Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mentor, Methodist, Mother

The birds came to the backyard feeder like always. But on this day, the normally noisy crows, grackles, cardinals, mockingbirds and robins were perched solemn and silent. Only the haunting coo of the ground-walking mourning doves could be heard in the late September morning mist. It seemed they knew, as is often the uncanny way with animals, that their friend and protector had gone away.

This backyard belonged to my friend Barbara. She was 81 years old when she passed away two weeks ago, and, aside from successfully managed diabetes and the occasional ache and pain, she had appeared healthy and active. Our relationship was multi-layered and textured. She was in turns, friend, cohort and mother. She had sat next to me in church choir for the past 12 years, our alto voices - hers delicate and tremulous, mine booming and obnoxious - mixing in with the other eclectic sopranos, basses and Jon, our lonely tenor.

Barbara had a no-nonsense approach to health and life in general. She was a nurse, specializing in Hospice care, which says a lot right there. She visited unwell friends and neighbors who were often a good deal younger than she. She had little time for whiners, yet infinite patience with those whose needs and weaknesses she could see and understand.

She chaired the United Methodist Women (UMW) committee and hosted meetings poolside at her house. At one such meeting, this past year, she had the women over for an end-of season barbecue. Now Barbara was a fine host, but she liked to have things a certain way and could get grumpy when they weren't. On this particular summer evening she was planning supper and a swim. When some of the other United Methodist women wanted more of a spiritual meeting where devotionals would be read - Barbara saw red. "This is supposed to be a party!", she exclaimed. "Save the the readings for church!"

Despite her self-proclaimed grumpiness, Barbara was a wonderful mom, grandma, neighbor and confidante. She had four kids and six grandchildren. Most of her grandchildren were already grown but there was one young granddaughter who lived nearby. This elementary-age girl adored and counted on her grandmother for everything from homework help to swimming lessons to special school night dinners at the kitchen counter.

Barbara's backyard pool was a mecca for several families, including mine. My partner and I and our teenagers would spend Sunday afternoons every summer there. We were there the week before she died. Barbara was in good spirits, bringing out drinks and snacks, admonishing us to take all leftovers home or she would end up eating them. It was a simple thing, these afternoons, but a memory each of us will keep.

It was one such summer two years ago that Barbara learned my partner and I were actually a couple. She had known and loved both of us separately, and now, not only did she not appear surprised by the news, she took both of us in her arms and hugged us close, saying how happy she was for us and our kids. When this breaking news spread throughout the congregation, it was largely because of Barbara's love and visible support that we were consequently embraced by the others.

Our semi-weekly book group also met at Barbara's house. In between discussions of books, each member found safe haven for the telling of more personal things. Traumas, triumphs, hurts, hopes, losses and loves spilled out around Barbara's table as the fire she always had going crackled nearby. Although she herself often listened more that she spoke, it was clear to all that she could contain the sum of the concerns of our hearts and hold them carefully.

The choir meets tonight for its weekly practice. We will be working on music for two services. One is this coming Sunday's regular morning service. The other is for Barbara's memorial service, to be held later in the afternoon after church. In the choir loft, we will sit in our usual spots. Tonight I will slide over just a little to the right in order to be where Barbara sat for 50 years. I will listen hard to hear her voice still there among us as we raise ours in hymn and song. On Sunday, I will wear her green choir robe and process down the church aisle with a different alto at my side. The anthem chosen for her service is one that is a call-and-answer with the youth choir (the same teenagers who spent summers in her pool) and the adult choir singing together. 'Through the Window' by Ruth Elaine Schram paints a picture of children playing outside while parents prayerfully watch them from inside. It is a moving piece, one the choir - with Barbara - has sung before.

"Through the window, I can see you, You are playing, I am praying . . . Praying for your future, praying for your friends. Praying for your family, may those faithful prayers never end." I hope Barbara will hear us and see us.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cafe au Lait (Coffee Old Lady)

You can already smell it in the air. That turning of the seasons, the scent of pine mixed in with the honeysuckle on the cool evening breeze. The sound of rakes skritching crisply over fallen leaves. The waiting behind school buses as they stop to pick up and drop off their charges, breathing in toxic diesel fumes as you idle behind them.

Autumn is just upon us. I love Autumn for all the same reasons most people do. And I know many parents welcome September because the kids are back in school and out of their hair for at least six hours a day. My daughters are also back. The oldest, who I just last week escorted to Santa Barbara to begin her second year at UCSB, needed help feathering her new, shared off-campus apartment. She is living with six other girls a quick walk (or skateboard ride) away from her classes in an enclave called Isla Vista, or I.V. for short. To give you a true picture of I.V., please note that I was the oldest person in the entire town by 30 years. This obvious fact, however was not immediately noticeable to me.

Early the morning after we arrived, I rose and dressed quietly (not necessary, since college kids sleep like rocks), anxious to ride into town to find strong coffee. As I pedaled through the palm trees past the hippie Food Co-op and the Yuppie Sushi Hut, I had happy thoughts. "Oh, how cool is this town?!", I mused, glad that the bike I borrowed from my daughter was a groovy tropical green beach cruiser, which allowed me to blend in seamlessly with the locals. I rode up and down the streets believing I was a young blonde surfer out to procure java and perhaps catch a rip curl.

After trolling the streets, I finally found an open coffee shop called I.V. Drip. Perfect. Give it to me in my arm. I pulled up, expertly flipping the kickstand with my foot, locked the bike and sauntered in. "A tall cafe au lait,", I said casually noting the impressed look on the sleepy-looking barista. As he turned to steam my drink, I scanned the room. A couple of girls in college hoodies sat in one corner talking and texting. A boy with major bedhead sat in the window with his face pressed up to the screen of his laptop, skateboard propped against the leg of his distressed jeans.

I got my coffee and sipped it slowly. When I was done, I thanked the guy and sauntered back out. Yes, definitely cool.

Until I caught my reflection in the shop window. There was white-haired granny, her wrinkles clearly etched into her face, elbows and knees. Who was I kidding? I sighed and got back on the bike, winching at the twinge of arthritis which had recently settled into my hips.

My daughter and her friends were awake when I got back. we spent that day and the next shopping for food, kitchen stuff and a twin mattress set. We went to lunch at the local taco place and walked down to the beach, putting only our toes into the freezing cold Pacific Ocean. Confident she was settled and secure I hugged her goodbye and got on the plane for home. My baby, all grown up.

I have heard it said that we are not only the age we are at any given time, but also every age we have ever been in the past. This would account for my delusions of youth in Isla Vista. And my groaningly immature jokes at the dinner table. And my childlike tears of abandonment at the loss of both my parents within the last two years.

I am nearly 56. But I am also twenty and fifteen and five. Sometimes it seems I am a jumble of many ages and its hard to figure out exactly WHAT I am feeling. I am glad to be alive. I am glad I can still ride a bike. Maybe I'll take surfing lessons next year.