Treasured Photographs Give Way to Grief

It’s been a long wait.

My namesake Aunt Alys died in London in August of 2008. It’s taken a decade to receive the promised copies of her photographs, reminders of her enchanted youth.

As years go, 2008 was one of my worst. My younger sister fell early that year and broke her hip, further complicated by her MS. She was in rehab for a month. My mother also had a series of falls in what was the beginning of her decline. She died that year three days after Christmas. My father-in-law died of a heart attack that June and my mother-in-law passed later the same month.

The following months were a blur dealing with attorneys (solicitors) from two countries, sorting through possessions, attending funerals, and tending to a multitude of tasks, while continuing to raise my boys. It was hard.

My aunt’s executor delayed her London funeral for a month so that I could settle my boys in school before flying to England.  I looked through her albums while in London, but on the day of her funeral, her solicitor took me aside and said I would have to wait before claiming them. Things got messy from there.

Though my aunt left us a generous financial legacy, it was the photos I craved. Initially they said “it takes time”. Later they said that her friend and executor would copy the photos to CDs. I left voice mail messages, sent unanswered emails, and appealed to their sense of decency. Her friend and the beneficiary of part of her estate stopped returning my emails. Periodically, I conducted internet searches to see if her name surfaced. If you Google “Alys Milner” it turns up searches for me or my aunt.

Alys Milner (later Lancaster) posing in a Windsor Wooley bathing costume

Alys Milner (later Lancaster) posing in a Windsor Woolly bathing costume

Through a search I learned that her friend donated her albums to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I contacted the museum by email, waited weeks for a reply, and was finally contacted with apologies and assured that the photo albums were in their care.

Aunt Alys’ photos were not on display, but instead stored in the museum’s archives. I can’t imagine she would have wanted this, but her friend seemed to think it was more important to store them in a museum than to send them to her niece.

I asked the museum’s archive department if they would send me copies, but they said they were not available in digital form. I was welcome to come to the museum and make my own copies, no easy task when you live across the pond.

Last month, eleven years after my initial request, I received a letter from her solicitor asking me to confirm my address. A CD with a few copies of her photos and scrapbooks would soon be on their way.

Aunt Alys didn’t have children, and she didn’t think anyone would want her photos. I assured her that we would treasure all of them and she verbally agreed nearly twenty years before her death.

At long last, the CD’s arrived. It’s been a thrill seeing her photos once again but how I wish she were here to fill-in the details of her interesting life.

Newspaper clippings from her scrapbook.

Sharing these photos evokes a mixture of nostalgia and loss. Aunt Alys married in 1937 and two years later, England was at war with Germany. My aunt took part in the war effort, bringing clothing to bombing victims after the air raids, while my father served as a translator in India. 

My delight at finally receiving copies of these photos, gave way to an unexpected sorrow. Grief travels its own path. For now I’ll just let it be.

 

Scrap-Happy March: Paper Greens

I’m joining Kate, of Tall Tales from Chiconia, for her monthly scrap-happy blog post. The challenge is to use scraps from other projects to make something useful, beautiful, or both. Several bloggers post once a month showcasing a project made entirely from scraps.

This month I’m using green paper scraps and pages from an old wall calendar.

I started with this pile of paper scraps…

green scrap paper

Green just happens to be my favorite color

Assorted pages from an old gardening calendar

Old Farmer's Almanac Calendar

The Old Farmer’s Almanac Gardening Calendar

And a green Christmas tin.

Swiss Miss chocolate tin

Swiss Miss chocolate tin

I made three greeting cards…

Green strip quilt card

Card made from scraps of green paper and a calendar cut-out

calendar page card with vintage ribbon

Calendar page card with vintage ribbon rests near deep purple hyacinth

Tri-fold card

Tri-fold card

…and about 30 bookmarks. Here’s one made from the center of a calendar page.

calendar page bookmark

Calendar page bookmark with vintage seam binding

I also made a sign for our Little Free Library in honor of St. Patrick’s Day this coming Monday, and I covered a hot chocolate tin to hold the bookmarks.

four leaf clover lore

A bit of four-leaf clover lore in our LFL

Little Free Library with green books

Books with green spines and a covered Christmas tin full of bookmarks

All three cards incorporated bits of the calendar and paper scraps. I like creating like this, with a small pile of bits and bobs and no real plan.

I used a small bird drawing from the calendar for the first card

The trifold card incorporates the center panel from one of the calendar pages on the cover and on the inside of the card.

The third card is simply a photograph from a Nature Conservancy calendar, tied with vintage seam binding. I used a die to cut a note of thanks from a green paper scrap.

The bookmarks are an eclectic bunch. I used several scraps of green paper, bits of vintage seam binding, Washi tape, and again, parts of my Old Farmer’s Almanac calendar. Lexi, my artistic friend, designed her own Washi tape. You can see it here along with several of her other creations.

The green theme won’t last long in the Little Free Library as books come and go, but it has been fun playing with paper and ideas. Thanks for inspiring me to slow down, Kate, and to take some time to play.

Do you like crafting from scraps? Why not join us for the next round.

Little Free Library with green books and bookmarks

Little Free Library filled with green books, bookmarks and a note about four-leaf clover lore.

It *is* easy being green! (Sorry, Kermit).

From Kate’s blog:

“ScrapHappy is open to anyone using up scraps of anything – no new materials. It can be a quilt block, pincushion, bag or hat, socks or a sculpture. Anything made of scraps is eligible. If your scrap collection is out of control and you’d like to turn them into something beautiful instead of leaving them to collect dust in the cupboard, why not join us on the 15th of each month? You can email Kate at the address on her  Contact Me page. You can also contact Gun, via her blog, to join. We welcome new members. You don’t have to worry about making a long-term commitment or even join in every month, just let either of us know a day or so in advance if you’re new and you’ll have something to show, so we can add your link. Regular contributors will receive an email reminder three days before the event.”

An (Almost Spring) Garden Posy

Ahhhhh…

It’s been raining off and on for several weeks, leaving the air fresh and clear. I managed some garden time between storms, pulling together a spring garden posy. I love this time of year.

Spring bulb posy

Spring posy nestled in the planting bed. The wind kept tipping it over, but I finally got this shot

cat vase with spring bulbs

Hyacinth, Daffodil, Nigella, and Freesia in a tiny vase

It’s cheering seeing bulbs emerge from the dark, wet soil. Most are brightly colored and in some cases scented, too. They’re an intoxicating mix and a harbinger of things to come.

The hyacinth come up first…

Pink striped hyacinth

Pink candy-cane striped hyacinth

pink hyacinth

Fragrant and lovely hyacinth

followed by narcissus (daffodils)…

Daffodil and hyacinth

Garden posy: daffodil, hyacinth and Nigella greens

white freesia

White freesia

and then freesia.

The freesia are the garden darlings these days, growing larger and spreading farther year after year. They pop up in whites, reds, yellows and pinks, and seem to last for weeks.

“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that hope traversed them at night and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.”

–Charlotte Brontë

As I said earlier, “Ahhhhh….”

Lifted Spirits: My Personal Journey

For close to a year now I’ve been volunteering at Lifted Spirits, a drop in center for homeless women in downtown San Jose. It feels like home.

Back patio: a sanctuary for the women we serve

There was a time in my life when this work would have overwhelmed me. I started out on the fringes, dropping off donations of needed clothing or making contributions from a “safe” distance. Eventually my friend Mary invited me downtown for a tour. They were looking for additional volunteers to work in the clothing boutique.

Social Hall for meals and Friday bingo

I took a breath and jumped in. What scared me? That I would be emotionally unable to work closely with such a vulnerable group of women without falling apart myself. To the contrary, the work continues to be rewarding and engaging. This is not to say it’s always easy. Some of the women we serve are living with mental illness. Many are abused. Toss in addiction to drugs or alcohol, jail time, and mind-numbing poverty and it adds up to a group of women in crisis.

How do I make a difference? I’m a professional organizer who put myself through college working retail jobs. In my early career I worked as a theater costumer, so I’ve measured a number of actors in my time. I’ve put these skills to work offering bra fittings for the women we serve in the boutique, a complete reorganization of the physical space, and regularly re-working the boutique to keep it looking fresh and inviting. We’re there to lift spirits after all.

 

It’s the skills I didn’t know I had that surprised me. I’ve been able to remain present for women in crisis without losing myself. I can offer a hug to anyone, recognizing the restorative value of human connection when it’s warm, sincere and sustained. I’ve earned the trust of women who’ve been let down by others, probably for a lifetime. And for the most part, I’ve lost that fear.

I also have a lot to learn. A few of the women we serve push all my buttons. They’re rude, demanding and aggressive. It’s a challenge facing them on a regular basis. I want to be as understanding and compassionate with them as I am with the women who arrive emotionally overwrought or with a blackened eye. That’s the real work.

This Friday I begin a free, five-week course offered by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It’s a targeted provider education course recommended for people who work or volunteer with individuals living with mental illness. In the end we’re all people needing love, support and understanding.

Special thank you to Mary, Stephanie, and Bonnie for helping show me the way.

How about you? Have you faced a fear head on with positive results? Please share your thoughts below.

A Little Sorrow, a Little Joy

Thank you to readers Lisa and Eliza for correctly identifying the songbirds posted in A Tale of Two Wrens. Our feathered guests are House Finches.

Last week I rescued a finch from our walkway. It sat fluffing its feathers but not otherwise moving. I brought him inside, made him a little nest inside our cat carrier and drove to the local wildlife rescue and rehabilitation facility. I learned a few days later that the sweet little songbird suffered from a highly contagious and generally incurable eye disease called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis or MG. Our rescued finch has been humanely euthanized by the caring folks at Wildlife Center Silicon Valley.

There is small comfort knowing he died in a pair of loving hands. Left on the cold sidewalk he would have surely fallen prey to a cat. Further, since it’s highly contagious, removing any diseased bird from a community gives the others a fighting chance.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Male House Finch with MG, a highly contagious eye disease prevalent in songbirds

Clinical Signs
House finches with mycoplasmal conjunctivitis will exhibit swelling around the eyes, crusty eyelids, and watery ocular and/or nasal discharge. Extreme swelling and crusting can lead to impaired vision and at times blindness. In severe cases, birds may become debilitated, depressed, lose body condition, and die. Some birds can act as carriers of MG while showing no clinical signs of the disease. 
Diagnosis
Mycoplasmosis is diagnosed based on clinical signs and the isolation of M. gallisepticum by culture or other laboratory tests. 
Treatment
Treatment of wild birds with MG is not recommended. Although antibiotics may clear clinical signs, birds can become asymptomatic carriers that can spread the bacteria to new locations. 
Management
Management efforts to control mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in finches focus on transmission prevention. Bird feeders and baths should be kept clean and spaced far enough apart to prevent crowding. Only clean, fresh feed should be provided at feeders. Tube-style feeders seem to be particularly problematic in MG transmission. During outbreaks of mycoplasmosis, bird feeding should be discontinued to eliminate this source of transmission.

https://www.northeastwildlife.org/disease/avian-mycoplasmosis

We don’t feed song birds via a feeder, but we do have a hanging bird bath and a bubbling fountain. I’ll need to be more diligent keeping them clean. Holly Cormier of the WCSV confirmed that vinegar is just as effective as bleach, and it’s non-toxic. You need to let it sit 15 minutes, then thoroughly rinse with a blast of a garden hose.

Armed with this new information, I was anxious to learn of the wellbeing of our second House Finch. He arrived in December and continues to sleep under the eaves each night. Most nights he’s facing in so I can’t see his face. I finally captured this photo showing no outward signs of MG.

Male House Finch, San Jose, California
Male House Finch Closeup San Jose, California

 His healthy presence brings a bit of joy to each day.

Please consider sharing this post with anyone attracting songbirds to their garden.

 

A Garden in Rest

We’re quite spoiled living in California this time of year. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing, and we’re frequently treated to several days of unseasonably warm conditions. 

Curb garden perennials going to seed

While much of the country is dealing with weather known as the polar vortex with insanely cold and hazardous conditions, I’m wearing a t-shirt as I go about my day. I wish I could send all my mid-west and eastern seaboard friends a bit of warmth and sunshine. Come June, I’ll be looking on enviously at your summer rains.

Nigella and sweet peas populate the curb garden

I’ve been popping into the garden at the end of the day, pulling young weeds before they get a foothold. It’s a joy to observe the daily treasures nature has to offer.

Nigella bud just before opening
Nigella in all its beauty

When fall arrives in late October, my garden cleanup includes pruning, grooming and dead-heading perennial plants and shrubs. Last fall, I consciously let things go. This wasn’t born of laziness. In fact, it took some resolve to let things be. My propensity for organization and a tidy garden are nothing new, however my awareness of the benefits of a garden to all the visitors comes with a sense of responsibility.

Rose hips in the curb garden

Emerging growth on a miniature rose

Letting perennials go to seed means there are seeds available for birds passing through. Allowing a bit of leaf drop to cover the garden floor provides cover for some beneficial insects, while at the same time providing a natural mulch. Mulch keeps the soil warm and moist, while reducing weed growth and protecting roots from uneven temperatures. Leaves breakdown quickly, feeding the worms and improving the overall health of the soil.

Excess leaves, swept from the sidewalk and deck, made it into our compost bin. After working my way through three different compost systems over the past decade, I finally found one that I like.

Tessa likes to sit on the composter at dusk

New habits take time. I’m itching to get out there so I can prune some of the dead growth. I’ve had a little chat with my inner gardener, and together we’ve decided this is best. After all, the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere is only 49 days away.

I can hardly wait.

A Tale of Two Wrens*

Note: Since publishing this post, I’ve learned that our feathered visitor is a House Finch not a House Wren. I’ve made changes accordingly.

As I walked up the garden path this morning I noticed a house finch sitting on the ground. Mouse the cat was just a few yards away so I had to think fast. I waited for the bird to take flight. Instead he fluffed his feathers and bobbed his head, but made no effort to move.

In a flash, Mouse shot through the bushes, aiming straight for the bird. In one fell swoop I scooped the bird in to my hands and lifted him off the ground to safety.

Now what?

I loosely cradled the finch in my hands, its soft wings fluttering against my skin.

house wren

Closeup of the house finch in my hand

The next five minutes are a bit of a blur, but I somehow managed to get Mike’s attention through the kitchen window and he came to assist. He secured the cat, assembled a cardboard box from the recycle bin and even managed a few pics from a safe distance.

I opened my hands to see if the bird would fly. He climbed on my finger and calmly perched to survey his surroundings. It was then I noticed that he couldn’t open one of his eyes. It didn’t look damaged, but it may have been what grounded him in the first place.

He eventually hopped from my hands to a low bush but leaving him there would mean certain death. I caged the little fellow in a cat carrier (oh the irony) and drove to the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley.  How lucky we are to have a place like this that will rescue, rehab and return animals and birds to the wild whenever possible.

The Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley signage

The Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley

Later in the day when I had time to think I wondered if the injured finch might be my nightly visitor. Over the past thirty days, a male house finch returns at dusk and spends the night on the cord under the eaves.

I lingered outside till 5:20 willing my nightly visitor to return. I came inside with a heavy heart assuming the two finches were one and the same. Then moments later, I glanced out the kitchen window into the dark corner of the eaves and spotted his tail feathers under the eaves!

house finch under the eaves january 24

This house finch arrives at dusk to spend the night under the eaves

I’ll learn tomorrow the fate of the bird in the care of WCSV.