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.

Gone but not Forgotten

SimpkinsMy brother and his wife just moved to Illinois, leaving behind the home we both grew up in on the North Shore In the next town, there is a square dedicated to our grandfather who died in World War One. Every year the parade stops in the street by the square. His name is on a pole in front of the fire station there, and they put a wreath on it each year in his memory. When I was a child my grandmother used to bring a big bunch of carnations to place inside the wreath. In later years my brother always attended the ceremony and participated. Now he will no longer be able to do so. Still he will have many years of memories, dating back to his boyhood.

Memories are wonderful things. I take great pleasure in many of mine, and I can open and enjoy them any time I wish. When I was a little girl living in Manchester by the Sea, my family shopped for our groceries in the village, as well as sundries from a small shop that carried a variety of small useful things we used often. For larger purchases my mother drove to Beverly, where there was a large department store called Almy’s, as well as a Woolworth’s and a Grant’s. However, for fancy goods like wedding presents my parents shopped in Salem, the next town over, at a store that glittered with silver and jewelry, called Daniel Lowe’s.

The Daniel Lowe’s building has transformed and Salem has become a tourist mecca for seekers of magical items and New Age accoutrements. Beverly too is much changed. Almy’s is long gone, as are the 5 and 10 cent stores I enjoyed.  Even the bakery that later on I shopped at with my children, who remember it still for its delicious cookies, is no more. Yet the stores of my childhood live on in my memory, ready for me to walk through and gaze again at their counters holding a mixture of the practical and the precious.

People I have known who have vanished from my active life also remain for me to recall. Those who are amongst the living I can send a Christmas card to. Those who no longer walk the earth occupy a kind of photo album available to my memory. I turn the pages sometimes and think with pleasure of the experiences we shared, and how I enjoyed them. I am grateful for these and for the time we spent: my grandmother with her endless card games and trips in her ancient automobile, dear departed neighbors from an earlier place we lived in Grafton, and more.

As Memorial Day approaches, I think not only of the people but also the places and even possessions of the past. They are gone only from the physical part of life. They live on in my memory as in the memories of others who may have known of them. One of the fun experiences to be had in gathering with family or old friends is the memories to be shared and enjoyed together. Memorial Day encourages me to think not only about my dear departed, or even those who gave their lives that I might be free, but of the sweetness of those memories. As in my mind I see these faces and these places, they seem to me to be like flowers I place upon the granite memorials of that and those who have departed.

 

 

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Flowers at the bank 3Do you take satisfaction in what you may have accomplished? Or do you tell yourself you could have done whatever it was better, or done more? Most of us have a critical voice inside that will not let us be satisfied with what we may have done, even though we may well deserve it. That critical voice can originate early in life from a parent, a teacher, or a boss. Now it has become a part of us as adults, and it robs us of the joy we might take from our satisfaction. To be satisfied may actually take courage, the courage to admit we have done something worthwhile.

It is easier to take satisfaction from small accomplishments. My mother used to find it very satisfying to hang up a basket of laundry on the clothesline in her back yard. When she finished, she’d stand back, sigh, and then smile as she beheld the washing flapping in the breeze. It gave her a feeling of accomplishment. I understand how she felt. When I have done some cleaning, or tidied a bureau drawer, I get a similar feeling. The good thing about these small tasks is that they can be done relatively quickly, providing instant joy. Unfortunately, even they are subject to that critical inner voice.

I have encountered that niggling voice all too often in the past, especially when it was connected to a major accomplishment. I have also learned from it to stop, recollect my effort, and remember to pat myself on the back. When you feel good about what you have accomplished, it is vitally important to pat yourself on the back. That unkind voice might tell you not to. It is not a voice from the heart but one from the past. The person voicing those words may have felt it was unwise to praise you for fear you would rest on your laurels and grow lazy. My mother’s mother passed on that way of thinking to my mother.

Many years ago, I taught myself to play my guitar. Proudly I played my mother a song I had just learned. “That was nice,” she said, ‘Now when will you write your own songs?” To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Though eventually I did write my own songs, it wasn’t because of what she had said, but perhaps in spite of it. Praise by oneself for oneself is an important act of self love. The more we love ourselves, the bigger our heart grows, and more we can love others. The more grateful and appreciative we are of our own efforts, the more we can enjoy those of others.

Taking satisfaction is a conscious decision. It may start with or end with contentment. When I look at my clean kitchen floor, I can be content and satisfied with how it looks, and how it is for me to have made it look this way. Even if I notice a smudge I may have missed, I can still feel satisfaction, because I have done my best, and then I can wipe up that smudge. However, this does not have to change my sense of satisfaction. I can still feel good about my efforts. Were I so inclined, I could criticize myself and say, “Look at you! You missed that spot. See? You didn’t do a good job!” Or I could say to myself, “Because I did such a good job, the floor is so clean that small smudge became obvious. Now I have made it look even better; good for me! I feel satisfied and content.”

 

The Beauty of Spring

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My father was an arborist, and my father’s grandfather was an amateur horticulturist. In my mind I can still see the small orchard of a dozen trees he planted on part of his property. He also designed extensive gardens around the house and scattered over the lawns. Growing up next door to his home, where my Great Aunt Alice still lived, was a very special experience. The property was large in area, and I was able to spend much of my time outdoors. Actually, any time the weather permitted, I was sent outdoors “to play,” as my mother was a firm believer in the importance of fresh air. It is also possible she wanted me out from under her feet.

Some of my fondest memories are of the trees on the property. The apple orchard with many different varieties that blossomed and fruited throughout the spring, summer and fall, was a special place. The big birch tree that stood sentinel over my small garden where I planted flowers I was given by Aunt Alice’s gardener, was a favorite. I loved chewing the bark. The big beech tree whose branches I used for my primitive tree house were my home away from home. Wherever I have lived since, there have been special trees I have enjoyed.

Outside my bedroom is a maple tree. Maple tree blossoms dangle from the tree’s branches and I watch them every day as they grow. I enjoy observing the tree all year round, but especially in the spring when it goes through so much activity. When the sun shines, the little green blossoms make a filigree design that graces the no–longer bare branches. When I go outside, gazing up I see how the trees in the little wood beside our building paint their leaf buds against the blue spring sky. So inspiring!

Though our usual destinations—supermarket, P.O., library, and so forth are not available now, we do need to run the car. We found this out the hard way when we wanted to drive it, and it wouldn’t start. According to our mechanic, letting the car sit and run wasn’t giving the battery enough “juice” to start up after days of idleness in the parking lot. Somehow time had gone by without our notice, and since we weren’t going anywhere, we didn’t think of running the car.

However, this has turned out to be the perfect month to take the car out for some exercise. There are trees everywhere with flowers radiating beauty even when the sun isn’t shining. The yards and streets of our town are filled with blossoming branches. The duty of driving around to exercise the car has become a joyful experience. The lovely gardens in front of people’s houses, as well as our public buildings are another treat to see. I must be extra mindful not to get distracted.

While it is true that I would have enjoyed the trees and gardens regardless, the fact that they are my reason for going out greatly enhances my appreciation of them. Recently, my heart rejoiced to see another maple tree. the tiny fan of brand-new leaves was just emerging beneath the small green flowers. The leaves shone with their newness, reaching for the sunlight like the hands of a little baby. Nature is such a wonderful comforter in these times of stress.

Agreeing to Disagree

2014-09-16 15.36.53My parents frequently discussed decisions, disagreed often and usually did so at the tops of their voices. They were a fiery couple and yelled their feelings vociferously. We did not have any neighbors nearby and no one could hear them but me. Though there was never any physical violence between them, I do remember the day my mother hurled a plate of scrambled eggs at my father. He ducked and it sailed into the closed window behind him, breaking through it, to land and shatter on the stone terrace beneath, breaking through the wood.

Their fights were scary for me. As a young child I found their loud discussions difficult to bear. I vowed I would never do that to my family. When I married my late first husband it was with that thought in mind. I worked extra hard to keep the peace. I made sure we did not fight or even disagree  in front of or within hearing of our children.  Also, he was not one to express his feelings anyway. Actually, he did not like to discuss them at all. He made the rules. Our marriage did not survive the rough waters of silent dismay and disagreement.

When Stephen and I first got together I told him that if our relationship were to last it must be based on honesty. As I explained it, what that meant was that when one of us had negative feelings to express or was uncomfortable about something, that person must be able to talk about it freely. He agreed to this and our relationship just passed its forty second year.

Very rarely have we had what could be termed a fight. We do bicker, and we do discuss, and sometimes we need to just say, “I hear you,” and let it go.  No matter how much you may love them it is impossible to agree on everything with one’s loved one. For instance, Stephen finds it easy to ignore his piles of various possessions, clothes, papers, etc.. He doesn’t care how much they accumulate and though he may try to be neat, it’s just not one of his priorities.

We differ radically on this. To my way of thinking , insofar as I am able, to arrange it there’s a place for everything and everything goes into its place. This often creates opportunities for discussion between us. However, because frequent communication is the bedrock of a good relationship, this is good. Talking about how we feel keeps the feelings from piling up and becoming negative behavior. Mutual respect keeps conversation civil, and when we agree to disagree, love prevails and so does harmony.

Though you may not agree with everything a loved one says or does, when you love him or her wholeheartedly you can respect his or her opinions enough to allow him or her to keep them. That does not mean there is nothing to discuss. That discussion is the glue that keeps rhe relationship together. It is important to express your own feelings as well as to allow those of your loved one to be heard. Most importantly, it is vital to speak with tact and gentleness rather than sarcasm and bitterness. The eyes and ears of love are kind.

The Importance of Self Acknowledgement

Fall Dandelions

It can be frustrating when you cannot do something that you have done all your life with ease. I’ve been putting on my own clothes for most of my life. However for the first two weeks I was home from the hospital, I wore the same simple garment every day. It went over my head without effort and kept me adequately clothed. As time went on I could wear more elaborate clothing until finally I could pretty much dress myself in whatever I wished to wear, all except for my shoes and socks. That required more bending than I was capable of.

Shoes and socks seem simple, do they not? Everyone can manage them. I have a distinct memory of learning to tie my shoes as a child. I know I was still only three, because I was attending nursery school at the time. My memory is of bending over my shoes until I had learned to wind the shoelaces into bows that would keep them tied. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. In my mind I can see the bedroom I slept in with my caregiver and feel my sense of frustration as I tried over and over again to tie those laces until at last I succeeded. Then oh, how happy I felt. I can still remember that too.

Just recently I had another small victory. I was able to put on my left sock all by myself. To do that sounds so simple. Yet it was the final step since my hip replacement two months ago, in my being able to get myself entirely dressed without help. To be sure up until now Stephen has been ever so kind about assisting me. Yet regardless how kind someone helping you is, it is very appealing, at least to me, to be able to do something I have always been able to do, by myself once more.

My parents weren’t generous with their praise of my accomplishments. They always informed me I was supposed to do well. They were apt to say, “Now that was quite good, can you do better next time?” They thought this was how to encourage me to try harder or at least keep on trying. I, on the other hand, believe strongly in praise. My children’s father taught me this. No matter how wretchedly the children he coached performed, he found a way to say some encouraging words. His teams invariably did well and I think this was one of the main reasons.

Not many of us have a coach in life to praise us, so it is up to us to pat ourselves on the back when we need encouragement, and more importantly, when we need to be acknowledged. It is not only permissible but also important to take note of our personal victories, most especially to do so for ourselves. We need to feel good for ourselves, not because someone else has praised us. When we recognize our successes we can build on them with a sense of satisfaction. When we feel satisfied with our performance we do not need to seek praise elsewhere but instead can feel good and be happy because we know for ourselves that we have done our best.

Mourn and Move On

Fall Maple Gold 2 When I was small I had a small cemetery. It was beside the church I had set up in a corner formed by a chimney and the wall of a small greenhouse. My family lived in the country. We had chickens and at one time some ducks. Baby chicks died and I buried them  there as well as the other assorted creatures whose deaths went unmourned except by me. My acquaintance with death came early and in a natural way. This was of help to me later.

Laurens Van der Post, a South African author whose writing I respect, once wrote, “There are some things we never quite get over, however once in a while we go back, pat them on the head and say, ‘How are you doing old fellow?'” In this instance he was speaking about his time in a Japanese prison camp, where he was very cruelly treated. I have remembered this quote for many years. It has been very useful in reminding me not to dwell on past grief, yet not to suppress it. The recent unnecessary death of a poet friend helped me to recall this.

When anyone special o us dies, it reminds us of others of whom we are fond who have left us. Yet it is well to remember them with joy rather than regret. I will treasure in my heart my friend’s funny emails and his amazing adventures. He was a unique character with a huge, loving heart and a mission to try to help every woebegone that crossed his path whether or not they deserved to be helped. He also had a way of getting into trouble. As well he had several bad habits, one of which resulted in his premature death. Rather than blame him for his foolishness I will bless him for his courage in pursuing his life the way he wanted to—whether I thought it was a good way or not.

When you live a long life as I have, you do “lose” people that you have, for one reason or another, outlived. Whether these were members of your family or your friends, along with the current grief the sadness of their passing may easily come to mind. In addition, in our lives there are other instances of departure or absence: the job we didn’t take or did, the home we bought or didn’t, the gift we meant to give, even the words that went unsaid or the ones we wish we had not spoken. The grief engendered by regrets small and large can consume us if we let it.

It is important for us to grieve and let go. It is vital not to carry these burdens any longer than necessary. There is a Zen story of two monks who came to a stream where they found a woman who was afraid to cross it. One monk picked her up, carried her over the stream and set her down. As they continued, his brother monk began to berate him for touching a woman’s body. Finally the first monk turned to his friend and said, “I set the woman down a while ago. You are still carrying her.”  There is no need to carry our grief endlessly. We can let it be on a shelf in our memories and then once in a while, go back and pat it, and say, “How are you doing, old friend?” And then go on to find a happy memory to continue on with.