On Giving

Recently, I became acquainted with a young Afghan refugee who has been resettled in the US. She’d only been in the US a few days when I met her on a bitterly cold day in February. I had no idea what she might have or need, so I brought a scarf and warm mittens, some toiletries, tea and snacks. The resettlement agency had given her appropriate winter clothes. Within a few weeks they’d found an apartment for her and given her basic furnishings.

Despite our age difference (she’s 24 and I’m in my sixties), we got on well. She had worked with the US embassy and her English is good. I’ve tutored immigrants learning English for years and am aware of some common cultural disconnects. So much of teaching English involves explaining American history and culture as well as grammar and punctuation. My intention is to be a friend, someone she can trust with questions about confusing customs.

When I mentioned meeting her, a number of women I knew immediately asked what household items she might need. Like me, they’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years and would be happy to give it to someone who can use it. We all have so much. We’d never miss an extra end table, coffeepot, or winter coat. I had the same impulse, but thought I’d wait to see what she wanted and needed. 

Her apartment’s furnishings seem sparse by American standards, but she was delighted by her things. She’s accustomed to sharing the kitchen with several families and told me she’s never had so many clothes. I recalibrated my instinct to offer her a bunch of stuff. Should I push my aesthetic on her? Maybe she prefers simplicity. Would the donations from my friends and me make her feel inadequate or signal that she seems poor by American standards? 

I’m aware I often overthink things. Maybe she’d love to have more for her apartment. The simple generous reaction friends have had—how can I help—is a good one. Why wouldn’t we help when we have so much? Shouldn’t we?

Yet I know the dynamic between givers and receivers can feel unbalanced. Uncomfortable for the recipient. I’ve already seen my new friend’s deep sense of hospitality. When I visited her and another Afghan family she’s friends with, they insisted on serving me a full meal. Although I wasn’t hungry, I knew it would be rude to refuse, so I ate with them. Similarly, when I gave her the handful of things culled from my closet and kitchen at our first meeting, she gave me a new pair of earrings she had, something I suspect she’d bought for herself.

I try to think how I’d feel if the roles were reversed. Would I simply be grateful, because I needed things and someone cared enough to help? Or would I feel awkward about the charity? In time would my pride be pricked so I became resentful? Trying to be sensitive, not stingy is confusing.

Ink on Paper

We opened most of the Christmas cards around January twenty-eighth. That’s not a tradition or a day of any significance. I just stopped procrastinating about opening the rest of the cards and putting away the last bit of the holidays. 

As cards arrived, we always look at the envelopes and talk about connection with each individual or family. Not so much connection with our HVAC contractor, eye doctor, car service place and insurance agent. I am family ‘owner’ of holiday cards, so I own that each day I planned to open the cards after dinner and enjoy pictures or notes. We had produced a virtual card to most of our list with a video of a holiday song which kind of changed the rhythm of our traditional card handling.

I hadn’t noticed one holiday card addressed to me alone during my daily shuffle. My amazing daughter-in-law had sent me a card with a note that fed my heart. The best Christmas gift. The best. Maybe even better opened in the quiet of winter after the rush.

An unexpected Valentine postcard from a friend, an untraditional card sent to my on my birthday, certain travel postcards from friends and relatives inspired me to design a decorative wide ribbon where I could hang these treasures in my office. Some of the ribbon is in my credenza along with a bag of tiny brass clips, but the completed project remains in my mind. The treasures are in a tray along with letters from my mother-in-law and one from my father before I was married.

Kind emails and texts mean so much often because the message is unexpected. The gift of a caring personal message in ink, on paper, which is then mailed delivers a flush of happiness followed by days or weeks of remembering each word. Coming from the era of pen pals and mailed greeting cards for every special day from Valentine’s Day to Easter to Halloween and Thanksgiving, I appreciate the effort taken to shop, write, and mail. 

Though we’re all past the age of decorated shoe boxes to hold our Valentines, I hope you find happiness in sending a text, an ecard, or paper card to a person you value, or a whole lot of friends and family members who might need a smile.

Do-Over

Have you ever been unable to forgive yourself for a past action? Your do-over was never enough? Your action, or in my case inaction, continued to pain and haunt you? Prayers and wishes didn’t subside the memory.

I had one such pain.

Aunt Kate asked me to meet her at a funeral home. A dear friend of hers had passed away. I told her I would. I didn’t show. I had plenty of good reasons. I was in my early twenties, had worked all night. I was just plain tired. I needed sleep. I could hear the sadness and disappointment in her voice when she said, “You didn’t come.” I pictured her sitting by herself waiting and waiting for me.

Of course, I told her I was sorry. I could never get over not showing up for her. She never asked for much, if anything, from me or anyone else. I had more fondness for Aunt Kate than I did my mother. Her constant love continues to sustain me although she’s been dead for over 32 years. It’s her that I want to greet me on the ‘other side’ when I die.

I know she forgave me. I never forgave myself no matter how many little pieces of paper I threw into the flames on Solstice or New Year’s Eve.

Until now.

Every day, I do a do-over. And, it finally feels good enough. It didn’t start out as that. It started out as one neighbor helping another.

On Halloween, sitting around the fire bowl on our block, I listened as our neighbor said he’d be driving north for a week to his cabin. His wife, who is in her eighties, would be by herself. I imagined her falling in her kitchen and no one knowing. I asked her if she’d like to start taking a daily walk.

She often told me on our strolls that I was the only person she had talked to that day. COVID-19 had pushed her further into isolation. She didn’t like to walk by herself and wouldn’t, but she would walk with me. Sometimes, I’d bring our two dogs and hand her one leash while I grasped the other. The dogs began to greet her like family. At other times, Jody would walk with us while the neighbor and I chatted.  

Our conversations were generally the same: the weather, the home and garage projects in the neighborhood, and what our families were doing. I never tired of it.  

After her husband came home our walks have continued. She has become my companion.

We don’t talk politics. We don’t talk religion. There is so much more to bind us.

I sense Aunt Kate’s spirit when we walk. I know she’s pleased. I know she’s happy. I have a different image in my mind. She’s not sitting alone in the funeral home waiting for me. She’s walking beside me.

Rest in Peace, Patty C.

I first met Patty in 1978. We were both English majors at Drake University in Des Moines. I was in my early 20s, she in her mid-30s.

We didn’t have a lot in common.

I lived with a roommate I didn’t like in a campus dorm. She lived with her husband and young son in a four-bedroom house about 15 minutes away. I was a poor college junior who spent my weekends drinking beer that cost $1 a pitcher. She spent her weekends with her parents, swimming in their indoor swimming pool and sipping cocktails graced with fruit from their lemon and lime trees.

Both English majors, Patty and I were paired up on a class paper we worked diligently on to earn an A. I no longer recall what grade we received, but we became good friends in the process. She enjoyed hearing my stories about dorm life, and I liked hearing stories about her parents’ home and lavish lifestyle.  

Looking back, what I think we enjoyed most was sharing our hopes and dreams with someone who not only truly listened, often for hours on end, but also believed in our ability to achieve those dreams.

A year later, in December of 1979, I graduated and moved back to Minneapolis where I went to work for the Minnesota Senate, first as a page and then as an intern researching DWI legislation.

In mid-August of 1980, out of the blue, I received a letter from Drake University’s English department offering me a graduate-school fellowship. In exchange for teaching two sections of freshman English and working 10 hours each week in the school’s writing lab, I would earn a master’s degree in English.

I wanted to accept the school’s offer, but I’d already spent all my savings getting my undergrad degree. And having been raised by a dad whose mantra was, “If you can’t pay cash, don’t buy it,” I was reluctant to take on more student debt.

But then Patty invited me to come live with her. And suddenly my dream of earning a master’s became a reality.

The rules for living at Patty’s were simple: two dos and two don’ts. Do empty the dishwasher each morning and do grocery shopping with her once a week. Don’t smoke pot in the house and don’t have sex with her husband (she’d once found him in bed with one of her best friends).

We quickly settled into a routine. Her husband dropped me off on campus on his way to work each morning, and Patty drove me home each afternoon after we had both finished our classes.

We read books and wrote papers, and spent our free time penning bad poetry, drinking beer (her husband worked at Coors) and frying ourselves in the sun.

We also talked a lot about our hopes and dreams. Mine started out modest, but she encouraged me to dream bigger and set goals. It was her encouragement that led me to set a goal of someday writing a book. (Decades later, thanks in large part to her, I did: a book on goalsetting that’s been translated into five languages and is helping young people around the globe set their own goals.)

I liked being part of Patty’s family. Quiet early mornings at the kitchen table sipping coffee and writing in our journals. Afternoons playing catch with her son or helping him with his homework. Weekends hanging out with her parents or her husband’s colleagues.

After 18 months, with classes complete, I moved back to Minneapolis.

For years, Patty and I talked often, regularly exchanged long stream-of-consciousness letters, some of which held our deepest desires and our darkest fears and visited one another now and again.

Eventually she and her husband divorced, and she moved to Arkansas. She also got sick: first with a mysterious disease that was never diagnosed, then with tuberculosis followed by heart disease. Along the way, she made me promise that I’d be at her funeral—no matter when or where—and that I’d make sure Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird was played.

But as the years passed, our letters got less frequent. And although we did come close to getting together in person a few years ago when I vacationed about 50 miles from her home, we never did as she’d woken up that day not feeling well and had to cancel.

I still wrote a couple of times a year. Sometimes I heard back, sometimes I didn’t. Then, I sent several letters that went unanswered. I wasn’t worried at first, but then sent a letter asking if I’d said or done something to upset her. When I still didn’t hear back, I wrote to her sister who called me immediately to tell me Patty had died several months earlier, most likely from a massive heart attack. Patty’s sister and son had wanted to tell me but didn’t know how to reach me.

There was no funeral. I’m glad, as I would have felt terrible missing it.

But I did download Free Bird to my phone. In honor of our friendship, I play it now and again, always with a heart full of gratitude to a forever friend who made a huge difference in my own life, not only by encouraging my early hopes and dreams but also by being the first friend who truly believed I could achieve them.

In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan