Friday, December 7, 2012

Angels in Fur Suits: Julie Tichota

  (From The Way-Back Files —Just Cats!, Winter 1998.)


 Julie Tichota was one of those souls caught between worlds. The artist, who started Angels Afoot, a mail-order cat-art business in Joplin, Missouri, back in 1993, had an obvious spiritual bent. “Julie went to church, and she was very into angels, as you can see,” remarks Hazel Balfour, the minister’s wife and fellow Maine Coon cat breeder who took over the business with her friend, Joyce Major, after Tichota’s death from myelofibrosis in December 1997. “She had lots of angel babies [in her work]….She had been a hippie type back in the ‘70s – some of that still clung to her.”

Tichota’s winged felines aren't the cutesy little critters with wings and halos that you might expect. Based on her own Maine Coons, they are drawn in the same loving detail that you see in British artist Lesley Anne Ivory’s work. In fact, so realistic are they – right down to their sweetly soulful expressions and the lynx-like tufts of fur in their ears -- you almost forget about those wings.

The drawings, which grace T-shirts, nightshirts, stained-glass hangings and boxes, “reflected her personality, too,” Balfour insists. “That’s the type of personality she was – very tasteful.” But Tichota, despite her fascination with angels, wasn’t entirely otherworldly. She was a perfectionist, using only the highest-quality materials. Since the myelofibrosis had left her extremely sensitive to chemicals, she had to make sure that those materials were “as non-toxic as possible.” She was “very safety-conscious in that respect. When she had to use the darkroom [for printing], she had to wear a safety mask.”

Her love of cats was, in a sense, the bridge between the two worlds for Tichota. In her studio and darkroom – cat angels; in the day-to-day world – her beloved Maine Coons, which she began breeding around 1992, and the strays that she helped whenever possible. She gave both time and money to the Joplin Humane Society: she was so involved with the organization, Balfour remembers, they once called her in “to calm down an unmanageable cat. She showed up with some herbs to calm it down because she wanted it to be adopted. I know she was tickled when they told her it had been adopted.” And when she died, the Society turned up in full force at her memorial service.

Bucky, her first Maine Coon – or, at least, her first Maine Coon-type cat – came to her courtesy of them. Not only did he get her hooked on Maine Coons, but he became the poster kitty for Angels Afoot, appearing in the original version of “All God’s Angels Come to Us Disguised.” (Later, Tichota re-did the design, using two kittens from her first litter of Maine Coons.)

Bucky was soon joined by Phoebe, a purebred Maine Coon that the artist bought. Among Phoebe’s first kittens was Gracie, who was Tichota’s feline kindred spirit and who figures in a number of prints. (There is still one painting of Gracie that Angels Afoot has yet to release.) Gracie had one litter of her own, then died in 1996 following a routine spaying operation. Essentially, she “bled out.” For Tichota, it was like losing a child: “Julie spent the whole night making a casket for Gracie. She even got those beads with the letters on them and made a bracelet for Gracie’s paw. She had her cremated, and she kept the ashes. And when she died, she wanted her ashes and Gracie’s put together.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Not for Tichota, who was “very headstrong when it came to her cats and her art.” She painted Gracie steadily for a year after her death. Balfour recalls the artist saying, “’It was fun – I got to look at her all day long – I got to look at her face.’ Artists are that way. I would’ve found it very upsetting, but it was her way of grieving.” “Heavenly Vigil” -- which turned out to be Tichota’s last work and the only one she ever did in full color – featured two of Gracie’s kittens, Tink and Wooley, “looking toward heaven to their mother.”

That strong mother-feeling she had for Gracie came into play with other cats, too. “As ill as she was,” Balfour says, “the cats were a part of her life – not just her cats but any cats.” Take Amigo, for instance. The elderly stray (“He was old,” the artist’s friend remarks. “I mean, that cat was ancient. He looked like he’d been through wars!”), who had tested positive for Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), couldn’t be allowed to mingle with her other cats, of course; so Tichota “got a large dog house for him, put it in her front yard, put straw around it, and he pretty much stayed there” until he died. Then there was Biscuit-Head, another stray whom the partners are still looking after. “Any cat who knew the neighborhood knew it could get a meal there [from Julie],” Balfour laughs. “It helped if they were sick. She would see a cat by the road, and she’d pull over and try to catch it.”

The Balfours, who already run what Hazel calls “a hospice and placement service for Maine Coons,” have been taking care of Tichota’s cats since her death; whatever profits they’ve made from Angels Afoot have gone toward their upkeep and medical expenses, including spaying and neutering. It has been tricky finding the right homes for the cats because they’re not used to being handled. Tichota was too ill to pick them up, Balfour explains, “so she didn’t. Basically, her days consisted of her lying in bed with the cats all around her.” Still, they’ve managed to place all but the two most skittish ones.

Taking care of Tichota’s beloved pets – trying to keep Angels Afoot going and “to present Julie’s work in the same manner that she would have wanted” – all these things the women have undertaken out of their love for her and for all things feline. “We were in the cat realm,” Balfour says simply. “Some people are in the cat realm, and some people aren’t.”


*****Since I wrote this piece, Angels Afoot has expanded its line-up to include mouse pads, clocks, cutting boards, ceramic plates, jewelry, and mugs featuring Tichota’s work. They also do more personalized work. You can find them at http://www.angelsafootdesigns.com.


                                                        (Julie Tichota's "Phoebe.")




Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bone-Deep: Andrew Tertes

As a boy, writer Andrew Tertes had a powerful connection to nature. “Our backyard bordered a woods-and-wetlands area, where my brothers, friends, and I adventured,” he recalls. Given the strength of this feeling, it’s not surprising that he was drawn to Native American culture and its “joyful practice of conservation and stewardship.” Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home, he didn’t have the words for these concepts, only felt “a resonance in my bones [that] became translated into a fantasy about peoples I didn’t really know.” At eight, he was already writing stories about Indians “who lived ‘back then.’ It was a time I yearned for but which I believed was untouchable.” But he had an equally strong sense of his Jewishness and “was proud of being different.”

  All these richly-colored threads come together in Tertes’s recently released novel, Jacob’s Return (put out by Sapphire Ink Press, which he and his wife, Shoshana Gugenheim, started). The hero, Jacob Goldman is, in many ways, his creator’s alter ego – a Jewish man whose “warm and mysterious relationship [with God] had become cold and distant during his adolescence, only to become more rigid and devoid of feeling and possibility as he grew up.” Married to Sheila, a strong-willed Native American woman very much in tune with her own heritage, Jacob reflects that “[t]here had always been something about her [Sheila’s] Native American ceremonies that was familiar to his bones, even though he stayed at arm’s length.” It is an archetypal journey: like Jacob in the Old Testament, he has to wrestle with “Spirit and claim [his] birthright” and to create new meaning for himself by somehow bringing their two worlds together.

 In his bones. That phrase comes up time and again in Tertes’s writing and during the interview itself. And he does not use it lightly. He, too, has done his share of wrestling with his heritage. “In high school, my friends and I considered ourselves existentialists after diving into Camus,” recalls the writer, who now lives in Israel with his wife and son. That was the beginning of a long through-the-looking-glass journey that took him through T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Western philosophy courses at Tufts University, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and a personal transformation seminar.

 But in the midst of all this, he was aware that there was some part of himself that he had to retrieve. “I re-connected with my childhood love of dancing and fostering a relationship with spirit,” Tertes explains eagerly. “What I’d called God as a child. Prayer began for me as a way to integrate my being and to know my source. So did ventures into the hills, mountains, forests, and coastal regions of Northern California. Spending time camping as an adult reminded me of how vital my connection was to the natural world as a boy….It took me years to re-acquaint myself with nature, re-developing communication and intuition with that which wasn’t man-made or only thought-based.”

He began writing Jacob’s Return. He wanted – needed – to find out more about his roots “but not through the Conservative channel in which I grew up.” By this time, he was living in Oakland, California. He began exploring the ways in which early Jewish culture (which had been land-based and largely nomadic) and Native American culture resembled each other. He took part in sweat lodges. And in March 2000, he met with Clarence Atwell, chief of the Tachi Yokuts, an active tribe in the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California. The upshot of that meeting – which Tertes showed up at carrying both a mezzuzah and some tobacco he’d grown himself – was a four-day vision quest that led him to a deeper understanding of both God and his grandfather’s world. Curiously enough, at the end of it all, he was “given a wool poncho by a man named Lucky, half-Jewish and half-Indian.” Talk about the universe giving you a sign….

 But there’s another part to Tertes’s story, and it goes quite a bit further back. It also deals with someone that he never actually met. In 1988, he read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and was completely blown away by it. Asher, growing up in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community during the 1950s, is deeply artistic; his gift puts him at odds with that community since many Hasidim see art as a violation of the Old Testament injunction against the making of graven images. Potok himself was also an artist and a rabbi, and the novel deals with Asher’s struggle to reconcile his artistic yearnings with his religious upbringing.

 The book made it possible for Tertes to enter the Hasidic world and enjoy “the emotional and spiritual depth it offered to Asher, even while he searched his soul and found his individual voice, something which was against the grain in that tradition.” Potok became a major influence in his own writing despite the response of one teacher who scoffed, “He’s not a writer, he’s a storyteller.” But Tertes had found a writerly voice that spoke to him, and he didn’t back down. He even hoped to some day meet with Potok and remembers with painful clarity that July day in 2002 when a friend told him that the older novelist had died: “I walked outside to an oak tree and sobbed. Later that day, I wrote a poem, ‘Cadmium Red.’”

 The poem, which he was later able to share with Potok’s daughter and widow, conveys a strong sense of kinship:

 
Your tales unearth
  my rich past
  lichen to stone
  moss to earth
  Sholom Aleichem, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
  the forever heart of holy words
  Scribe and parchment….

  You guided me
  with the blade of light I offered myself.



But the exploration of his Jewish roots doesn’t stop there. Tertes is currently working on a novel about Bernard Blumberg, a widower and secular Jew who is enraptured by 19th-century New England writers. Blumberg, a retired tailor, begins to have visions, “all of which come to him in what feels like the ‘texture’ of fabric, the language he knows best. He is moved to prepare himself for what seems to be the receiving of prophecy. As he is not a man of words, he is directed to busy his heart and hands with the message that he receives.”

 More threads, both literal and figurative. Here, too, the writer’s earnestness comes through, reminding me of that line from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s that has somehow never lost its freshness despite the many times it has been quoted: “One sees clearly only with the heart.” If that is indeed true, then Tertes has 20-20 vision.


Related links:-- http://www.AndrewTertes.com
 -- http://www.SapphireInkPress.com























Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Looking for -- and Finding -- Dena

(This story is a major re-working of “Looking for Dena,” a piece that I wrote for Hartford Woman back in May 1987.)
     ***********************************************

        It is a small netted gold-colored bag with a fleur-de-li on the front and a key chain at the top. When I was little, I thought it was real gold and regarded it as one of my very best-est possessions, right up there with the miniature white plastic tea set my Grandma Banks had sent me.

         “You were playing with it when Grandma was visiting,” Mom told me once with a reminiscent smile. She had been very fond of her mother-in-law. “And she said, ‘All right, Tammelah, you may have it.’”

       Gold or not, there was something magical about that little key-chain purse for me, just as there was about all the other items that had at one time or another belonged to my father’s Romanian mother. Her blue mixing bowl. Her brightly patterned tin sifter. Her long filmy scarf with its pink, orange, and yellow leaves or the flower-decorated gilt box that she had given my mother to keep handkerchiefs in. Something of her love of color and her quiet charm lingered about them, and I cherished them. I even carried the key-chain purse with me as my “something old” when I got married.

       But Dena was present in another way at my wedding, apparently. Dad’s sister Ethel came up for the event. It had been awhile since we’d seen each other. She hugged me and stepped back, studying my face. She turned to the others in the room. “She has my mother’s eyes,” Ethel said, her own face suddenly alight.

       My own memories of Dena were very hazy. After my grandfather Max’s death in 1946, she’d lived with Ethel out in California, only coming back East for short visits. The last visit had been when I’d been about four, the time of the key-chain purse. So she existed in bits and pieces for me…a pretty woman in photos with thick white hair and silver-rimmed glasses...a soft Romanian voice remembered from the times that Dad had put me on the phone with her.

       My mother had stories about her, though. Like I said, they had been close (“I don’t care which one of my sons she marries,” my grandmother had gone on record as saying, “just so long as she marries one of them.”), so Dena had given her stories into Mom’s keeping, much as she had given her the fancy box, the blue mixing bowl, and the flowered sifter. And, as I became more involved in women’s studies as a grad student, I studied those stories, trying to find the real woman between the lines.

       The first story involved Dena’s arrival at Ellis Island when she was about 12. Some helpful official, intent on Americanizing/homogenizing all foreigners, changed my grandmother’s name. Not her last name, oddly enough, but her first name. “You must be mistaken,” the woman told Dena. “Your name is Lena.” So “Lena” she stayed for the rest of her life, even though the name wasn’t as pretty or as musical as her real one.

       The second story took place many years later, when Dena, a married woman with six children, found herself pregnant again. She had had her first four children, including my father, within a five-year period and was just plain worn out. Ordinarily a quiet religious woman, she rebelled. Thinking that she could induce a miscarriage by over-exerting herself, she walked her husband’s fields with the same fervor she usually saved for her prayers. Of course, she probably only succeeded in making herself physically stronger. But she did have some trouble later in the pregnancy and felt horribly guilty about what she’d tried to do.

       The last story belongs in part to my parents, who had just lost their first daughter, an eighth-month-old baby, to a virus. Now my grandmother knew that it was strictly against Orthodox Jewish law to step foot on a cemetery before a monument’s unveiling a year later. But Dena, now a widow, had also lost a 26-year-old son in a car accident some years before. She saw my parents’ grief and went to the cemetery.

       Three faces of Dena…and here I was now, trying to fill in the missing features. A search through the old Hartford City Registers turned up a mention of “Lena Cohen, milliner”; a letter to the Vital Records Center in Hartford yielded my grandparents’ marriage license. I grilled my Great-aunt Anna, Dena’s sister-in-law and friend, for all the bobbe-mysehs (literally – and appropriately -- “grandmothers’ stories”) that she had, which were considerable. I was also reading and re-reading Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), the story of an independent-minded young Eastern European Jewish woman living on the Lower East Side. Sara Smolinsky was much more outspoken than my grandmother had been. But the stories my mother had given me made me think that Dena hadn’t been quite as demure and easy-going as people had thought – that there’d been a strong will lurking under all the gentleness.

       It all came together for me in a paper called “Bread Givers and Looking for Dena: The Problems of Being a Jewish Feminist in 20th-Century America.” OK, so the title was a mouthful and a dry one at that. But I was pleased with what I’d written and even happier when I got the chance to deliver it at the Eleventh Annual Conference of the New England Women’s Studies Association. My journalistic career seemed to be at a standstill: I had quit my arts column at Hartford Woman and was beginning to think that a career in academia had definite possibilities. After all, I had landed both a women’s studies summer grant and this spot on the conference, hadn’t I?

       The talk went very well. The dean of library services at Southeastern Massachusetts University requested a copy of the paper. Then a short woman with curly brown hair, glasses, and a rapt expression came up to me. “Call me,” she said, handing me her card.

       Her name was Roberta Burns-Howard, and she was the new editor of Hartford Woman. When I called her, she cut straight to the chase. “I make a point of watching the audience when I go to a talk,” she told me, “and the point when people began to get interested was when you were talking about the personal stuff.”

       In other words, about Dena. Almost five pages of “scholarly” writing and two paragraphs about a woman who had simply gone about her life, raising seven children and burying two…and now Roberta wanted me to create a story out of those paragraphs….

       “Looking for Dena” ran in Hartford Woman in May 1987. Mom met me when I got off work, carefully carrying my grandmother’s blue bowl. It was mine now, she told me. I had earned it.

       I also got my old job back at Hartford Woman. I didn’t work with Roberta long, as it turned out: she was offered an editorial position at a local business journal and was gone by the end of the summer. But she made me realize that I was meant to be a writer, not an academician, and I have always been grateful to her for that.

                          *************************************

       So, there I was, happily writing my arts column and various features (the great thing about working for a small paper is that you get to do all sorts of writing) and working with some incredibly thoughtful editors. Gradually, I got brave enough to do something I’d always wanted to do: write stories. And one of the first stories I wrote was about Dena.

       The Dena who came to me was the woman of my mother’s second story, the one who had loved her children but who hadn’t been able to accept that last pregnancy. There were things that I’d rebelled against in my life, too. So I took that feeling and hoped that it would help me get inside her head. The result was “The Dybbuk,” a story that one editor commended not only because it “told the story of an ambivalent pregnancy (a voice hard to find in published materials)” but also because it had “an ethnic dimension” that she was interested in.

       More bobbe-mysehs followed. Not all of them were about Dena. Two focused on my maternal grandmother, Esther, whom I had grown up with and loved dearly; and the others mostly dealt with a handful of great-grandmothers and great-aunts who were taking shape in my head, asking that their stories, too, be told. But Dena somehow ended up with the most stories; and one of the three immigrant stories that actually ended up being published was “Dena,” the story of the name lost at Ellis Island.

        I went on to write other things and didn’t give my bobbe-mysehs much thought. They were stepping-stone stories, I told myself, not really worth the re-writing. But not long ago, I began looking some of them over again. There was much that I’d cut now, I thought; and, yeah, I’d probably ditch a good portion of the dialect, too. And yet…there were images and turns of phrase that showed me I’d been on the right path, even if I’d often been stumbling along it. Then I pulled out my old Hartford Woman story. And suddenly, it hit me.  I had found Dena. But in looking for her, I had also found myself and the work I was meant to do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dwelling in Possibility: Tammy Clark

                        I dwell in Possibility
                       A fairer House than Prose –
                      More numerous of Windows –
                       Superior – for Doors –
                                             --Emily Dickinson


                    *********************************

        Give Tammy Clark an antique trunk or bookcase and – voila! – suddenly it’s covered with vine upon vine of Heavenly Blue morning-glories or tiny pink rambler roses. A rickety bureau is given new life – and festoons of purple hydrangea – while a small unassuming little cabinet gets one helluva make-over with Colonial red paint and white clover blossoms. What was old and tacky-looking has been transformed by her brush.

            Funny thing is, the South Hadley, Massachusetts artist has a black thumb. And cheerfully admits it. “Maybe this is why I like to paint flowers,” she remarks. “I love gardens – I love nature – I love flowers, birds, all of that. But I’m not really good in the garden.” So she tries “to take what’s outside in nature" and bring it inside by putting it on a piece of furniture or glass.

             Clark has been painting steadily for the last 27 or so years. She comes by her talent naturally: her father was an artist, and she learned much of what she knows from him: “He did charcoals, he did drawings, he did oils on canvas. He also taught art. So he was much more knowledgeable than I was.” She always enjoyed watching him paint; and when she was older, Clark took some classes with him. She remembers asking him what made someone a professional artist. His reply? “When someone pays you for your work.”

            The furniture started off as simply something that Clark was doing for herself, an inexpensive way of decorating her house. She’d pick up furniture at tag sales – “pieces thrown to the wayside” – and immediately start painting it. She went for a Shabby Chic look so that if the bureau or table “got knocked around a bit by the kids,” it still had a more or less respectable look. Friends began taking notice of her work and asking her to paint pieces for them. Her first commissioned sale netted her $30. Remembering her dad’s words, she was ecstatic. “I was like ‘I’m a professional now!’” Clark laughs at her younger self. “You get excited, you know? And that just motivated me.”

            She began painting murals, bringing blank walls to life with her trademark flowers and vines. And that worked out well for Clark, who was a stay-at-home mom: she could drop her son off at kindergarten and work for a few hours before picking him up. The fact that her employers were almost always women helped, too. “You know, men didn’t hire me to put flowers on that wall,” she says. “Generally when I worked, it was the women who hired me. Then, if I called them and said, ‘I’m so sorry, my son’s sick, I need to come tomorrow,’ they were ‘Oh, it’s no problem’ because I worked in a woman’s world. It was perfect.”

            She doesn’t paint furniture much anymore. Nor has she taken on any murals in a long time. She needed a good-sized vehicle to cart the larger pieces of furniture from place to place, and the murals sometimes took two to three weeks to finish. She’s concentrating mostly on glass these days – wine glasses, cake plates, vases, and the like. “It was kind of a new surface,” Clark explains. “I was doing windows. I’d paint the glass on a window, an old refurbished window. It took a new medium to do glass -- I had to use a different paint.” But it was so much easier than painting furniture or murals, she was hooked. Clark’s painted glasswork can now be found in galleries and some of the more upscale shops in the area. Some of her pieces have even been shipped to Europe.

            But that’s not all she’s doing. She’s blogging. And she’s teaching workshops. About ten or eleven years ago, her friends began asking her to teach them “`how to do that.’ They couldn’t afford to hire me to come in and paint on their walls, so they wanted to learn how to do the flowers and vines and that kind of thing quickly so that they could do it themselves.” So they’d give Clark a few bucks for paint and sit around her dining-room table, eager to learn whatever she could teach them.

             Nowadays, they meet in her backyard studio, and she absolutely loves it, Clark says. “The girls that come, they connect through all kinds of life traumas and stress. They come in, and they forget.” The workshops end up becoming something of a support group. Clark herself often just sits back and listens as “they all share and help each other….I have one woman whose son passed away from cancer last year. So she’s mourning her son, but she’s connecting with other women who have suffered a loss.”

             She encourages her students “to relax, to enjoy.” They’re not getting graded, she tells them: their art is their art, and they’re “`not all here to be professional – we’re just here to paint furniture.’”

            Not that she takes her own advice. Artistically, Clark is always reaching beyond herself, trying out different possibilities the way some folks try on clothes. Her nest is emptying – her daughter’s out on her own, and her son is 16 now – and she is practically burbling over with all the things she wants to do. It has, she acknowledges, been “challenging to rein myself in and know that my time is coming. It was my children’s time for the longest time. I would say, ‘I want to do thing,’ and it would be so overwhelming between taking care of the house and the kids.”

            So, what does Clark see herself doing now that that time has come? “Oh, my God, so many things!” You can hear the wonder in her voice. She wants to teach more workshops. And she would like to branch out into creating and selling her own designs. “You know, just simple designs. I’d like to do that because I want to know what it feels like. I have all these designs in my head, and I’d like to share them. Inspire others. And I would love some day to write a book on how to get your business as an artist started. I believe that there are a lot of stay-at-home moms that have gifts in the arts that they would like to use to make extra money.”

             Clark, like the morning-glories she paints, clearly doesn’t believe in staying put. Always, always, she is seeking new creative ground. “You know, that’s the greatest thing with being an artist and working for yourself,” she reflects. “If you get bored with something, you can do something else. I think that creative people get bored really easily. They’re always reaching for something else to step outside that box.”


Related links:
 -- http://www.tammyjclark.com

-- http://www.tammyjclark.blogspot.com





Monday, September 10, 2012

The Oldest Solace

           (From The Way-Back Files -- laJoie, Spring 2009.)

They had stumbled, by chance, upon the oldest solace for the oldest of mankind’s sorrows -- the decent laying away of the beloved dead.

                              -- Norah Lofts, The Concubine

                ******** ***********************************************

          That late September afternoon saw us burying Solstice, my beloved Abyssinian cat, in the little family pet cemetery by the edge of the field.  Well, my brother Marc was digging, and I was standing there, nursing my broken ankle.  Yet somehow, despite my sadness -- Solstice had been my second self -- I felt a kind of peacefulness settle into my soul as I looked out over the old hayfield where I’d played as a child.  It was, I thought, a good place for kitty ghosts to wander when they got too restless for their graves.  Solstice would be happy here.

          I had been burying our pets at my mother’s ever since my son Zeke and I had moved from our old house.  I loved our new home with all its trees and gardens.  But the soil was, thanks to the trees, extremely root-bound:  bulbs and bushes could go in relatively easily, but your standard animal casket (i. e., a carefully sealed cardboard box) could not, as Marc and I had found when we’d tried to bury one of our rabbits there.  The soil at Mom’s place, once part of our grandfather’s farm, was a tad more amenable to shovels.

          In the next few years, Solstice was followed by fellow felines Celtie, Derv Sr., and Rory, their little markers encircling the Harry Lauder walking-stick tree that my other brother, Craig, had planted there.  Blackberry, the last of our Bunny Brigade, was laid to rest further down by the split-rail fence where my dad’s vegetable garden had once flourished:  Zeke and I felt that Blackberry, a timid old gent, wouldn't appreciate being buried alongside a slew of cats and Mom’s Springer spaniel, Katie.  And, of course, there were other pet graves from years gone by scattered all along the property, some marked, some not.  But I knew pretty much where most of them were, and I would visit them whenever a reminiscent mood hit me.

          Early last year, Mom had a severe stroke and had to go into a convalescent home.  The house, which was in my name, became a rental property.  On the realtor’s advice, I had the pet cemetery fenced in so that the tenant’s children wouldn’t get hurt tripping over the stones.

          But there’s a problem, as a writer once said, about having your sacred place where someone else is living.  My tenant didn’t like its being there, although she’d initially told me that she was fine with it; and, obviously, I couldn’t stop by and visit with my old friends as easily.

          Then Zorro, my old con artist cat, died that spring.  I had no doubt that his spirit was bounding about, terrorizing chipmunks (his favorite snack food in this life) wandering unwarily through the woods.  The question was what to do with the rest of him.  Should I bury him with Solstice & Co.?  Or should his final resting place be here with us?  Fortunately, our vets had a freezer to store his worn-out cat suit in while I wrestled with my dilemma.

          And I had plenty of company on this one, I found.  Anyone who loves animals understands that “the decent laying away of the beloved dead” doesn’t pertain just to humans.  An old family friend told me that when her dog, Max, dies, she plans to have him cremated; then, when her time comes, she wants his ashes interred with hers.  One of the techs at my vets’ wants the same thing done with all her critters; another tech keeps her pets’ ashes in her sewing room so that she can feel their presence around her while she works.

          My artist friend Laura has always chosen cremation for her cats, but she‘s having a change of heart now, she writes.  Next time around, she “may just dig a hole and bury them in the garden.  That way I know they are still with me.”  She’s also thinking about doing the same with the cats whose ashes are currently on her bookshelf:  “I would have a separate section for each cat (I have over 10 little bags) like tiny memorial gardens.  Who knows, perhaps it will produce a pretty bunch of flowers or help me organize the garden better.”

          Personally, I’d always favored burial -- partly because of my upbringing (Jews do not traditionally cremate) and partly because the gardener in me sees it as a gentler, more natural alternative.   And in the end, I chose to bring Zorro home…to this home.

         Craig volunteered to hack through the octopus-like roots on the little hillside at the edge of the woods in our backyard.  (I have great brothers.)  “They always used to put cemeteries on a hill,” observed Craig, a history major.  Afterwards, we dragged a heavy tin tub that I was using as a planter up said hill and placed it atop the grave.  “I don’t want to see the thing that could drag that off,” Craig observed matter-of-factly.  I placed a simple river-stone marker and a lion cub garden statue in front of the planter…remembering with a smile the days when Kitten Zorro used to drag Mr. Lion, his very best favorite stuffed animal, all over the house with him.

          (A word about markers:  you can place them on the graves or do what my friend Michele did.  She buried her elderly cat, Sophie, in the backyard and ordered a marker similar to Zorro’s…only to end up putting it in what had been Sophie’s favorite spot in her bedroom.)

          Gradually, I moved all the pet markers from Mom’s, placing them all around my gardens.  Before the summer was out, the cemetery fence had followed; for by this time, I had made up my mind to sell the old family homestead.

          One afternoon, before it went on the market, Zeke and I were wandering around the yard.  “It’s the only part that still feels like ours,” he observed a little sadly.  I knew what he meant.

          We walked back to the car.  I started to open the door, then paused, my gaze sweeping over the pet cemetery.  The stones were all gone, of course, but each grave was all artistically camouflaged with a plant that somehow fit the beloved animal lying underneath:  vivid flowers for Celtie and Rory, lavender for Solstice, and so on.  And the Harry Lauder tree still stood guard over them in all its quirky twisted glory.

          “C’mon, everybody!”  I called out, seeing in my mind’s eye a procession of well-loved cats and dogs rising from their graves -- with Blackberry, of course, trailing cautiously behind them.  “Party at Zorro’s!”  And we drove off, taking our ghosts with us.

         

Friday, August 3, 2012

Conversations with Gladys

Gladys Taber came into my world when I was ten. That was the year that my parents gave me books for Hanukkah, and one of them was Taber’s Amber: A Very Personal Cat. I got up early the next morning and read the book in one sitting, falling in love with the photos of Amber, a dainty soulful-eyed Abyssinian. But I also fell in love with Taber’s life, which was a writer’s life and something I already knew I wanted. She was an everyday grandmotherly sort of person, much like some of the older women in my mom’s craft groups: in short, she made being a writer seem like, well, a more possible sort of thing. And since she and Amber lived in Connecticut, too, perhaps some day I would visit them…when I had gotten myself published and had an Aby of my own. I had it all figured out in my ten-year-old mind.
       
That idea got filed away with my 4H ribbons as I got older. But I still re-read Amber and its sequel, Conversations with Amber, periodically and was saddened when I read of Taber’s death in 1980. She was soon followed by the little Abyssinian, who “just faded away, as if she sensed somehow that this time Gladys was not coming home from the hospital,” remarks the author’s daughter, Constance Taber Colby, in the introduction to Still Cove Journal, published a year after Taber’s death. And because children tend to live inside the books they love, I felt as though I had lost two very old friends.


Actually, I think Taber has that effect on most of her readers. Reading one of her books is like sitting down to visit with an old friend. Amber may’ve been a very personal cat; but Taber was a very personable writer. Her voice is a kindly one, warm and heartening as comfrey tea, as she writes about Stillmeadow, the old farmhouse in Southbury, Connecticut that was her home for over twenty years; Still Cove, the house up on Cape Cod, where she spent her last years; the many dogs who tail-thumped their way through her life; and, of course, Amber. She is direct, thoughtful, and more than a little Thoreauvian. “We all need tranquility, and getting close to the earth is a good way to find it,” she remarks in that last book of hers. At another point, she says, “I have often noticed that trees often seem to do well just after transplanting but then begin to wither in a short time. I have never been a good transplant myself. Where my roots are comfortable, I thrive best.”

Maybe that’s it. In a fragmented world, Taber offers us both tranquility and roots. Taber belongs to a time of card catalogues, white milk glass (which she collected), leisurely reading, and more leisurely conversation. A time when neighbors dropped in on one another and were there with the casseroles, kind words, and comfort when you needed them. Maybe that’s why readers have turned to her books in times of sadness or crisis. One woman wrote about how Taber's books got her through the aftermath of a bad divorce; another found a sort of haven in them following 9-11.

The real Taber, however, was more complicated than the grandmotherly persona in her books. She was a single mother in the late 1940s, having “lost” (read “divorced” – “lost” is the euphemism she uses in her books) her husband Frank. She taught creative writing at Columbia University and Randolph-Macon Women’s College; she also bred and showed cocker spaniels and Irish setters. She was highly knowledgeable about world affairs, shrewd about business, and often downright opinionated. She was well-versed in the classics (she wrote sonnets and once contemplated doing a dissertation on the Bronte sisters) but wrote regularly for such mainstream publications as Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and Redbook. And she was thoroughly professional, a workhorse to the end. Colby recalls how during that last hospital stay, whenever Taber “had even a scrap of energy, she would reach for the yellow pad and felt-tipped pen on the bedside table. 'What day is today? There’s a column due on Wednesday.’…Nothing, absolutely nothing – not even what we all came to recognize as a final illness – could shake a commitment to writing that was, quite literally, lifelong.”

Quite a few years ago, I talked with Kim Baker, who had just completed a Master’s thesis entitled Gladys Taber, a Writer for All Seasons (Rhode Island College. 1992). Taber, as Baker put it, created not only a persona but also “a way of life that we want to read about. It’s possible to draw on your own experience and yet create a [different] persona that people want to read about, and that’s what Taber did. She was a sophisticated, complicated woman who chose to escape to the country. I think that she did have a real good sense of the simplicity of nature and the way it relates to our lives….Taber fills the void that’s created by the very fast, complex lives we lead.”

With over 40 books to her credit, it’s hard to focus on just one, but Another Path (1963) comes up frequently in people’s comments. Taber wrote it following the death of Eleanor Mayer (“Jill” in the Stillmeadow books), “my beloved companion of thirty years.” Mayer and her husband Max co-owned the Stillmeadow property with the Tabers; the women continued to live together after Gladys’s divorce and Max’s death.

My husband Tim and I drove out to Southbury with our son Zeke once so that I could finally see Stillmeadow. The house was closed up, so we headed over to the Pine Hill Cemetery, where Taber was buried. The stone was old-fashioned in style, the inscription neat and elegant:

                                        GLADYS BAGG TABER
                                   of Stillmeadow and Still Cove
                                                      Born
                                               April 12, 1899

                                                      Died
                                               March 11, 1980


 We stood there and talked a bit while Zeke, a toddler at the time, played in the grass.

 A little over a year later, I reached for Another Path when I lost Tim in a car accident. “Undertows are tricky, so is grief,” Taber reflects. “With undertows, you do not fight them nor give up and swallow half the salt water and drown. You try to swim in a slanting course, so the experts tell me, and you gain a little distance toward shore as you stroke not against but across the pull. If you are skillful and lucky, you land far down the beach – but you land, and feel the security of packed sand under your feet….It is possible to be happy even if one is lacking a mainspring. It is a different kind of happiness but it can be attained.” There’s some powerful imagery there – and some powerfully good advice.

So I never did get to meet Taber – unless, of course, you count the afternoon that Tim and I visited her grave. In another sense, I meet her every time I open one of her books. There’s a lot more to her than that ten-year-old girl reading Amber could’ve imagined. But that is, after all, what keeps our conversations interesting.



Monday, July 23, 2012

Of the Fabric Not Made with Hands

                         Sing with creation, all that is good
                              Ancient and holy, daily renewed.
                               Sing of the fabric not made with hands,
                               Woven together in all of its strands.
                                  -- Bret Hesla, “Sing with Creation”


                       ****************************************


I step out into the already muggy July morning and cross the street to the church’s side yard. At first, all I see is a blonde woman walking a tall striking golden-brown dog; then other dogs start to pop up out of the greenery. It’s kinda like being in one of those find-the-animals drawings. Can’t make out anything other than dogs at the moment, though. No cats, as far as I can tell, except, of course, for the ones in the photo in the embroidered bag slung over my shoulder -- Phoenix and his girlfriend Circe, the two Abyssinian cats who brought much joy into my life and who left it way too soon.

Generally, Blessing of the Animal services are held in conjunction with the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi in October. But First Church Granby in Granby, Connecticut always does theirs in the summer “because there’s a better chance of good weather,” explains Helga, one of the deacons. We talk for a bit, and then she introduces me to Dr. Virginia McDaniel, the senior minister who’ll be leading the service.

I find a seat near Lisa, the blonde woman with the high-stepping elegant dog I saw on the way in. This is their first time here, she explains: she and her husband just happened to see the sign as they were heading to their home in Granville, Massachusetts. Juno, she explains, is an Egyptian Pharaoh Hound. They don’t show him, but he does compete in lure-coursing and won Best in Breed. The Pharaoh Hounds, which are “sight hounds” (i. e., dogs that hunt primarily by sight), were, the story goes, bred in ancient Egypt to catch rabbits; the Phoenicians then brought them to the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. True or not, the Pharaoh Hound is definitely one of the oldest domesticated dog breeds, first appearing somewhere around 4000 to 3000 B. C. It has been the national dog of Malta since 1974.

Juno is sporting a very impressive gold-beaded collar for the occasion, something that Elizabeth Taylor might’ve worn in “Cleopatra.” And he does indeed look as though he stepped out of a drawing on the wall of some ancient Egyptian temple.


The service opens with music from a CD by The Paul Winter Consort, followed by responsive reading, prayers, and more music. Some of the songs are traditional hymns (“All Things Bright and Beautiful”), while others are more folk-musicky (Bill Staines’s “All God’s Critters” and Bret Hesla’s “Sing with Creation”). I glance around me throughout it all, noting the young girl holding her puppy like a doll; the woman sitting primly in front of me with her adopted border collies, Ben and Lottie; and the elderly man and woman in their wheelchairs toward the back, just taking it all in. Another older woman, Emily Messenger, sits down near me with her gray-spotted white toy poodle, Prudence. There’s a small boy carrying his hamster carefully in its plastic exercise ball and a woman who has her guinea pig on a lead. The guinea pig is wearing what looks like a hand-made vest (part of its harness?), and I hear one of the owner’s friends exclaiming over it. And during the Procession of Pets, I see a woman wipe away a tear; her young daughter looks anxiously up at her, and the mother shakes her head ever-so-slightly. Even the people without pets have stories.

 Emily gets up to share her poem “Morning Walk” with the congregation. Prudence, of course, goes with her…which is only fitting, considering that the poem is about her:

                 Covered with soft gray and white fur
                          Running into the wind
         Her little white legs moving at top speed
                         Perky, white-tipped tail erect
                     Fluffy gray ears streaming back
         Beautiful black eyes shining with vitality
                         Full of wild energy
                    Stimulated by the cold air
                    Joyously running free…

                      Secure on her leash.

 
 

 Next is John Myers, whose “beautiful gold-colored cocker spaniel” inspired him to write a book – Rocky: The Autobiography of a Chipmunk Chaser (Shire Press). Myers paints wonderful word-pictures of Rocky, recalling how the dog comforted him when his father died…how he sensed when the Myerses were due home from vacation and “sat by the door for three hours waiting for us the night we flew in.”

 And he talks, too, about pet loss. “Rocky died on August 20th at 12:30 in 2009. I don’t remember when my father died, and I loved him, but when Rocky died, it was the worst day of my life.” But Myers found an outlet for that grief in “put[ting] together all the fun times we had together” in the book, which is essentially a people-training guide written from a dog’s point of view. All the proceeds from Rocky go to help folks who can’t afford pet care, and it has “saved two dogs and a cat so far, plus helped another person with little money.” (For more on this particular story, check out
www.sadiemaefoundation.org.) But Rocky is still very much with them and not just because of the book: “Nothing loved is ever lost, and he was loved so much.”

Myers’s talk is followed by the minister’s blessing and a moment of remembrance for animal companions who, like Rocky, have passed beyond our seeing. Names are called out, skimming across the silence like pebbles on the water: “Fox…Jade…Amber….” I hold on to my picture and just let the voices wash over me.

Later, as the service is ending, however, I share my picture with Emily. I tell her how I lost both cats to kidney disease -- Phoenix in December and Circe that following May. “He made it for a year-and-a-half,” I say. “She wasn’t even as far along when she was diagnosed, and she went so quickly. A friend of mine and I were talking about it, and she said, ‘He was calling her.’”

Emily’s eyes are knowing. “And she heard his call.” She in turn tells me about how her neighbor had to have his elderly Bichon, Fluffy, put down. Fluffy and Prudence were friends; she still goes up to the door and looks for him whenever Emily walks her.

At the reception, I meet Thumper, a black-and-white Landseer Newfoundland rescue,who is there with his human. I reach down to pat him, and he pulls back. His owner explains that his jaw had been broken when they got him – “I don’t want to know how “ – and as a result, he gets jittery when he sees a hand coming toward his face. We get to talking; the woman, not knowing about the photo in my bag, offers up a story that’s a variation on the Prudence-Fluffy one. Thumper’s best friend, she tells me, is Sparky, a rescue kitten from The Simon Foundation in nearby Bloomfield: but there was another cat before Sparky whom the big dog was equally attached to. “When our old cat died,” she remembers, “he would go and sit there and paddle the cat door, thinking the cat was going to come in.”


“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit,” Chief Seattle of the Suwamish tribe wrote to President Franklin Pierce, “for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are interconnected.” I think about that interconnectedness a lot in the week that follows…about how some of us, like Juno’s owner, were drawn to the blessing ceremony by a simple sign on the corner of the road  And how two wheelchair-bound people made a point of coming despite the intense heat and humidity.

So many things stay with me from that morning: Emily’s face as we talked; Myers’s story about Hobo, the stray Maine Coon cat who showed up at their house in Vermont two weeks after Rocky’s death and who is now a much-loved member of their household (“He should have had a sign saying, ‘Hi, I’m here to look after you!’ He walked a mile three times to find us.”); and Dr. McDaniel’s words of remembrance for the “animals who aren’t here….Some we have chosen, and others have clearly chosen us. For your spirit evident in every living thing, we thank You, God. For all those pets who have shared the journey with us, however briefly, and then moved on, we thank You.” That fabric not made with hands is some pretty durable stuff.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Her Own Skin

Part of the thrill of burlesque lies in the way its performers turn being-looked-at on its
head.  Stripping becomes an act of empowerment.      

                                                                         -- indieWIRE

 To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful!

                                                                      -- Agnes DeMille


                                      *****************************************

When she was nine, Olivia saw the movie “Gypsy” with her parents. “That was the first time I realized that you could get paid for taking your clothes off,” she says matter-of-factly. “And I thought that was weird.”


But a little over a year ago, a Olivia, a newly-arrived freshman at Marymount College in New York City, happened across an ad for a last-minute burlesque replacement. “This was after I’d seen a few burlesque shows,” she explains, “and I’d been looking to get involved in burlesque. I had a dance background; and it seemed like such a good way to get back into performing and get dressed…and get undressed.”

What made her choice all the more interesting was that back in high school, Olivia had been a practicing Muslim, hijab (head covering) and all. In fact, she still considers herself one. “But there’s a lot of turbulence happening in the Muslim community in New York since 9-11,” she says. And in the wake of Arab Spring have come a lot of “new ideas. It’s kinda like a Populist movement in the Middle East [with] the rise of young people….I’ve been kinda trying to step back a bit and be less involved than I was because there is a lot of turbulence.”

Burlesque gave her the chance not just to step back but to step into another world. Not into Narnia, of course (although somewhere someone is probably choreographing a really interesting version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), but into one with its own element of playfulness and fun. The history of burlesque intrigued her, too. She ended up becoming a resident performer, working in the city, Long Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. She choreographed several routines of her own. The first one was done to a Weird Al Yankovic song (“I like Weird Al a lot.”); the second was what she calls her “Marijuana Burlesque” and “got a lot of laughs." And the third had a World of Warcraft theme and involved “a lot of hip-hop. That was the most tiring one – I busted a lot of moves during it – but that was my favorite one.”

Olivia even produced a show at the Stonewall Inn. It was, she says, very much like a variety show with performers “com[ing] in with routines of their own. And they basically run through their routines. I don’t choreograph. I just host and make sure the music’s played on time and everybody gets paid. It’s very rare that the producer sees the acts in advance.” It was an exciting night for her; it was also an “incredibly stressful” one, and she has no intention of producing another show.

Actually, she’s on hiatus from burlesque altogether because “it’s a very time-consuming thing to be involved in. And the money I got paid wasn’t equivalent to the energy I was investing.” Her focus is more on pin-up modeling right now, something that she was initially doing just to promote her burlesque act.

We talk about how she sees what has been called “the gentle art of striptease” – although burlesque does not necessarily equal stripping. There’s nothing off-the-cuff about her responses: clearly, Olivia has given the subject considerable thought. “A good way of defining burlesque is that it’s not so much about sex or stripping as it is about entertainment. I mean, nine times out of ten, you’re taking off your clothes, but it’s not in a way that’s meant to be arousing to men but entertaining to both sexes.” In fact, the neo-burlesque movement has really been “a way to backtrack a bit. It’s almost mocking what smut has become because it’s one of the few things that hasn’t been infiltrated by the male gaze.” Part of this revival of interest has to do simply with our love of retro, she thinks: “once something goes into antiquity, it becomes fashionable.” Burlesque has also been given some additional oomph by highly visible performers, such as Dita von Teese, “the Queen of Burlesque” and ex-wife of musician Marilyn Manson.

But to Olivia, a lot of burlesque’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s “one of the few art forms that women can be glamorous and take their clothes off in, but they’re not being objects for male arousal.” It’s empowering. “I think I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my own skin by doing burlesque. Definitely, my consciousness level has been raised.” She was used to performing, she adds: the difference was in “trying to perform with the awareness that I was removing my clothes in a way that looked choreographed and dancerly and not just taking off my shirt.” And what a difference. Dancerly is definitely the word.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Father to Daughter

The morning sun is glinting down on my father’s still wavy gray hair as we stand there in the field among the blue spruces.  It’s my first time planting a tree:  he shows me how to push down on the edge of the shovel with my foot as I dig, how to mold and flatten the earth around my sapling afterwards.  There isn’t much conversation, just a kind of quiet companionship, strong and warm as the sun on our faces….

          I spent a lot of time with my father growing up.  I was born when he was almost 46.  He had told my mother that he was too old for another child; but he was delighted when I appeared, complete with the thick dark hair and the wide cheekbones we’d both inherited from his Romanian mother. When one of his cousins exclaimed over the “beautiful little girl” in the snapshot he’d brought her, Dad simply smiled and said, “Well, since we were going to have one, we had to have the most beautiful one there was.”

          He was always my best press.  “Look at that one,” he remarked to my mother once when we were all out on a family shopping expedition.  My brothers had left some comic books and movie monster magazines in disarray, and I was being what they called a “Neat Nose” (probably a first cousin to a Brown Nose) and straightening up the mess.  “Already she knows how to take care of things.”  Years later, when I started freelancing, he’d call me up from work first thing in the morning to let me know whenever one of my book reviews had made the local paper.

          My first job was with him, fetching and toting his tools after school or on weekends, when he did his on-the-side storm-door and -window repairs. Fifty cents a window, two dollars a door, and I got to stay in the car until he needed me when the weather was cold.  The words “absentee father” were not anywhere in his vocabulary:  he and my mother had buried three of their six children by the time I was 14, and he took nothing – or no one – for granted. He didn’t gush:  he was an understated-gestures kind of guy and showed his love in down-to-earth ways, coming to me in the middle of the night whenever I had bad dreams or bringing me strawberries or some foreign currency he’d gotten from a buddy at work (I was fascinated by things from faraway places).     

          He was a man of great heart.  Which was ironic because, medically speaking, his was a weak one, badly scarred from the attacks he’d had when I’d been a child.  But he didn’t -- wouldn’t -- let that stop him.  He was the hardest-working man I ever met.  “I’m better when I’m working,” he’d insist.  Or, “You don’t quit when you’re half-way finished.”  Or, “It doesn’t matter if you fail ten times -- you keep on trying.”

          He knew people, too -- understood their quirks, their fears, and the best way of dealing with both.  “Well,” he told me once, when he was talking about a tricky situation, “I kinda had to go half-ways.”

          Did we ever fight?  Naturally.  But somewhere in mid-argument, I’d inevitably realize that we were standing with our heads tilted at precisely the same angle, using precisely the same gestures.  Mom walked in once in while we were in mid-argument and started cracking up.  She turned to my father and said, “She’s stubborn, just like you.”

          Dad and I looked at each other.  The words just sprang out of my mouth.  Athena leaping from Zeus’ head in full armor.  “I had to get it from somewhere,” I blurted.

          “That’s right,” Dad said approvingly, and the argument fish-flopped on the floor and died.

          There was only one time when we were seriously out of harmony with each other.  Dad had just retired and was restless; I had transferred to a local college and was wondering if I’d made another mistake.  We were at home with each other a lot and began sniping at each other in our frustration.

            But, in that curious ebb and flow of relationships, things somehow righted themselves.  By fall, Dad had gotten himself a part-time job, and I had settled into the new college.  Shortly afterwards, his sister came for a visit.  She pulled out her camera -- Dad and I looked at each other -- and, suddenly, we moved together and put our arms around each other, the temporary coldness between us forgotten.

          Dad died a year-and-a-half later of a cerebral hemorrhage. A few years later, I wrote a short piece, “Watching,” that eventually found its way into a literary journal called Writing For Our Lives.  Written in the present tense, it’s a fictional account of the last time I visited him in the hospital, a few days before a fever took over and burnt his tired body out, setting his spirit free.  Like my heroine, I made the conscious decision not to come back and see him again:  he no longer knew who we were, and I knew he wouldn’t want to be remembered that way….

          What I remember instead is the man who taught me how to plant trees and a score of other things.  And I remember -- it’s the oddest memory, just a flicker in time or one of those strange snapshots your mind takes sometimes -- how one day, when I was in college, the portrait studio where I was working closed early.  Needing a ride, I walked over to the local Stop & Shop.  Dad was there by the courtesy counter, getting his coffee or talking to someone he knew, just as he did every day at about that time.  See, I almost always knew where to find him; and on the rare occasions when I didn’t, he found me.  That is how it is with people you love.

          “Death ends a life, not a relationship,” a dying Morrie Schwartz tells his friend and protégée in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie.   I learned the truth of those words for myself when I lost Dad.  But I didn’t really lose him.   His body might have gone to earth, but I’d hear his voice -- low, deep, and rough around the edges, with its slight New England accent -- coming out of nowhere, plain-speaking but kind, just when I needed it most.  Only once, after my husband Tim’s sudden death did that voice grow faint, so lost in this new harder-to-handle grief was I.

           I couldn’t find Dad then, but he found me.  One morning, shortly after I started running, he was there, real as the road beneath my sneakered feet and the birdsong all around me.   And, as I ran, I began a series of conversations with him -- about Tim, about relationships, about my writing, and, of course, about the grandchild whom he'd never seen but who bore his name. His voice came back to me then, strong and sure and comforting as it had been in life.  We haven’t stopped talking since.  After all, that is how it is with people you love.

Dad during World War II and again in the late 1960s.  The spark never died.