IMG_1102 In memory of my father, Peter Stein 6-11-09  – 7-23-04

I Knew

first published, July 2004

He had tried to spare me, not telling me how difficult the days had become for him. But I knew.

The smallest task turned into an insurmountable problem: he couldn’t get his shoes on without a shoehorn and he had lost it somewhere in his room. He turned the television on with the remote, but then couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. The clock said 7:30; he wondered if that was morning or night.

I called him every three days, asking, “How’re you doin’, Daddy?” Our conversation centered on his needs of the moment. “Of course, I can bring another shoe horn when I come and yes, I’ll explain that clock to you again.” After I asked what he had been served for dinner, or if the new paint in the dining room looked nice, the real purpose of the call became apparent. “I love you so much and I can’t wait to hug you,” I would say.

“You are the best thing that ever happened to me, honey. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he always replied.

“I’ll be there next Saturday…this is Sunday. Just six more days.” He didn’t know how long six days was, really. But I knew.

Then soon it was, “I’ll be there in three more days, Daddy. I love you.”

“Oh honey, I love you, too. See you soon.”

The shrieking phone awakened me at 2:30 in the morning. “We’ve sent your dad to the emergency room. He’s complaining of extreme lower back pain and his blood pressure has spiked. I don’t think they will be able to tell you anything until morning, but I wanted you to know,” said the nurse from the assisted living facility.

I willed herself back to sleep, but my dreams offered no respite. Almost twelve hours crept by before I could get any news. “We’ve admitted him and we are doing tests. That’s all we can tell you now,” the nurse murmured over the phone.

At five o’clock in the afternoon Dr. Smith finally called. I had never met him: his voice was warm, yet matter of fact. He told me that the CAT scan had not shown anything definitive but that my dad had been medicated for the pain and his blood pressure was coming down. We agreed that regardless of any diagnosis, only the symptoms would be treated. He was, after all, ninety-five years old. “I am scheduled to fly in late tomorrow evening,” I told him. “His granddaughter is arriving for a surprise visit as well.”

My calls the next morning were to the nurse’s station on his floor. I didn’t want to disturb him if he was sleeping, but I was so was eager to hear his voice and to remind him I would be there soon. The nurse assured me, “He did quite well with breakfast. We’re not giving him any medication and he’s without pain. You can take him home tomorrow morning, since you’re arriving later tonight.”

I asked when I should call to talk with him. “Call at lunchtime,” she replied.

I heard her hand him the phone, and listened as he tried to force words from deep in his throat. At first I couldn’t understand what he was saying , then I heard “I just have to rest.”

“Okay, Daddy, you rest. I’ll be there in the morning, Sweetie. Bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye,” he managed to say.

Thirty minutes later Dr. Smith called. “He’s slipping very quickly. I don’t think it will be too long now.” He gave his assessment of what was going on in my dad’s frail body, but I could only tuck the information away to process later.

“Do you mean a matter of hours?”

“I think so,” he replied.

“I board the plane in two hours. Please keep me informed.”

Then I called his granddaughter, who gasped and said, “Mom, I will be there as soon as I can get there.”

I finished packing my suitcase, removing the shoehorn and the large print books. At 2:45 I stopped in my tracks and thought, I’m doing these mundane tasks while Daddy is fighting for his last breath.

My cell phone rang as my husband was driving me to the airport..“Is this Peter’s daughter?… I am so sorry to tell you that your father died at 2:45.”

“Was it peaceful?” I asked through my tears.

“Absolutely. I had told him you were on your way and he said he didn’t think he’d make it. I asked him if he wanted me to tell you anything.”

“No…she knows,” he said.

And I knew.

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A Changing Custom

While I sorted through one of the several boxes marked “Christmas,” I lifted out the small, gold sleigh. The attached, somewhat disheveled, shiny gold bow still sports the red berries and green holly. For more years than I can remember, 20151217_130600this sleigh held Christmas cards, usually overflowing, from friends far and near. (We never embraced the display technique of draping cards over a long string.)

“No need for this sleigh,” I thought. Not many people send cards anymore. Since the advent of email, most of us have lost the ability to place a stamp on an envelope, even though we no longer have to lick the back of the stamp to make it stick. I’m surprised the post office still offers holiday stamps, both secular and religious. Someone must still be buying them.

But not me. (Well, just a few for the handful of friends who refuse to join the technical revolution.) No, I type my annual Christmas letter on a prepared electronic piece of holiday-themed “stationery.” When I’ve added a personal salutation it’s ready to be attached to an email. I hit “send” and in a twinkling of an eye, our good wishes arrive in the” in box” of a friend.

Did I mention the letter is all about us and our family? And yes, I know eyes roll when Christmas letters are discussed. But here’s the good thing: when my letter is electronic, it can be deleted with a key stroke. No adding to the recycle pile, no feelings of guilt if you don’t read it or keep it until the following year. Consider it my gift to you. So your choice; if you haven’t already read it, you can do so below or delete it. Either way, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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December 2015

If not for the sounds and sights of Christmas surrounding us, who could believe another year has passed? Yet when I sit down to write our Christmas message I realize how full the year has really been. And to our delight, the highlights center on our family gatherings.

The cold in the Midwest provided ample impetus for Laurie and Jim, and then Steve and the family, to visit Ocean Village in the spring. We are always so happy to see them after months of phone calls and text messages. Our biggest problem is finding time to play bocce, tennis, or golf when lounging around the pool to get a Florida tan is such a priority.

When mid-May arrived, we packed up and headed to Brookfield, this time for a five-month stay in a furnished rental apartment. To our relief, it met all of our needs. Ralph had a place to bike, a golf course was out our backdoor, and friends were close by.

We eagerly anticipated the last weekend in June, when the family gathered for Laurie and Jim’s Garden wedding in Woodbury, MN. The weather cooperated, and the big event went without a hitch. As the smiles on their faces attest, they couldn’t be happier being Mr. and Mrs. James Currell.IMG_1288

The Party Room at the complex where we were staying provided the perfect venue for the celebration of Ralph’s 80th Birthday in August, hosted by the grown-up kids. Nearby long-time friends, the Harts from Houston, and our extended family made this a really special event. Gatherings at Steve and Patti’s downtown condo and a ride on the Milwaukee River in their boat were an added bonus.20150808_175623_001

          Before we returned to our Florida home, the family came up with a surprise announcement: they were all coming to Ocean Village at Thanksgiving to host a party for my 80th birthday. For once in IMG_0070my life I welcomed having a birthday so close to a holiday! What a memorable time we had…with neighbors, Mary Jo from Orlando—a friend of fifty years, and both families, including the three grand kids and two special friends. I still feel the afterglow.

Speaking of the young people: Jessica just graduated from U.W.M and is eagerly anticipating a month-long euro rail trip with her friend, “Jonno,” who hails from York, England. Daniel relishes life in the Windy CityIMG_1441 and his position as Supervisor of Digital Marketing for “I Heart Radio.” His special friend, Danielle, lives and works nearby so his life is full. Annie has set her sight on an engineering degree and departs early next month for Colorado Springs, where this outdoor-loving young woman will continue her education and experience life surrounded by mountains.

With so many family gatherings, we didn’t mind a bit that our overseas travel has come to an end. We have memories, photos and journals so we can “live” the trips over again. Our activities and health remain the same, so no need to say more. We are incredibly grateful for our health and good fortune. Each day is a gift. Our only wish is for a more peaceful world.

Merry Christmas and a Joyous New Year to you and yours!        Lois and Ralph

 

 

 

 

 

Voices

 

I recently learned of an app called “Story Corps” that records conversation online and preserves it in the Library of Congress. Apparently NPR plays the nonprofit’s recordings on Fridays. That Wall Street Journal article sparked my thinking about voices.

My mother died almost forty years ago, but her voice is as clear in my memory as it was when we were last together, having a mother-daughter shopping and lunch excursion. I can hear the sounds of my dad’s last words spoken over the phone, only minutes before he took his last breath. My grandparents spoke with the telltale sounds of their native German, one with a commanding tone, the other often reflecting the smile in her eyes. When I turn the pages in my address book, or, more often these days, run down the list of contacts in my smart phone, I “hear” the voice of each name. What a blessing it is to have my hearing intact; those voices create a special connection to everyone in my life.

In an earlier post, I told of my transfer of 8mm tapes of our family, now viewable on my computer. They are without sound…but I can “hear” the voices in my head. With today’s video technology on phones and camcorders, it is easy to preserve voices as well as images.

I am a writer and passionate about helping others record their stories on paper, but it occurs to me that adding their voices to these stories could bring these people to life for the generations that follow. Perhaps I will begin by interviewing and recording loved ones gathered around the holiday table. I have their voices in my head, but how much better to have them preserved and archived for their grandchildren’s children. Even if the recordings never make it to the Library of Congress.

 

 

Bands of Gold

 

(from a collection of  personal memoirs)

The petite jeweler peered closely at my left hand. “Your wedding ring is cutting into your finger. You are making the right decision to have it resized.”IMG_0002

“So how do we get it off?”

“Not a problem. I can cut if off in just a few minutes.”

I felt the tears well up. My reaction surprised me more than the young goldsmith. “It happens often,” she said. “How long has he been gone?”

“No, no, he is fine. He’s waiting for me at home. So I don’t know why I’m having such an emotional response to this.” Through blurry eyes, I watched as she positioned the protective shield, lined up the cutting edge, and began turning the wings of what looked like a jeweler’s version of a can opener.

“How’re you doing?” She paused in her cranking operation.

“There’s not much room between my finger and the ring. Let’s stop for just a moment.” I moved a bit to steel myself for the next round. “Okay, go ahead.”

My mind pushed its rewind button. I could see my husband’s face, fifty-nine years ago when he was not yet my husband. He was so proud of the wedding band he designed for me with the three tiny diamonds set in a crisscross pattern. His own band matched, but without the diamonds. We had agreed, no engagement ring, just two shiny bands of gold.

I pictured myself removing my white gloves to admire my ring as I spread my hand on my lap. I had changed from my wedding gown to my going-away dress. The lime green linen provided the perfect background for the shining gold and glitter of the small diamonds. We drove twenty-five miles to the motel where we had a reservation for our wedding night.

Her words intruded on my memory. “There, it’s cut through.”You’re not going to like what happens to your ring next,” she told me as she handed me a tissue.

I decided not to watch as she pried open the two sides of my band so she could get it over my arthritic knuckle. As it fell from my finger, I reached for my disfigured ring to see what was left of the inscription. “This was easier to read when I had younger eyes.” She didn’t respond. Very judicious of her, I thought.

To my relief, the “WRP to LS” was intact; the cut came between the two and the nine of our wedding date, 6-29-57. I had hoped the split had not come between the sets of initials. I didn’t think that would be a good omen.

“Give your finger two or three weeks to get closer to normal size,” she instructed. “Then we’ll size your knuckle and your finger and decide the best way to handle this…probably a spring insert. Do you think you want to redo the inscription?”

“Let’s decide later. You keep the ring here while we wait for my finger to size itself.”

I wanted to go home with my intact memories, not with my damaged ring. WRP was there waiting for me.

 

 

Many Splendored Sights

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Some people we know would raise their eyebrows and say, “You went for a drive in the country? Two days before you leave for a fourteen-hundred-mile trip to Florida?”

Yes, that’s just what we did, marvelingIMG_0004 at our good fortune to be able to experience the beautiful Wisconsin fall along Holy Hill Road.

When we travel to our home in Florida, we welcome the sun-splashed waters of the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean. The swaying palm fronds and the graceful branches of the Live Oaks seem to say, “We’re happy you’re back.”

But, when we return to Wisconsin for the summer months, we continually marvel at the many, many trees that grace neighborhood streets and thoroughfares alike. When mid-October arrives, these same trees stage a show: the golden tones of the Honey Locusts, the rusts and oranges of the Sugar Maples and Red Oaks, and Ralph’s favorite, the remarkable Autumn Purple Ash. Add a dash of sunlight and the deep contrast of the Evergreens, and the display is breathtaking.

What a privilege it is to experience the splendors of nature in two very different parts of our country. IMG_0005We know our northern friends and our family will soon share photos of snowy trees and the many joys of winter. We will reciprocate with photos of the sea oats and the surf rolling onto the beach.

Storage Problem

When I first retired, cleaning out closets and creating order in cabinets and drawers was at the top of my list. I had loftier goals, of course…even though that was long before “bucket lists” became a requirement for anyone middle-aged and beyond.

Here it is fifteen years later and I am faced with reducing some of what we placed in a storage unit, including shelves of photo albums, video recordings, and even a few audio tapes. “Great idea, Mom,” my son says. “You could scan the photos from the albums right onto your computer.”

I immediately nixed that idea. I have no fewer than two dozen albums dating back to 1957 and that doesn’t include photos from our many travels. I doubt I would live long enough scan every photo, even if I were able to be selective. So I started with my “friends” albums dating back to 1973, when I decided to keep the holiday photos along with pictures that arrived in letters. (Those are handwritten messages that arrive in your mailbox, for those who have forgotten or have never experienced.) I sorted by family, oldest photos on the bottom, and ended up with twenty-eight different piles of memories and a sense that life has passed much too rapidly.IMG_1477

“What are you going to do with those?” my husband wanted to know. He rolled his eyes when I said I planned to mail them back .

“I think they will like seeing the changes over all these years,” I said. “And if they don’t want them, they can be the ones to throw them out.” I included a clever note about my “storage problem” and sent them off. To date, fewer than half have responded, but the ones who did seemed happy to get them. Time will tell whether others will cross me off their list for not keeping theirs.

With that project under my belt, I decided to take a photo of each page of our family albums, then transfer them to my computer and the Picasa photo file. (I saw an ad for a firm that would do this same work, except one photo at a time. The cost would have depleted our IRA accounts.) So far, so good. I am up to July ’75; only forty years to go.IMG_1369

I have the album situation somewhat under control, but the eight video cassettes and a handful of audio cassettes became my greatest challenge. A friend told me of a company that would transfer them to DVDs, but first I knew I should view them all before paying good money to save them. We have no VCR in our furnished rental apartment and neither did any friends or family members have one I could borrow. “We don’t do videos or CDs or DVDs anymore. We stream everything,” my son explained. “But I think there might be an old player of yours in storage.”IMG_1479

After a false start or two…trying to get the right connectors…my husband and I spent a few hours revisiting the past. Years ago, the 8mm “silent” movies had been transferred to video tapes, what were then the newest electronic marvel. So, that afternoon we viewed our young children, grandkids, weddings, Christmas gatherings, and birthday celebrations—many including loved ones no longer living. Where had the years gone, I wondered. “Yep, these are definitely worth preserving, no matter the cost,” I said, as I dabbed at a few tears.

The company’s technician recommended we transfer all to an external hard drive—no telling how long DVDs will be current. And yes, he could also add audio tapes.

Finding an audio cassette player proved even more challenging. We even tried the Goodwill store. We have tapes of my husband’s vocal performances as a young man, sweet conversations between our young IMG_1480children and their great-grandmother, and a fifty–minute “interview” of my dad at age 86, telling the history of our family’s European roots. With no other option available, I imposed on the technician’s good will and took the tapes into his studio to listen to just enough of each tape to confirm the content. Listening to the children’s young voices brought a huge smile, but I could not hold back the tears when I heard my husband’s beautiful tenor voice singing the Lord’s Prayer at his sister’s wedding almost forty years ago. I had barely recovered my composure when I heard my father’s voice, as clearly as if he had been sitting beside me.

“Will the sound be that good?” I asked the technician. He assured me it would be perfect on the hard drive.

I am more than pleased I’ve found a way to preserve priceless memories and manage some of my storage issues. Now, I have to find someone who wants my wedding crystal. I’m quite certain that will not move me to tears.

Colorful Memories

 

Nothing spells August and the approach of back-to-school season like the colorful ads for Crayola crayons. When I see the choices listed, my mind reaches back more IMG_1472decades than I want to count. I don’t remember if the boxes of sixty-four were available back then; I think twenty-four nicely pointed colors offered me the ultimate pleasure

Opening the new box of Crayolas released the familiar waxy smell and held promise of hours of enjoyment during art time in school. At home I would lie on the brown carpet of our living room to carefully spread the color—always careful to stay within the lines—in one of my coloring books. The ones about the movie stars, like Rita Hayworth, were my favorite.

In spite of the multiple hues of green in a box of twenty-four, one of them usually became the first to show its popularity by the need for me to carefully peel off a bit of the paper. As more of the colored sticks required the same, I had to accept the fact my beautiful collection had lost some of its luster—somewhat like licking an ice cream cone until there is no choice but to bite into the cone itself, knowing the end would be coming soon. Eventually the peeled versions of the sticks became shorter and shorter and their home moved from the Crayola box to a small cookie tin Mother had given me to keep my old crayons. I seem to recall I pulled out that collection whenever I had a friend over to color with me.

I’m thinking of buying a box, just for the fun of seeing what creative names have been given to sixty-four different colors. I may even try a box of the “twistable crayons.” IMG_1473I am guessing these were designed by someone who remembered how disappointing it was to have to peel the paper down. I think I will close my eyes and let the long-remembered scent that held so much promise carry me back to a time very long ago.