March 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
This is a story about my maternal grandmother. Granny was born poor and died poor, yet had a heart overflowing with love, a spirit that soared higher than the heavens, and a deep, quiet source within from which sprang abundant courage.
Granny was five years old when she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from Austria to America in 1899. She was not schooled but taught herself to read, write, and speak fluent English. When I was old enough to understand the spoken word, I never detected a hint of an accent though I knew Granny spoke Russian, Polish, and German in addition to her mastery of the English language.
The new images presented throughout this narrative are not of her, or the times and places of events shared. Sadly, these were lost in the innumerable decades of the past. Nevertheless, these winter scenes, recently photographed during our successive snowstorms (taken in the historic Village of Athens, New York where I live), kindled cherished memories of a remarkable woman.
When the snow falls, I remember her the most. Everything smells the same. The scent of snow emanates from crystalline water cradled in the wombs of steel gray clouds, as nature stands poised for the right moment to birth juicy, white flakes. Wood smoke emerges from wood stoves and fireplaces, wafting through the air from known but also unknown places with untold stories. And, as the snow begins its descent it gently burdens the limbs of trees while sketching outlines of ordinary things normally overlooked. The elusive cardinal, like Baryshnikov, flies from limb to limb with ease and grace; grave sites and possibly haunted mausoleums in old cemeteries are christened and warmed in a pure white blanket of snow at the hour when dusk makes its entrance; and when the snow comes to rest on the forest floor, it fashions a serene, ethereal landscape in which it seems no living being has ever inhabited. Yes, this is the time, when the snow falls, I remember her the most.
Cleveland, Ohio circa 1948
Trolley car tracks carved serpentine patterns into the streets of the northeast Cleveland, Ohio neighborhood where my grandmother lived. As I plodded along the snow-covered cobblestone walk to my Granny’s house and stepped on to the wide-planked wooden front porch, I stamped the snow from my boots and slipped them off before entering her living room through the dark oak entrance door inset with an etched oval glass pane. I passed through the mahogany arch into the dining room and walked a long hallway that led to my grandmother’s sanctuary: her kitchen.
There were few things that thrilled me more as a child than the many aromas sent forth from the kitchen where Granny performed the healing of souls through her culinary arts. Sixty-five years later, the mere thought of her homemade Scottish shortbread comprised of those simple but decadent ingredients of creamed butter, sugar, and carefully sifted flour baking in her Franklin wood cook-stove, spark a memory I hold dear: She offers me her large, well-used wooden spoon — the one that stirred so much in so many bowls and belonged to her mother and her mother before her. I lick the last remnants of sweet, grainy dough: the embryonic essence of the shortbread.
Granny was a force of love, offering warmth and light in my life as a child and young woman. She had a salty sense of humor, was whimsical, irreverent, and flirtatious. Ironically though, she was also a devout Roman Catholic and prayed three Rosaries daily. She added a fourth Rosary one fine summer’s day after releasing through her kitchen window a particularly nasty, noisy bird — a gift that Grandpa Joe brought home for her that past Easter. So, not unlike an accordion, she added and subtracted Rosaries to her daily prayer routine. This depended on whether she thought she failed, or succeeded, with the Lord that day, hoping that the Blessed Mother would intercede for her. While her faith sustained her to a point, she was most serene when preparing and serving a meal. Her Austrian, Polish, and Russian heritages created a culinary alchemy for delicacies still not well known to too many people: liver dumplings and soup, which took two days to prepare — and, her unsurpassed perogi.
For the uninitiated, a perogi artfully created is a spiritual experience. Granny’s perogies were perfectly round pouches, three inches in diameter, of carefully rolled dough filled with pure ecstasies for one’s palate. My favorite filling was Farmer’s cheese that she seasoned with salt, pepper, a hint of sugar, thinly chopped onion and a beaten egg to hold the mixture together. She would also fill these round orbs of dough with prunes, or sauerkraut with caraway seed, or a pungent meat mixture.
So, I sat watching this artist at her work as she gathered the many and varied ingredients needed to begin the painting of her particular canvas. The food: flour, spices, sugar, meats, cheese, prunes, potatoes, cabbage, green peppers, onions, eggs, butter, salt and pepper. The tools: a rolling pin, flour sifter, potato masher, meat grinder, one large rimmed glass three inches in diameter, waxed paper, rubber bands, cleaned (and ironed) kitchen towels, mixing bowls — all six of them in graduated sizes but not matching, Granny’s largest black iron cauldron in which to boil water and her large iron skillet, more waxed paper, and … the Wooden Spoon.
The last task to complete before the cooking process was set in motion was the preparation of the large, square white enameled kitchen table. Granny wiped it spotlessly clean. She then removed her thin gold wedding band, and put on a fresh, crisply ironed apron. Finally, she would place the kitchen stool at the table for herself and remove all but one of the six chairs. The concession of the one chair was for me. Granny wanted no encumbrances around the table when she prepared perogi. But, I was her honored guest.
For Granny, the perogi event was a journey. To the five-year-old girl sitting at her table, mesmerized by the unfolding of this grand performance, it was the end result that counted most. Granny stored many of the pierogi in her short, square icebox for eating at our holiday dinner. But, she reserved a few to be consumed immediately and I had my choice. I could simply eat the perfection of her perogi as they emerged from the boiling water in the black wrought iron cauldron, now front and center on the stove, tossed with butter, salt and pepper. Or, she would turn to the large iron skillet into which she slathered even more butter and slowly sautéed the perogi to a light, golden brown. The skillet sizzled and spat when the perogies were placed into it but it soon settled. The result was a transcendent experience. The ingredients of butter, salt, lightly fried dough, and a spicy-yet-sweet cheese and onion filling, were all interdependent: one single ingredient could no longer exist in this exquisite state without the other.
Cleveland, Ohio circa 1956
My grandmother cooked for all occasions: birthdays, graduations, births, communions, confirmations, holidays, colds and flu, and for no reason at all but for the pure pleasure of creating and healing. (The latter being a result of her genuine efforts and not a conscious goal.)
Granny also put on her apron and took to the stove during times of great sorrow, the most vivid of which for me was when her husband, my Grandpa Joe, succumbed to lung cancer resulting from his many years of work in the coal mines of Ohio.
After leaving the sterile smells and bleak atmosphere of the hospital, I knew her thoughts were only of her husband, friend, lover, and nemesis at times, as she walked into her now empty home. Granny had to be thinking that Grandpa Joe would walk through the door at any moment. Freshly brewed coffee as well as his much loved beer with a raw egg floating in it should be at the ready. (Grandpa Joe was a tippler.) As she entered her kitchen, she reached into a small closet for her apron and wrapped it around her plump waist. I stood watching not knowing what to say or do. I too felt the raw sense of loss and emptiness. I saw Granny withdraw a hand-embroidered cotton handkerchief from her dress pocket to wipe the tears that finally surfaced and trickled down her face. She then turned to me following the long silence and said, “I absolutely must make a pot of chicken soup with homemade noodles.” And so she did.
My memories are eternal reminders that the contentment of Granny’s open heart, consisting of simple, elegant acts of love and work, was far more important than any luxury and wealth that she would never know, or desire.
Granny’s riches were in her calloused, square hands, her thick strong arms that could roll dough for great lengths of time without tiring, and her intuitive sense of touch, taste and innate sensitivity to what was good, or not. Creating culinary delights was in joyful service of others and emanated from her authentic spirit. This was her art form as well as her medicine and it could not be captured or repressed. Not even my grandfather’s death could accomplish that. Her unwavering inner spirit, even in the saddest moments, are legacies of great wealth that have sustained me and continue to enrich my life today.
The Book of Abbey
Abbey, introduced in my previous Journal post, has grown to be a constant friend and companion. She is at the entrance door when I arrive home, and greets me upon waking in the morning with a soft purr, offering her plush, silky fur for my hands to gently pet and scratch. She is coquettish in her playfulness and yet a tigress — all seven pounds of feminine feline form. With a reverberating purr, she walks delicately across my computer keyboard when I have been too long at the screen for she seems to know I need a break. I have, thus far, discovered that she does two things really, really well: sleep and meditate with my crystals.Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. ~Rabbi Abraham Heschel
With the deepest gratitude, I thank you for spending this time with me, sharing my memories of a wonderful grandmother, viewing my latest impressionist painterly images and following the Book of Abbey, which will grow with time.
Blessings and Namasté …
December 26, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is the season-of–seasons for millions of people for there is celebration as well as quietude, if only for moments at a time. It begins after Thanksgiving and continues through the New Year — and beyond for some. It is especially so for Christians, for we celebrate the birth and life of Jesus Christ, eternalizing his radical teachings — a transformational tsunami unlike anything the world has ever known. We can choose to believe, or not. Still, a child was born a little more than two thousand years ago and our world today continues to ponder, debate, and wonder at the impact of His life and teachings.
The season of Advent leading to the Nativity with the anticipation of a New Year hovering near, is significant for me. It is characterized with a deep personal inventory of where I am in my heart, how I am in my soul and spirit — if I have grown to be a better, sincerely authentic human being, and more. It is a challenge that cradles both sweetness and sadness as I continue to walk my path of bends, switchbacks, hills, valleys, as well as flat, smooth terrains.
As we yoke jubilation with introspection and bear witness to yet another year rapidly unfolding to its inevitable close, I offer the following short essays and images ‘wrapped in my heartstrings’ as a tribute to what a wonderful life this is. Please enjoy!
I live two short blocks from the Hudson River and while I’ve taken numerous pictures of this body of water at various times, I thought the following captured three distinguishing moods from the first tree to turn its vivid red gracing her shores, to the serenity of late fall when all begins to sleep while mists envelop the land and rise from her waters, and in an extravagant announcement of winter, her bold ice breaking yet flowing, ever flowing.
Lily, A Cat Well Loved
A stray cat named Lily walked into my life on a warm September day. She was discarded by her owner in our village and, though a house cat for ten years, was left to fend for herself outdoors. She was thin and malnourished. Her fur hung from protruding bones and a frail body. But it was Lily’s eyes that invaded hearts as they hauntingly gazed through to the souls of those who looked upon her. Depending on the light, they changed from emerald green to the color of rare, antique jade.
A neighbor kindly fostered her for a month, keeping her safe and fed. But, Lily still did not gain weight though she was eating heartily. So, she took her to the vet for all the usual tests and Lily passed them all. I then decided to take her as mine for I had fallen ‘in love’ and this act was the beginning of an extraordinary journey — a path I had not walked before.
After our first month together and many visits to the vet to determine why she remained so thin, weighing a mere four pounds, we finally learned she was consumed with cancer. Lily asked me in her own way to let her go. She hid in secret places and no longer held down food or water. She became dangerously dehydrated on one occasion. It was apparent that Lily had finished her work here in this life by being with me, and I would like to believe she was needed elsewhere, spreading her tender mercies of love and devotion. For that is what this wonderful creature was: unconditional love, gentle and sweet, wrapped in a rare, palpable beauty.
She followed the sun as it streamed through my windows, sometimes watching birds, others just sleeping and snoring. Apart from my deep love for her, this was all I could offer: safety, warmth, comfort, and my loving hands as I petted and stroked her tender body.
Two months to the day from when I brought her into my home, Lily had to be put down. When my vet gave her the first tranquilizing injection, my friend and I said prayers and sang a lullaby. With her green eyes still open and her heart still beating against my hand as I held her, we gently closed her eyes. She was out of pain and relaxed. The final injection was just that. Her heartbeat and breathing stopped as she lay in my arms.
I did not see death. I witnessed transition. I kept her body with me for a full twenty-four hours ensconced in sage, lavender, and her favorite green knitted blanket. I felt her spirit surround me along with a calming peace and joy. I wept tears, but briefly, while I anointed her head throughout the day with special oils. I have Lily’s ashes now and will some day spread them in an appropriate place. I believe she will let me know when and where.
When Spirit Stands Still
Minor White, a war photographer of stature, and mentor for many photographers in the first half of the Twentieth Century, once said, “No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer IT has chosen.”
Neither of the following two images was planned, nor could they be. Nature was moving rapidly on both occasions. In one, the sheer audacity of sun and black sky converging for only a moment made it almost impossible to capture. In the other, titled “Sky,” it was the swift movement of flowing clouds and flirtatious light reflecting through them at a speed that felt as if it was less than an instant in time, that encouraged me to title the image “Sky,” rather than tree. Was I in the right place at the right time? Yes — and no. I am often in the right place and time, yet there is no music in the image I capture. When there is music, mystery, or both, which I believe is the case with these two images; I know that Spirit ‘stood still long enough.’ Thank you.
The Book of Abbey
In honor of Lily and the precious, short time in which she enriched and graced my life, I adopted a younger female cat, about one year old, and chose the name Abigail. In the Old Testament, names were not blithely given. They had meaning and relevance. Abigail was the second wife of King David. In Hebrew, her name translated to ‘Father’s Joy.’ And, my Abbey Gail, is all joy.
Abbey too has some physical challenges we are working to resolve. After all, shelter life is not easy even under the best of circumstances. But she is young, strong, bright, playful, sweet, loves a good lap to purr on, and a warm cuddle. Most assuredly too, she eats like a small tiger. So, Abbey occupies yet another room in my heart filled with love, for Lily taught me how much love I have to give and that I must keep on giving it for my heart will merely grow larger, adding on rooms as they are needed. Thank you dear Lily.
And, thank you my adorable Abbey for your delightful, flirtatious, and jaunty ways, which bring surprise, solace, and giggles into my heart as your Book begins here in these pages. These two images present rare moments when Abbey was truly still. In the first, she was clearly mesmerized by a hanging object, my window crystal, and in the other she actually settled down long enough for my camera’s shutter to capture and release!
It IS a wonderful life! Of course I have had my share of change, fears, joys, laughter, love, and loss. I believe though that it is the most difficult of these that offer our greatest lessons. When our hearts crack open with grief, love pours out … even if we are not fully aware of it at the moment. In this outpouring our hearts open to love more, striving to be better in our humanness. Living life is the most precious journey of all and we are free to choose what to do, how to feel, and what right actions to take with the lessons given along our pathways.
A quote from an Unknown Author (Courtesy of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book, Simple Abundance):
If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things; if we consider ourselves so important that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have the time to make the long, slow journey across the desert as did the Magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary? For each one of us, there is a desert to travel. A star to discover. And, a being within ourselves to bring to life.
And He said, “Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give you.”
I feel the deepest gratitude for each of you who have faithfully read the pages of this online Journal. Your comments have meant so much to me over these past few years. They serve as support and each word is a blessing. May this coming year be a wonderful life for you … never perfect, but always so in its imperfection.
August 17, 2013 § 6 Comments
Perhaps many people consider seventy years of age as “old.” After all, there are seven decades of life lived, Medicare and social security (hopefully), and many more physicians in one’s life than ever before … even if you are reasonably, or extraordinarily, well. Then there is the school of thought that seventy is the new sixty, sixty the new fifty and so forth. While this might be a pacifying concept, I believe it was created to perpetuate our culture’s obsessiveness with youth rather than celebrating the gifts of each season of our lives, especially those of Elderhood.
I begin my seventieth year on Tuesday, August 27. My life is not perfect but it is plentifully blessed. It is graced with a simple abundance. I have no material riches or golden parachutes upon which to financially coast, and nothing of value — as our world defines it. Yet, I feel endowed with wealth given the beauty of nature and life that surround me, the friends, neighbors, and extended family that have come into my life, and the work God has given me to do with the talents that I probably do not use enough. The wonderful Erma Bombeck said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.”
This too is my hope, prayer, and goal.
I seek to live authentically, fully accepting who I am now. Of course, I have a few more aches and pains. I walk at a brisk but thoughtful pace almost every morning, as I can no longer run four miles daily. I am no longer a size-six jean. Instead, I am a tad more full-figured. And importantly, I like how I look and feel for it has softened the harder edges in my face as well as my heart. I am grateful for the creative talents that have been given me together with my search for what I can contribute as a form of ‘personal ministry’ as I move forward into this next stage of my life.
Yes, I said forward. I am not a survivor of seven decades, or retired — I am still on my way!
I have no great wisdom to pass on but merely a few musings that apply to my experience and may also apply to you, or someone you know.
- The joys of my life have nothing to do with age.
- The morning sunrises and evening sunsets always thrill for never are they the same.
- The light, whether sun or clouds, rain or snow, cast upon the landscape for my photographer’s eye to see and, perhaps, capture, always presents a new beginning.
- The arias of birdsong in the mornings are my wake-up call. The insects, like a Philip Glass composition with its repetitive structures, lull me to sleep at night.
- I listen for the sound of snow for it quiets the busyness in my head.
- When a gentle rain falls, there is a Christening of the land that provides a meditation in grace.
- I live more completely in the moments of my hours and days (at least I try). It comes easier now for I am more detached from areas of pain, the loss of love and things, the fear of death.
- Importantly for me, one who lived on an ambitious, aggressive fast track for all of my teen and adult years, I am more available to truly speak with, listen to, and be with friends … even hand-write a note or card instead of e-mail. Just “being” with people, if only in passing, with a focused and respectful awareness of them and what they and their souls have to say has become a daily gift.
- Finally, these seven decades and events of my life have taught me the blessing of humility — a quality frequently misunderstood in our frantically busy and too often violent world.
These past two years have been watershed markings for me personally. My home and studio are no more. I sold every piece of silver, china, crystal, multiple cameras, custom made clothing, accessories, and most of my jewelry as well as gave away many things to churches and other organizations for the needy. I shed every possible extra or unused item in my life, including books and music. I only kept what I knew I would return to for inspiration and solace and the basic tools for my writing and photography.
At the moment of this writing, I sit in a lovely corner of my bedroom, now my official studio, next to a window where I hear an occasional bird in song and the humming of insects. I live in a small, Zen-like apartment with windows that overlook only wooded land and the wildlife that resides there. I take my morning walks through the quaint historic village of Athens, New York and am two short blocks from the mighty Hudson River. I could not ask for more. I have all I need — or want.
I have curated a medley of images from the past fifteen years in which I see truth and hear music. These are my personal criteria for they tell me if an image is worthy. Whether or not you have seen some of these, I sincerely hope you enjoy the retrospective. There is a brief Coda following the images that you may wish to read.
Mary Oliver has long been my muse. And though this image is not her “Red Bird” from her exemplary book, “Red Bird Poems,” I heard her reverence for everything in nature when I came upon my ‘bird on the fence’ along the Hudson River amongst a plethora of flowers one warm, mist-filled summer morning.Red Bird Explains Himself (Excerpted) by Mary Oliver
“…And this was my true task, to be the music of the body. Do you understand? For truly the body needs a song, a spirit, a soul. … And I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable beauty of heaven where I fly so easily, so welcome, yes, and this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart.”
Please rejoice with me on this milestone birthday and know that we are always beginning, always being reborn along with the whole of Nature and its cycles of seasons.
May 25, 2013 § 1 Comment
To My Readers
Following Shalimar, a memoir about my mother, many readers asked me about my father. Whenever I attempted to write about my Dad, I struggled with the emotional architectural dig associated with disquieting memories concerning him. In the process of this particular writing, I realized that what I thought was the truth about our relationship was not grounded in its foundation. My selected memories resided more in the world of ‘magical thinking:’ what I wished to be fact. I had not hit bone — some thing raw, authentic, yet undisputed in its origin, and undeniable in its marrow. I persevered to bring an honest accounting of my experiences with my father, which uncovered a singular truth that haunted me my whole life — and still does.
This narrative also contains new images that are, in part, an homage to Georgia O’Keefe. I believe she captured the bones and marrow of her subjects, revealing an unequivocal truth of being. They are interspersed throughout this writing but are not directly related to it. View them as meditative pauses. They are here in honor of all fathers and daughters who traversed through the seasons of their hearts and, of course, for you, my readers, friends, and patrons.
The heart, as does nature, lives through seasons of change. It was that way for my father and me. I believed he never really wanted me when at the tender age of ten for the first time, but certainly not the last, he uttered the words I wish you had never been born.
Sixty years later, as I approach the age of seventy, I finally discerned the veracity of my father’s existence: the role he played, and did not play, in my life and in the life of others. He was not a demonstrative man yet he had a sentimental side, which he rarely allowed to shine through. Though he supported my childhood creative endeavors with financial help, paying for dance and acting classes, costumes, and such, he understood little about my young aspirations. In his defense though, there was no framework in his life experience to understand my particular childhood uniqueness. We attempted through many years to bond, but these efforts were, for the most part, awkward and filled with misdirected anger and pain.
My father was not around much when my brother and I were children for he worked two jobs to provide for our family. He was a fireman in Cleveland, Ohio, which required evening shifts several nights a week, and he drove a Brinks armored truck on his days off. Dad was a dedicated, hard-working man.
My mother was a homemaker. And as previously shared in Shalimar, she was a seriously neurotic, deeply depressed woman. My parents developed a chasm between them that lasted their respective lifetimes. The reason for this division, told to me by my mother, was that when she discovered she was pregnant with me in 1943, my father asked her to abort. Though my parents believed the abortion was successful, for a fetus was expunged, to their great surprise they discovered a few months later that I remained in my mother’s womb. Had she survived, I would have had a twin sister.
Ten years later my father angrily spat those cruel words I wish you had never been born. I sat crying in the middle of our yellow and white linoleum kitchen floor, his words striking me like a stinging arrow. I was a child caught in the mutual hatred between my father and mother — and, a palpable reminder of what they did not want. I believed my father’s harsh words were said for me to absorb as absolute.
My mother had fertile ground upon which to build an arsenal of reasons to maintain her intense disdain of my father: he was mean and harsh, stingy, quick-tempered, absent, humorless, unloving, a man to be feared. Sadly, he was also a racist and anti-Semite.
In great contrast with those behaviors, it was my father who always came to my bedside to cool my forehead after childhood nightmares. He had a sixth sense too about my epileptic seizures. As I emerged from an episode, he was already in my bedroom massaging my left arm and leg, which were in painful spasms. When I was a young adult woman of twenty living in New York City, I had a serious automobile accident. It was my father once again who drove all night from Ohio to keep vigil at my hospital bed.
My view of my father and his actions were greatly filtered through my mother’s eyes. He was, therefore, diminished in my mind and heart, not only because my mother monsterized him, but also because he truly was a difficult, unyielding man most of the time.
Thirty-Third Street, New York City, 1964
Dad made an impromptu visit to New York one early October, a few months following my twenty-first birthday. He said he wanted to ‘see the sites.’ So, we wandered to the usual tourist haunts and he was especially interested in the United Nations. After a long morning of walking in cold, misty weather, we stopped for lunch at a pub on Thirty-Third Street just off Fifth Avenue. We finished our meal and walked out into a light rain with the last of the gold and sienna leaves floating down from the City’s sidewalk trees. Every fiber of my being said it was time. This was the moment to ask about my birth and so I did. Is it true that you and mother tried to abort me? His face and eyes, clearly expressing a range of emotions from sorrow to anger, and then incredulity, revealed the truth at last. I knew then that we, together, had hit bone: even the marrow. He asked me how I knew. I told him that mother informed me of this on the day of my birthday that past August. His initial response was That bitch! This was something you were never supposed to know, or needed to know. His eyes filled with tears, trickling out of their corners and down his cheeks. In a raspy, choked voice he uttered I am so sorry you have learned this. He said nothing more. He did nothing more. He simply turned and walked slowly down the street in the rain as I stood there stunned and confused. I felt like an emotional see-saw, wanting to forgive him, hate him, love him. I did not move for what seemed a long time as my hair, soaked from the rain, clung to my head and neck. Black mascara stained my face, but not from tears.
We did not speak for fourteen years after that incident. And in the following decades, our communications were infrequent and strained. These were fallow periods in which my father and I, unbeknownst to one another, respectively struggled to overcome the shapeless demons that plagued what I believed was a fundamental love for one another. These many seasons of my heart helped me to see beyond the crippling challenges of my birth, my tormented mother, and my parents’ mutual pain and guilt with which they lived. As I discovered what was important and authentic in my life, I found the courage to walk into my wound and embrace the inner universe of my heart. In so doing, I discovered not resentment or hate, but an unwavering love and compassion for the man whose life force gave me mine.
The Nursing Home, 2005
On a steaming July day in 2005 with a hurricane about to hit Florida, I received the call. My father was about to die. I made quick arrangements to fly into Ft. Lauderdale but was warned that the hurricane would most likely disrupt the flight schedules. We flew over the storm in torrential rain, yet I did arrive. I was expecting to visit my father in his bed hooked up to machines and tubes. This was not the case for he rallied during my travel time. He said this is not my time. And he was right.
Instead, my ninety-two year old father sat in a wheelchair with his left leg crossed over the right and his arms folded. He looked small. My stepmother stood close to him at the ready to help should he need it. They waited in a soft, earth-toned lobby of a nursing home. As I entered into this world of the aging, I registered little, seeing only my father’s blue eyes clouded with age yet retaining an intensity of spirit and purpose I had not seen before. Our eyes locked into one another’s and through them for a few suspended moments we had an immediate understanding, an unspoken communication: So, we have made the journey and through it all we accomplished what we needed to do. We did our best. We understand more. And, now we love. Then, spiraling back into the presence of others, I moved towards him with my arms outstretched. Like a great Samurai warrior wounded in his final battle, his honor refusing to give way to frailty, my father stood to greet me, bracing himself on trembling arms and hands and unsteady limbs. Simultaneously we said I love you. Twice. I was amazed at the nobility and courage of this act as I carefully embraced his fragile frame and kissed his cool cheek. I felt only bone for this once strapping 180-pound man who fought raging fires in Cleveland, Ohio, now weighed a mere 110 pounds. Proudly, he sat down as he stood moments before — shaking and unsteady but without anyone’s help.
Though his body was tired and worn from the battles of old age, his mind remained clear and his focus keen, like a great white wolf ever alert observing, listening, taking it all in — missing nothing and savoring everything.
As I sat next to him and took his hand, I noticed the gossamer-like skin covering his bones. We sat silently for a few minutes simply looking at one another. I noticed how long and slender his fingers were as his hands gracefully draped over the arms of his chair. These were the hands of an artist, or should have been, for they were exceedingly graceful. I never really looked closely at his hands before. I regretted not having my camera with me so I could photograph them. I did not know it then, but this would be the last time I saw him.
“Part of our task is to learn how our ancestors informed our lives” ~ Joan Halifax
My willingness to acknowledge my father’s genuine being, though painful at times, has been illuminating too — for wisdom is born amidst pain. I learned about steadfastness and faithfulness to one’s self — not only to others. My father knew who he was; what he could and could not do, or be. And, he accepted his role in life never asking for, or wanting, more.
My father was neither famous nor infamous. But, he paid attention to the small, humble acts of daily life and in so doing provided a lifetime of service to many people. He was dedicated in the support of his family under challenging and oftentimes painful circumstances. He gave of himself to all eight of his brothers, sisters, respective spouses, and mothers-in-law during their illnesses as most passed away over the many decades that he lived. He was a courageous man who walked into seething fires to rescue others, which he never spoke of — and for admitting a raw, heartbreaking truth to his daughter on a rainy October afternoon amidst the falling leaves on Thirty-Third Street in New York City.
I believe that my father and I ‘hit the bone’ of what our love really was — and it was one filled with challenge, stress, and very few soft, nurturing corners and edges. Yet, the cornerstone of our relationship, perhaps the truth of what exists in all human relationships, supported a deep-seated, inexplicable love and compassion.
Well Dad, Emerson wrote, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived…this is to have succeeded.” I am not certain that your life helped me to ‘breathe easier.’ It would be dishonest of me to say this was so. The gritty truth, the bone and marrow of our existence together, is that you did not want a child. And, yes, that still hurts. However, I do believe that once I entered your world, you loved me as best you could. I have come to understand and respect this restrained love. And through our struggles to accept and love one another on some fundamental level, I discovered something very valuable: a genuine, tender compassion for you. I prayed that you would be freed from the quick anger you wore on your face and in your heart, the pain of your internal world, and prejudices towards others whom you truly did not know, nor even tried to understand. I wept when you died and again during this writing, thinking how these negative forces within your soul may have caused the cancer that ultimately consumed you.
Ah, but you were my father. You gave me life. And, I loved you.
My father passed the following year very quickly as the cancer consumed him in less than two months. He was ninety-three years old.“If one carries his father on his left shoulder and his mother on his right shoulder until his bones were ground to powder by their weight as they bore through to the marrow … that person would still not have repaid the deep kindness of his parents.” ~ The Buddha
February 23, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is a story of forgiveness and love. It is a true narrative and one I have been reluctant to tell.
But a good friend recently said, “It is important as a writer that you not only share the beauty and serenity of your life, but also the grit.”
So, here is a story about my mother and me.
My Mother Helene
My mother killed herself on St. Valentine’s Day, 1973. She swallowed a fifth of cheap scotch with a bottle of tranquilizers. She was fifty-three years old and died alone in the upper West Side apartment in New York City that we had once shared during my performing arts career.
She was exotically beautiful: tall and slender with a smooth satin olive complexion that deepened to rich sienna by simply sitting in the summer shade. Her eyes were large, dark brown and seductive, especially when she laughed and tossed her auburn hair, which cascaded in waves to her shoulders. My father said he married her for her laugh. It was deep and sexy, but only when she wanted it to be. This is the only remaining photograph I have of her and my father took it when they were in love. She was twenty-three and pregnant with my twin sister and me.
When my mother was nineteen years old, she acquired a one-ounce bottle of Shalimar perfume. How or under what circumstances I do not know. What I do know is that she was in no financial position to buy a one-ounce bottle of perfume. Certainly not Shalimar. She married her first husband at sixteen, divorced at nineteen and in those years gave birth to a son who, when I was born, became my half-brother.
During my childhood she recounted many times the story of that favorite bottle of perfume, perhaps because she treasured it so and what happened to it destroyed forever an aspiration and deep longing within her. It seems that my brother at four years of age, walked to her bedroom vanity, reached for the Shalimar, unplugged the stopper, and poured the sweet smelling essence over the rug, bed, and curtains. Clearly this was not a malicious act on my brother’s part, but merely the result of a curious, Puckish four-year old. However, she truly never forgave him.
One of my most vivid memories of my mother was when she turned her back on me after a kindergarten play because I misspoke one of my lines. It was 1948, and we were in the middle of a heavy December snowstorm, the kind that slammed northeast Ohio with great regularity. Our house was within walking distance of the school and even though it snowed and I wore a leg brace on my left leg for the polio I contracted earlier that year, I still walked, or rather limped, to school. I was always slightly behind my schoolmates, of course, but I hobbled to-and-fro nevertheless.
After our kindergarten performance was over, I looked into the audience for a wave or some acknowledgement from my mother. She simply glared at me, turned on her heel and left me there. Not a word or gesture. Nothing. With a child’s wonderment, confusion and a growing awareness that I must have done something very wrong, I followed her but couldn’t maintain her pace as she resolutely continued her indignant march towards home.
My trek following her through the unremitting, battering storm seemed to last forever. I only saw her rigid back and hunched shoulders wrapped in a blood red woolen coat. Her head, covered and tied at her chin with the hood of the coat, was held down slightly and to the left to avoid the heavy pelting of the snow. She never turned to look for me. Her only comment when I finally reached our house and took my seat at the kitchen table was that I was never, ever to humiliate her again by making a mistake, especially in public. And, so began my performing arts career. There were many events for twenty odd years with my mother like the kindergarten play, but that particular memory still stands out the most for it was hotly branded into my heart.
The Bad and the Beautiful
My mother hated the world and I will never know why. She beat my brother regularly, threw him down the basement steps and banged his head repeatedly against the kitchen wall. She tried to abort me but only succeeded in aborting my twin sister. She did not love her family. She hated her father and she hated my father. She belittled her mother unmercifully.
These events remain mystery for there is no one left in my world that can shed light on her darkness. My father, now gone, and my brother, still living, locked their memories concerning my mother in fortresses deep within themselves. My father was unable to bear a reopening of his wounds and my dear brother to this day cannot claim our mother as his own.
Yet, through her depressions and rages she was capable of much creativity. I watched her create beauty in her home, develop her own innate sense of style in clothes, and surround herself with exquisite use of color and form. She was bold in her imagination and intellectual curiosity. But her talents were feared, ignored, and laughed at, by my father, her parents, and everyone else who knew her except for one person: me.
I understand today her madness as well as her grace but to do so I had to reach deep into shadowy folds of my memories. The fabric and texture of my existence were, for the most part, created through my polio and my mother’s willingness to embrace her little girl’s idea. Even then, I was a contrarian and resisted the accepted form of physical therapy for polio and, instead, decided to study dance. I sensed that I needed to heal myself through my own movement and not that of a physical therapist doing it for me, no matter how skilled. With my unwavering insistence and my mother’s faith in my adamancy for this atypical form of therapy, I restored the muscles in my left arm and leg and my polio not only healed within two years but also changed the path of my life. I became a performing artist at a very young age, which continued for twenty plus years followed by an immersion into the visual arts as a photographer, painter, and, now, writer. My creativity would have languished without my mother’s desire and inspiration to help me actualize it and my mother would not have continued to exist without my creativity. They were entwined and interdependent — two energies flowing from one to the other.
I endured my mother’s ranting and raging against life, against the world, because my intuition, even as a young child, told me that her creative energy would become mine. And it did. I learned to accept her relentless criticism of me because there was always an important insight that inspired me as well whether it was about my performance, my choice of clothes and costumes, how and what I said and, of course, how I behaved. She clung to my creativity as if it was a lifeboat. I existed to serve her needs. But strangely enough, she served mine too.
My mother’s anguish and rage prevailed for the twenty-eight years I knew her before she killed herself. For years after her suicide, I thought often about my sad, beautiful mother with her dark bedroom eyes, sensual laugh and an anger that tore souls apart. What I discovered though, traveling into that particular abyss, eventually changed the size of my heart.
Twelve years after her death, I encountered her again. In meditation after yoga practice, I saw a perfectly shaped pulsating pink heart rimmed with an indigo blue light. Tiny drops of blood fell from the center of the heart with each beat. I felt it was my mother’s heart. I sensed her presence along with a faint scent of Shalimar. In one moment, almost suspended in time, I felt her deep and seemingly endless anguish too. I absorbed her pain and sadness not only from those years I knew her as her daughter but all the preceding years of her life. We walked arm in arm strolling under an azure sky into a field of tall, emerald green grass. The slender grasses swayed with a soft, warm breeze as she stood there with tears in her eyes and asked if I was all right. I replied, “Yes, mom, I am truly fine and my life is good.” I told her how much I missed her, that I did not blame her for what she did, and that I longed to have just one more conversation, a conversation in which we could crystallize the joys and absolve the sorrows of our life together. She said she had to go and then touched my hand and walked further into the tall grasses until I could no longer see her or sense her presence. I emerged from the meditation with a strong conviction that my mother had visited me.
Was this imagination or a true mystical experience? I don’t believe proving it, or not, is important. Whatever the occurrence, it was the catalyst for my releasing the past and opening my heart to understanding, compassion, forgiveness.
Again, Into the Abyss
A few years ago I was bound to a wheel chair due to a broken right ankle. I was, for the most part, immobile once again. I, who still moved like a dancer and filled my active days with cameras, tripod, lenses or easel, paintbrushes and oils to bring a canvas to life, was unable to do any of these things.
When the accident first occurred I unraveled emotionally and spiritually. I cried and raged at myself, at the world, at God most of all. The long since forgotten polio, its encumbrances, physical pain and entrapment of my body, rolled over me like a tsunami. The black hole of my mother’s madness asserted itself. My art studio stood fallow. I no longer smelled the oil paint while standing lovingly at the slop sink carefully cleaning my brushes after a long, productive painting session. I could not spontaneously grab my tripod and camera to capture an image that I knew would not pass my way again. All was lost. Forever. This was my mother’s darkness: her Shalimar, her absolute loss of spirit.
I was in this depressive state for two days. I watched and listened to the persistent rain and then felt a slight stirring within. The darkness slowly lifted as I began to see that God’s rain was a christening of the land as well as a cleansing of my spirit. I realized I was capable of releasing my anger and emotional pain. Sitting for hours in the wheel chair really seeing, truly hearing the steadfast rain, my artist’s eye eventually returned. Though I could not record through a photograph or painting what I saw, I could express the ‘innocent speech of rain’ in words:Burdened by soft, steady rain Viridian leaves hang low on long limbs. Some moisture clings — leaves glisten silver; Some moisture falls — a rain sonata. A lone bird (unknown) sings her Aria. In one ordinary moment, All flow to some changed place, Become some new thing Again.
The rain finally passed and in its stead flirtatious streaks of sunshine broke through light and dark clouds illuminating my wheel-chair-view of the world with a pair of white butterflies that never quite left one another in their pas de deux from flower to bush to tree limb. I thought of the elegant one-ounce Baccarat crystal bottle of Shalimar perfume sitting on my bathroom vanity. A bottle always resides with me now and every so often I dab the sweet essence behind my ears and on my wrists — a modest gesture as a tender bow of tribute to my mother’s life.
I am gently touched by my mother’s madness. Only today there are spiritual paths and therapies that enabled me to walk into the wounds of the past and emerge with gratitude for all that has happened in my life. I have a strong belief that the events of our lives create a tapestry of teachings, learning, and insights. And, if we are willing we can enter the darkest cave within ourselves and discover the illumination of our being.
I understand my mother’s teaching for teaching it was. I learned from her pain how to minimize mine. I learned from her anger how to channel mine. I learned from her hatred how to love. And, I learned from her repressed creativity how to nurture my own and allow it to fully bloom even though, from time-to-time, I lose my Shalimar, my footing. Unlike my mother though, I know that my spirit within is larger than a whole lifetime can hold and it will rekindle for the light is always there — whether a warm glowing ember or ablaze with the essence of creation and loving forgiveness.
For many years now on St. Valentine’s Day, I purchase a dozen roses to honor my mother’s life. I know no one else remembers her, or cares to, so my action is a ritual of love and honor. Here is one of the roses from this past Valentine’s Day.
September 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
Most people would say that Witten Pond belongs to its owner. I believe he would say that he is merely the caretaker. I would go a few steps further though and say that Witten Pond is a place where God most assuredly resides, providing those who witness its purity and grace with an enhanced view of life. I felt God’s presence the first time I set foot upon Witten Pond land and have had many talks with Him over the years. I had these informal chats while I walked, photographed, or simply basked in the calm and peace that permeate the world of Witten Pond. Every leaf and blade of grass, the sound of the rushing stream, the haven that wild life seeks, the slowing of each moment into sheer perfection, the presence of tranquility in both the wild and tamed landscape — all of these can only exist in God’s time.
It is now almost thirty years since I first saw Witten Pond. Surrounded by state forest preserve, it is a secluded fifteen-acre property ensconced in the Hudson Valley Region of New York state. I lived there for a while and visited many times over these three decades to do my photographic work. In fact, Witten Pond has provided me with a rich cache of subjects that evolved with the years. I created a self-imposed retreat many times in what is now the guesthouse, Lily of the Valley, experiencing some of the greatest joys of my life given the inspirational energy that abounds on this land.
My most recent visit was in early spring of this year. The gardens were not yet in full bloom. However, the spring-fed Pond’s rippling reflections shone through its sparkling waters with such clarity that much of what I photographed were images reminiscent of impressionist paintings.
The oldest structure on the property is the guesthouse, now replete with heating and plumbing — though thirty years ago, those conveniences were iffy at best. The fishing and hunting lodge-cum-renovated guesthouse was built in the early 1900s of chestnut, prior to the blight, and is of post and beam construction. It stands high on a hill with stonewalls banking steps of indigenous bluestone that lead to a charming, rustic porch. The porch, of course, overlooks the Pond as well as the high Catskill Mountain peaks, and there are secret gardens in almost every direction. For now, those gardens will remain hidden, but I captured the Lily of the Valley house as it stands so nobly on the hill.
Inside the guesthouse, I came upon a small, hand-carved Buddha on the dining room table. Though it was largely cloaked in shadows, the simplicity of the setting silhouetted against the light-filled French doors leading to yet another secret garden, intrigued me so that I released my camera’s shutter to hear God say yes, let us dine with the Buddha!
Leaving the house to walk to the other side of the Pond, I turned to evaluate the perspective. There is a giant, outrageously red maple tree that resides on the front lawn of the guesthouse and it was ablaze with its new color. Again, the Pond rippled and danced with light as the red maple punctuated the scene.
An old Zen bench sits at the Pond’s edge and appears to almost rest in the water. It is a place of meditation and prayer, sequestered by aged trees with round, thick trunks and a backdrop of lush, green foliage. Though the Pond is stocked with enormous trout that the owner only catches and releases, when I photographed the Zen bench through the water’s reflection, it was alone … steady and timeless.
Across the Pond from the guesthouse, is the owner’s barn residence, which, in part, serves as an art gallery. My inaugural photography exhibit was held at this gallery many years ago. The owner collects art and wine, but I was interested in the treasure trove of sculpture inside the barn’s gallery.
We know little about this Buddha except that she is from Thailand. It is the largest wood-carved icon I have seen since it is all head and stands at eight or nine feet and is about four feet wide — an imposing work with a majestic energy.
At last though, I sought out a much smaller wooden sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi by Italian sculptor, Alfeo Faggi. I have longed to photograph this piece, but something always went wrong. I believe that it was God’s time that day in early spring and He was at my side. I had never before seen this inanimate St. Francis look so vivified with love, caring and compassion. Weeks later, when I reviewed my finished images, I was awestruck. One could almost say that these images were of Christ wearing His crown of thorns. Or, when Faggi sculpted this sensitive, tender statue, that his hands were guided to reveal the merciful countenance of Christ.
In the process of writing this journal, I recalled an image I took many years ago with black and white film. It was during a full moon whose rays flooded the landscape and illuminated an extravaganza of light and shadows. That night, the moon’s stunning blue-green hue spilled onto an old garden bench that resides under dogwood trees overlooking Witten Pond. It remains there to this day.
I love Witten Pond for it is a sacred place. I feel a shift within when I walk the pathways of the land and sit at the Pond’s edge. Once more, my visit to the Pond yielded its grace and wonderment for me to photograph. And once again I was reborn and I was blessed.
I will begin work on Witten Pond Part II, either when the green leaves turn to sienna, gold, and red, or when the snow gently falls, sketching a true wonderland. It will be in God’s time though, not mine, for I have learned to wait.
Blessings and Namasté
July 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
Much of our country is experiencing drought conditions. Those of us in upstate New York began seeing the portentous signs these past two weeks: green grass slowly turning straw-colored in patches, and flowers, though not yet withered, looking thirsty. Some of us with wells talked about water conservation, which meant vegetable and flower gardens were not getting their needed quota of moisture. And for some with shallow wells, short showers became the norm.
Just two days ago, on a hot, sun-drenched day, feeling more like desert than mountains as if an infrared camera filter had been cast over our landscape, I spotted a Mother Doe and her fairly new born fawns on my lawn. I actually saw them about a week ago when their legs still wobbled and Mother Doe was cleaning these new beings of her birth. Alas, I was on my morning walk sans my camera and miffed at myself for leaving it behind. Mother Doe visited my front lawn frequently since the birth of her twins, and I made no time to grab my camera and take pictures. However, she took time the other day to stand and stare at me as if to say are you not going to take advantage of taking this image? Again, my camera was buried in my bag and while I ran for it, I really did not think she would still be there. But she was! Standing just a few feet from her and her babes, I took the picture. She was proud, and though I have never heard of a doe giving birth to twins, I have seen this wondrous thing. And, I do believe she knew it was special and wanted to have someone record it for her.
My own critters, Ella and Simon, approached this momentous event very differently. Ella took her position half way up the staircase so she could clearly observe Mother Doe and the twin fawns, while Simon simply slept through it all nestled between the window sill and an old Czechoslovakian oak bench. His favorite post.
Today, I woke to sprinkles of rain, then an intermittent drizzle, and finally a steady soft soaking rain. This was a Christening of the land and I was lulled into contentment with the ‘innocent speech of rain.” Rather than take a picture through the wet screen and spattered glass window, I decided to write a poem.
the innocent speech of rain
by lee anne morgan
Burdened by soft steady rain,
viridian leaves hang low on long limbs.
Some moisture clings — leaves glisten silver;
some moisture falls — a rain sonata.
A lone bird (unknown) sings her aria.
In one ordinary moment,
all flow to some changed place,
become some new thing
I know I have said this before, as have others, but it is okay for me to say it again. The small events of our days are more often than not gently touched with Grace, even miracles.