Tuesday, July 29, 2014


I’ve spent the past few days talking and listening.  Friday and Saturday nights I talked to old classmates who had gathered for our 30-year class reunion.  I told them of my life to date, and I listened to their stories as well.  There was much hugging and laughing to go along with the talking and listening.  It was good.

Sunday I went to mass and listened to the readings and the homily about the kingdom of heaven being like a buried treasure.  I listened intently to the visiting priest’s message because I wanted to hear the message the Holy Spirit was speaking through him, but also because he is from Ghana and although he has a perfect grasp of the English language his accent is heavy and difficult to understand.  But as with the international students I service daily and the grandmother who lived with me I know that if I only listen I will understand.  Understanding requires an open heart as well as open ears.  I pity those whose hearts are not open enough to listen.

Yesterday I spent the day with my aunt, my mother’s only living sister.  My sisters, the Artist and one of the twin nieces and I drove to Jackson and wiled away the afternoon prying our 89-year-old aunt with questions about her childhood.  We listened to her stories of her life, and though I did not write any of it down yesterday I recorded it all so I could get it right. When the mood hit me today I took out the voice recorder and listened to yesterday.  So far it’s taken me almost two hours to listen to and transcribe only 36 minutes of the three hours of recording.  This is going to take a while.

I’ve taken a break from all that and I am sitting on my back porch listening yet again.  This time I hear the swishing of the wind as it blows through the tallest pines.  It eases to a soft rattle as it makes its way down through the branches of the water oak near the garage.  And just when I think the breeze has moved on the wind chime at the far end of the porch takes it in and spins it back out in an off-beat melody only a connoisseur of modern jazz could appreciate. 

In the distance I hear the chatter of unidentified birds, and a little closer to me I hear a chirp of a cardinal as it makes it was way down to the sunflower seeds I offered before I sat down. The crows that I have come to admire watched me scatter the seeds and have been making their way in slowly, cawing in a language only they understand.  Yes, it is certainly a language. A sequence of three caws for one message, four for another, short squawks for others, and sounds almost like geese honks and the kazoo-like calls rounding out the code. 

The murder is gathering nearer, eyes on the seed even though I have tried to stop feeding them because they scare the quail.  And although I have a great fondness for their loud caws and sleek blackness I have a stronger fondness for the quail that glide as if floating on an airstream and are reminiscent of the colors and feel of autumn.

The A/C’s condensing unit on the side of the house kicks on with a loud belch and I hear a truck on the other side of the woods changing gears as it speeds to its destination.  The sounds of squirrels scampering atop the wooden fence and through the rain gutters above the porch  remind me that the seed will not last long, and I want to urge the birds to eat quickly or miss out. The sounds of insects, crickets most likely, trill in the foreground, always sounding so close I could catch them, yet always invisible.

My fluffiest cat lies in the cool grassy shade nearby and contemplates her last days, for surely she knows her tumors are multiplying and I cannot allow her to suffer.

As I sit and soak in these sounds I am also listening for my heart to speak some common sense to my brain.  I listen for signs of what is to come of my uncertain future, a time of certain change or the necessity of it anyway.  I am listening for the small, still voice to echo in my ears and tell me every little thing’s gonna be alright.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Then and later

Little bits of New York keep popping up in my life lately.  One niece just came from there and one niece is there now.  Last weekend I was rummaging through old photo albums trying to find a certain picture and I opened up album and out fell a smaller one from my childhood that I had looked high and low for a couple of years ago.  This tatty album that lost its cover long ago holds pictures from my New York vacation around 1974.  There are only a few pictures of the city in the album, and a few more of some time spent at my Aunt Gertrude’s house in Rhode Island.  In the album I found a picture I searched for after my 2012 NYC vacation.  It is a picture of me sitting on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  My last trip I had my sister take another picture of me sitting on the steps so I could put them side by side.  Then I couldn’t find the old album until now.

The skinny snaggletoothed little girl holding onto her red socks and smiling for her mama doesn’t bear any outer resemblance to the much too heavy adult woman trying to look pensive for her sister holding the camera.  But the inside hasn’t changed.  The me in the picture on the right, the one whose legs are swollen from seven days of pounding pavement still feels like that eight-year-old girl in the picture on the left.  We share many of the same insecurities; negative body image, social anxieties, fear of pool drains.  Some things do not diminish with age.  The me on the right still daydreams and makes up stories in her head as did the me on the left.  And if I avoid the mirror and pictures comparisons like these I still feel just as skinny.

In the album there are very few pictures of the city.  There’s the one with me on the steps, one of the Empire State Building, a few of the Statue of Liberty, and a couple of a temple of some sort we toured in Chinatown.  That’s it.  Isn’t it ironic that throughout my life I have gravitated to art deco architecture, get teary-eyed when I think of the Statue of Liberty and ended up in a career working with international students, many from China?  OK, I agree those are far reaching comparisons, but something to think about nonetheless.  I feel certain my affection for Lady Liberty stems from the affection I have for my immigrant grandparents who passed her on their way into the New York Harbor.  Finally, growing up in a household where different cultures merged and another language was spoken daily within my earshot is absolutely why I chanced a career with international students.  I feel like I belong with them.

My photo album is also evidence of my life-long enjoyment of photography.  That camera I had in 1974 is probably the first camera I ever owned.  There have been many since, and I still enjoy taking pictures of anything I can frame in the viewfinder.  On my last trip to NYC I took hundreds of photos, not just six or seven, and I think I’ve improved a little.

It’s obvious I liked the Empire State Building even then.  My mother only let me go as high as the first viewing station.  At least I got most of the building in the picture.  The newer picture may be a more interesting composition, but no matter how I tried I never could get a good shot of the whole thing.

Look at this one of the Statue of Liberty.  It is a complete coincidence that I took the same picture from the same perspective as I did so many years ago.  I guess I still have some of the same thought processes as I did when I was eight. Back then I had to look through a tiny viewfinder and I often cut off the tops of things.  In this case it was the Statue of Liberty’s head.  Thirty-eight years later I had a sophisticated camera with a three-inch viewfinder.  I found the Lady’s head and gave it back to her.

I’m not going on a vacation this summer, so this short retrospect has given me a taste of one.  Maybe one day I’ll go to NYC again in person as I currently do in my daydreams.  Or maybe I’ll go somewhere entirely different.  There are still so many things to see through my viewfinder. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014


My mother was born to a family of ten children; six girls and four boys.  The first one for heaven was Anthony, the one they called Brother.  He was different than his other brothers and sisters.  While they all had dark hair and dark eyes, like their Italian father, he had blonde hair and Downs Syndrome.  He died unexpectedly when he was seventeen.  My mother said she was walking home and saw a crowd gathering at her house and thought it was her youngest brother who had died because he had been ill.  She was shocked to find out it was Brother who had passed.  Years later for reasons I do not know Brother was exhumed and reburied.  My mother said she begged to see his body even though he had been long dead because she knew in her heart he would be uncorrupted, like a saint, and she wanted to see his face once more.  That’s how much she loved him.

The second sibling to make it to heaven was the youngest girl of the family, Angela.  Angela was the baby girl, the petite one, one who could sing and dance.  I was in my late 20s when she passed so I knew her well.  She had a contagious laugh and just enough sass to keep you on your toes.  Personality-wise I compared her to her mother, a big firecracker in a little package.  She died in April only two months after my sister.  Looking back I know that it must have been a heavy load for my mother to bear.  In less than two months she had to walk twice into her church and face a casket, the first holding her daughter and the second her baby sister.  That must have been a gut-wrenching experience.  But she did it for her sister’s sake, and she kept it all together.  That’s how much she loved her.

The next one to enter The Gates was Rita.  I always pictured Rita as the rebel child, the one who eloped in her young teens (so I’ve been told).  I remember her telling me one time that when my Granny would get angry at her and the other children they would run circles around her until she got dizzy and passed out.  She laughed so hard telling me that.  She laughed a lot and she talked a lot and I listened to every word.  She laughed and talked and talked and laughed until the ugly veil of Alzheimer’s fell over her and silenced her all the way to the grave.  A few years after Rita died my mother was struck with the West Nile virus.  In her clouded stupor she called for Rita again and again.  That’s how much she loved her.

Gertrude was the fourth of the ten to leave us.  She was an expatriate of sorts, moving all the way up to Rhode Island to live in her G.I. husband's hometown.   My mother would visit her when her children were born, helping to care for the older ones while she was tending the baby.  Our summer vacations, the few we had, centered on working in a visit to see Gertrude.  She was talker and a laugher too, but her Providence accent had a different ring to it, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  She also reminded me of my Granny, another firecracker hidden below the surface of an always smiling face.  Gertrude’s death was a blow to my mother because she didn’t even know Gertrude was that sick.  She hid her cancer from her sisters and brothers.  Maybe that’s how much she loved them.

My Uncle Jimmy was the fifth one.  He was a twin and my grandmother had a colorful story about their birth that included a scene where one of them “shot across the floor” and she had to pull him back by his umbilical cord.  The twins were younger than my mother and she always spoke of them as her babies.  I didn’t realize until Uncle Jimmy died that they were only 18 months apart in age.  Upon hearing the news of his sudden death in June 2011 my mother, who was already in poor health, began to grow weaker day by day.  A week later she fell out of bed and broke her hip.  Physically she may have been able to overcome her injury, but she was tired, sad, and ready to go.  A week after that she died, too.  That is how much she loved Jimmy.

Today heaven welcomes the seventh Mordica saint, the oldest of the ten, my 96 year-old Aunt Mary.  Up until just a year or so ago she lived alone and managed.  Her mind was sharp and her wit was sharper.  She was another large life in a small package.  She had to stop driving a few years ago because macular degeneration robbed her of her eyesight, and I know that was an aggravation to her.  There are so many things I loved about her I can’t even begin to write them all down.  She just was.  Now she is.  She is reunited with her husband, her son she lost to cancer, and her baby that barely breathed, if at all.  She and my mother were very close, and they were always at each other's side for anything and everything.  It thrills me to no end to know they are together again as well as with their parents, sisters, and brothers.  She is free from the debilitating health she had been experiencing lately and she is free from the bonds of old age that took away her fierce independence.

Aunt Mary is in heaven now and her eyes are clear again.  She is looking at our Lord, and she is wrapped in the light of God’s magnificent glory.  Even though I did not see her often I will miss her presence on this earth and I am grieving for my loss of it.  But these tears that fall even as I write the words are tears of joy for her freedom from her broken body and the new body she has now.  That is how much I love her.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

You can't judge a bird by its feather

I tend to think of myself as an observer, an onlooker, a bystander.  I watch, listen and hear then interpret for my own understanding.  Arguments do not suit me, nor do heated debates.  In times of turbulence it is hard for me to collect my thoughts and fire back intelligibly, so I usually take the backseat and wait for a quiet opportunity to express my opinion. 
Speaking to my observation skills I may not notice my husband has shaved or cut his hair but a change in the tone of his voice or the shift of his feet will get my attention immediately.  What I do not see with my eyes I sense with my intuition.

Lately my observations have been focused on the behavior of the animals that use my back yard as their supermarket, restaurant, and day spa.  For example, I think blue jays are misunderstood.  Yes, they are loud and intrusive, but regardless of their size they will allow much smaller birds to chase them from the feeders.  I think they make such an assertive entrance in an attempt to scatter the other birds for a short moment to grab a few seeds before they are chased away.  And, they are the only birds I’ve ever seen that are calm enough to sunbathe.  They will lie perfectly still on the ground in the hot sun with their wings spread out beside them.  At first I thought they were playing dead to attract something or another, but after seeing this several times I seriously think they are just enjoying the warmth.

Another bird that I think has been misunderstood is the dove.  I can only reference mourning doves because they are the only ones I see on a daily basis.  Doves are often used as symbols of peace.  In the Bible doves are spoken of poetically giving them an air of beauty and grace.  When Jesus was baptized the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove.  I think the references to the dove in the Bible are what contribute to the general idea of the dove as peaceful.  But to me, someone who watches doves everyday, doves are anything but peaceful.  They are demanding.  They will chase away other birds from the feeders and they are merciless to squirrels.  They will fight for any possible scrap that might have fallen to the ground.  As spiteful as they are to other birds and squirrels they are even worse to each other, always pecking and chasing.  Doves are a force to be reckoned with.

Aha!  Notice, I did not say the Bible was wrong about doves.  They certainly are beautiful creatures.  Their colors are soft and iridescent, their coos are soothing, their flight is graceful; all ideal characteristics for waxing poetic.  I also agree they make a perfect comparison to the Spirit of God because I think the Spirit of God is anything but peaceful.  Think about it.  When the Spirit of God has a message for you He will poke you, chase you, demand your attention, and give you no rest.  The Spirit of God is a force to be reckoned with.  Peace will find you only once you succumb to the Spirit and listen and obey.  The poetic dove of peace will only appear once dove of the Spirit has been satisfied.  

So the next time you see a symbol of a dove remember that things are not always as they are assumed to be.  True meanings often are lost in translation.  The Spirit of God is like a dove, but doves can be pushy as can the Spirit.  And the next time you see a symbol of a dove with an olive branch in its mouth remember that dove probably stole the branch from another bird.