The leaves were already changing. The sumacs and the sassafras were orange red, the true harbingers of fall in Indiana. The corn stalks still stood but their leaves were turning to yellow and gold. The soybeans in the fields were also yellowing. Indiana. The beginning of fall.
Heidi's mom, Donna Jean Hansen Mills, just died a week ago. As I write this, we are returning from her beautiful memorial. We were with her when she died. It was an honor. I've known this good woman since the spring of 1977. She has been a constant in my life. And while Alzheimer's robbed her of her real self, much of our time in Indiana was about remembering who she was in her youth.
We poured through old albums, selecting pictures for the montage that played in her memorial service. Donna as a child, a teen, at her wedding, a young Army wife, a young mom. Donna in love, Donna in the 60's with frosted hair, Donna at kids' birthdays, surrounded by her grandkids, in shorts, in her wedding dress, in PJs...
We were surrounded by stories of Donna as a library aide who came to the rescue when kids were unfairly punished, Donna as the defender of folks being mistreated in a nursing home. We were reminded of her years delivering Meals on Wheels (she was also the beneficiary of these meals in her final days). She was a strong Christian woman who devoted much of her life to the unselfish service of others.
Her last visit to South Carolina was just days before she died. And while her mind and body were ravaged by this terrible disease, she was more joyful in those last days than I had seen her in years. She kept telling Heidi how happy she was. When I played some old timey songs for her, "Camptown Races", and "Old Susannah", and "The Red River Valley", she sang. Not the words to those old familiar tunes, but words of her own about her family, the flowers outside the window and her beloved dog. And the tune that she sang wasn't the melody that usually accompanied the chords, but a simple melancholy harmony. She sang her own song. And she was happy. Truly happy.
What a blessing. Because three days later, after waking up and being dressed, and slipping on her three watches and her favorite little girl shoes, after getting her morning kiss and hug from Big Bill, she just sat down on the couch and slipped away. Her body was alive for another day and a half, but by the time I got there on Saturday afternoon, I think she was already gone.
We were all with her when her body finally shut down, singing hymns, saying prayers and telling stories. Tears, laughter, prayers, hugs, many kindnesses from the nursing staff. Donna looking sweetly and serenely like an innocent child. Whispers of love and devotion, kisses on the forehead, kisses on the back of the hand. The screens on the machines showed the steady decline in her breathing and blood pressure, the final heartbeats.
And then she was gone. No more fears, no more suffering. No more indignities or confusion. She never had to live in a nursing home. She had very little physical pain. She loved and was loved by many. And she will be missed.
While dying is just exactly as natural as being born; while death is a debt we incur the very moment we take our first breath; while none of us ever gets out here alive... It's just so hard to say good bye.
But the seeds of our lives go on, right? Not just our children, but our words and deeds and stories become part of our own song. And it is sung long after we are gone from this world. While Donna was diminished by the disease that took her away, her song was long and beautiful and memorable.
One of Bill and Donna's legacies is their oldest child, the love of my life, Heidi Mills. And through Heidi, our wonderful sons. And Heidi's legacy will live on through the teachers she has connected with and the children they will teach. And through the written words in books and chapters and articles she has published. And through the kindnesses great and small, that she has shown to others. There have been many. And by the love she has shown to me. And so the very best of Donna will spin out and out and out.
While Donna Jean Hansen Mills is no longer with us, her goodness lives on. When I look into the eyes of my love - I get to see some of her mom.
And I am blessed.
Saturday, September 6, 2014
Don’t Quote Me
Years ago, we lived by this tiny little marina on the lake. “Snellgrove’s Landing” was the name of this little Mom and Pop store. They had a little candy counter, some live bait, a few of the most common lures, ice and “GAS”. It was a very do-it-yourself kind of place. You’d pull up to this little rickety dock. The pump was very old school with a dial instead of digital readout. You young folks may not even remember those. There was a sign that read, “Please Pay First” and an arrow pointing up to the little general store.
When you walked up the dirt path, following the “WATCH YOUR STEP” sign, and into the store there was often no one there. It had a dusty smell, a dry smell, the faint smell of fish and fried food and old wood and oil and gasoline and grease. The windows were filmy and the lettering done by hand, backwards from the inside. “SNELLGROVE’S SUNDRIES”.
A little sign on the glass counter read, PLEASE “RING BELL” FOR SERVICE. There was one of those old timey bells that the teachers used to have on their desks to get the class’s attention. The one with the inverted silver dome with the little button top. When you’d ding that bell, often the little old lady would come out with an apron on, wiping her hands and say, “What can I do for you, honey?” She had silver hair and sensible shoes.
Mr. Snellgrove was forever fixing engines in his little old barn. He wore the kind of coveralls that garage mechanics used to wear back in the day. A one-piece suit of gray with snaps up the front. Comfortable. Sensible. He wore a matching gray cap with a bill and thick horn-rimmed glasses. I loved this little old place. It was like something from my childhood. While their “GAS” was more expensive, I didn’t mind. It was like a visit back in time.
Snellgrove’s had a fondness for quotation marks on their hand-lettered signs. I’m not sure why. But the men’s restroom was MEN’S “RESTROOM”, and the refrigerator had signs on the outside that read, ICE COLD “COKES”, and “LIVE” BAIT and “ICE CREAM” TREATS. Every sign, and there were many, had a quote associated with it.
I took some pictures of quotation marks used in “UNUSUAL” ways recently. They aren’t hard to find.
This first one was from the newspaper. You’d think they would know about quotation marks. After a quote from a school official about the expectations and goals, “joy” is in quotes. Maybe it's because one doesn’t expect “joy” to be a big priority for a school district. So maybe the quotes are meant to signify how “odd” that sentiment is. On grammarbook.com is says… Rule 5a. Quotation marks are often used with technical terms, terms used in an unusual way, or other expressions that vary from standard usage. That’s too bad. Seems like “joy” should be right on top of our “priorities”.
The next one is also about education. During a talk about sharing news with elementary children, this slide was shown during the “presentation”. On grammarbook.com it doesn’t say anything about double meanings. I think this little word play is cute but a little outside the regular use of quotes.
A friend gave us some “strawberry” jam, last spring. In this case the quotes just make it a little more “special”. And believe me, it was real “tasty”.
Not sure why anyone would quotate “RESTROOMS”. They even went to the trouble of inverting them on either end of the word. It’s not a direct quote, or a word used in a technical or unusual way… Maybe we just don’t like to talk aloud in a public space about what goes on in there. Perhaps the quotes mean something like, “You know what goes on in here – and it isn’t resting”.
In Mount Pleasant, I wonder who “said” that “Occupancy by more than 300 person is DANGEROUS AND UNLAWFUL” It certainly sounds like a direct quote, right? Also interesting that the blank in that sentence has the word person after it, as though this form was expected to be used by a lot of people who would only allow one single person into their establishment. Maybe it was originally intended to be used in the “RESTROOM” above in the stalls.
My favorite recent one is from the Marriott Hotel chain. There are two quotes used in this sign. The greeting and the “NOT RESPONSIBLE” disclaimer. The red underline which extends through the quote emphasizes just how completely “UNRESPONSIBLE” they really are for those carelessly unattended articles and valuables. But why the quotes around “TO ALL OUR VALUED GUESTS”? Seems a little insincere if you have to quote it.
I have been guilty of an air quote or two in my life. Often I’ll overuse them for “effect”. Sometimes I use them with my kids just to be “silly”. But why do people use them so often? Other than using them for direct quotes or for unusual technical terms, I guess it is often for “emphasis”, the writer wants you to “stress” the words as you read it to yourself.
The next time you find yourself “writing” about something, avoid the “overuse” of quotes. I am not a grammarian by any means, but they often send a different message than what you probably “intended”. But don’t “quote me” on that.
The picture below is just another funny example of environmental print I saw in a hotel this summer. No extra charge. There aren't any quotation marks used here, but perhaps there should be a set around the word "YOU".
Saturday, August 23, 2014
When second graders come into the classroom at the beginning of the year, that moment is so filled with excitement. They have special friends they haven’t seen in two-and-a-half months. That is a long time in the life of a seven year old. Oh, some have had play dates, but for most – the summer is a time of waiting to catch up with their buddies again. Some kids, when they meet up again, are shy for a few moments. They can see that friends have changed, right? Some have lost teeth. Some grew new ones. ALL have gotten bigger. Second grade faces don’t look quite the same as first grade faces. Hair gets that summer shine. Many are wearing new clothes.
The shyness wears off soon and they are back to being the best friends they left behind so long ago. Disney, camps, daycare, soccer, baseball, the pool, vacations. It pours out like a stream.
And with me there is a shyness that I know will wear off soon. There are several children whose brothers and sisters have been in my classes in the past. And some I know just from being around our small school. I went into their classroom at the end of first grade a few times to break the ice. Since these children were all in the same classroom last year, they all remember. We sang some songs. “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes”, “Tools Was a Baby Rabbit”, “Puff the Magic Dragon”. They will become the first songs we sing together this year.
But our time together at the end of their first grade year was just to get acquainted. We are essentially strangers. Strangers who must spend two years together reading, writing stories, solving challenging problems. We will laugh together and cry together. There will be joy and naughtiness, hard work and laziness, magic moments as well as boredom.
At the beginning of our time together they must put up with me telling them about our routines and rituals. They have to learn how to share a bathroom with another class, how to put books back where they came from and how to put up chairs without clonking someone on the head. They will be reminded of how to cough and sneeze safely (into the elbow, toward the floor), and must come to know what it means when they see the quiet sign.
Because I have done this so many times (35 new school year beginnings to be exact) I can see the potential here. I know we will catch lizards on the playground field and watch butterflies emerge from chrysalises. We will share who we are and as well as our dreams. We will come to know each other’s favorite animals, colors, shows, and families. I know we will write the stories of our lives together. I know the potential of our friendships. Will come to love each other. We will tame each other. They will learn to trust me and I will trust and depend on them.
It is quite like this passage from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry where the Prince meets the fox…
It was then that the fox appeared.
"Good morning," said the fox.
"Good morning," the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.
"I am right here," the voice said, "under the apple tree."
"Who are you?" asked the little prince, and added, "You are very pretty to look at."
"I am a fox," the fox said.
"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."
"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."
"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
"What does that mean--'tame'?"
"You do not live here," said the fox. "What is it that you are looking for?"
"I am looking for men," said the little prince. "What does that mean--'tame'?"
"Men," said the fox. "They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?"
"No," said the little prince. "I am looking for friends. What does that mean--'tame'?"
"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."
"'To establish ties'?"
"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."
"I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower . . . I think that she has tamed me . . ."
I know that being a teacher of little kids at the school where I teach makes me the luckiest guy around. I get to share my favorite books with my best friends and work together solving problems and learn about how the world works and how to try to change it to make it better.
I get to bear witness to the most amazing thing the world has known – human growth and development. I will see them develop as readers, writers, mathematicians, singers, scientists, historians. I will be a part of the growth of humor, capacity to care for others, and awareness of national and world events. I will watch them grow their hair long and then cut it short, I will see little teeth come out and big old teeth come back in their place. I will see shoes get too small and get to compliment them on their new shoes, bought just a little too big with room to grow (I’ll bet you can run fast in THOSE…).
I can look ahead and see the time when we have tamed each other. I see the potential energy in our relationships. I can predict the trust and bonds that will take place in a while. Because I have taught little ones for so long, I have faith that this beautiful group of children will learn to rely on me and have faith in my decisions.
Now I am still a stranger. We have not tamed each other. Ah, but we will.
Saturday, August 9, 2014
Saturday, August 9, 1980 -
Most people spend more on just their flowers than we spent on our entire wedding. Far more. It was simple. Elegant. Heidi was the most beautiful bride ever. Her dress was uncomplicated. She didn't need anyone to pull her dress around when she walked up the aisle and got situated in front of me. I had a band collar shirt. No tie. My brother Dan stood up with me. He wore a simple suit. No tux. Heidi's sister Paula stood up with her.
We wrote our vows. Our friends played the music. I played and sang on a couple too (Oh, Happy Day). We didn't mash cake into each other's faces.
When I was a kid I didn't think I'd even live to be 34 years old. And now to be married to Heidi Mills for 34 years...
We were best friends. Thing is, we still are. I feel like the luckiest guy who ever walked the face of the earth. And while more days are behind us than lie ahead, I look forward to each one, waking up next to this woman who is as beautiful in her heart as she is on the outside. And everyone who knows her knows it.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Music and shooting pool,
First kisses and a brother
Who died too young.
Cars, first jobs, and parents
Who have passed on.
Paper routes and sandlot baseball.
Crushes and ping pong.
Adventures and crazy old teachers,
And yes, our current lives.
Families and kids and jobs.
A lot of looking back but also
Our dreams of what lies ahead.
Basketball, football, soccer, kick-the-can and
We only spent a short part of our lives together.
A little while, a long time ago.
Ah, but those were important years.
We helped each other to grow up.
To be the ones we would become.
We talked of
Mutual childhood friends and family.
Who had become cops
Drug addicts and nuns.
Of how our parents passed away
And what they passed on to us.
While our hair has grayed or gone,
And our faces are lined,
It was the eyes that I remembered most.
Those eyes got us back to our shared history.
Those looks that made us laugh or mist over.
The eyes brought us back to the depths of our friendship,
Beyond the old acquaintances we had become.
Almost forty years had passed
Since we last sat in each other’s company.
Half a lifetime without looking into each other’s eyes.
When I heard Ed’s voice on the phone
For the first time since the early 70’s
I didn’t recognize it.
He could have been any middle-aged man
From the mid-west.
But when I saw those eyes I knew.
I was taken back in time.
To campfires in Maysack’s Woods and paper routes,
And altar boys and talk of girls,
And sneaking smokes and playing pranks,
And slugging shoulders and Catholic school haircuts,
And older brothers and sisters we looked up to.
When Geno and I reconnected after Rick died –
Those stilted emails and condolences –
It was so artificial.
But when he got out of the car
I asked him to take off his sunglasses.
I needed to see those eyes.
Those cunning, teasing, laughter-filled eyes.
“Why are you hitting yourself?” and
“Let me show you how it’s done.”
For three hours we laughed and reminisced
And riffed and joked and shared our story.
About wives and kids and grandkids
Whose paths we have not yet crossed.
Sun in our faces,
Baseball caps and laughs.
The sound of Lake Michigan waves and laughs.
Cigar smoke and seagulls
And sunstars on the surface of the water
Our lives, once as connected as tin can telephones
Strung from house to house,
Had been separated by miles and lifetimes.
But three older men
Sat on one a picnic table on a beach
And looked into each others’ eyes
And made each other laugh.
Before those two grown men
Got into that fancy car
On that warm and sunny Lake Michigan day
Heading back into lives and people
I’ve never known,
Gene called to me,
“I still love you Timmy.”
After all that distance,
Scars, lovers, fears, laughter, children, tears –
Somehow that’s who I was. Timmy.
And these two old friends
Showed me that
In some small way
It is still