Hot August Melancholy

Hot August days invite a certain melancholy. As July comes to a close, an ancient grief rises to the surface and the more I swat it away, the more it demands my time. My nine-year-old self rises to the surface and reminds me of my terrible loss: the death of my father on an oppressively hot, early August day.

Dad was a horticulturist by trade, but his love of gardening came home with him as well. He built our Ontario garden from scratch, changing a mound of dirt into what felt like paradise.

Daddy's Easel

Daddy’s easel, hung on the wall of my crafting area. Photos of his model of the Golden Hind, Dad with a dog on someone’s porch, the flower shop he once owned with my Mum in Seaforth, Canada

If he were with me today, I would place my hand in his and we would walk through my garden together.

bee on chocolate mint

A bee gathers pollen from the chocolate mint in bloom

I once captured bees in a jar to show my dad I was brave. He explained in his kind way why I should set them free. They’re good for the garden he said. I was six at the time but for some reason that memory remains sharp and clear. Perhaps when memories are scarce, we hang on to what we can.

bee on chocolate mint flower

A bee travels the garden

We had a shorter growing season in Canada, but Dad was able grow tomatoes each summer. What fun we had harvesting the fruit and bringing it through the back door for our lunch.

curb garden tomatoes

Three green tomatoes, coming along nicely in the curb garden

tomato plant flowers

Tomato plant in bloom

Dad didn’t grow pumpkins in our Ontario garden. It would be especially fun to show off my beautiful specimen and to smile about the squirrels that most likely planted them.

tree rat with birdseed

A tree rat helps himself to some bird food late one night

Dad loved all animals, once rescuing a mouse from a group of boys on the street in his home town of Oldham, England. I too rescue rats and mice and though most people cringe, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Mouse curb garden

Mouse surveying the curb garden

Daddy would surely get a kick out of a different kind of mouse: Mouse the Cat. Mouse is a rescue too, in his own way.

I descended from a long line of people who rescue strays. It’s a wonderful lineage.

These hot days will pass and my mood will lift, but for now I’m making room for that ancient loss and grief.

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Gathering Losses

nicole meredith the art map sweet peas

Original Watercolor by Nicole Meredith

Grief is a strange companion. You go about your days, carrying on with life’s mundane tasks, yet the undercurrent of loss is ever-present.

In late December, Katherine who blogged at Pillows A-La-Mode lost her battle with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Everyone liked Katherine. She blogged about sewing, refashion and paper crafts but it was her warmth and spirit that kept you coming back. I started following her  in my early blogging days and always looked forward to the conversation. In 2012, her daughter-in-law, Shannon, secretly contacted many of us and asked us to take part in a “card shower”. Fellow bloggers sent cards from around the world, unbeknownst to Katherine, and we all held our collective breath till she learned of the surprise. She posted a photo of all of the cards displayed on her mantel with these words:

I can’t thank Shannon enough for this incredibly thoughtful gesture, and I can’t thank YOU enough for being my wonderful friends and encouragers.  As this card that Shannon made for me says, “One kind word can warm three winter months.”  New Year blessings to all of you, with love from Pillows A-La-Mode. ♥

You can read the full post here. Katherine let us know she was ill and that she would be taking a break from the blogging world while she sought treatment for her cancer. My heart skipped a beat when her post appeared in my feed. It was a shock realizing that her husband David authored the post to let us know of her passing. What a brave man.

I didn’t know Katherine in person, but those of you who blog know that it doesn’t matter one wit. She was here and then she wasn’t, and I feel saddened by her loss.

That same week I learned that Nicole Meredith’s rapid decline led her to take her own life. For twenty years Nicole struggled with a complex set of health issues related to her environment. At one point she was so ill that she had to sleep outdoors in a tent, unable to tolerate electricity. Frail and exhausted, she finally found treatment at a clinic in Texas. After months of therapy, she was finally feeling better. She was able to paint once again, though she never ventured far from poetry. Nicole’s work appears in a number of poetry journals, with many gathered together in a chapbook entitled Thanksgiving for a Hungry Ghost.

Within three months of moving to a new home, the illness returned with a vengeance. Jason drove from Washington to Texas seeking treatment from the same clinic, but Nicole continued to decline.  She quietly took her own life, leaving family and friends and all that knew her devastated. She was only 40.

We shared our last correspondence in July. She wrote:

I’m so emotional reading your email that J just forwarded me. Thank you! The lovely supportive words, I have to say, hold as much currency as your amazing gift. Too much. But your heart is felt on many levels and so gratefully received, Alys!

Now what will set life straight once and for all (hoho!) is if you perchance have ANY interest in me blending you up a custom oil based perfume? No pressure, but it would be a most welcome undertaking to get to focus on a project for a fellow “flower person!” Especially now…

I can certainly take no for an answer, but if there’s a scent-shaped desire: boom, I’m here to fill at least that!

Either way, thank you again–so much–for your sincerity and kindness. Nicole

That’s who she was. When her health improved, she continued to shine light on others with her art, her poetry, the essential oils and her gift with words. She made you feel like *you* were the special one.

Following is an excerpt from one of Nicole Meredith’s poems:

Playing the Tin Whistle

You ask me again when I will recover.
Instead I describe
how I taught myself to trill
so the note hooks upward
then drunkenly swoons,
then rights itself and holds steady.
All I can promise is that it is truly a lovely, haunting effect.

Nicole Meredith (Reinart) Legacy.com

Goodby My Friends, by David Scraper at Pillows A-La-Mode

GardeningNirvana: Sweet Peas: Art, Friendship and Second Chances

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Saying Goodbye to Slinky Malinki

slinky-december-15hWhen you love unconditionally, you permanently wear your heart on your sleeve. When you love a cat, you turn a blind eye to the fact that you will most likely outlive them.

I knew Slinky was at the end of her life, and I somehow thought I could prepare myself for what was to come. I know better.

Still.

Slinky died at home Monday night, resting on a soft blanket on the heated tile floor. I was with her off and on most of the day, but she took her last breath in the ten minutes I was gone to pick up my son. Mike stepped into the garage to let me know when we returned. She quietly slipped away. I sobbed.

Back inside, I held her frail little body, wracked with grief. Her eyes were a giveaway that she was no longer there, but it was hard to let go.

Slinky Malinki captured my heart, not because of her sweet disposition and loving ways but in spite of them. She showed up as a stray on the steps of our front deck about six years ago. We had a bowl of dry food out for another cat we were feeding at the time and she helped herself. I mistook her confidence for friendliness, and she took a swing at me with open claws and then left.

She returned every few days, and gradually spent more time with us on the deck. She wrapped herself around our legs, but if you reached down to pet her, out came the claws, or worse. One afternoon I was sitting on the steps and she sunk her teeth into the back of my arm. Hard.

Then one day, out of the blue, my oldest son bent down, picked her up, and carried her into the house. She froze in fear, but I was so happy to know we could catch her and get her to the vet. A week later I took her in for a checkup. They confirmed that she was already spayed and she checked out for all the scary things.

We tried to make her an indoor cat, but she wanted no part of it. I did the next best thing and made a little “apartment” in our sheltered side yard. She had an elevated bed, enclosed on four sides, with a roof and an umbrella to keep her dry. She had her meals outside for a year.

Once again, it was time for an annual check up, so I brought her indoors over night, then spirited her off the next day. It was after that second visit, and nearly a year and a half that she decided to move in. She claimed a spot under my desk, then moved to the back of the desk and life got better from there. I gained her trust, not all at once, but slowly over months and months. She hated being picked up, and I did so on an as-needed basis but also to let her know it was okay. Slinky had no interest in lap sitting either. Yet she would come to the front of the desk, give me gentle head butts, and gradually we became trusted friends.

Then an amazing thing happened. I had foot surgery last November, requiring me to be off my feet for six weeks. Slinky started climbing up on the couch, then settled herself on the blankets around my injured foot.  What a gift! At a time when I was in pain and feeling fragile, Slinky stayed close by. There is perhaps no better medicine than a warm, purring cat.

slinky-on-my-foot

Slinky resting next to my healing foot

slinky-next-to-copy-of-book

Slinky stretched out across my legs. That’s the corner of my laptop with a photo of the Slinky Malinki children’s book for which she’s named.

I miss her sweet, little soul.

Sentimental Thrifting: Kicking Shame to the Curb

Thrift store shopping is all the rage. Clothing and household goods get a second life, proceeds from purchases usually benefit a non-profit, and for those who can’t afford new clothes for themselves or their family, they’re a boon.They’re also an excellent place to shop for Halloween.

In the year leading up to my father’s death, most of our purchases came from a thrift store. After Dad died and Mom had three young girls to raise, our clothes and shoes came from the local St. Vincent de Paul. We enjoyed going there and the kind treatment by the woman who volunteered for the store.

We didn’t own a car, and within a few weeks of our dad dying, mom loaded us girls with arms of his clothing, and we walked to the store to donate them. I’ll never forget the pain of that day. When we walked in the door, she asked us how our dad was.  I couldn’t possibly say ‘he died’ so instead I said “he’s fine” and fled to the back of the store as the tears welled up yet again. I turned ten a few months later.

In my early teens, I was more aware of the scarcity around us. That’s when the shame set in. We lived in affluent Millbrae, but on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks. Girls would ask if my dress was new and I never knew how to respond. It wasn’t new of course, just new to me. I felt trapped between telling the truth and my personal shame. The last time I shopped at that local thrift, I went in to find a pair of overalls. They were all the rage in the day, so I hoped to find a pair of my own.

When I walked out of the store, a school bus drove by and I imagined everyone on that bus looking at me with judgment. I jumped back into the shop, my heart pounding and waited for the bus to pass.

I was in college before I mustered the courage to enter a thrift store again. I found several treasures for a few dollars, and brought them home to decorate my room. The problem, though, was that smell.  It’s a mix of stale fabrics, moth balls and the collective journey of donated items.  It’s also the smell of loss and shame and grief.

It’s wonderful to have worked through so much of those feelings as I continue a path of healing. I’m able to embrace the thrift store experience once again. Not only is it trendy to recycle fashion, it’s practical, economical and green. Items get a second life.

So, with that in mind, I’ve been haunting local thrift stores in search of the perfect find. Once I get past the smell, those thrift stores no longer haunt me.

No-Candy Countdown:

Throughout October, I’m keeping track of the candy I **don’t** eat.I’m feeling great, losing weight and enjoying the sense of control I’ve gained over my extra-curricular eating.I’m rewarding myself with a happy face stamp. It’s fun and a way to stay self-aware.

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Under-the-sea Costume Update:

I had all kinds of fun last Friday, and again over the weekend. I planned out the rest of the details for my costume, draping and pinning as I went along. I ran out of safety pins, so had a few ‘tender’ moments getting the dress on and off. I picked up a bag of pins on Sunday.

under the sea draping collage

Thrift store finds: Purple dress, two sections of fabric and a pair of unique earrings

I cut the smaller of the two pieces of fabric in half, then draped it over the shoulder of the dress to create a short-sleeved top. I’m using the longer length of fabric for a cape. I found a unique pair of earrings for two dollars. I removed the earring and used the rest as faux fasteners for the cape.

Mike’s getting into the spirit of  dressing up this year and he’s having fun. We went back to Savers and bought a pant suit, soon to be converted into his cape. The dark green and swirly pattern are perfect. The thrift store pricing fit the bill too. Don’t worry, it will be manly when I’m done with it, with zero trace of this suit.

under the sea cape material

Thrift store finds: Green and Gold chiffon pantsuit

Pumpkins on Parade:

Will of Marking Our Territory had the following to say about this year’s crop:

Halloween beats out all but two holiday for parties? I’m seriously impressed. (Side note: the 3/4 pumpkin in the lower left corner is my favorite – it’s got character)

Will has wonderful character so he should know.

three quarters pumpkin

3/4 Pumpkin

Please keep sharing your ideas for pumpkin dress up.

Loving and Losing Beijing

It’s been a surreal week of highs and lows. My oldest son turned 17 on Wednesday. The same day Beijing stopped eating. She moved from spot to spot, unresponsive to any attention we paid. I was so afraid she would die on his birthday, but she survived the night. My husband hoped that it was only an infection, and that a trip to the vet could heal her. She’s been on four medications for a year treating her heart and thyroid, but she was happy, ravenous, cantankerous…in short, her wonderful self.

Alas, the news wasn’t good. Her body is shutting down, and they’ve added probable cancer to the list. I’m going to see her now, and will be there with her as she eases out of this world. My youngest son graduates 8th grade in a few hours. I’m hoping to keep this news at bay till then.

Thank you for gracing our lives, Beijing.

Beijing, October 2010

Sunning herself in the garden bed

mike and Beijing

Her favorite place in the house

beijing on the swing

Keeping me company on the garden swing

Beijing

The ‘Look”

Beijing on the sill

A favorite spot

Beijing

Please hold all my calls.

mac with beijing

In the arms of my youngest son

Losing Daddy

Eric Milner Landscape Design

Eric Milner Landscape Design
My father’s garden drawing

The man who inspired my love of gardening died when I was a little girl. I remember the heat of the day, not unlike this one. When I flip the calendar to August, it may as well be 1969.

I hate August. I hate the smells in the air, the oppressive heat, and that burdening longing that ricochets around in my chest. I’m 52 years old and I miss Daddy.

As a girl, my grief went on forever. I performed a ritual each night before I went to bed: I would kiss his framed picture on the desk in our tiny two-bedroom apartment, and then I would touch his cane and the memory book from the funeral home. Only then could I fall asleep. I’m not sure why the artifacts from the end of his life had special meaning. Perhaps my young mind was trying to reconcile the impossible; that the man in the picture was gone.

Eventually I could tell people he died without falling apart, but then follow-up questions like “how did he die” would trip me up. At some point I crafted the self-contained sentence, “My dad died of lung cancer when I was 9,” incorporating the most oft-asked questions with hopes of putting all of them to an end.

When my at-home ritual and obsession became too much for my Mom, she got angry and threw away the funeral home book. I understand now that she was suffering from her own grief and profound loss, but her anger and frustration stung me. Perhaps it did help me move forward. I only remember the shame when she said, “you have to get over it!”

Grief isn’t linear. It’s impossible to chart its course. Who, more than me, wanted to get over it and move on?

My father’s death and burial were shrouded in mystery. I don’t know why no one took me aside to explain what was happening. One of the most poignant things my therapist asked me was “where were the adults?” One morning I woke to find that our frail father was taken to Peninsula Hospital in the middle of the night. I went with my mother for a “visit” but was not allowed into his room. I sat imagining all sorts of horrible things. Later I learned on the play ground from my older sister’s friend that Dad was in a coma. Finally Mom sat us down and said “your dad isn’t going to make it.” I made her say the words “your dad is going to die,” because I needed to know exactly what was going to happen. I went to sleep each night, telling myself that I wouldn’t cry when I learned he was gone. Ironically, when the news came it was true. A loss like that cuts you to the core. Tears eventually came, but on that early, hot and oppressive August day when I walked in on my mom destroying some of his papers, I simply called out “no.”

We didn’t attend our father’s funeral. I recall that either we were afraid to go, or my mother decided we were too young. She had been traumatized seeing her own father buried and wanted to protect us from the same. Whatever the reason, they are now part of family legend, with no surviving parties to corroborate.

In reality, trauma was piling on all around us. No one explained that he had cancer or what that meant. I didn’t understand that he was dying. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, alive and weak in the hospital or graveside after he died. I thought I saw him walking down the street one day while riding the school bus home. I broke out in a cold sweat. I desperately needed to get home and tell my mother.

Unfinished business is exhausting. It follows you like your own shadow, lurking and ready to pounce when you least expect it. I’ve spent years in a therapist’s chair, on a yoga mat and in creative writing classes sorting this out. In the late eighties, with the help of a friend, I was able to locate my father’s grave. I went alone and wandered in the shade of the trees and took comfort in the tranquility. After that visit, I never felt the need to go back.

Yet here I am all these years later, continuing to write about Daddy.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Motherhood has a very humanizing effect.  Everything gets reduced to essentials.  ~Meryl Streep

My Mom loved Cyclamens and Poppies

Dedicated to my friend Betsy, who recently lost her mom and misses her terribly.