A Birthday Story.

Coconut Cake

So this last weekend I attended a birthday party for my very dear friend; I love her as a sister. She’s a gourmet cook, a planner, an organizer, and a doer. My friend is amazing in many ways, but one of the traits I admire most is her ability to bring people together. She is a most gracious hostess, a role she embraces with enthusiasm. I have helped with numerous parties and get-togethers at her home, where I’ve met dozens and dozens of her and her husband’s friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. These are people from all walks of life who come together around her table, and it is a glorious sight to see.

So it happened that as dessert was being served in the dining room, I was standing next to another friend, talking about her luscious coconut cake. After a moment he looked down at the dining room table and said something nostalgic like, Boy, that table sure has seen some good times, hasn’t it?  And I nodded and said, “It sure has.”

Around that table we’ve enjoyed many holiday meals, special desserts, and cheap Chinese takeout. We have assembled hundreds of kebabs and filled hundreds of plastic Easter eggs there. We have danced, sung songs and been an appreciative audience to violin, piano and guitar performances. We have given thanks, told jokes, offered toasts and discussed politics.  And we’ve played games: Greed, Family, Cranium, even Cards Against Humanity.

Some of the best times I’ve had in that house have been around that table. And this is where I see the power of the gift my friend has, because here, we are all equals.

Around that table sit the housewife and the artist, the winemaker and the corrections officer, the teacher and the landscaper, the student and the retiree, and the scientist and the yoga teacher. Police and former addicts, strangers with no place to go, vegetarians and carnivores, Harley riders and bicycle racers, they’re all there. Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Heinz 57 — makes no difference because we’re all friends and family. That table is like a little melting pot, and we all have that in common, even if little else.

All because of my friend — whose heart, as Mr. Stuck might say, is as big as Texas.

I wanted to give this toast to her on her birthday, but before I had the chance, she gave a most eloquent and emotional talk about love, standing on a chair so everyone could hear. She called upon us to reach into our hearts and think of what makes us happiest, then to send that warmth to a mutual friend who could not celebrate with us because she is undergoing treatment for cancer. It was very moving, and nothing more could be said. Our hearts were as one at that moment, and I hope our absent friend could feel the love.

So I offer this up as my tribute to my incredible friend, who used her own special day to shine light on someone else, because that is her way. It is through her that so many of us from so many different places in life have come together to be friends, and I am forever grateful.

You are amazing and wonderful, and I love you.

 

*
photo credit: Southern Foodways Alliance

Goodbye, Teacher.

Dick Raymond 91 yoFor many years, Mr. Stuck and I have gotten our tomato plants from a local source. The plants are always large and loaded with blossoms, with stems as thick as a man’s thumb. We get four or five plants, and sometimes we purchase one of the hanging flower baskets or potted lilies that are for sale, too. But aside from the healthy, organically-grown plants, our main reason for buying our tomatoes there was the gardener himself, Dick Raymond.

One day about fifteen years ago, Mr. Stuck came home from work to tell me about a man he’d just met who sold tomatoes, and that we should go buy some from him. He insisted that I had to go see this man’s garden – there wasn’t a weed to be found!  I come from a long line of gardeners, so that I had to see.

We drove up to the neatly-kept, white house with blue trim. A sign out front said to go around to the back yard. Dutifully, we made our way around the side with the huge, purple clematis to find a little old man in overalls and mucking boots, stooped over the plants he was weeding. Mr. Stuck greeted him with, “Hi, there! I had to bring my wife back to see your garden!”

Mr. Raymond chuckled, wiped his hands, and came over. Mr. Stuck introduced me to him, and he shook my hand. He gestured toward his back deck, where stood at least 50 tomato plants in gallon-sized pots. “Well, I’ve got a few tomatoes here,” he deadpanned. He showed us his garden plot, which took up most of his back yard. The soil was dark and crumbly, tilled and sown in perfect rows. He happily explained his composting and soil amendment methods. He pointed out the cherry tree that was heavy with blossoms, and noted that he allowed the birds to eat the fruit from a different tree so they’d leave that one alone. He said, “This one will be loaded with cherries this summer, so come back and get some!”

We admired his garden, bought a few tomato plants, thanked him for his hospitality, and went on our way. I returned a few weeks later to buy one of his gorgeous hanging fuchsia baskets. I had described them to a friend at work, who then asked me to pick one up for him to give his wife. It was so large I had difficulty putting it in my car! My friend could not believe how big and beautiful it was.

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for little old men. I suppose growing up without grandparents and losing my dad has something to do with that, but no matter — I found Mr. Raymond absolutely delightful. He was warm, engaging, and had a great sense of humor. He was of the same generation as my parents, the ‘Greatest Generation.’ He was a war veteran.  His thick accent belied his New England upbringing (Massachusetts) and punctuated his jokes and stories. He greeted everyone as a friend, and always gave helpful gardening tips to the folks who stopped by.

plum 3
Look at the fruit on this plum tree!

One such tip seemed like a joke when he first told us. We came back that first summer for the cherries; the tree was so laden it was red with them. Mr. Raymond said that a couple had just picked a five-gallon bucket of them, but you couldn’t tell at all. We asked how he got such a huge crop – did he use a special fertilizer? He leaned toward us, and in a conspiratorial whisper, said, “If I tell you, you won’t believe me.”

It was a special technique he used on his trees: early in the spring, before the sap rose, he would roll up a newspaper and beat the tree trunk soundly. He said, “You have to whack it good. Get that sap to rise, wake that tree up. It works – trust me!” And he demonstrated, saying, “I get people all the time asking me how I get so much fruit on my trees, and this is what I tell them. They think I’m pulling their legs, but I’m not.”

plum 2
The result of his tree beating.

Every spring, we’d make our way back to Mr. Raymond’s garden for tomatoes, peppers, and flowers. We’d visit and catch up on things. He’d show us his new projects, like taking cuttings from the rhododendron he had out front whose blossoms were the most gorgeous shade of violet-red I’d ever seen, or the hundreds of lilies and trillium he had growing around his yard. With palsied hand, he would pull Polaroids out of his pocket to show us his enormous tomatoes or abundant flowers, and a couple of years ago he shared a news clipping commemorating the celebration of his 90th birthday. He couldn’t stop talking about how much fun it was.

polarnacht
The closest I have come to the shade of that rhody — this beauty is called Polarnacht.

Recently, as we drove past his neighborhood while running errands, I mentioned to Mr. Stuck that it was time to go check out his tomato plants again. We decided to swing by on our way back home that afternoon. Last year, Mr. Raymond had sold cuttings from his gorgeous purple clematis, and I was lucky enough to get the last two. Maybe he had something new this time.

clematis

When we pulled up to his house, it looked different: there was a gate on his fence; a dog was barking from the back yard; and two children’s tricycles were out front. Mr. Stuck said, I don’t think he’s here anymore. The gate was open, so we knocked on the door. The man who answered the door said no, Mr. Raymond was deceased and hadn’t lived there since last fall.

We thanked him for his time and walked sadly back to our car. Not sad for Mr. Raymond, because he had lived a long, full life, but sad for us, that we wouldn’t enjoy his wisdom and humor and gardening expertise any longer. I wish I had known about it when he passed away – I would like to have gone to his service to meet his family and express my deepest respect for the man.

So goodbye, Mr. Raymond. You taught us well. I hope that the folks who live in your little house have as much love for the seeds and the seasons as you did. I hope the cherry tree is bursting with the promise of fruit, and I hope your rich garden plot does not lie fallow, but that life springs forth from it for as long as someone lives there. You will always have a place in our hearts; after all, you know what they say:

Dick Raymond 91 yo 2
Rest in peace. Dick Raymond, May 2, 1922 – September 18, 2013.

…Old gardeners never die – they just spade away.

 

 

 

I Quit!

Eight years ago today, I smoked my last cigarette before heading to my appointment with a hypnotherapist.

It was time.

When I’d called to make the appointment, she assessed my readiness to quit smoking with a few questions and then agreed to schedule me for two sessions. Hypnosis can’t make you do something you don’t want to do; your outcome depends heavily on your mind set.  I had an unopened pack of Marlboro Lights in my purse, just in case. I didn’t know what to expect.

Marie was a very nice lady with a calm demeanor; as an introduction, she detailed her background as a registered nurse and the path she took to become a hypnotherapist. We had a nice chat, and she explained that while we spoke, she’d be taking notes to use during my session. She asked me why I wanted to quit, what my expectations were, and what I thought the greatest benefit of quitting would be. I told her that my impetus for quitting was my children – I didn’t want them to grow up seeing me smoke and thinking it was a normal thing to do. Most importantly, I wanted to be healthy for them, to be there as they grew up.

She asked if I had any special requests, and I did: the previous times I had tried to quit, I had found that the smell of cigarette smoke made me want to light one up, myself. I asked her if she could make it so that I could tolerate the smoke without craving the cigarette, as I had friends and neighbors who smoked. She cautioned that it might be a difficult task to pull off, but she would try.

I lay back in the recliner and closed my eyes, focusing on her voice. Soon the outside noises faded away and I felt at peace. Contrary to popular belief, I was not asleep; I was completely awake, yet completely relaxed. Her words were soothing and pleasant; I remember that more than what she actually said that day. I do remember, though, that she asked me to visualize myself a year from that day, both as a smoker and also as a non-smoker, and to describe how I felt in each incarnation. She had my ‘future self’ talk to my ‘present self’ to encourage me to choose well.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was alert, sitting up, and feeling refreshed. She asked me how I felt, and I realized that I felt terrific! She asked if I had any idea how long I’d been there with her, and I said, “I don’t know – an hour?” I was shocked to find out I had been there close to three hours!

Wow.

I asked if we were all done, and she said we were. I reached into my purse to get my checkbook and found an unopened pack of Marlboro Light cigarettes. I was sincerely puzzled – What are these doing here? I don’t smoke! It was as if someone had flipped a switch – I was a non-smoker now. I asked if she’d throw them away for me, and she laughed and said, ‘sure.’

I drove home, still feeling great. When I got there, my neighbor, who had been watching my kids, motioned for me to join her out on the porch for a cigarette so she could tell me how the boys had behaved while I was away. I said, ‘I’ll join you, but not to smoke.’  I sat across from her at a table on the porch, but the cigarette smoke didn’t bother me one bit.  I couldn’t believe it. Success!

The boys asked me where I had been; I reminded them that I had been at an appointment so I could quit smoking. Number One Son asked, ‘Did you quit?’  I said, ‘Yes.’  He burst into grateful tears and hugged me tight.  Number Young Son told everyone he saw that his mom had quit smoking, from the bus driver to the lady at the grocery store.  When I found a partially-opened pack of cigarettes in the house, I offered to let the boys throw them away for me. They happily obliged, destroying the pack and everything in it. They hated cigarettes and were glad to see them gone.

It has been eight whole years since that day.  I have never had a craving, and I have never cheated. It was painless, and my kids have told me they no longer remember when I smoked. I did go back for my follow up appointment, but it was only to reaffirm that I was a non-smoker now. For a while, I kept track of the money I was saving by not buying cigarettes, and it was amazing to see how much money I had literally burned in my years of smoking. When I quit, cigarettes cost about $5.00 to $5.50 per pack, and I smoked about one and a half packs a day. It sure adds up.

Quitting smoking is the best thing I have ever done for myself and my family. My clothes, hair, car, and breath no longer smell like cigarettes; I no longer rush out of a movie or restaurant to huddle in the corner and smoke; I no longer panic when I’m down to the last couple of cigarettes in the pack and scrounge for change to buy more; or worse, pick through my cigarette butts for something I could smoke. I don’t worry about crushed packs, broken cigarettes, or no-smoking signs. I don’t wake up with a hacking cough every morning, and I don’t get every cold that goes around anymore.  I don’t miss holding someone else up because I had to ‘finish my smoke.’

I don’t like to preach; I never liked being preached at.  Yes, I would love for all of my smoking friends and family members to quit, but they, like me, must do it for themselves.

All I can do is support them when they decide to take that step.

 

 

photo credit justj0000lie

Part III – Lend Me a Hand.

new glasses
My new specs. Stylin’!

My eyesight is poor; I have one myopic (near-sighted) and one hyperopic (far-sighted) eye.  I’ve been wearing glasses since I was 7 years old, and bifocals since age 35.  Nobody makes fun of me for wearing glasses, nor should they; it is nothing to be embarrassed about.  Before I had my hips replaced, I used a cane to get around.  Nobody made fun of me for that, either; they recognized that I had a need for it, and that was that.  No shame necessary.

Yes, that's me.  That zipper is on my jeans.  ;-)
yes, that’s me.

But because of the stigma attached to hearing loss, people won’t admit they need help.  Often the perception is that wearing a hearing aid makes you appear less intelligent.  Hearing aids are assumed to be for old or disabled people, and that stigma is a very real reason that a lot of hearing loss goes undiagnosed and untreated.  It didn’t help that older hearing devices were large and bulky; people did not want to wear them because they were ugly and awkward. 

The irony is, though, that untreated hearing loss is far more noticeable than today’s hearing devices.  Chances are good that you have chatted with a person wearing hearing instruments and never noticed them.  On the other hand, constantly asking someone to repeat what they said, turning the volume up on the radio and TV, and speaking loudly are tell-tale signs of hearing loss. 

Sufferers struggle on a daily basis to hear and understand their environment; it can be exhausting and socially isolating.  The hearing-impaired person feels frustrated, angry, defeated, embarrassed and ridiculed.  Eventually, many drop out of life, in a way.  They stop trying and withdraw, because that is easier.  As for me, I resigned myself to a lifetime of permanent hearing loss.

A dear friend of mine has a rare gene mutation that causes, among other things, eventual deafness.  She also attends a lot of concerts and shows, and had worked for many years in an industrial environment.  She had been having difficulty when more than one person was talking or where background noise like television would mask the softer sounds of conversation, just like me. She got hearing aids, and she told me she loved them. 

Even after she told me that, I rationalized that her case was different, and my hearing loss was untreatable, because that’s what I had been told as a child.  It wasn’t until Mr. Stuck talked candidly to me about my hearing – telling me that even my sons and my friends were noticing that it was getting worse – that I agreed to go see an audiologist again.  I warned the Mr. that it would probably be a waste of time, but I would go.

Continued in Part IV...

photo credit Ephemeral Scraps

Passages 3/27/02

Indifferent, counting slain illusions
Remember when you played the game?
The years gaze back above the razor
Older, wiser, honor, blame.

Naked truths and fallen heroes
Conscious shift from then to now
Playing from the hand they dealt you
Mindful what your thoughts allow.

At times, the commonplace is foreign
And the foreign, commonplace
Faintly glint the knowing moments
Drawing dark across your face.

Early in the quiet mornings
Doubtful little whispers creep
Though daydreams promise simple pleasures,
Restless minds make fitful sleep.

Paid your dues and paid respect
Tipped your hat and moved along
Perspective changes everything —
Love and war and right and wrong.

Where pale and hollow words fall short,
One silent look the thought conveys
A small but tender reassurance
Affection, borne in little ways.

Fill the void with flights of fancy
Think a lot, but when you’re through
Keep in mind that what you’ve given
In the end, returns to you.

*Wrote this for a friend.  It was subsequently made into a song by another friend, a musician, and published on one of his CDs.