Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Photograph

Recently, as I was reorganizing my storeroom, I moved a box, and this black and white photo fell onto the floor.  The photo was taken in Stockbridge almost fifteen years ago.  I was reminded of the wonderful days I shared with my mother and my sister in this lovely little town.  Since I was in the middle of quite a time-consuming project, I put the photograph aside to save.  By the end of the day, though, in all the confusion, I had misplaced the photo.  How bereft I felt.  I had so much wanted to study the photo and remember details of those days.

The calendar page turned to July last week.  July holds the terrible memory of my sister's slow and painful death six years ago, and as I began to once again relive those saddest of times, I remembered the photo that I had lost.  How I wished I could remember where I had put it; fear also lingered that maybe it had inadvertently found its way to the trash.  Yesterday, I walked into the storeroom, and saw a photo lying on the floor, face down.  It hadn't been there before, and as I turned it over, it was my beautiful Stockbridge photo.  As you can see, it is merely a fading black and white photograph of a little shop which was tucked into the back of an alley near the Red Lion Inn.  But what lovely memories it evokes for me.

I actually loved this tiny gift shop.  There were exquisite vintage clothes and jewelry, all sorts of trinkets and lacy Victorian treats -- a shop that spoke to my heart, even though I couldn't afford many of its beautiful wares.  There was so much I loved about Stockbridge -- the perennial flowers that were scattered about for all to enjoy, the peaceful shrine set apart from the bustle of the tourist town, the little shops sheltered in the historic old buildings.  And how I loved the Red Lion Inn.  It was a favorite of both my mother and sister.  My mother and I often celebrated her birthday with lunch at the Inn.  My sister and I sometimes drove over early and enjoyed breakfast, sitting at the linen-covered table and savoring the slower pace of the breakfast crowd.  We wandered the halls of the Inn, and visited the gift shop.  

On our many day trips, we would often drive down to Great Barrington, enjoying the antique shops along the way, and stopping at a nursery to browse among whatever plants were in season.  I vividly remember one Saturday when an unexpected storm arrived as we started back from Great Barrington to Rt. I-90.  At one point, the road was closed due to a downed tree, and we had to take an alternate route.  One side of the road was thickly treed, with high winds blowing treacherously, and the other side of the road was bordered by the Housatonic River, which was rising at a terrifying pace as we drove along.  I could barely unclench my hands from the steering wheel when we finally arrived safely on the highway to home.

Many of the memories are blurred by time now, with my mother and sister both long dead.  I treasure those special days, when we strolled through town, chattering and laughing, lingered over breakfast or lunch in deep conversation, thoroughly enjoying each other's company, never realizing how little time we really had left together.  I have not been back to Stockbridge since my sister died.  Each year I think, "maybe this year," but somehow I cannot imagine walking those streets with someone else.

And that is why this photo is so important to me.  As I look at it I am filled with bittersweet longing to go back to those days -- to just one more time walk arm in arm with my mother, and to spend a July afternoon lunching on the porch of the Inn with my sister.  Times change, life changes, and maybe even Stockbridge has changed.  I hope not.  But, now I have this photo which I can place gently in a frame and remember the happy times.  And, I wonder why, after all these years, this photo returned to me in the month of my sister's death -- a gift from God, perhaps?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Finding Inner Peace Midst the Chaos

There are times in life when weeks slide past us in a blur.  These can be periods of joy and happiness or of stress and worry.  April and early May have been chaotic for me.  There has barely been time to ponder one moment before another hurried into the forefront.  Finally, this morning, I had some time to myself, and, of course, I headed to the garden to slow down and gather my thoughts a bit.

There is a natural rhythm to the seasons and in the garden.  Sometimes when life is filled with craziness it is important to revisit nature -- to recapture this rhythm which has gone asunder in our own lives. 

As I look back over the past two months, it is difficult to remember all of the events which have kept me so busy.  April began with Easter Sunday brunch, then an overnight hospitalization for my husband, which resulted in doctor visits and tests, followed quickly by a week-long sleepover for my granddaughter while her parents were away.  May has brought a baby shower, bridal shower, class reunion, and the funeral of an old friend.  Of course, all of the normal daily routines continued, as well as garden clean-up in any spare time.  While many of these events were joyful, there have been underlying worries and stresses in my family and those of several of my friends.  Stress has been my constant companion.

So, I welcomed this quiet morning.  I gathered together my gardening tools and my camera, and set to work -- mindless work, which allows your thoughts to clear as you feel the sunshine on your shoulders, the breeze ruffling the leaves, hear the trickle of the water in the pond, and the birds singing and cavorting in the bird bath.  How lovely to see my Bridal Wreath bush, now well over forty-five years old, blooming faithfully again.


I drank in the peaceful little spaces in the garden where St. Francis keeps watch over all of the little creatures who make their homes here.  I watered the hanging pots of flowers by the front steps, and the seeds planted here and there during the past couple of weeks.  I was excited to find that already my patch of wildflower seeds has sprouted, and the zinnias in the little patch by the mailbox have burst their first tiny leaves through the soil. 

I pulled weeds and pruned away a multitude of tiny little maple trees that have taken root.  If I let these little maples grow, in no time my yard would be one large maple forest.  Working in the garden is often hot, sweaty and tiring work, and by late morning, I was ready for a shower.  I took some photos with my always-ready camera, and felt the inner peace that comes with hard work in the beautiful lushness of a garden.  Obviously, the worries and stresses that have plagued me these past few weeks have not miraculously resolved, but this quiet morning, working in the lovely surroundings of nature has soothed my soul a bit.  My heart feels quiet and at ease.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why is STEM more important than the Arts?

The constant promotion of STEM education - science, technology, engineering, mathematics -- troubles me.  I realize our world today, as well as our economies, rely on technology to a frightening degree (but that is a story to be pondered at another time).  I understand that to be competitive in this global economy, we must encourage strong curriculums in the technological sciences, beginning in elementary school.  We strive to empower girls to enter these courses of study at a much higher rate than in the past.  I also understand this, because for generations many girls were not encouraged to choose a scientific track.  We will need highly intelligent, competent STEM graduates as our technological world spins at a faster and faster pace.

However, my worry is that in placing so much emphasis on this area of education, we risk providing a well-rounded education to all of our children.  We must be certain that with cuts in school aid and budget constraints, we do not put all of our efforts into STEM education.  I have noticed in the past few years, as taxpayers cringe over budget increases, the first program cuts that are discussed are arts and music, and this is not wise.  In a world as complicated as ours has become, we need to be sure our children are raised to be competent readers, those who can think and problem-solve, those with imagination; we don't want them to be little robots who can interact with computers, but not other people. 

We also need craftsmen, construction workers, teachers, writers, philosophers, artists, and musicians who bring life to our innermost feelings and joy to our souls.  In a technological world, we will need good leaders to make the best decisions for our nations -- those with a knowledge of history, the ability to "see the big picture" and analyze situations, and to work well with others.  These people need humanities and arts education.

We are each born with particular aptitudes and gifts.  Mine did not include math and science.  I excelled in basic arithmetic, but hit a wall with algebra.  And not only am I totally incompetent in science and technology, I have absolutely no interest in them.  When a conversation turns technical, I simply "zone out."  But, I am intelligent and competent-- a reader, thinker, writer, and was a highly qualified secretary at one time. 

I am not questioning the importance of STEM education, but I do fear that we will make a grave error if we sacrifice the arts and humanities in order to produce more STEM graduates.  Not only will the quality of life for our world in general suffer, but we will also be sacrificing millions of our young people with great minds and great talents who do not fit the technological mold.  They will feel like failures, when, in fact they are the students who will one day contribute the common sense, color and joy to our world. 


Monday, March 23, 2015

This Old House vs House Hunters

It has always amazed me how one small incident in life can trigger a multitude of reminiscences.  Our recent decision to begin cleaning our attic of its forty-some years' accumulation somehow brought me to the revelation of the vast changes in circumstances and expectations between our generation and the generations that have come after ours.

As I watch "House Hunters" and several other real estate-oriented programs on HGTV, I notice that most of the younger people looking for homes want houses that are in pristine condition.  They have neither the time nor inclination to buy "fixer-uppers"; the kitchens must be large and updated, and the master bedroom must have its own bath.  I think back over the years we have spent in our house.  When we first bought it in 1972, it was painted a faded yellow cream color, which was very common in the '50s, but it definitely needed a fresh coat of paint.  The inside of the house also needed much work.  The kitchen consisted of a wall hung sink, stove, and refrigerator, with a shelved pantry -- no counters, no cabinets -- just the very basics.  The bathrooms were sparse on luxury, and small.  The walls in every room were covered in faded, flowered wallpapers, and the tall, sunny windows allowed the brutal winter winds to enter through every crevice.

However, I fell in love with the charm of the house.  I pictured rocking babies in the upstairs bedrooms, family dinners in the dining room, and kneading bread dough on the old metal table in the kitchen.  All it would take was a little work.  What I didn't realize in my naivete was the money, the time, and the sheer physical effort it would require to restore this house, room by room, while living here, raising those babies, and earning a living at the same time.  And then, as we slowly, slowly made our dream come true, we found that by the time we had accomplished many of our projects, the rooms we had completed were once again in need of fresh paint or new plumbing fixtures.  The kitchen which was so modern and lovely to us in the early 1980's, is now seriously in need of a new floor, new cabinets and new countertop -- it is over 30 years old. 

I have loved this house from the very beginning, and everywhere I turn I see the work of our own hands.  How I treasure the memories of suppers in this kitchen where there was always room for one or two or three more at the table when the children were teenagers.  How I love my mug of coffee on the lovely back porch as the early morning sunrise climbs higher in the sky, and the sight of my numerous little gardens and shade trees, all planted with love and care.

I was very fortunate, however, that for the most part I was able to be a stay-at-home mom, forced to earn only part-time income here and there through the years, giving me plenty of time to strip wallpaper, paint, sew curtains, and frequent estate sales to furnish my precious house.  My husband was in the construction field, and capable of doing the heavy, complicated projects himself.  I am very thankful we had the opportunity to pursue this dream of ours.

Today it is a different world.  Most mothers must work full-time, and both parents are so busy just keeping up with the day-to-day routine of preparing meals, caring for children, keeping up with laundry, and cleaning, that they do not have the time that was available to us.  Their houses must be convenient, tasteful, and as low-maintenance as possible. 

I know in my heart, though, that I would never trade places with them.  Even when I look at the condos and apartments being built for seniors now, they just seem so bland and lacking in personality.  My hope is that I will be able to live out my life in this old house -- like me, it is shabby around the edges, but it is comfortable and it carries the essence of all those who have worked, played, cried and laughed within its walls.  Oh, the tales it could tell!!!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Cursing Daylight Savings Time

Daylight savings time has a long history in our country, but it is only in recent years that it has begun so early in March.  For those of us who are "morning people," be it by choice or necessity, this early "Springing Forward" is depressing.  On weekdays, I must be up by 5:45 AM to be ready to greet my young granddaughter at the door by 6:20, and begin my day of bus schedules and preschool pickups.  How lovely it has been for the past two or three weeks to wake up to dawn streaking the sky in the east and birds singing outside my window.  No matter how tired I was when the alarm went off, seeing daylight through the curtains was a strong motivator to get up and out of bed. 

Last night at 2:00 AM, that changed.  Now I will once again rise to darkness -- and this year, it is a frigid, snowy darkness, as well.  The birds continue to sing, though, because they are ready for spring, darkness or not -- hearing their beautiful songs and chatter will help me to drag myself from my warm and cozy bed until the days lengthen enough to compensate for this change in time.

The view from my porch this week is still one of winter, and I am really missing that hour we lost last night, because I had to be up early this morning, inadvertently waking my granddaughter and her puppy who were sleeping over.  There were no peaceful few moments to sip coffee and prepare for the day.

However, life is what it is, and all I can do is be thankful that the birds begin their songs before daybreak, and that I should have some time for a short nap this afternoon to help my body clock adjust to the loss of last night's hour.  Spring will come, and within a month, I will once more wake to the peachy hues of sunrise dappling through the trees.  Complaining about Daylight Savings Time is like cursing into the wind. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Snow, Snow, Go Away....

I am snuggled in my cozy chair, wrapped in a soft afghan, with a sleeping dog on my lap, and I am thinking, "I should be doing something!"  There is cleaning to be done, laundry waiting, bills that need paying, and yet, I sit here.  This long, cold winter has finally defeated me.  While I love snow, enough is enough, and today there is a brutally cold wind that catches my breath whenever I try to walk outside.  I feel like my energy has deserted me, and yet, I feel guilt that I am sitting here when there is so much I could be doing.

This morning I cut up some assorted vegetables, and my husband placed them outside for the deer, while he fed and watered the birds.  A lone little doe (one of my favorites) stopped in for a late morning snack.  It broke my heart to see her shaking from the cold as she stood there.  Two nights ago, three deer were scrounging the ground for bird seed, so I threw out some apples which they chomped gratefully.  The birds have spent much of the day taking turns at the feeder, as the squirrels pick at the seed that drops to the ground below.  This is a tough winter for wildlife.

How lazy I feel sitting here this afternoon.  I think of the heating bill that will arrive this month, and of the people who cannot afford heating costs or secure shelter.  I have a good book to read, and the knowledge that a bit later I will prepare a hot supper of pasta and sauce, veal parmesan, and popovers.  I am warm; I do not have to leave the shelter of this solid old house today.  I am even more fortunate that the heavy snows that covered parts of New England in this storm spared us.  We have merely a couple of inches of new, clean, sparkly snow. 

And yet, I miss my garden; I miss sitting on my lovely porch; I miss being able to jump into the car and go somewhere without boots, gloves, and hat.  I miss the sizzle of steaks on the grill, and the lovely sight of roses spilling over the trellis.  This winter has been an old-fashioned, very beautiful one, but I am cold and lazy and so ready for spring.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Aging with Joy

Cold temperatures and snow are forecast for this February Sunday; I slept in a bit longer than usual, and now sit contentedly in my cozy old robe and sip hot coffee.  I have no commitments today -- a day of leisure to fill with pleasures of my choosing.  Although I have always loved winter, I find that as I age, by February I am becoming tired of the extra efforts required to stay warm and safe -- the boots, hats, gloves, careful steps on snowy surfaces, and the fear of falling which keeps me from my much-loved walks in the darkness as snow falls all around me.  Already, in the very first storm of the season (on my 64th birthday, no less), I fell as I walked down the driveway to take a photo of the sheer beauty of my snow-covered old house with its tiny white Christmas candles sprinkling their light into the snowy darkness.  Since then, I have been plagued with knee and back pains from time to time.

Aging is serious business.  We must take care of ourselves -- in body, mind and spirit -- so that the process can be a joyful one.  When I was young, with a houseful of children, pets, and friends, my energy seemed limitless, and my days were full.  I was immersed in life, and pushed myself to the limit in everything that I did.  The first time I really noticed a decrease in my energy level was when  my second son graduated from high school when I was forty-six.  Of course, I planned a large graduation party, and all came out well, except I realized that I was much more exhausted after this party than I had been after his brother's graduation four years before. Could it be my age?? 

A few years later, in my early fifties, I stood in a dressing room, with the harsh overhead lighting accentuating each strand of silver roots peeking through the blonde hair.  I made a mental note to touch up my haircolor.  As I slipped off my sweater, I was surprised by the softness of my body.  My skin seemed somehow looser, not quite sagging, but no longer tightly drawn over the tissue underneath.  There was a vulnerable look to my arms and neck, a sense that while I still wore the same size, there was somehow less substance to my body.  This new awareness of my aging body startled me.  When did my firm chin begin this undetected softening; when did my body begin to resemble my mother's.

The aging process had begun to catch up with me.  In many ways, the mindset of our baby-boom generation led us to unrealistic expectations of aging.  We heartily believed that with the proper diet, exercise, and mental stimulation, we would barely notice a change as we hurtled along into middle age and finally reached the "elderly" status.  We didn't realize that there is also a genetic component to aging.  My family was comprised of both those who died much too young, and those who lived into their 80's and early 90's.  I have no idea whose aging genes I carry, so I tend to cherish every day that I have.  One of my friends has parents who were active and quick-minded well into their 90's.  I also have friends my age who suffer from disabling diseases.  We have no idea what our own aging process will be; we do, however, have the power to look for the smallest of pleasures each day which will enhance the lives we have been given.

As we reach our sixties and beyond, there is a freedom to finally be ourselves and be content within our own skin.  We can retire, keep working, work part-time, volunteer, take care of our grandchildren, travel; the possibilities are endless.  I have chosen to care for my grandchildren during the day, and this has blessed me with deep emotional rewards.  Once they are all in school, I would like to pursue some of my hobbies with more serious intent -- genealogy, gardening, writing, photography.  Social media has allowed many of us to reconnect with friends from long ago.  How wonderful it is to talk to people I haven't seen in years -- to reminisce and renew friendships across the miles with the click of a few computer keys. 

Some of us are in great physical shape and others are not.  Some of us are financially comfortable and others live in poverty.  Whatever our circumstances, though, we can find joy in our everyday lives.  We are free to live our lives as we choose.  We can spend time with people we enjoy -- who bring laughter and understanding to our lives.  My energy level decreases a little each year, and I struggle on my limited income, but I find pleasure in my much-loved old house, my flowers and herbs, my precious birds and little creatures who inhabit my yard and eat peacefully together at the bird feeder.  I have a world of books from which to choose at the local library.  I live in a wonderful little neighborhood where we all watch over each other -- we have even begun a new generation here with precious little twins who live in the house where their great-grandfather once lived. 

As we grow into this new elderly stage of life, we will be faced with new challenges and will have days when our troubles weigh us down; we will struggle with painful joints that are no longer as flexible, and issues with forgetfulness.  Our eyesight may fade a bit, and our hearing will diminish with time.  We have the power to decide how we will face these years.  We can choose to dwell on the limitations of age, or we can choose to fill our days with pleasure, joy and love.  These can be the best years of our lives --