Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day - A Personal View

Memorial Day is a big deal in our house. My husband, R.J., is a Vietnam vet who lost two close friends in that war. He is also a military history buff and reveres all those who gave their lives for our country because he understands fully what that entails. So, the bunting and the flags fly on the house, and we take note of special remembrances in the media as well as in our community. Even though the real Memorial Day is this coming Saturday, we observed the official one this past weekend.

We usually watch the Memorial Day Concert from Washington DC; a great way to stir the patriotism within and to hear some outstanding talent. This year was no exception. Chicago's own Gary Sinise is the perfect host for this program as he gives so much of his time to veterans' charities.

The most poignant moments of this telecast were two-fold. First, a dramatic reading (eloquently performed by Dianne Wiest and Katie Holmes), recounting the struggle of a mother and sister of a severely injured Iraq vet. The sacrifices and devotion of these two women are gifts to our country, just as much as his service. The second was presented by Colm Wilkinson, the well-known British actor/singer, who sang "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables". He originated this song in that now infamous musical, and its powerful lyrics fitted the occasion. I was reminded of a story about the reaction by the cast of the musical, when Colm performed the song for the first time. The director told the cast that this prayerful song was to be added to the show and he wanted Colm to sing it for them. When he had finished, one cast member remarked, "You said it was a prayer. You didn't say you were having God perform it." He was right about that. If you can listen to him sing it and not cry, you have no emotion in your soul.

One other special story touched us this weekend. A story in the Chicago Tribune entitled, "A Day To Remember" by staff reporter Bonnie Miller Rubin. She gave an accounting of a trip from Chicago to Washington, D.C. by World War II vets to visit the memorial there that is dedicated to their service. This is made possible by a non-profit organization called Honor Flight Chicago that was started last year to take WWII veterans to Washington. The men were particularly touched by the special send-off and welcome back they received, even more so than the visit to the Memorial itself. As one man put it, "All these bright, young faces - it's overwhelming." One traveler, who had been signed up for the trip by his son, was lukewarm to the idea initially. He thought, "Why do I need to see a monument? But it turned out to be one of the best days of my life." Another said, "It wasn't until this trip that I thought, maybe we did do something pretty great after all."

What's important to note here, I think, is that our men and women who have put themselves in harm's way for us deserve every "thank you" and accolade we can personally give them. Just watching a parade on this day, or hanging out a flag isn't enough. Remembering those who have died for our country is what Memorial Day was created for, but thanking those who survived, while they are still with us - and some of them don't have much time left - is another way to honor those who are already gone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Life Is Good - And Now Even Better

When I picture our friend, Joe, I first see his infectious smile, his trademark moustache, and his trusty camera strapped around his neck. Joe has been our friend for over forty years; memories about him would be a blog in itself. But right now, we're just happy he's still on this earth so that we can create more memories with him - hopefully, for another 40-plus years.

Joe is an on-the-go kind of guy. He loves long-distance bike tours, is a professional photographer, travels all over the world, and regards his kids, grandkids, and wife as his most prized possessions. His friendship is unwavering - although he's bad about returning phone calls and e-mails! He has done so much, but has much more to do, see, and experience.

All of that was put in jeopardy recently when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Lots of prayers were sent heavenward as we waited for him to be put on a transplant list. That happened much more quickly than we anticipated, and, even more remarkable was that he was called only a couple of weeks later and told a donor liver was available.

The transplant was successful, and he is recuperating well. And, for that, we've said a lot more prayers. His most recent e-mail summed it up beautifully when he wrote, "Life is good...and now even better."

He has learned that the donor was a twenty-two year old man, and that he may have saved as many as 15 lives by being an organ donor. What a legacy; sad for his family, but heartwarming for the multiple families he helped. Joe said he was going to write a letter to his family, and hoped they would accept it.

I think we all hope that, once our earthly life is over, we leave behind something of significance. This recent experience has made me realize how important that notation on my driver's license is: "DONOR" in red letters next to my photo. Though I won't be here to know how my particular legacy plays out, the smiling image of our friend, Joe, is the strongest reason I can conjure to validate my choice. And I'd like to thank that anonymous young man, and his family, for giving us more memory-making years with a longtime friend.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Birthdays Should Be A Big Deal

My mother taught me a lesson about family birthdays being a big deal (see "A Special Birthday Cake" in my January 2009 blogs for an example of her giving). Once I had a family of my own, I continued that tradition. The anniversary of a person's birth should be a cause for celebration, tributes and lots of good food, and this is never more important than now, when our society seems to be so focused on the negative aspects of life.

I don't think that "big deal" necessarily means spending a lot of money. I know it means more to me, and members of our family, just to have an hour or two targeted especially for that person. Not to say that we don't like getting gifts, but it isn't about that, or a fancy dinner out, or a huge party with friends. No, it is about letting the birthday person know they are loved and cared about because everyone took time from their busy schedules - and everyone is busy to the max these days - to create a special memory.

In the past several weeks, we've done that three times - each celebration unique to the celebrant, and each definitely worth the effort. The first recipient was our son, Sean. His day was marked with a dinner at our house, and the next night, his wife gave him a small party, complete with birthday pie (apple crumb - his special request each year). The following week, our middle grandson, Christopher, turned 12 and got a birthday pie (chocolate - also his request) which we ate on the afternoon of his day. Since only his mother, brother and I were able to be there for that, and the rest of the family felt bad because they were all working, I cooked a dinner the next night when we could all be together to sing to him (over a cake this time). And the following day I took him shopping for new clothes (much more fun for a kid his age than opening up a gift of clothes that he doesn't like). So, both those "big deals" resulted in more than one day of birthday observance.

This week it was my husband's turn to be the center of attention, and I spent the entire day in preparation. R.J. is a big kid when it comes to his birthday, and this was a milestone one for him which made it even more important. Since our funds are stretched just now, I had to get inventive, and was proud of what I accomplished, staying within my budget. I shopped for the items for dinner, decorated his cake (his favorite - yellow cake with chocolate icing), set the table with special linens, china and crystal that have passed down in the family, and was even able to wrap up several small gifts. The smile on his face, the joy of the family as we all sat at the meal, watching him blow out his candles and open his presents was more than worth all the labor I'd expended. Yes, it meant I didn't write that day, or do any of the hundred other chores that awaited me on my desk, in my house or on my to-do list. Who cares? The day was his and, when I collapsed in bed that night, I felt as rewarded as he did.

Maybe that's what my mother wanted me to learn about spending the hours to make a big deal out of a birthday. I tend to think that the people who don't want to celebrate their birthdays, who moan and groan about getting older instead of enjoying the triumph of starting another year, are those who never had "their day" made special every year. It IS important. If you love someone, any excuse to make them feel special is an opportunity to share love. Birthdays are an annual song and dance opportunity; don't let them go by unnoticed.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Our English Cottage

Hedgerows define the winding path up the hill for our compact car. We slow as we see the antique sign announcing "Red Lion Pub" and, just beyond it, the small sign attached to a wide, wooden gate that declares "Red Lion Cottage". The crunching gravel under the tires, the English roses climbing the brick wall around and over the door , the plethora of assorted blooms that line the edges of the lawn all add to our impression that we are home - in England.

Of course, it isn't "our" home; it's a magical place we've been lucky enough to stay in on four separate vacations. It is owned by our dear friends, David and Sharon, who rent it out to people they like. We consider ourselves blessed to be on that exclusive list.

The cottage itself is at the end of a larger, two-story structure that encompasses our friends' residence. Originally, we are told, this building housed what would be called, in American parlance, four townhouses. Three were gutted to create their home, but we are lucky that they kept the last; a separate source of income for them, an idyllic destination for us.

We first stayed there in 1985, on our first trip to England, to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. Great care to detail, a friendly welcome, and the ambiance of the tiny rooms inside all served the impression that this was our home for a brief time. Stepping over the raised front door entry, seeing the fireplace, the chintz covered sofa, the winding staircase to the bedrooms above and glimpsing the kitchen beyond, we experienced an immediate cozy kinship with the place. Those sentiments have deepened over the 20+ years that we've been lucky enough to return. Improvements have been made to the cottage; an added bath upstairs, a small conservatory off the kitchen, and amenities upgraded, but it's the same comfortable haven we all look forward to spending time in, if always too briefly.

Our longest, and most recent stay was over four years ago. R.J. and I had just moved back to the Midwest, having sold our house in Virginia, and we decided to splurge on a much-overdue vacation to our second favorite country. That allowed us to book the cottage for three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and our time together there created memories we will always cherish. The weather was cold, which we love, our hosts happy to see us and congenial as always, balancing their friendly, welcoming personalities with a respect for our privacy and comfort. Whenever we left for a day to explore new sights in London or the English countryside, we always looked forward to returning in the evening to our snug, safe home. Our favorite days were those when we just stayed in, enjoying the beautiful grounds, the quiet of the country, and the atmosphere those protecting walls provided us.

When the depression of the economic downturn gets to me, I think about our home away from home, and I'm instantly transported to a happy corner of my world, where time stands still and good memories abound. Its images spur me on to climb out of our financial hole, do whatever it takes, to make certain that I'll soon be able to enjoy the respite it gives my life. I know I share these feelings with our children, who've been lucky enough to visit there as well. In fact, our son and his wife spent their honeymoon in it. We all dream of the next stay. Residing there evokes a timeless warming of the heart and soul. You have to have been there to understand. And I hope to be there again - anon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sentiment And Reality

Back in October, I wrote a post about the houses in my life that have evoked special memories for me (if you want to look back and read it to fully understand today's topic, just click on October 2008 on this page). Last night, our daughter brought one of those houses into the present for me.

Dawn just returned from a nostalgic journey of her own. She spent four days in Orlando, renewing friendships and visiting sites that played a large part in her growing up years. Her express purpose for going there was a reunion of her old elementary school. The building where she spent six happy learning years is being torn down and the powers that be there decided to invite alums and faculty for a last look and a chance to reconnect. That was emotional enough for her, but even more so, she shed tears at the sight of our old house, which is just outside the school gates.

She called me Saturday, obviously sentimental. "Oh, mom, it looks beautiful! The people who live there have kept it looking the same. They've just added things to it that you and Dad always wanted to. " My cell phone soon dinged with the arrival of camera phone pix, sharing her emotional views. It was difficult, on the tiny screen, to see details, but I was immediately transported back to the 18 years we had lived there, and all that meant. When she flew home last night, she couldn't wait to put her additional photos up on our computer screen to fully detail every angle of that house and its landscape. Seeing them, I had to choke back tears of my own.

Ivy covers the garage walls now; I remember when we planted that first ivy plant, struggling to get it to attach. A new picket fence has replaced the one we built ourselves and spent hours painting, and the trees in the backyard, which were hardly taller than me when we moved, now shade the entire yard from a towering height.

I was struck by how those images made me happy and thankful; there is a part of our family history that exists for me to return to. In this era of teardowns in suburbia being the rule rather than the exception, I have often wondered if those walls had been sacrificed for some mistaken idea of progress. I can't tell you how glad I am that they haven't been. The inside, I know, would probably not resemble what it did when we lived there. Each subsequent owner has altered that to fit their own lifestyle. But to see that exterior, lovingly cared for as we had created it so many years ago speaks to my sense of historical order somehow, if that makes sense. It's that realization that our treasured abode is still there and creating memories for its current occupants that will mmic ours, in a way. That reality deserves some sentimental words.

NOTE: I apologize for being absent in my musings this past month; personal responsibilities prevented entries. I think I'm back on track again. Stay with me!