Sunday, April 6, 2014

For the Love of a House

A recent increase in our local tax assessment was a shock to me.  While our house is large and in a good neighborhood, its market value is far below the assessment.  In an attempt to prepare for a "review" with the town, I listed the major repairs that need to be made in our house, and took photos of the well-worn circa 1980's kitchen, the upstairs bathroom with curling wallpaper and outdated fixtures and tile, and the wood floors and mouldings that are in dire need of sanding and finishing.

Even as I was taking this critical view of my house, in my heart I was seeing this beloved old home that has a warmth and charm no amount of disrepair can tarnish.  The kitchen, with its faded old vinyl flooring, scratched cabinetry, blemished counters and mismatched appliances, is still the heart of our home.  When my children were young, the kitchen was the center of my life.  Preparing three nutritious meals a day, baking cakes, cookies and bread, enjoying the chatter and laughter of the children gathered around the table, and savoring heartfelt conversations with good friends over a soothing cup of tea or glass of wine filled the hours of my days.  Today, it is my grandchildren who sit with us at the kitchen table, and the aromas more often than not are of soups simmering and vegetables and herbs sauteeing on the stove.  New ivory colored cabinets, a farmer's sink, and a cushioned vinyl floor are the stuff of my dreams now for this kitchen, but it is still functional and filled with the memories of the beloved faces that have graced this table through all of these years.  What to a new buyer would mean a total "gut job", to me shelters a little bit of each beloved soul who has lingered here for sustenance and love.

As I snapped the photo of my bedroom with the morning light filtering through the lace curtains, I was a bit embarrassed by the abundant clutter.  The extra blankets that warmed me the night before were still covering the bed; the room was just as I had left it in the early morning hours; how I love this room, though.  The plaster ceilings may be cracked, and the floor just poorly painted 1880's sub-flooring, but this room holds so many of my treasured family heirlooms.  The chest at the foot of my bed was my grandmother's hope chest, and now holds my old wedding gown, crocheted doilies, and a beautiful tablecloth that was embroidered by a favorite great-aunt.  My mother's battered dressing table graces one wall, covered with jewelry, perfume bottles, mirrors and trinkets that my grandchildren love to play with.  The teddy bear collections of my mother and sister are arranged on tall shelves in the corner -- a reminder every morning of these two women I loved.  This is more than a lovely, sun-filled bedroom, its lovingly gathered contents remind me each day of all of these women whom I have loved so dearly. 

The living room is a hodgepodge of furniture, with cracked plaster and scarred floors, but family pictures abound on the walls, my grandchildren's books spill from the shelves under the TV, and my grandfather's desk is the emotional focal point for me.  That desk is one of my earliest concrete memories of my childhood home.  It stood in a little nook by the front door, and was a favorite of mine.  Several years ago, my father-in-law worked magic on the old scratched desk, and refinished it to a lovely piece which I know would make my grandfather very proud.  Above the desk hangs the gild-framed mirror that was always on the wall in my grandparent's apartment.  I look in the mirror at the sixty-three year old face that looks back, and remember the little-girl face that gazed back at me from the same mirror across the years.  The large bay windows in the living room are reflected in the mirror, and I see not the mismatched furniture and flaws, but a lovely room with warmth and history -- a room that has watched generations grow and holds the secret joys and sorrows of each person whose story has unfolded within its walls.

 The dining room is painted a deep burgundy, with a flowered wallpaper border that speaks of the 1990's; the floors are scratched, and a long crack in the plaster runs from ceiling to floor on one wall, but, as the early morning sunshine strikes the silver tea service, its beauty takes my breath away.  The room is filled with old family pieces -- the table and sideboard from my husband's paternal grandparents, and a lovely little china cabinet that belonged to his maternal grandmother.  A corner cabinet holds my beautiful Old Country Roses china, which I collected piece by piece over the years.  My teapot and teacup collections are displayed on the walls.  Anyone appraising the market value of this house would look askance at this room with its dark walls and dated wallpaper border.  But, sunshine fills the room in the morning, and the glow of candles lights the faces of those gathered around the large table as friends and family join together for special dinners and celebrations.  This room is rich in beauty and abundant in welcome for anyone who wants to sit and share the bounty of good food and warm companionship.
And so, I gather together the photos I have taken of the serious structural flaws of this old house.  Hopefully the assessor will agree with me that no buyer would possibly pay the currently assessed value for a house such as this which needs such expensive repair and renovation.  But, this experience has made me love her even more, for I have been looking at her not only with the critical eye of an appraiser, but with the eyes of one who has known her welcome and her shelter for over forty years.  She has watched me grow from a young, childless woman to an aging grandmother.  She has witnessed both my days of utter ecstasy, and my darkest hours, and all of the ordinary days in between.  She has been my haven through it all.  Is she worth what the tax assessor has declared her to be worth?  Definitely not.  But to me "her price is far above rubies."  (Proverbs 31:10)  Of course, I don't want the tax assessor to know that!!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Longing for Spring

The spring issues of Victoria magazine invite me to a world of lovely gardens, flowers, trickling streams, potting sheds, and seasonal entertaining.  This is my favorite magazine, and the photos and articles within make me long to walk through my own garden, sip wine on my porch, and rejoice with the unfolding of each new spring blossom.  Today is March 15; we are a week from spring, but the view from my window is one of snow, ice, and starkness. 

March is seldom a pretty month in the Northeast -- snow melts, mud abounds, new snow falls, temperatures rise, teasing of spring, and then plummet once again.  March winds can bring a soft warm breath of spring one day, and a frigid bite the next.  It is a transitional month and carries frustration on its breezes.

My most vivid childhood memory of March is of finally being able to hang laundry outside on the clothesline, instead of from ropes crisscrossing our dark, spidery basement.  As we gathered the "dry" laundry from the clothesline at the end of the afternoon, the scent of fresh air was a tonic for our winter-weary souls.  Often the laundry itself was more frozen than dry, but how we loved bringing its fresh scent into the house, even though our fingers were often numb by the time we finished.

This winter has been a particularly long, snowy season.  Usually by mid-March I am uncovering the last bits of snow from my little patch of snowdrops, and sometimes able to remove the leaf mulch from most of the garden beds.  Today, though, the snowdrops still lie under several inches of snow.  I have enjoyed the beauty of this winter -- I love the deep stillness of falling snow, the sparkle of sunlight on a fresh snowfall, and the beauty of moonlight casting shadows on a world of white.  However, enough is enough!! 

I am anxiously awaiting that moment when I can begin my gardening chores.  A knee injury last year kept me from caring properly for my gardens, so I have much work to do this year.  As I browse through the pages of Victoria, I am planning changes here and there -- moving a few plants, planting more wildflower seeds near the bird feeder, adding new herbs, cleaning out my garden shed so it resembles more closely a little potting shed.  There is so much inspiration and I am impatient to be outside again to nurture and enjoy my little plot of land. The birds are singing their hearts out as I write -- a chorus of songs speaking of spring.  Maybe the second half of March will finally transform our bleak landscape, and spring will at last be here.  We are almost there -- I am waiting for the first whiff of lilacs floating on the morning air.

"There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the
assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after the winter."
Rachel Carson


Monday, March 10, 2014

Technology vs. Humanity

The headline read, "Staples to Close 225 Stores."  Apparently online sales are increasing as sales figures for stores are decreasing.  How sad to see another "bricks and mortar" fatality.  As a business owner, I was a frequent customer at our local Staples.  How I loved browsing through the huge aisles for my office needs -- from pens and paper to calculators to desks and shelving.  The staff was always helpful and knowledgeable, although many of them left for better paying jobs elsewhere.  As I read the newspaper headline this week I thought of one employee in particular.  He is an odd little man -- friendly, helpful, but obviously not a candidate for moving up to a better-paying job.  And I wondered how many people like him will lose their jobs and have difficulty finding work when these stores close.  It is a problem that compounds with each store closing, each downsizing, each manufacturing job which is replaced by technology.

The advances in technology have moved at a dizzying pace in the past few years.  There is so much to love about it.  Businesses do more work with less people and without the factor of human error.  Communication is instantaneous. The average person can shop for just about anything online and have it delivered to his door the next day.  We can conduct just about all of our personal business online -- handling our banking, insurance, investments, healthcare, and even friendships from the comfort of our homes.  The world is there for us at any hour of the day, at the touch of a keyboard or screen. 

Unfortunately, though, as a society, we are paying a huge price for this technology.  Just as well-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared in recent decades, retail jobs are now falling victim to this cultural shift.  Why trudge through a shopping mall, comparing prices and searching for sizes and models, when we can sit in front of our computer and purchase what we want in a quarter of the time?  With apps for our phones, we can even compare prices while in a store to, in effect, narrow the competitive playing field between local stores. Job security has virtually disappeared. Technology has replaced many of the more menial jobs which provided secure employment for the less-educated, less competent among us. Computerized phone systems are more efficient than the operators of old.  Email has created job losses in mail rooms and in the postal service.  The jobs available for the less-skilled do not even pay a living wage in many cases. 

As politicians argue and place blame for our sluggish economy and the decline of the middle class, I think we must consider that one of the largest contributors to income disparity may be our technological society.  Those with the aptitude and education to thrive in the fields of technology and investment receive lucrative compensation, while those who once performed the less desirable jobs with pride are now either woefully underpaid or unemployed.

And yet, we continue down this road as we educate our children.  There is a tremendous emphasis on science and technology in our schools.  We believe our children must be able to compete in this society we have created, and most of our efforts and education dollars are focused on this goal.  In so doing, we leave behind the multitudes of children who are not "wired" for technology.  What is to become of those students whose abilities lie in the arts, writing, philosophy, or those whose abilities will never allow them to perform other than the most menial of tasks.  Aren't we at some point sacrificing our humanity if we attempt to place math and science above everything else?   We say that our children must compete in the global economy -- that Chinese and Japanese children are much better educated than ours.  We fail to consider, though, whether we really want our children's lives to center around education and financial success at all costs.  Maybe this is the time when we should step back and revisit the basic values of our country and try to reverse the trend toward personal and corporate greed.     

Where do we begin to solve the problems facing our society?  They certainly cannot be solved by computers or artificial intelligence.  They cannot be solved by politicians who spend half of their time pandering to their large corporate supporters, and their remaining hours spreading vitriolic half-truths about their political opponents.  Unfortunately, I am not even certain it is possible to reset the course of this nation.

I am certain, though, that we must all ask the questions.  How do we compete in this technological world without losing our humanity?  How can we grow small, local "niche" businesses that are not in direct competition with the huge corporations that have transformed our economy and devastated our quality of life in the workplace?  How do we educate our children so they are able to participate successfully in today's world, and yet lead fulfilling and worthwhile lives?  Our quality of life in this great country depends on how we choose to answer these questions.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Baby Boomer Grandparents

This isn't the way we envisioned this stage of our lives -- just as we finished raising our children and began looking forward to retirement, towards time to pursue interests that had been deferred, time free of responsibilities -- we instead find ourselves taking care of our grandchildren.  Our numbers are increasing as more of us retire, and financial strains further limit the choices of mothers as to whether or not to work.

Life is very different from the years when we were raising children.  Most of us were able to stay home when our children were young, if we so chose.  Now, the costs of housing, food, utilities, and transportation have increased enormously, and in most cases, mothers have no choice but to work in order to provide a secure life for their children.  There are basically three child care options for parents -- working alternate shifts so one parent can be with the children while the other works, day-care, or care by a family member or friend.  It is heart wrenching for parents to place their infant into the hands of strangers for eight hours each day. Fortunately, there is a generation of grandparents who are willing to step in and provide that care for their precious grandchildren.

For some of us, it was the only choice we could possibly make.  Looking into the eyes of my first little granddaughter a few minutes after her birth, I knew I wanted to be the one to keep her safe and secure while her parents worked.  At the time, we ran a contracting business from home, so I was able to care for her and keep up with my office work simultaneously.  I can remember working at the computer with her wrapped snuggly against my chest.  Then, her little cousin arrived ten months later, and his other grandma and I shared his care during the week.  I remember rocking my two precious little ones together in my arms at naptime.  By the time my third grandchild, another girl, was born, our business had failed, and I made the choice to retire, rather than join the workforce, so I would be able to continue caring for all three little ones.  

This is the choice being made by more and more grandparents.  A choice that is a labor of love.  You see us everywhere -- picking up our grandchildren at preschool, waiting at the corner for the school bus, pushing a stroller through the mall with a sleeping infant and a preschooler bouncing along beside us.  You see gray-haired grandpas holding the hands of little ones in the grocery store, grandmas sitting at library story hours with a preschooler listening intently as a baby watches from grandma's lap.  And, we share our stories -- the funny tales, the stories of our utter exhaustion by the end of the day, and the deep rewards of the close bond we have formed with our little ones.

We are giving our grandchildren a priceless gift -- they are secure, free to be themselves, and wrapped in love when they are with us.  We know that the world can be a hard place, especially today when it seems that more and more demands are placed on children at younger ages.  We give them consistency, constructive discipline, loving affection; we pass on stories, family traditions, values.  They are not "one of the kids" in day care -- they are the center of our world.  They will enter the larger world with the knowledge that they are special and unique -- and very much loved.

And, in turn, we receive a priceless gift -- a deep bond with these children who will leave our arms, but will always carry in their hearts the memories of these early days we spent together.  Our stories will be their stories; our homes will always be a familiar haven for them; we will be a part of their treasured childhood memories.  The baby boomer dreams of retirement can wait for a few more years, while we grandparents tend to our little ones -- what could be a more rewarding endeavor!!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Confessions of a Dilettante

"Dilettante - A person who cultivates an area of interest without real commitment or knowledge"

Many years ago I graduated from high school with three years of secretarial training; I was an extremely competent secretary.  Unfortunately, that was my last formal education or training.  I worked as a secretary for three years after high school, and then left the work force to begin raising a family.  By the time I was ready to supplement our income with something less demanding than running an informal family day care, I realized that my training in typing and shorthand was inadequate in our newly computerized world.  I bought a computer from Radio Shack and learned the basics of word processing, so I could run a secretarial business from home.  No longer did I feel competent.  I learned what I needed to learn to do the jobs that came my way, but that was all.  There was always the nagging doubt as to whether I was good enough.

Basically, while I have a huge variety of interests and abilities, I always feel somewhat of a fraud.  I am a writer by nature, and how I wish I had pursued a degree in some form of writing through the years, but I didn't.  There were always family issues and money issues, and the possibility of college courses was a dream that I never fulfilled.  Now I write for pleasure; I keep journals and enjoy writing my occasional blog posts; I am a writer at heart, and I am constantly forming words together in my mind, but I am an amateur, and nothing more.

 One of the great pleasures of my life is reading.  I almost always have at least two books on the table beside me; I devour them, loving the feel of the book in my hands, savoring the words and the stories, and often coming away from the experience with new insights.  I am not a reader who enjoys "chick lit", or fluffy little romance novels; I prefer my stories to be more honest portrayals of life.  However, I am ashamed to admit that I have read very few of the classics, and while I have the intention of reading them some day, I haven't so far.  When in a discussion of great literature, I am at a loss.

I love to garden.  I have created a cozy haven in my yard, for both people and wildlife.  It is lovely to look at, and peaceful to the soul, but it is a haphazard garden.  I have never taken the time to learn the fine points of gardening -- composting, soil testing and preparation, perennial division, organic pest control.  My yard is too shady for vegetables to thrive.  My tiny little vegetable garden produces very little for the time expended on it.  Gardening is my joyful pleasure, but I am an amateur at best.

Sewing and crafts were a big part of my life as my children were growing up.  I went through a period of knitting, occasionally with lovely results, but with no special skill.  I used my sewing machine often -- crafting Halloween costumes and dresses for my daughter, but it was obvious that my results were less than professional. 

One of my favorite activities is flower arranging; how I love the entire process of choosing the blossoms and greenery, creating the arrangement, and enjoying its beauty.  I have done flowers for numerous parties and showers, and even for a very small wedding, but, there is always the doubt in my mind as to whether I am "good enough," with only a few short hours of training.

I enjoy cooking and entertaining.  Unfortunately, I have not changed with the times to lighter, faster, gourmet meals.  I prefer my old standards -- roasts and potatoes, spaghetti & meatballs, lasagna, hearty soups simmering on the stove, homemade breads in the winter; the lighter tastes of grilled meats, macaroni or potato salads, and grilled fresh vegetables in the summer.  I love creating the tablescape, with flowers, beautiful china, candles, and a lovely old tablecloth.  This is my comfort zone -- here I feel competent, even though I have not kept pace with the times.  But, no special training was required here -- only the gentle helping hands of my mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law through the years.

And, of course, I feel a sense of competence as I care for my little grandchildren.  There is no training for being a good mother or grandmother.  It comes to us the moment we hold that first precious baby in our arms -- the love is all encompassing.  We offer them love, security, a listening ear, behavioral limits, and a slow unfolding of the life knowledge we want to pass on to them.  We may be amateurs in the very beginning, but we are experienced professionals by the time they are grown. 

So, basically I have led a very full life with interests that consume me and bring great pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.  Maybe someday there will be time for writing courses; maybe someday I will have the time to pursue my gardening in a more serious and educated manner; maybe I will take a part-time job at a florist and learn first-hand the art and skills necessary to be competent in this field.  Or, maybe I will forevermore remain an amateur, a dilettante -- after all, how lovely it is to receive so much pleasure from a way of life, regardless of the degree of training or recognition received..

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Contradictions of Swift Judgment

When The Person "In the Daily News" is Your Friend

How smug and condescending we can be as we watch the evening news and read the paper.  We make such quick, harsh judgments about the people caught in the cross-hairs of public scrutiny.  As a man is being led off to a police car, we think, "A crime is a crime."   As we hear of someone killed in an accident where carelessness is involved, we shake our heads and say, "It was his own stupidity."  When someone dies of a drug overdose, we say, "Well, it was his own fault."  When a young shooter sprays bullets into a crowd, we think, "Why didn't his parents see this coming."

I am a compassionate person, but I admit that I often make these same swift judgments, without any knowledge of the full story.  Unfortunately, in the past few years, I have been forced to acknowledge the shallowness of judging others.  Suddenly, these "others" became people whose lives intersected with mine through friends and family. 

A man died while riding his four-wheeler on his own farm, as he ran into a "neck high" wire he had placed around his field of marijuana plants.  Upon hearing this, I shook my head and said, "Another example of stupidity."  And then, I heard his name.  He was a long-time friend of members of my family.  How I regretted my harsh words, as I realized the anguish his death would cause to so many I knew. 

A man set fire to his farm and kept fireman from entering his property.  As photos were shown of him walking to the police car, I thought, "What a jerk!  Who would burn down his own house?"  That night I received a phone call from a good friend who had watched this man grow up on this family farm.  She was devastated at the news, and talked to me of the good times their families had through the years on this very farm.  Once I heard the background to his story, I was appalled at my callous judgment of his actions.

I recently watched the news as parents turned in their mentally disturbed son who had bought a gun and was having thoughts of harming people.  How unthinkable to be in a position where you must place your own child into the hands of law enforcement in order to protect others.  As we agonize over the increase in mass shootings, and often place blame on the parents, we must remember the grief and disbelief felt by the families and friends of these shooters -- the question in all of their minds being, "How could I not have seen this coming?"

We sit in judgment as we watch these brief news reports -- how easy it is to see the world as black and white when we are talking about strangers, and hearing about the crime or the accident itself, with no inkling of the background story involved, and the ripple effect on the emotions of family and friends, whose lives will never be quite the same.  How easy it is to condemn a criminal without knowing the details; how quick we are to judge the drunk or careless driver. 

The truth is that we can all find ourselves in these nightmarish situations.  A phone call in the night, or a policeman at your door, and your entire world can shift in a heartbeat.  And then, instead of being the one standing in judgment, we will be the ones forever haunted by the questions and the anguish.

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
Matthew  7:1-2


Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Remembrance of Hopefulness

This morning I took my granddaughter to the Altamont Free Library.  She and I both love books and reading, and I wanted to share this warm and cozy library with her.  Most of the local suburban libraries are modern and upscale, and this lovely space in an historic train station is smaller and less "techie", and I love it!!  She loved it too.  As I browsed nearby shelves, I could hear her quietly reading to herself in the soothing children's area. We finally left with several books each, and began the short trip back home.

When you reach my age and have lived in the same town forever, even a short trip causes memories to surface if you are in one of those sadly nostalgic moods.  As I travelled these country roads, with Alivia chattering away in the back seat, my mind was seeing myself on these same roads in earlier years.  Actually, I can't even remember now why I spent so much time on these backroads, but the emotions followed me on my way today. 

While life was never easy for me, there was always a sense of hope -- a feeling that some day life would be happier and less stressful.  I was always a "hopeful" person -- choosing to dwell on the brighter aspects of my days.  Today, though, the memories of those hopes and dreams that somehow never materialized left me disheartened. 

After we arrived back home from our meanderings, Alivia's parents came to pick her up.  My afternoon was quiet and I puttered in the house.  A light snow dusted the neighborhood, and I went outside to feed the birds, who always flock to the feeders when it snows.  I snapped a photo of my tiny pine tree with its coating of powdery snow, and listened to the sparrows who roost in my trellis of ivy.  The dusky afternoon slowly soothed my wistful spirit, and I put aside the "might-have-beens" that haunt me.  My warm house beckoned, and I went inside to sip a glass of wine as I put together a light Saturday night supper. 

On days such as this, when I wrap myself in a shawl of self-pity, I am reminded of a quote from a book I read several years ago.

"...we cause most of our own misery by thinking in "should-be's."  There's no use in "should-be's"...We have to find happiness in "what is." -- Lisa Wingate, in Drenched in Light

Wise words for us all!!