Archive for the ‘legacy’ Tag
The best part of the summer for my kids is when we pack up the van and drive to Boise to get some special loving from Babbo, Nana, aunts, uncles, and lots and lots of cousins. We don’t sleep much, but we have a lot of fun. On our recent trip, my dad planned a special outing for the aunts and uncles – me and my sisters and brothers. He took the six of us to lunch. I can’t remember the last time all of us were together like that. It was so nice to talk and laugh, and just look at the faces across the table and feel the special bond of family.
While we were talking, my dad mentioned an uncle of his. “Which uncle?” we wanted to know. “The one who doesn’t eat sugar? The one who lives alone?” My brother, who was sitting at my left, leaned toward me to say, “I wonder which uncle I’ll be.”
Two days later this same brother showed up at my mom’s house with a box full of wooden dowels, a sander, glue guns and glue sticks, paint, paint brushes, glazes and sealants. He asked his nieces and nephews what kind of magic wands they preferred and spent the day sanding, sculpting, and painting, making the most amazing Harry Potter wands you will ever see. My kids were thrilled. They performed magic spells up and down the backyard the rest of the evening and far into the afternoon the next day. They brought their wands home and stowed them away in special and secret places until magic is called for again. I have a feeling the wands will become heirlooms, passed through generations with stories of their magic charms, spells cast and counter-cast, enemies defeated, and tricks performed.
And I am fairly certain that as my kids grow and have kids of their own, my brother Ryan will be a special uncle to them all. Which uncle will he be? The Magic Uncle. The Wand-maker. The Wizard.
Recently the librarian at my children’s elementary school displayed a bushy-bearded photo of Walt Whitman and challenged the older students to guess the poet. My fourth grader, stumped, came home and asked me if I know who it was. The only clue I would give him was that every spring when our lilac bush starts to unfold its little curls of green, I think of these words from one of his poems: “heart-shaped leaves of rich green.” I didn’t tell him that the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” was written as an elegy for President Lincoln. I didn’t tell him the name of the poet, and I don’t think he ever guessed it. But when he is a little older, maybe we will read Walt Whitman together, and share in the legacy that Whitman left behind.
Until recently, I considered Whitman’s greatest legacy his poetry. But I’ve been reading THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: DEATH AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Drew Gilpin Faust. I started reading it last September when we took a family trip to Pennsylvania and visited Gettysburg. It was a sobering experience, visiting that battle site while reading Faust’s harrowing account of death and disease on and off the battlefield.
Faust speaks briefly of Whitman in her book. During the Civil War he traveled to Virginia searching for his brother George who was reported wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Whitman found George recovering from superficial wounds, but he also found a scene of awful suffering. Faust writes:
“Whitman became a tireless hospital visitor, spending seven or eight hours each day ministering to patients. He provided rice puddings, small amounts of spending money, stamped envelopes and stationary, peaches, apples, oranges, horseradish, undershirts, socks, soap, towels, oysters, jellies, horehound candy – and love, comfort and ‘cheer.’ And he himself wrote hundreds of letters – often, he reported, more than a dozen a day – for soldiers unable to do this for themselves.”
His letters were nothing like his poems. Simple, informative. Reassuring when circumstances allowed, consoling when they did not. He knew first-hand the anxiety of loved ones searching for news from brothers, sons, and husbands, and answered their need, as well as the needs of soldiers who were wounded or dying.
I think of those letters, and their profound importance to those who received them. Word for word, is it possible that they might be more valuable than his monumental poems of life and love, war and death? The letters haven’t remained, or been canonized in great books of poetry, but for those who received them they must have been like manna from heaven.
Maybe the answer is that Whitman has more than one legacy to share. One of the genius-poet, and the other of an ordinary man doing his best to “love, comfort, and ‘cheer’”.
I missed posting yesterday because I fell asleep as soon as my kids were in bed. Derek and I took a quick trip to New York over the weekend and had to get up at 4:30 in the morning yesterday (2:30 a.m. here in Utah) to fly back home. The reason for our weekend get-away was the marriage of one of Derek’s college friends, an old fraternity brother of his.
The wedding was held in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the Rodeph Sholom synagogue and was a conservative Jewish ceremony. It began with the Tish and the Bedeken. For the Tish, or “Groom’s Table”, male friends and family of the groom, or Hatan, gathered in a room to rejoice before the ceremony.
Many of Derek’s fraternity brothers and their spouses attended the wedding, but the groom is the only one of the group who is Jewish. When we were instructed to separate – men in one room and women in the other, there were a few stiff smiles from the women in the group – incredibly talented and successful doctors, surgeons, attorneys and businesswomen. I realized that it is unusual in our society to segregate ourselves in this way. But once the men had left for the Tish, and the women remained in the Bedeken to await the arrival of the bride, there was a change in the room. To me it felt like a lightness. A pause. Women turning to each other as women. When the bride arrived, glowing in her beautiful gown, it was like being in a room full of light.
Once the bride, or Kallah, had greeted her friends and family, she sat at one end of the room and waited for the groom to arrive, like a queen on her throne. When he entered the room, he was led by the men from the Tish, singing, dancing, and waving their fists in the air. It was such an entrance, full of celebration and rejoicing. Not just for the bride and groom, but for the families, the community, the people.
The groom was led to the bride’s seat, where he carefully pulled her veil over her face. The rabbi spoke to the wedding guests, explaining that the bride is veiled to signify that in spite of her beauty, what is valued most is her spiritual qualities, which will never fade. The veil also physically separates the bride and groom, reminding them that they remain distinct individuals even as they unite in marriage. I loved pondering on the significance of the veil, and the way it honored the bride in so many ways on her wedding day.
Following the veiling of the bride, we all went upstairs to the sanctuary, where the bride and groom entered the Huppah – a canopy with four open sides representing their first home. Once under the canopy, the bride circled the groom seven times, symbolizing the way her love will surround her home and protect it from outside harm. The blessings that followed, both spoken by the rabbi and sung in Hebrew by the cantor were beautiful. The songs, sung in their deep, reedy way, resonated throughout the synagogue and recalled other times, other people, who had made the same ancient promises the bride and groom were making to each other that day.
As Derek and I left the synagogue, walking out into the cooling October air of a Connecticut afternoon, I told him how much I had appreciated the traditions we had seen that day. “I feel anchored,” I told him. It didn’t matter that the religious beliefs behind the traditions differed from my own. It was the honoring of traditions that anchored me.
I thought more about it on our drive to the reception: the way an anchor falls through water, sending waves and ripples in a concentric path. On one side the ripples move outward, touching the past, on the other side they reach into the future. That is what tradition does for us. It connects us to the people who came before us, and to those who will come after. It centers us in time and space, resonating through us like ripples on the surface of the water, or the words of a cantor during the recitation of blessings to a new bride and groom.
This morning my grandmother left behind a body that had grown too weak, too old, too tired. And although her body pained her greatly, deprived her of independence, hid away the comforts of sight and sound, she bore it’s faltering with the loveliness of grace. Grace that was always sweet, and full of kindness and love.
I knew it first as a child, my grandmother’s grace. It was the encompassing embraces on her front step. Her soft voice that floated through a room. It was sitting on her pink velvet couch, knowing instinctively not to wiggle, but to cross my legs at the ankle and take just one piece of spun sugar candy from the crystal bowl on the coffee table, not a handful. It was warm, home-made meals of pot roast, potatoes, green beans, and jello salad. And delicate figurines with long, elegant lines behind glass curios.
To me she was my grandmother, generously caring and kind. The Margaret whose name I had inherited as my own, tucked behind my first given name. Back then I could not have fathomed what it meant for her to be so lovely, a farm wife who spent her life in the rural farming communities of Eastern Idaho. As an adult I have learned to see the iron strength of courage and faith that was the muscle and sinew of her grace.
Grandma grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. It was there, on her father’s small dairy farm, that she learned to combine industry and elegance. She would accompany her mother, a gifted seamstress, to buy the family’s groceries. Flour was sold in large, cotton feedsacks decorated with brightly colored prints, and they would linger over each pattern before deciding which sack to purchase, knowing it would become a new a dress for my grandmother.
After high school, grandma took classes at University of Montana in Missoula. She saved up $60 working so she could become a school teacher, but when she was called to serve a religious mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she used the money for that instead. She was sent to the Northwestern United States Mission. Her responsibilites included traveling from Southern Oregon to Montana, visiting sick missionaries and speaking at conferences. On one of her hospital visits she met a farm boy from Grant, Idaho, who was recovering from appendicitis. Howard Taylor.
After their missions, Howard asked her on a date. They spent a Saturday afternoon together in Lewiston. The next night he proposed. After five more dates they were married. Howard started out milking cows, like Margaret’s father. But it wasn’t long before he got into the potato business, and soon they had their own potato farm. They had seven children together. The oldest was out on a tractor by the time he was six, and the rest followed.
When their fifth child was still a baby, Grandma suffered her first tragedy. She had a severe attack of encephalitis that almost killed her. Instead, it paralyzed her and took her memory and her ability to speak. Her two youngest children were sent to the homes of friends and family in the community while Margaret fought to regain her health and her former capacities. Howard, the man whom she had met on a hospital bed of his own, nursed her through the best he could while running his growing farm.
It was a slow, frustrating recovery, but Margaret learned to walk and talk and read and write all over again. It was different. Harder. Her memory was still missing. Her life was void of a personal narrative to anchor and direct it. She couldn’t remember who she had been. But she recognized that somehow, in the comparison between then and now, something was lacking. She assumed her missionary service had been a failure because she couldn’t remember it, and regarded books stacked along a shelf with sadness, unable to recall the stories that had once inspired her. But she pushed on. The grace with its sinews of steel.
I didn’t know this woman when I sat in her front room as a child, watching the reflection of our decorous heads in her large gilt-framed mirror. I had no understanding of the value of her grace. Even now I wonder how she managed to preserve it. Especially after her second tragedy struck. Howard’s abandonment. He left her after more than twenty-five years of marriage. The shock and grief came closer to killing her than the encephalitis. I was just a baby when it happened. Too small to register the aftershocks. By the time I could look and see, she had rebuilt herself. Again. With the same loveliness of grace. So beautiful to look and and be near that you might fail to see the courage and conviction that it rested on.
And now she is gone, has left her body and has moved on. She’ll take her sweet-strong loveliness of grace with her, but for those of us left behind, the sons and daughters and grandchildren with children of our own, there is a limitless inheritance to share. A legacy of love and kindness, crossed ankles and bended knees, that will be a strength of its own. One I hope my daughter, herself a Margaret, will learn to treasure.