A Jarful of Idiosycrasies

I received a very special birthday gift last week–a glass jar, perhaps cornflower or sky blue, nestled in a lovely metal holder with wooden handles. It’s full. To the brim. Of writing prompts, which my son and his girlfriend transcribed and cut up into individual slips of paper. It’s a homemade gift, so thoughtful, and fits me to a “T”.

This morning as I prepared to write, I pulled out several prompts, settling finally on this one: What are some of your idiosyncrasies?

I think I know what this means–those quirky little habits that make sense to you,(or that you’re totally unaware of) which drive the people you love and, especially, those you live with, a little bit nuts.  I look it up in the dictionary, just to be sure. There I find idiosyncrasy described as “a peculiarity of constitution or temperament; an individualizing characteristic or quality.”

So I pause in my journal to reflect on any one of my many personal peculiarities. I wait for that voice within to speak up and give me a lesson I need to learn, something I should be working on, or subduing, or fixing, but instead what finally surfaces surprises and touches me deeply:

“O how I love thee,

let me count the ways

I love thee more than breadth or depth or height can reach.”

Wow–that’s amazing. I reach for quirks, eccentricities, annoying habits, and find a love letter to myself. It makes me catch my breath. It reminds me, once again, that I have spent an inordinate amount of my life looking at what’s wrong, or what needs fixing, prodding or pruning, and have totally missed the blossoming and blooming.

Maybe spiritual growth can be as much about standing reverently in awe of what already is, rather than simply pointing an accusatory finger at what “should not” be.. Taking a moment to sit still to admire, to embrace and celebrate our achievements instead of always striving for what’s next.

Now can be ok too.

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Touching

The morning started off very sweetly. My daughter, now 29, dropped her son off at school and swung by the house. I was still in bed. In my early-morning stupor, I tried to ask her something, and she decided what I was trying to say was that I needed to snuggle with her before she had to go. I didn’t object. Snuggling felt warm, and toasty and soft and delicious. I didn’t realize how much I missed that feeling. I was very affectionate with my kids–we slept together, cuddled, warm piles of limbs and elbows, tickles, plump cheeks and shinbones, knobby knees and tangled hair, morning breath and morning waking, a messy nest of love.

I first brought my daughter to bed with us when she was several months old, after I nearly dropped her one night while nursing her in the rocking chair, bone-weary from exhaustion. And there was no turning back, but it was mostly a good thing.  The kids didn’t see their dad much during the day, but we’d all be together at night, or at least by morning, the kids trickling in one by one as the night wore on, first the nursing baby, and then the siblings, little feet pitter pattering their way to our room in the dark.

My husband and I gave up our double bed, traded with the kids, pushed their twin mattresses together, and called it a king. I think that was before the bedbugs, but that’s another story.

Years later, as a single parent, the trend continued, my youngest refusing to stay for long in his own bed or his own bedroom. “But mom”, he pleaded with me once “you’re my love connection.”

Sometimes when I dream at night, my children are little again, at least for a while–they come to me unbidden, the memory true and undistorted–solid, clear, precise, in a way that my daytime memory cannot produce.

I wake with nostalgia, a sense of sweetness, wholeness, and loss in the same blurry exhale. And in those just-before-consciousness moments, I savor the knowledge that I wasn’t such a bad mother after all.

Guitar Lessons

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will come.

In my case, you were there waiting.

I stumbled into my first guitar class, noting the “repair shop” sign in the window. “Good thing, “ I thought. “Maybe they can fix me up here.”

I was hanging on by just one thread. I played a single note on my guitar, and felt that thread unravel; my last coherent thought was “holy sh*t, my sister was right—I need music therapy.”

You gave me my first song.

I spent a week in the psych ward. They tell me I spent a lot of time singing.

I couldn’t get wait to get back to guitar class.

And there you were–gentle and steady and affirming, not treating me like a freak of nature for flipping out just two minutes after we’d met.

Somehow you could still see the real me. You have no idea how powerful that was.

I decided to take guitar lessons because I’d put myself on hold for a very long time.

I expected to learn how to play some music.

You taught me how to learn something new without beating myself up.

You taught me how to not expect perfection when I’m just getting started.

You taught me that learning something new doesn’t always have to be about pushing myself, that having fun can be a way of learning too.

You created a space where it’s safe to make mistakes and fun to learn.

And when you accompany me in that tiny little room, and I sing, it feels like my soul is starting to come out of hiding.

Oh, and you taught me how to play some music.

Everything’s Kosher, Except the Ham

Offering hospitality has long been an important value to me—I love the idea of welcoming, embracing, of making room. Of providing rest, respite and sanctuary to others. But being on the receiving end of hospitality can sometimes be more challenging. This is the story of how, one Christmas season, hospitality came to me in a very powerfuI way.

The call came early. It was still dark. My stepmom cried out in anguish—“he’s gone, Cindy, your father’s gone.” And so he was.

My father’s death was sudden, and, for me at least, unexpected. Although he lived with several chronic illnesses, my father’s health had been stable—there had been no recent decline. He was 76 years old.

Days later, we held the memorial service for my dad. Although he was not technically Jewish, his wife was; her mother always joked that her son-in-law the doctor (my dad held a PhD in Chemistry) had a Jewish soul, and so it was that we held his memorial service at a nearby synagogue. Practical joker that he was, he would probably have been amused to know that his ashes inadvertently spent the memorial service inside a Target bag in the rabbi’s study.

That evening, we sat shivah at my home.

As an observing Methodist, my experience with the custom of sitting shivah was only literary. I was aware of the Jewish tradition of accompanying the bereaved in their home for several nights after the death of a loved one.

In theory, sitting shivah sounded like a beautiful concept. As a practical matter, I wasn’t so sure. I was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of 200+ friends and acquaintances descending upon our mid-sized home. My dazed, grieivng mind could not embrace the logistics. How would everyone fit? Where would we put them? How would we feed them all?

It was, both my stepmom and the rabbi assured me, not my problem. It would all be taken care of. All I had to do was show up.

Accustomed as I was to midwest Protestant memorial services followed by church basement luncheons that inevitably included some form of jello salad (an oxymoron in and of itself) I tried unsuccessfully to wrap my mind around how this would all work. My brain broke, and I did the only thing I could do—I threw up my arms and let go.

And amazingly, miraculously, magically, without my doing anything more than opening the doors, we sat shivah for my father in our home, and the hospitality came to us.

The shivah committee arrived an hour or so before the guests, set up the dining room, brought chairs and serving dishes, and took over the kitchen. I was continually and good-naturedly shooed away. Christian tradition has so pounded into our collective psyche the adage that it is “better to give than to receive” that we are often unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with being on the receiving end of hospitality. Sitting and doing nothing while strangers took over my kitchen was anathema to just about every social rule I’d been brought up with.

Guests began to arrive, many bringing with them sweet treats, as is the Jewish custom—providing something sweet to take the bitterness out of grieving. Some people I knew, many I did not.

One especially welcome guest, the teenage son of a good friend of mine, arrived with a very special contribution, accompanied by an earnest introduction that would have done Garrison Keillor proud: “My mom sends this with her love. Everything’s kosher except the ham, and the hot sauce is Lutheran, so it’s pretty mild.” There ensued an intense consultation in the kitchen regarding what to do with the ham. I didn’t want to offend Jewish sensibilities (particularly my stepmom’s) by putting it out. The shivah committee assured me that it was my home, and I could do whatever I wanted.   As I recall, we put it in the fridge and dined on delicious ham throughout the week.

Back in the living room, the service was about to start, and I was greatly comforted by the gathering of so many, both known and unknown to me, to honor the memory of this contentious man I loved and argued with and wDsc02561c2as honored to have called my father.

There was special music, there were prayers in Hebrew and in English, there were strangers and friends. There were Christians, Jews and my devout Muslim friend who is dearer to me than a brother.

After the service, there was food (I was not allowed to serve myself—a plate and beverage were brought to me.) There were stories and memories and poems, and there were kind and caring words of condolences.

All in my living room. All lifting my burden. All helping my father’s soul make the journey to its next home. And all I had to do was say yes, open my doors, sit down and let go. Maybe I should try doing that more often.

Monty’s Lady Thurber

It was a September Saturday, and I was ten years old.  I had just started the fifth grade.  My family –, my two younger sisters, my parents and I, lived in an old house full of character.  Built in the 1920’s, the house’s basement walls were damp and crumbly, and the basement bathroom was used only in dire emergencies (or by my father, whose piles of magazines–The New Yorker, Scientific American and National Geographic—were the bathroom’s only redeeming quality.)

My favorite features were the front porch with its slatted wooden swing, just perfect for relaxing with a good book on lazy summer days, and the attic that my father and a couple of helpers refinished shortly after we moved in.  In his rather creative, eccentric manner (he once used a potty chair for an in-basket on his desk at the office, but that’s another story altogether) my father had suspended two unfinished plywood doors from four hanging steel cords to make two swinging desks. My friends thought the desks were quite amazing — in truth, I’ve never seen anything like them. They certainly were unique and provided a lot of room to work, but typing could be a challenge when the desk started swinging back and forth as you worked!

On this particular fall day, my father asked me if I’d like to accompany him on an unknown errand, and I was happy to join him.  I was delighted to discover that our errand was to pick out a puppy from a nearby litter.  My parents had made the arrangements and agreed to surprise us — as the oldest, I was lucky enough to be the one to choose our pet.  The owner showed us to an enclosed area where five miniature Bassett hounds ambled about.  I immediately noticed that one puppy was smaller than the rest; she had lovely coloring — a brown head, white shoulders and a black body, with a white star-shaped mark in the middle of her back.  She was considered the “runt” of the litter, but she looked beautiful to me.

And so “Monty’s Lady Thurber” entered out lives, so-called for our surname—Montgomery– and my parents’ affinity for James Thurber’s writing and the many dogs illustrated in his works.  Monty’s Lady Thurber was her official name, posted in her pedigree and record, but to us she was simply “Lady”.

Bassett hounds puppies are quite humorous, with oversized paws and long floppy ears. Until they grow a little taller, they have a tendency to trip over their ears while running, rolling over in unexpected somersaults, or dragging their ears through their food and water dishes.  They also develop a deep bark, (they are hounds after all) which appears to scare them as they first get accustomed to having a noise that loud come out of their throat. They look confused, as if to say “did I do that?

Lady was our family’s one and only pet for as long as she lived — about 15 years.  She was a playful and loyal companion, mischievous at times, but not much use as a guard dog– she would only bark if we were at home, but, (as several of our friends reported to us) not if strangers came to call while we were out.  She had many grand adventures– rolling in dead fish when out for a hike by a river, eating entire sticks of butter, or on one holiday an entire ham, catching her hind feet in a tennis racket and clomping across the living room floor — clickety-clack kerthumping her way through the room until she was rescued and set aright.

But I am most grateful for her companionship that very first winter she was with us.  I was in the Girl Scouts at the time, working on the “Pets” badge.  One of the requirements was that I take full responsibility for a pet for two months.  I suppose I started in late November; my job was to feed her every evening then take her out for a walk.  I did so eagerly at first, then more dutifully as the winter arrived with its early darkness and often bitter cold.

As we moved into December, my mother was called away; my grandmother had had a major stroke and was very ill.  I missed my mother, worried about my grandmother, who was my dearest relative, and baked my first birthday cake for my sister, who was turning six.  It had a ring of animal crackers around the top like a circus parade, and unceremoniously broke in two shortly after being brought to the table.

Come mid-December the fateful call came early in the morning — I remember I was eating rice krispies at the time. Before my father hung up the phone, I knew that my grandma had died.  I had lost the person who loved me the most. I felt hurt and empty, lonely and so very sad.

And yet every evening, I still had Lady to walk.  We would rush out into the cold (she always loved her walks and strained at her leash until we were out the door) then walk a few blocks out and back. I often looked up at the sky as we walked; on cloudy nights the sky reflected back some colors from the city lights, on clear, crisp evenings I looked at the stars and wondered about heaven and where my dear Grami might be now.

Somehow those walks comforted me during my season of grief, and each evening when we got back home, back to the warmth, Lady would cuddle up and sleep in a lump in the middle of my bed (she always took the best spot).  Her compassionate eyes, her warmth and steady breath calmed me and reminded me that I was still loved.

Come spring, I received my “Pets” badge, as an acknowledgement of my completion of all the necessary requirements.  As I remember it now though, it seems that the badge rightfully belonged to Lady, who gave me far more than I gave her through that long, cold, lonely winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death is No Longer a Stranger

As many of you are aware, my dad, Peter Williams Montgomery, passed away suddenly a week after I returned from Europe.  On my last visit with him, I shared my Europe photos, which he really enjoyed.  The last time we went for a walk together, in October, before I started my travels, I shared with him some of my writing.  He was very enthusiastic and encouraged me to keep writing.  Little did I know that my next writing assignments would be his obituary and eulogy.

Losing a parent is a big deal.  No matter how young or old you are, or what your relationship is with that person, the loss of a parent is a significant loss, and one that is difficult to prepare for.  Like many of life’s other passages, you just don’t know how it will be until you get there.  One of the surprises for me is to understand that when you lose a parent, you not only lose that person, that unique individual that birthed you, and/or raised you, for better or for worse; you also lose that role, having a mom, or a dad, with all that that implies.

At my dad’s memorial service, after I gave my eulogy, several people asked me to post my remarks.  I’ve decided to do so here, in abbreviated format.  May they be a blessing to each of you, wherever you are on your journey.

“Life has a funny way of teaching us what we’re made of.  We wonder what our reaction will be if and when the unthinkable happens.  We tell ourselves we’ll never be able to face it or overcome it, this impossible thing, and then we surprise ourselves and do it after all when the need finally arises. 

As my father’s health began to fail, many times I wondered what I would feel, and how I would ever possibly get through it all when he died.  When that day finally came, I couldn’t have been more surprised to find that, curled up tight, right alongside the grief of losing him so suddenly, surged a deep and powerful sense of gratitude.  When I got to Cookie’s home on Thursday morning and first saw my father’s body, covered lovingly with his red and white serape, the words that sprang instantly to my heart were not: “Oh my God” or “He’s gone”, but a deep and heartfelt “thank you.”

I read a quote once that likened death to the period at the end of a sentence.  The period completes the phrase and helps define and emphasize what came before.  The finality of Peter’s death has given me the ability to see, in a way that was never before clearer, how great is my debt to him.

The unexpected blessing of this week has been that as my father’s earthly journey has come to its end, my understanding of who he was, and what he meant to me, is beginning to unfold in an entirely new way. As an artist’s work suddenly increases in value upon the artist’s death, so too the words of wisdom and acts of kindness of our loved ones take on new meaning when one knows they are complete.  Thus, my father’s death, while it marks the end to my opportunity to see him, to walk with him and hold a conversation, or to simply sit with him and hold his hand, also is the beginning of a new phase of the journey. What a blessing to learn that love can reach beyond death and surprise us with new gifts, that a loved one’s impact is neither limited nor eclipsed by death, but in some mysterious way, is expanded and enhanced, as we integrate the whole of who they were into our hearts.  As family and friends gather and share memories and stories, we learn from each other more fully who Peter really was, we paint the bigger picture, and I come to appreciate and honor even more this man who I was blessed to call my father. 

As we move into another Minnesota winter, most assuredly we will face some raw days as we experience Peter’s physical absence.  But in these moments we can pull out and treasure, one by one, the lessons and memories of a lifetime, and know that winter is always followed by spring.”

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