An Invaluable Legacy

8 08 2017

There is a tremendous emphasis these days on income. How much money you have and what you do with it has become a benchmark of success. As if money could be the precursor to happiness. As if your bank account equates your level of contentment. As if those with little money ought to be miserable.

I don’t deny that lack of money can make life difficult, especially for a family with children whose very existence require a decent income to sustain them. But more to the point, the richest people in the world don’t necessarily have a corner on the happiness market. Yes, those whose income is either non-existent or very low have a much harder life than the middle-income range, but here’s the thing. The most giving and kind-hearted people are often those who have the least.

These bold statements come from personal experience.  As a child, my parents were poor. Were it not for the twelve cows my dad milked for income and which provided milk and butter for us, the meager six acres of asparagus he grew, and my mother’s skillful negotiations for ‘sale’ prices on cases of dented canned sauerkraut and other vegetables, we might likely have starved. Potatoes mashed alternately with apples, kale, sauerkraut and spinach became an every-meal staple for us. Never did either my mom or dad talk about our poverty. Never once did I hear either of them complain, argue, or in any way indicate our lack of income. I wore my cousins’ hand-me-downs, as did my brother. We were always clean, always loved, and always expected to be respectful and well-behaved. Dad made a game of going to a Saturday sale, waiting until the very end when the auctioneer would pile various things into boxes and sell them for a quarter. Often those boxes yielded treasures, things Dad could fix up and use, or fix up and sell at the next auction. He took childlike delight in the money he earned in the process.

I remember vividly the generosity my parents practiced. There was always room for one more at the dinner table, and they shared as though they had more than enough. Often Dad went to the bank to borrow against the next year’s crop because the frost or drought took this year’s. His first priority the next year was to honor his commitment to pay back what he borrowed, even if that meant we got no profit.

And here’s what I learned from all that. I learned that being honorable is a great virtue. I learned that kindness can save a person from despair. I learned that generosity is possible, even when there is next to nothing to share. I learned that we are all equal on this earth if you measure equality in terms of integrity and strength of character. I learned that loving your fellow man is an active verb, something you show in a visible way. And I learned that hope is the one word we all need to hold on to. My parents did that. Their hope and their strong faith carried us all those years ago. What a legacy.

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What I’ve Gained

28 07 2017

I’ve lost my husband. Each day that reality hits me equally hard. Sometimes there is a deep sadness that refuses to give way regardless of what I do. Sometimes the smothering heaviness of loneliness wraps itself around me, barely allowing me to breathe. But other times a larger picture pushes the sadness and loneliness aside and tells me this:

I have gained so much.

I’ve gained strength to face each day. I’ve gained the ability to see the tiniest of details all around me, those pinpoints of incredible beauty waiting for me to notice, like the hummingbird resting on the petal of an Asian lily, or the perfectly shaped leaf being shifted by the breeze. The huge waves coming in to shore not by their own will but by the will of the wind. The cloud formation that is a bird, then a kite, then a sailboat.

I’ve gained independence. Though I have no sense of direction, I’ve found my way around my state, amazed myself by navigating other places like Chicago and Milwaukee. Faced with the decision of either figuring it out or staying home, I’ve chosen to figure it out. I’ve learned to eat out alone, go to movies alone, or on a drive to enjoy nature, alone.

I’ve gained a lifetime of memories, those snapshots of family times, travels overseas, and simple Saturday mornings over coffee. Drawing on those, squeezing as much joy as possible from each precious moment, I’ve realized that I can still make memories in the future. They won’t look the same. They won’t be the memories I was hoping for five years ago. But they are there, waiting for me to recognize and take advantage of them.

I’ve gained a different kind of joy. It’s so much deeper and more permanent than the joy I had before, maybe because the heaviness of melancholy has filtered in, giving it a richness it lacked before. If nothing else, death is an unrelenting educator.  

I’ve gained the certainty that my friends are always going to surround me. What a gift! Their loyalty, camaraderie, love and thoughtfulness have daily blessed me. I am humbled by their devotion. They accept me as I am, regardless of circumstances.

I’ve gained the knowledge that petty differences are just that—petty. They are not important, and not worth wasting time and energy debating.  As individuals we have our own ideas and views of life, but at the base of it all is our love for each other. Every single person on this earth is going to say and do things that will hurt others, but those things do not define them or how they feel about the significant people in their lives.

I’ve gained a different kind of faith, one that encourages me to lean more heavily on God and accept more fully the future He has planned for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still rally against the way things are. As I sit alone in the evenings I desperately miss the companionship of my husband. I don’t relish my singleness. But acceptance is part of life. Misery is not an option. There are legions of us out there, each dealing with loss in our own unique way, taking the journey one step at a time with the faith that it will be okay. Because that’s the best decision we can make.





Legacy

16 07 2014

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My father was born in 1915, the youngest of seven, to farm-laborer parents. He was the only child who had farming in his blood and after completing sixth grade, he became a full-time worker in the fields alongside his father.
As he grew older he knew he wanted to farm, but buying land in the Netherlands was impossible. He decided his best avenue would be to learn a trade and save up to move elsewhere, though the place he would go wasn’t yet clear.

After taking night classes and completing his required training, Dad became a barber, first as an apprentice and later owning his own shop. When he and my mother married in 1943, he began in earnest saving every penny he could, a difficult task since war had begun the year before.

The thing about Dad was, he had the most optimistic view of life of anyone I’ve met. Pair that up with sheer determination, add an adventuresome spirit and a fearless attitude, and you have Dad. So he packed up his little family of four and set off for America in 1947. And he worked hard.

Fast forward to the 1950’s and Dad owned a small, seven acre farm in Washington where he raised asparagus and tomatoes and milked a handful of cows. He moved us from farm to farm until he purchased a forty acre parcel growing concord grapes, with a contract to sell each crop to Welch’s for juice and grape jelly.

Dad became a successful man who farmed well and worked hard, but most importantly who loved his family and his God without reservation. A man of principle and faith, devotion and loyalty. A truly good man. The world was blessed to have him for 92 years.

And I miss him.





Thar She Blows!

17 02 2014
Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens

Beauty from Ashes

My parents lived about one hundred miles east of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. As they were coming out of a worship service one Sunday morning in 1980, the sky was turning a strange, deep shade of gray. There was little wind, which would have signaled a sandstorm, and as the sky gradually darkened and the wall of gray advanced, the parishioners were frightened and began to speculate in hushed tones. What could it mean? Was it the end of the world?

Mom told me about the eerie silence that hung in the air as sunlight disappeared and it became dark as night. Panic stricken and not knowing what they should do, people huddled together. Mom described it as a very bizarre experience.

Later, my parents learned that Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano, had erupted that morning. A strong earthquake registering 5.1 on the Richter Scale caused pressure to build inside the mountain. That in turn released a plume of steam, and within seconds the cloud turned black as ash shot into the sky. Rock and ice trapped in the mountain exploded, and soon hot gas, ash, chunks of ice and huge pieces of rock were catapulted upward. It was determined that the blast was 500 times greater than the 20 kiloton bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

The darkness the parishioners experienced was caused by a fine, thick blanket of ash that crawled across the state like a curtain, slowly shutting out the light. Even though the volcano was a hundred miles away, the volcanic residue changed day into night. Amazing.

A few years later, my husband and I and our three children took a road trip on one of our visits to my parents’ home. We saw the devastation the volcano had caused—millions of fir trees, many 200 year old, mowed down like so many bowling pins, and the lake below filled with pines sheared and shoved down the mountainside into the water by the force of the blast. And gray. Everything was gray. Once, this had been a lush, green range of pine trees teeming with wildlife. Trees of every size had populated the slope, making it look like a green carpet rising up to meet the sky. Beds of wildflowers, spread like quilts in the sunny patches between copses of trees, had splashed color randomly across the forest. Now, there was no life of any kind. Only ash. Gray, lifeless ash.

volcanic-ash

Fast forward a decade. My next visit to the area revealed something amazing. Yes, there was still gray. But now there were small pine trees pushing through the ash, some vegetation and flowers beginning to grow. The mountainside was regenerating, starting anew, covering itself with a fresh, young shade of green that indicated new life. Beauty out of ashes.

This week I ran across an old newspaper I had saved from May 19, 1980, the day after the volcano erupted. As I remembered that week, the phone conversations with my parents, and the impact the ash had on the farm area where they lived, I realized that my current situation is similar. My life has undergone an enormous change these past months since my husband’s death. The ash of sorrow has darkened my days and covered me with a deep sense of hopelessness. It seems as though it will never go away, never be bright and good again.

Still, every now and then there comes a spark of hope, a hint of joy, a ray of light. It’s a new life for me as I face the future, but who’s to say it won’t be good? The cover of ash is being replaced by a fresh crop of optimism. No, it will never be the same. My children and I are facing a future without our anchor, but we are gradually emerging from the cloud of ash and are beginning to see potential ahead. God is revealing to us a new future with new hopes and dreams. It’s been there all along, really. He knew that, knows it now, but is giving us evidence of it one day at a time, as we are able to understand, accept. All we have to do is believe and trust.

Beauty out of ashes. New life in spite of death.

It’s nothing short of a miracle.





It’s a New Year, Charlie Brown

30 12 2013

IMG_0369“In the book of life the answers aren’t in the back.” Wise words, Charlie Brown, though if the answers were there and were good ones, I might be more inclined to welcome in the New Year. Honestly, for a while I didn’t know if I should look forward to 2014 or dread it.

For anyone who doesn’t know me well, I am an optimist by nature. It’s a good trait, one which has gotten me through a lot of the difficult years of my life. The reality is, a lot of life is hard, painful, impossible. But I prefer to temper those parts with the view that there is always, always something good to come out of the struggles. My parents were a great example of people who lived by that mantra. Life didn’t treat them kindly those first few years after WWII as they moved to a new country and worked hard to make ends meet. But I grew up with singing in the house, an ever present faith in God, and a feeling of security and well-being that never wavered. They never let my brother and me know how poor we were.

My natural optimism tells me to look forward, never forgetting, always learning. So I’ll not listen to Charlie Brown’s dire prediction: “I’m afraid to be happy, because whenever I get too happy something bad always happens.”
You’re wrong, Charlie Brown. I’m not listening to you. Forward is the only way to go, the choice is in the direction we take, either the hopeful path or the dismal one.

I choose hope. I choose optimism. I choose to be happy. I choose to embrace this coming year and all the good things it will hold. I am so very richly blessed by my children, grandchildren, extended family and loving friends. And most of all by God. After all, He’s the one in charge, and I know He has only my good in mind.

Bring on 2014. And shape up, Charlie Brown. You need a good dose of happy.





Thoughts on a Morning Breeze

8 08 2013

Maple leaves

Maple leaves


As I sit on my deck, a single maple leaf quivers and shifts on the newly sealed floor, the drop of rain from last night’s shower shimmering as it glides off the edge. I watch, mesmerized, as the leaf lifts, floats for a second, and settles back into a new spot. It no longer has life, and yet it moves from place to place, carried by the early morning breeze.

It’s an amazing thing, that little bit of motion caused by something invisible. I look up into the tree and I see movement everywhere–every leaf, branch and seed pod is gently swaying because of the light wind. Raindrops roll off and fall on my arm. Shadows dance with the sun, making an ever-changing, abstract pattern on the deck.

Life is like that. Ever changing, never the same, unpredictable. That’s what makes it so beautiful, all those little surprises unveiled each day if only we stop and allow ourselves to see them. Sure, it can also be a harsh reality when the unexpected is painful and debilitating. I learned that lesson when my husband died unexpectedly in March. At those times it is impossible to see beyond right now, but out of that pain comes something salvageable and precious.

Once again that recurring theme of perspective comes to mind. I’m not an advocate of pain. Pain is, well, painful. But I was born with my father’s optimistic temperament, and I choose to believe that out of my pain there will come something beautiful. Maybe it will be in the form of a new friendship borne out of that pain. Maybe it will be a stronger relationship with and appreciation for my children and my friends. Maybe it will be a renewed faith and dependency on my God, the author of that breeze. Maybe it will be all of those things, and maybe it will take a long time to discover. But I believe it will come.

A small gust of wind picks up the leaf and blows it away. As I watch it swirl and dip and disappear, I feel a spark of something unexpected pass through me. Joy. There is so much to be thankful for. And joy doesn’t preclude pain, a lesson I learned a long time ago. It’s a state of mind. I look forward to the day I can see the other side of my grief, but in the meantime that sense of joy remains. Life does go on, it does still have unexpected beauty in it, and it does change every day.

I recently added a line to my email signature. It says: Spend each day as if it is your last.
I tend to barrel through my days, trying to pack in the items on my to-do list. I’m beginning to realize that it’s a coping mechanism, that maybe I need to slow down in order to appreciate those small things. If today is my last day, may it be filled with little sparks of joy.





On Knitting Your Life

17 03 2013

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Retired people are the best teachers. They’ve figured out the secret of living a good life and leaving a legacy.

I’ve had occasion to think about the broader view the past few days. A dear friend who spent his adult years helping others, and who welcomed everyone who walked through the doors of our church, died last week. He was the definition of hospitality. Everything he did was intentional, and if I had to describe him in three words, I would say he paid attention.

A saintly lady who is nearly 93 and is a valued friend and resource for understanding
European history (and, consequently, my family’s history), is also impacting my life view. She personifies selflessness. As a young woman she was part of the resistance in war-ravaged Netherlands during WWII, and to this day she speaks to children, young people and adults about the importance of non-discrimination. Her heart is with all the downtrodden, no matter their situation. She is accepting.

Since the age of five I’ve been a knitter, with several projects in the works at any given time. The process is second nature, something I can do while watching television, conversing, riding in a car, listening to music…any time I have a spare minute. It’s calming, comfortable, easy. . . until I make a mistake. Then it gets frustrating, challenging, hard.

Life is like knitting. When you get to the end you want to be able to look at the finished product and be proud of what you’ve made with the materials at your disposal. There are thousands of stitches in the piece you’ve made, and though each single stitch seems insignificant, each is attached to the next to create a unique and amazing result. The mistakes (and there will be mistakes) are what make it special, personal.

Think of your days as those knitted stitches, some done without much thought attached, some labored over with great care because of their intricate difficulty, some bungled and needing unraveling. Some days are easy, effortless, simple. Others are difficult, painful, impossible.

I know Ted lived his life well. He wasn’t perfect, but he learned how to be the best Ted he could be. I know Diet is still contributing to the lives of others, probably more than she should at her age, but she strives daily to give whatever she can. There were mistakes in her life, too, but she has learned and grown from them.

I hope that when my life is done, others will see it as having been worthwhile, mistakes and all. I hope to leave a legacy, although the benchmarks left by Ted, and those Diet still works on, will be tough to equal. If someone can look at my life and recognize the beauty in it and the worth of it, I will have done it well.