parents taught me much by their example. My father served in many capacities as a volunteer. He was generous with his time, talents and energy. He read for a radio station that served the blind; for many years he held the position of treasurer for a non-profit orchestra; and he helped out in various capacities at the church to which he belonged.

My mother was a careful provider and very thrifty. She was also a fine artist who valued creativity and encouraged it in others. She tried hard to do the right thing as she saw it, and did the best she could to take care of her family. However, both my parents also provided me an example of something else that I had to unlearn: they frequently passed judgment on others.

My father would point out mistakes of any kind with unkind statements like “You ought to know better than to do that,” or “How could you be so stupid as to…” usually in a scornful tone. My mother was very apt to point out faults in the appearance of others. I believe she had learned this from her own mother who was extremely focused on how she as well as her family appeared.

As a result I grew to adulthood with a judgmental attitude both about any perceived weakness and any deviation from a traditionally attractive appearance whether that of others or of myself. These attitudes of mine seemed normal to me until I began to notice that not only was I being unduly critical but also that my prejudice kept me from seeing those I judged in a more positive light.

Furthermore I realized that this habit also said something about me as well as about how I viewed others. There is a saying to the effect that if you point one finger at someone else you are pointing three back at yourself.

When I began to observe myself as I interacted with people, I also began to understand how unkind it was to look at others in a judgmental way. After this realization I began to learn to be merciful in the way I viewed others, and also the way I viewed myself. As I grew less critical and more forgiving, both of others and of myself I found I now was able to perceive previously hidden virtues where before I had seen only faults.

It is truly said that mistakes are given us as ways to learn, and that the only bad thing about mistakes is the failure to learn from them. I rejoice that I was able to discover and then unlearn these harmful attitudes. I am grateful that instead I can practice a more merciful way of perceiving both others and myself.

By its very definition a judgment closes the mind. It prevents any change in how people and their behavior or appearance can be seen. Being one who always wants to continue learning and growing I try to make sure that in the event I do find myself judging anyone that I immediately look beyond my original thought to become more open minded, less critical, and more merciful in how I am perceiving them.

Flowers of Remembrance

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In the town where my grandfather who fought and died in WWI lived, there is a square dedicated to his name. When I was a child my father took me every year to the Memorial Day parade there. It would stop at his sign and someone would place a wreath on it. Then we would add a big bouquet of carnations. Someone from our family would bring them, and I can remember being held up to put the flowers in. This is the 100th anniversary of its original dedication, and my brother will be there to do the family honors.

I remember as a child wearing my big straw hat with the ribbon hat hung down the back, watching the band march by with the big drum that boomed so, and the brasses playing a marching tune. Later I brought my own children for the event. One daughter would cover her ears, the booming and shrieking of the drums and brass being too much for her. After the square was decorated, we would walk with the parade down to the beach where flowers were thrown into the water and the band would play “For those in peril on the sea.”

Memorial day was originally established with flowers. At the end of the Civil War the women who were placing flowers on the graves of those fallen at the battle of Shiloh wished not to distinguish between Union and Confederate. The thought was to honor those who died, regardless of their affiliation. In the years since, many traditions have grown up around Memorial Day in the US, with flowers and wreaths remaining the most notable symbols of remembrance.

Once as I was out walking in a neighborhood with many Christmas wreaths decorating the doors, a man came up to me and in a British accent, asked me about them. “In England we put a wreath on the door when people have died,” he said. I chuckled and said no, no one had died here; these were Christmas wreaths. I told him it was customary to lay wreaths on graves in the US however, first displaying them at the funeral itself.

A search on the Internet will reveal much information concerning wreaths and their uses, as well as flowers. Once when I was in charge of purchasing and arranging the flowers to decorate my daughter’s wedding celebration, I bought a variety of blossoms, chrysanthemums among them. My daughter’s husband was Italian and announced that chrysanthemums were only for funerals. I removed them and my bouquets were significantly diminished.

In Italy laurel wreaths are given to graduates of advanced degrees; they are a sign of victory. This goes back to the early Greeks and Romans who used them that way. All over the world flowers too are often given to the graduates, and as well to actors and performers of all kinds at the conclusion of a performance. While they are ephemeral and fade quickly, the flowers we use to honor both the fallen and the victorious are a precious reminder of how important it is to take note of our achievements great or small.

Riding a Time Machine into the Past

Reflections in SummerWhat fun it would be to hop onto a time machine and return to the Christmas shopping of my childhood, after I had turned eight. How I enjoyed buying my parents small stocking presents at Grants and Woolworth’s. I want to return to the days when the ten dollars I had saved up sufficed to purchase about everything I wanted to buy for them. Maybe there would even be enough left over for an ice cream cone. I loved the way the store smelled when I walked in, and the overflowing counters with the glass part in front to make sure items didn’t fall off.

I didn’t mind no longer believing that Santa filled the stockings, because it was such fun to wrap up my inexpensive gifts to fill them for my parents. Best of all would be to write notes on them the way they did. I bought Ponds cold cream and vanishing cream each year. I think they were ten or twenty cents each.

My mother told us a joke once about the latter. It seems a child took off all her clothes, rubbed her whole body with vanishing cream, and then went downstairs where her parents were hosing a party. The polite guests pretended not to see her. The next morning she told her mother gleefully that vanishing cream really worked. My twelve year old self thought that was very funny.

My time machine would whisk me back to my Great Aunt’s dining room with all the relatives gathered together and finger bowls brought in at the end of the Christmas meal–often roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Sometimes there would be a plum pudding brought in and ignited after brandy was poured over it. The dancing flames were blue and very exciting. I didn’t care much for the plum pudding but the had sauce with it was pretty good.

It would take me down the snowy streets with the sparkling stars way up high, and the carols on the radio. Those times seem quite simple compared to now. The television had only a few channels, and the programs didn’t play all night but ended with a test pattern. Mothers mostly were at home. Most had only one car per family, and my mother’s friends met bi monthly for lunch and chitchat over their mending.

In my time machine I would also visit the wondrous Daniel Lowe’s department store in Salem with all the glittering silver and crystal when you walked in. I did no Christmas shopping there. Salem was the big city to me and we seldom went. Nearby Beverly was smaller. That was where the Woolworth’s and the Grant’s were, as well as Almay’s department store. We did some of our shopping there. In those less frantic times no one thought to purchase gifts until a few weeks before Christmas. The stores waited until after Thanksgiving to decorate for the holidays or play Christmas music. However, that was then. Though different from that time, now has its delights as well. While the past is fine to visit, I wouldn’t wish to live there.

When Less is More

My mother was born in 1913 in Germany at the outset of World War I. Times were very difficult for German civilians, and there was often little to nothing to eat. She told me members of the family had to stand in line for hours to get simple items like bread and milk. As a result she had a horror of wasting food. I grew up feeling like it was important to have plenty of it on hand and to make sure there was enough for all. I did my best.

Lily and garlic bud067However, with my large family and my small budget I had to make sure everyone got enough and my children still remember how they had to cross off each fruit or cookie on their list whenever they took one. That was how I made sure no one felt cheated. These days with just me and Stephen to feed, I don’t have to ration treats. However, my recent diagnosis of diabetes means I cannot indulge my taste for sweets or for fruit the way I would like.

Now that the local summer fruit is available, this is daunting. Recently I slowly savored the taste of a delicious white peach from our local farm stand. I had peeled and cut up several and mixed them with a few native blueberries and a little almond creamer for Stephen and me to have for dessert. As I ate another spoonful I thought about the special quality of white peaches and the brevity of their season. I realized that eating this locally grown fruit is to be cherished. I took my time tasting this wonderful treat. “Less is truly more,” I said.

Stephen nodded and replied, “like fillet mignon.” I asked him to explain. “Well it is expensive so I don’t have it very often,” he began, “and it’s usually served in smallish portions, so you don’t get as much. I suppose because it is so rich. Then,” he went on after a pause, “there’s the idea that beef of any kind is not as good for me as fish or chicken, and I am aiming for longevity. So less is more, just like your peaches.”

I nodded; together we gathered up the dishes, put them in the sink and went on with our day. I continued to think about less being more. For instance, eating less means more room in the clothes as I lose weight, and because I can’t eat as much sweet fruit as I would like to, the small amount I allow myself becomes even more special. This can be applied to other aspects of life too. For instance we recently had a rare visit with a dear friend we seldom see. We made the most of our short time together and enjoyed every moment.

One theory for losing weight is to eat only three bites of any treat. I have noticed that the first few bites of anything do tend to be the best. Perhaps the tongue gets used to the flavor and no longer notices it. Once when I went to Italy to visit my daughter she gave me a small piece of chocolate candy from a very old and prestigious maker. It was wonderful. Having such a small piece was actually perfect, better than having a large one. We cut it into even smaller pieces and enjoyed them slowly, letting the taste linger on our tongues.

Tidying up the Piles

Tasha's desk 7-17

I remember vowing as a child that I would never have small heaps of stray things around my house the way my parents did. I can clearly remember the way it looked then. My memory of the past has not eroded to the extent my short term memory has, and I have a clear image in my mind.

As I visualize my parents home, I can see the small piles of unread papers here and there, along with the mail that needed to be answered, the notes concerning phone calls on stray bits of paper, as well as other notes about things that were important or that needed to be done. Then too there were the little piles of items that had not yet been put back where they belonged.

Sometimes these various piles would sit for a long time, most probably my parents had gotten used to them being where they were. However, because my father liked to entertain, the house nearly always got picked up just before the guests arrived. That meant the piles would suddenly migrate elsewhere or possibly be distributed somewhere they actually did belong.

It’s only fair to say that my mother had plenty to do with caring for my three siblings and me so it’s no wonder there was little time left for tidying. And of course as they all got older they added to the various piles with their toys, books, and school projects. When I cleaned out my mother’s storage last year I threw away quantities of items that had simply lingered long after their owners had departed the home.

I fear I have no excuse for my piles. I have no little children to attend to and my time is pretty much my own. I do have the time, I think I lack the motivation. I have noticed that one good way, perhaps the best one to get tidied up is to invite someone over—especially someone who may not know us very well and upon whom we wish to make a good impression. This is wonderful motivation to redistribute the piles and get things cleaned up.

It is also true that tidying up may help me to find things that have been lost or misplaced. I really do like to keep things in good order, however, like my parents I fear I have the same attitude that promoted their piles. “I’ll just put it here for the time being until I have time to put it away.”

My desk is a good example of my doing that. For several weeks I have promised myself I will tidy it. The last time I did I found an overdue bill I hadn’t paid. The strange thing is I thought I had, and in fact even had a distinct memory of paying it. But I had not done so.

I suppose I need a better place to put the unpaid bills. Or else I might pay them as soon as they come in. too often something more immediate takes precedence over what I intend to do and things get disorganized. I fully intend to get that desk organized very soon, however, I do have these deadlines to meet and so I’ll do it soon, very soon, but just not right now.