I wonder if, in the dark night of the sea, the octopus dreams of me. ~N. Scott Momaday
If I am brutally honest with myself, one of my worst fears is to have lived on this earth for a few decades and then pass away forgotten, inconsequential, having left behind no legacy of significance whatsoever. I know it is self-absorbed to feel the need to leave a mark, but my search for purpose and meaning lasting beyond my time here provides new momentum for each day.
The forgetting can happen so fast. Most people know little about their great great grandparents, if they even know their names. A mere four generations, a century, renders us dust, not just in flesh, but in memory as well. There may be a yellowed photograph in a box somewhere, perhaps a tattered postcard or letter written in elegant script, but the essence of who this person was is long lost and forgotten. We owe it to our descendants to write down the stories about who we were while we lived on this earth. We need to share why we lived, for whom we lived, for what we lived.
I suspect however, unless I try every day to record some part of who I am, it will be no different with me and those who come after me. Whether or not we are remembered by great great grandchildren or become part of the dreams of creatures in the depths of the seas:
we are just dust here and there is no changing that.
Good thing this is not our only home. Good thing we are more than mere memory and dreams. Good thing there is eternity that transcends good works or long memories or legacies left behind. Good thing we are loved that much and always will be, Forever and ever, Amen.
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On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress, grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.
Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.
I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun. We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.
A real (sort of) starter farm.
Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me, just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.
I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.
We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals: Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later, sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.
Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm. Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.
A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.
My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever: volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.
That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams. Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.
It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.
She skimmed the yellow water like a moth, Trailing her feet across the shallow stream; She saw the berries, paused and sampled them Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth. Light in the air, she fluttered up the path, So delicate to shun the leaves and damp, Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp To find her stray child, or the moon, or both. Even before she reached the empty house, She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose, Followed a bee where apples blew like snow; And then, forgetting what she wanted there, Too full of blossom and green light to care, She hurried to the ground, and slipped below. ~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems
I saw my grandma’s ghost once.
She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.
She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever, too young marrying an abusive alcoholic, losing her first child to lymphoma at age 8, taking her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.
But there was grace too. A marriage that somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety, her faith that never wavered, their soil that yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, children and grandchildren who welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.
She was busy planning her first trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.
I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.
Her funeral was unbearable as I never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.
Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.
I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.
Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”
She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:
“I wanted you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”
She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.
She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.
She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.
We thought we were the perfect family— loyal, stable, a brick wall you couldn’t topple with a wrecking ball. Parents dependable as the frozen Minute Maid juice we squeezed from cardboard cans and drank mornings, reconstituted.
We’d come to this place just to be together. October in Ogunquit, record heat, no need for the sweaters we’d packed. Dad had died but Mom, in her 80s, sat pouring green tea, our wicker chairs on the small porch, six sets of knees touching.
She didn’t mean to mention Dad’s first wife.
To our collective what? she sputtered lasted a year, before the war, her name: Phyllis. Remember that chest in the basement? It was hers.
Some moments passed, then mutely we agreed to let it go. Radium glowed green in our brains but didn’t burn. The knowing, a relief: We didn’t have to be perfect.
The August-warm wind felt pleasant and odd. We sat on that porch, orange leaves pinwheeling down the street. ~Karen Paul Holmes “Rental Cottage, Maine” from No Such Thing as Distance
Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls. This particular day is different. As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.
Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed. I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.
The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights. Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.
Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick. I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind. The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week. I smiled, realizing he and Mom, the best parents ever, have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.
I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside. As our cars travel side by side in the downpour, I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows. He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation. It is then I realize something is amiss. When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before. There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.
My mother’s hair is gray.
My initial confusion turns instantly to fury. Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me. I think about honking, I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know. I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.
At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the white line separating us. His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.
I can’t bear to look any longer.
I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake. Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart. I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.
Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears. The phone rings and remains unanswered.
I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray — for a sleep without dreams, without secrets, without lies, without the burden of knowing the truth I alone now knew and wished I didn’t.
The world begins at a kitchen table. No Matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite. ~Joy Harjo “Perhaps the World Ends Here”
Our life revolves around this table. This is where we hang out late into the evening, and begin the day before dawn. This is where the prayers happen, the meals happen, the arguments happen. This is where we understand each other.
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime. ~Ray Bradbury from Fahrenheit 451
At last the entire family stood, like people seeing someone off at the rail station, waiting in the room.
“Well,” said Great-grandma, “there I am, I’m not humble, so it’s nice seeing you standing around my bed. Now next week there’s late gardening and closet-cleaning and clothes-buying for the children to do. And since that part of me is called, for convenience, Great-grandma, won’t be here to step it along, those other parts of me called Uncle Bert and Leo and Tom and Douglas, and all the other names, will have to take over, each to his own.”
Somewhere a door closed quietly.
… she saw it shaping in her mind quietly, and with serenity like a sea moving along and endless and self-refreshing shore.
Downstairs, she thought, they are polishing the silver, and rummaging the cellar, and dusting in the halls. She could hear them living all through the house.
“It’s all right,” whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. “Like everything else in this life, it’s fitting.”
And the sea moved her back down the shore. ~Ray Bradbury “Great-Grandmother” from Dandelion Wine
Esther learned young how to work and she never forgot, still working up until the last few days of her long life.
Today she is sweeping up, wiping down counters and washing the dishes in a corner of heaven, after baking cookies and putting a soup on to simmer, to be sure everyone up there is well-fed and feels welcome.
She grew up on a remote farm in South Dakota where survival meant the whole family pitched in to help. When she married Pete and headed west to Washington, the work never let up: six sons, a small farm, a construction business to help manage, working as a caretaker privately and in a nursing home, taking on the mission of coordinating a large Sunday School ministry in our small church back over fifty years ago and never leaving.
Esther touched everything and everyone in this life, leaving a bit of herself behind in all of us. She’ll stay plenty busy in the next life.
She wasWiser Lake Chapel for over half her life, along with her husband Pete who passed from chronic leukemia over a decade ago. Their son Wes took on many of Pete’s carpentry and building maintenance duties at church, but then he too lost a fight with acute leukemia.
Esther persevered despite these heartbreaking losses, a tenacious testament to the power of the Spirit in one woman’s life. She had more artificial joints in her body than her own joints, some replaced twice. Her heart tried to fail any number of times, most recently after a trip to Europe she made earlier this year, by herself, to visit her missionary son. She never stopped driving. She never stopped walking even though every step took immense effort paid in pain. She came to every church service, morning and night and mid-week, usually with something fresh-baked in her hand. If soup was needed for a meal on short notice, she could make it happen in an hour from what she stored away in her freezer. She was a self-appointed clean-up crew, wheeling her walker from table to sink to counter to trash can and back again.
Every new great-grandbaby and every new Chapel baby had a hand-made Esther quilt, complete with her hand-painted pictures and the details of the birthday and birthweight printed on it. She made hundreds over her lifetime.
Esther’s family is a large exuberant and glory-filled group of sons and daughter-in-laws and grands and great-grands who reflect who she and Pete were to them, to our church and the greater community. They are a legacy left on earth, to keep up the good work and gratitude-filled worship, to never ever give up, no matter how tough life can be.
Thank you, Esther, for changing us all so profoundly we won’t ever be the same as we were before you touched us; you left us all so much better than before. Now I believe we all are just a little bit like you.
And most of all, thanks for 90-plus years of your loving labor on the Lord’s behalf. The soup is on the stove in memory of you.