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".