Dave’s Visit: Honoring Those Who Serve

Memorial Day can bring to one’s memory an assortment of images, positive and negative.  I love the parades honoring those who have served in the military,  and I am touched by the services held at military cemeteries to honor the memory of those who have given their lives for our country.

Yesterday reminded me of a young man named Dave who surprised me with a visit several years ago.  I can still see him standing so tall in the doorway of my classroom, a room he had left for the last time over five years previously as an eighth grader finally graduating and moving into high school.  Where once he had stood a few inches taller than me, he was now at least a foot taller than me.  He interrupted my class that day with a simple greeting, “Hi,  Mrs. Flass!  I came back to see you!”  He was dressed in his Marine uniform, so crisp and neat, and was smiling warmly at me.

I remember how he had once sat in the back of the room and was a struggling student.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t do the work.  He did try.  But he lacked confidence in himself and that often held him back.  On that day in spring, he came into the room and gave me a big hug.  “I just wanted to thank you,” he said, ” for believing in me and pushing me through middle school.  I love the military.”  He was on leave from his tour in Iraq and was looking forward to returning to combat.  After that brief visit, he turned away and headed down the hallway.  It was hard to tell which one of us felt the greater pride at that moment.

His visit to me that day was a wonderful gift.  None of us can truly know when or how we touch the lives of others.  We just need to look for ways to support and encourage those we care about because in return we may find that they are out there serving our country, saving lives, and finding success within themselves.  It doesn’t seem right to honor them only on one day out of the year.

Poem for Graduates: DreamWishing

DreamWishing

My father’s voice is telling me,
“Stop wishing on a star.
Keep your feet on solid ground
To find out who you are.”

My mother’s voice is gentlesoft,
Her words about the same,
“Life isn’t just a dream, you know,
Don’t look for wealth or fame.

Just get up every morning
And work till day is done.
You’ll see the stars of evening
And rise to morning sun.

And that is what your life will be.
You’ll do the best you can.
And life goes on and brings you
Satisfaction in the end.”

Their voices whirl inside me,
Spinning round and round.
“Life’s not a dream,” “stop wishing,”
“Keep your feet upon the ground.”

But I’m dancing on the moonbeams
And I’m floating on the stars.
I can’t wait for them to carry me
To places near and far.

I’m confused and I am fearful,
What future do I see?
And then I hear the voice of God
Whispering words to me.

“Follow me in wonder.
I’ll lead you from afar.
For your dreams are what I long for
As your wishes are the stars.”

A softness comes to fill my heart.
As peace replaces fear.
I know I now can handle life
Dreamwishing through the years.

© Barbara Flass 2000

Hooray! I graduated! Wait! What am I supposed to do now?

Webster’s dictionary defines the verb “graduate”  this way:  “to grant an academic degree or diploma to.”  However, an additional definition is this:  “to mark with degrees of measurement.”  As Americans, we graduate many times in our lives.  We tend to think of those moments as reserved mostly for the younger generation.  A child may graduate from preschool, kindergarten, and middle school even before he or she reaches the milestone of high school graduation.  Then beyond that there is college graduation and perhaps graduation with a master’s or PhD. degree.  Then comes life.

Actually, we graduate many times as adults, moving from one role into another.  We may marry and become parents, we may move from job to job or even from one career into another.  We retire and move into another phase of life, and then we may have to enter assisted living or nursing home living.  It all seems a bit depressing at times unless we see these changes in life as empowering in some way.

In the June issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, an article entitled “Graduation Wisdom for Adults”  offers to all of us some advice for living life to the max.  The advice was fairly routine:  take a chance, dare to make mistakes, find your next adventure, be polite, say yes, listen and learn–the typical stuff of graduation speakers.  But one bit of advice from author Anna Quindlen was especially meaningful.  Her theme was to be true to yourself.   Her point was based on the story of Pinocchio and the idea that we all have a Jiminy Cricket sitting on our shoulders reminding us of our authentic self, the self we were when we were very young, before we learned to change ourselves to suit others.  She said, “Do not be bullied.  Acts of bravery don’t always take place on battlefields.  They can take place in your heart.”    She encourages us to honor our character, inclinations, and soul by listening to that voice within us.

May and June are filled with graduations, but really moments that we graduate happen throughout our lifetimes as we move from one stage to another, from one way to thinking to another, from one mood to another, from one goal to another.  It really doesn’t matter so much what job we get or what state we live in or what friends we have, although they are all part of who we are.  What really matters is that advice to be true to ourselves wherever we are or whatever we do.  Some graduates will have their entire lives to do this.  Some of us may have less time, but what counts is what we do with the time we have.  We just have to think about the image that Anna Quindlen believes in–Jiminy Cricket sitting on our shoulders reminding us to be true to ourselves.

Grief

Grief

Grief washes over me like the waves of the ocean,
nearly drowning me with emotion,
unwilling to lessen its intensity.

Grief has a way of taking its time,
dissolving slowly like salt crystals in water.

Painful but not like the pain of a broken bone
or a broken heart that will heal,
not like lost love with its hope for the future,
grief moves in me in continuous motion,
rising up out of nowhere and ebbing only
when forgetfulness comes for a moment,
forgetfulness that seems wrong.

Waiting for grief to soften is still grief.
Grief has no obligation to time.
Powerful and invasive, it lives on within me,
taking residence in the heart, where hope once lived
and where regret has moved in to be a partner
to a grief too strong too defeat.

© Barbara Flass 2011

The Swans in May

It was May when a pair of mute swans came to the lake, making their home in a marsh along the northern end.  This was a rare appearance for upstate New York, normally too far north for such birds.  ( It was later thought that they were instead trumpeter swans, but they are so close in beauty and majesty, it hardly matters.)  They were lovely, pure white, majestic, graceful, and a little out of place in the swampy water.  The lake was named after its shape–Round Lake.  Two-thirds of the lake is rimmed with trees; along the remaining third is a two-lane highway that runs along the base of the Victorian village of  Round Lake.

A small boat launch and pebbly beach draw a few swimmers and boaters, but most of the time the lake is quiet.  In May it’s too early for much activity.  In autumn, sunrise over the lake brings bright rays of orange filtering through banks of fog.  In winter ice and snow bring skaters, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen.  In spring the ice begins the break up into patches of inky water which soon changes to deep blue and then clears into smoothness.  I love the lake.  I’m fortunate because for years I had to take the road past the lake to get to work.   It always started my day with beauty and ended it with peace.

A few years ago the peace gave way to lines of cars parked along the guardrails and spectators–men, women, families with children, the old and the young– all looking out over the lake at something I could not see.  For days I watched curiously from my car as I drove by, but on the fourth day I knew I had to stop.  I edged close to a young man holding a child in his arms and pointing eastward.

“See?  There,”  he whispered in the child’s ear.  “Between those clumps of weeds.”

I followed the direction in which he was pointing.  There was the most beautiful white swan I had ever seen, resting on what looked like a muskrat den.

“There are four eggs in the nest,” the man explained to me.  “There were five.  She’s trying to hatch them.  And out there, through those trees, is the father.”

Sure enough, out on  the lake swam another swan, not far form his mate.  I was unable to leave.  I wanted to watch this forever, but after about ten minutes I pulled myself away from the rail and walked quietly back to my car.

During the next few weeks, I stopped every afternoon after work.  There was always someone there, and they seemed to know exactly what was happening.  An officer from the Department of Environmental Conservation was apparently filling everyone in on the drama unfolding on the lake.  There was a problem with the eggs.  So far none had hatched.  The number dwindled to two, and then to one.  Matched for life, these two swans were joined together in the greatest miracle of all–creating new life.  They were also joined in one of life’s greatest sorrows–life that would never be.  No eggs hatched.  The next week the swans left the lake.

The following spring I began to look for the swans again, long before white ice melted into the jagged-edged circles of black.  I longed to see them.  For some reason they represented hope to me.  A few miles north of the lake my father lay dying from cancer.  The pair of swans, mates for life, reminded me of the kind of love my parents had for each other.  Just like the eggs that never hatched, there would be no more years ahead for my parents to share.  If only the swans would return, I could hope for a miracle.

But the swans did not return and no miracle came.  In May, the same month I had first seen the swans, my father died.  I still search the lake in spring, slowing down when I get to the swamp where the muskrat den had been.  I’m not ever sure what I am looking for anymore–maybe the swans, maybe something else.  The lake seems lonely without them, even though they were there for a brief time.  Somehow the loss of my father and the absence of the swans in May have become linked in my memory, and I cannot drive by the lake any longer without a twinge of pain and regret that the joys of life are always mixed with sorrow.

(See post “Trumpeter Swans,” April 6, 2011)

Miracles

On the morning of my sister’s burial, a small miracle happened in my living room.  I had a peace plant given to me when my father died, and I tried so hard to keep it alive.  I managed to do that, but it never bloomed after that initial flowering until the morning of my sister’s surgery for breast cancer.  Then it lay dormant again for five years.  The morning of my sister’s burial, I sat on the sofa in the living room feeling despondent when something made me look up at the peace plant on the top of the entertainment center.  There was a white flower in full bloom where none had been the day before.  The words of this poem came to me at that moment.  Like all poetry, words come from the deepest of our emotions.

Miracles

Angels reaching out
white flower unfurling
in green-leaved sanctuary
surprise in morning pain.

My soul touched by yours.
My nudge to go on
when time stands still.
My hope renewed
my faltering steps
unstumbling
steady
like stones washed
in the river.

© Barbara Flass 2005

Legacy

This week I have been sorting through some boxes in the basement, clearing out clutter and thinking about family possessions.  We are constantly bombarded with magazine articles and television shows emphasizing our need to de-clutter our lives.  I thought it would be fairly easily to get rid of all the stored items in our basement.  It turned out to be an action filled with memories.

When my paternal grandparents were reaching the end of their lives, they began to give away items from their cupboards.  Each time I visited, my grandmother offered me some glassware, some dishes, some decorative items.  Anything valuable she sold to an antiques dealer, but there was still plenty of stuff to choose from.  I reluctantly agreed to take some things because she wanted me to.  Now that I am older and retired, I too think about my “stuff” and wonder what I should do with it.

I have large boxes filled with my father’s paintings.  He was a great artist, but he didn’t sell many of his paintings.  When my mom downsized, she gave me his paintings.  I can’t bear to part with them, and I guess my daughters could choose some to keep, but really one each should be enough.  My paternal grandmother used to crochet doilies and use them on end tables and coffee tables to keep down the dust.  I inherited them, beautiful white doilies edged with colorful pansies.  I love them, but I don’t use them and never will.  I firmly believe my daughters won’t want them either.  I remember the day I was visiting my grandmother and she was tatting.  I had no idea what that was, and she was very eager to show me.  She described the art of tatting to me, telling me she suspected not many women even knew how to do it, but she was hoping I would learn.  I said I would even though I didn’t really want to.  She died before she could teach me.  When I was cleaning out the basement, I found a box of items she had given me, and there in the box was a set of pansy-edged doilies wrapped up in tissue paper.

In another box I found a set of hand-hooked rugs from my maternal grandmother.  I remember a lot about the process of making them.  I would go with my mother and grandmother to Cohoes where there was a factory warehouse of fabric pieces.  In a cavernous room in the back were boxes of scraps my grandmother looked over carefully.  She felt them, folded them, matched them for color, and purchased a supply for her rugs.  The fabric scraps were sold by the pound, and she left with bags of fabric.  Then she took them home to the room she lived in at our house and went to work.  She sorted by color and began to braid the strips of fabric, fastening the ends with safety pins until she was ready to coil the braids into a circle to be used on the seats of chairs.  When she had ten or twenty finished, she took them to a local gift shop at a country farm where they were sold.  I have no use for the chair pads, but I can’t part with them, just like I can’t part with my father’s paintings, my paternal grandmother’s doilies, and my maternal grandmother’s chair pads.

I wonder what I will leave behind for my children.  I have folders of unpublished stories and novels, poetry, and journals.  My husband has boxes of books, a collection of comic books, stamp and coin collections, science fiction magazines and old newspapers.  I have a very large collection of Boyd’s stuffed bears and resin figurines.  At this stage of  my life, I know my children won’t be interested in any of these things,  so as I clean out our possessions,  I feel sad that who we are is often so closely tied to what we have and what we do with our leisure time.  After our death, where does that part of our lives go?

Legacy is defined as “something received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.”   One of my favorite books is entitled “Legacy:  A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History”  by Linda Spence.  In her book she wrote the following:  “Legacy is about life.  About the times we’ve lived in, the people and events that have shaped us, how and whom we’ve loved, what has stirred us, and how we’ve tried.”  Even though I have boxes of things from my parents and grandparents, it’s not the things that are the legacy.  It’s the stories and the memories, and I don’t need a box for those.