Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Promise to Keep

Memories are like a loose thread dangling from a hem. You don’t remember it’s there until you feel a tickle against your leg or glimpse it in a mirror. The knowledge of that errant thread was always hidden in the nooks and crannies of memory. It just took something to niggle it to the front.
In my case, it wasn’t a tickle, but a sharp pin prick in the midst of rolling a Christmas banner for storage that called forth deeply buried images.  A speck of blood welled and blossomed at the end of my forefinger. When I got over the surprise of it, I looked for the cause of my discomfort. A slightly rusted straight pin tucked into a fold at the bottom of the banner resisted being pulled free. It had, after all, resided in the fabric for some 38 years and I suppose felt entitled to be there.
The Christmas banner is a glorious thing, 3’ x 4’ in size, and made by my mother, Melba Kent Kalkins. A tier of seventeen gathered pockets in a riot of colorful fabrics form a Christmas tree on one side. It was designed to hang flat against the wall with the aid of a painted broomstick threaded through the top of the banner and sports a golden cord and magnificent tassels.
It arrived by mail early one December. My small daughters and I were delighted in the discovery of this labor of love hidden beneath wads of tissue paper, because, you see, there was magic to it. Tucked into each pocket were two small presents––one for both little girls––to be opened every day leading up to Christmas.
A lump formed in my throat, as I lifted the banner to hang on the wall. For if our budget was tight, my mother’s was even tighter. She lived alone on a sales clerk’s salary, with employment always dicey. While the small gifts were unexceptional, a hair clasp or Tootsie Roll pop, a new pencil or pack of Old Maid cards, they were wrapped and tied with curling ribbon and might as well have been $100 bills to her granddaughters.
For years after, I restocked the pockets each Christmas until the girls outgrew the tradition. I’m not sure what made me remember the banner when my two grandsons were four and eight years old, but I pulled it out of storage and rejoiced at the still bright colors.
            The sharp prick to my finger was nothing compared to the ache I felt when the sudden image of Mom sitting in front of her old Singer sewing machine surged strong in my mind. With smoke unfurling from a cigarette held firmly between her lips, she plucked that very pin from a saucer and placed it just so in the layers of fabric. Then, without a doubt, held the banner up, tilted her head and squinted between wisps of smoke to check the placement, the even measurement, the color combinations.
            Although called a portable sewing machine, the Singer was heavy as a stove and required Herculean effort to lift. Through Mom’s many moves it always went with her and when the wooden cover became battle-scarred, she decoupaged magazine pages over the dents and scrapes. If it were not for Mom’s talent and that ancient lumbering machine, I wouldn’t have had the occasional new outfit for school or ruffled pillowcase for my bed. Indeed, I wouldn’t have had the required white dress for graduation. The old relic resides in my attic and, somehow, I’m reluctant to part with it.
How had that pin remained hidden for years, despite the banner being rolled and unrolled a million times? As I stared at my punctured finger, I wondered why now, it made its presence known. Then, I remembered––remembered finding Mom gazing out a hospital window in 1981. She was scheduled for brain surgery the next morning and conversation was hard. Not for her, but for me.
She smiled when I came up and we stood silent for long minutes. Finally I asked, “What are you thinking about, Mom?” I braced myself for the expected worry about the surgery’s success or failure. It was certainly what was on my mind.
Instead, she said, “I don’t want my grandchildren to forget me.” That so startled, so sucked my breath away that I stammered about, finally finding the voice to say, “I won’t let them forget.”
With a sigh, I resumed wrapping the banner for storage, when amid the rustle of paper, I heard a whispery query. “Do my great-grandsons know me? Have you told them who made the banner?”  Sadly, it took a pin prick to remind me of my long-ago promise. Next year, I’ll tack a picture of Mom on the Christmas banner. That way the boys will remember the ancestor who started a tradition so many years ago.
And, the pin? I encased it in a fold of scotch tape, ready to drop it in the trash can, then realized the last person to touch that pin was my mom. Would her fingerprint be on it, smudged by mine? I marched back to the bedroom and nestled the rusty, tape-encased pin in my jewelry case. Let someone else throw it away, someone that doesn’t have memories.

Did you know: The method used to secure two pieces of fabric has progressed from thorns and wooden skewers in the most ancient of times to bone, ivory, brass, and for the wealthy, silver and gold. Iron wire began to be used as early as the fifteenth century where the phrase, a “paper of pins,” signified owning possessions of the simplest nature. The process of electroplating improved durability in the mid-1800s; however, with wear the pins tended to rust and
required cleaning by stabbing them in bags of emery grit, giving rise to modern day pin cushions.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Diamonds and Rocks

My mama had a saying…”Some days are diamonds and some days are rocks.” For me, the past year was a mountain of rocks.
In my previous posting, so many months ago, I spoke of my sister’s death. A few months later, my 89-year-old mother-in-law succumbed to complications of a broken hip suffered from a fall off my front porch. Then I had foot surgery, my husband had shoulder surgery, an incorrectly installed humidifier in the attic created havoc in my kitchen that has taken months to repair. My computer copped a mean streak and became utterly useless. And, to add insult to injury, we discovered earthquake damage to my studio…like I said, a mountain of rocks!
Amidst all of this, a diamond fell into my lap. I was invited to be one of six authors to contribute to an anthology. I’ve participated in over a dozen such collections and there is nothing like the thrill of seeing hard work in print. However, this anthology had stipulations. First, all stories were to be a light romance, each in a different genre.
My assignment was nostalgic romance. Seemed appropriate since I’m most comfortable writing in the past. Nostalgia, after all, is a sentimental yearning for a remembered era. Scene, props, dialogue, situations, should stimulate memories of another time period.
Never written a romance, but I can do this, I thought. It was the second stipulation that gave me pause. Each story was to incorporate food in some way. Any food, central to the story or not, could be used with a recipe to follow the story.
A romance involving food?
Visions of whipped cream and chocolate syrup swirled in my head. Once I shook free of that apparition, I pondered all the elements required. And, then, the proverbial light bulb clicked on. Many times, Mom shared an incident involving food and my father, often ending the story with another one of her sayings, “Wisdom has it that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Thank heavens for exceptions.”
Suddenly I was comfortably in the past, remembering summer evenings lying on a quilt in the backyard and talking. Just the two of us, me and Mama. She was warm and funny and certainly dramatic, burning her own memories into mine.
Over the next several weeks, forgotten facts surfaced as I sat at the computer––Mom’s favorite songs, favorite nail polish, tricks her boy cousins played, being courted by the college Casanova, and the day the world nearly ended.
Against the backdrop of big bands and World War II, a mostly-true romance story with all the required elements developed. While facts are blended with fiction in “Casanova Comes to Dinner,” by virtue of the telling, two people have been immortalized for their descendants.
And that, above all, pleases me. It is my personal mission to encourage others to write their ancestor stories. Eventually the storyteller is gone. Written history ensures that personalities and events aren’t forgotten. Hopefully, it guarantees the future will know what they owe to the past.
To quote the book’s cover copy, “Romance – the Spice of Life is an anthology of love in all its manifestations.” Readers are guaranteed to find something to satisfy every appetite in this collection, because each novella encompasses a different genre –– suspense, historical, inspirational, paranormal, contemporary, and nostalgia.

 In “Casanova Comes to Dinner,” pretty Melba Kalkins is determined to prove that Professor Dalmayer’s theories on the physical attributes of the human body are not correct. She ignores her best friend’s warning and sets about capturing a college Casanova’s heart.
Fellow authors are: Linda Trout, who weaves a thrilling story of suspense around a deadly plane crash and kidnapper in “Shattered Promises”; Kathlyn Smith reveals the hand of God in affairs of the heart proving that love the second time around is a beautiful blessing in “Sips & Slices”; Lynn Somerville’s “Getting it Right” encounters one very ticked-off ghost proving that even from the grave, the dead can scheme; Nita Beshear, sets characters, different as night and day, in an early Oklahoma Choctaw settlement in “Muskadine Love”; and Gloria Teague finds the only thing worse than your daughter dating your new husband’s son is when they break up in a story aptly titled, “Family Feud.”

As an added bonus, included at the end of every story, is the recipe for the food element woven into each romantic tale. If you like turning actual pages, it is available as a paperback on Amazon.com. Or, if you have jumped into the electronic age, it can be downloaded as a Kindle. Yes, this is shameless promotion.
Read and enjoy six very different romances; then sit down and record your own, “How Mama met Daddy,” story. You won’t be sorry you made the effort.

Did you know: According to a 2006 statistic, romance novels captured 40% of all book sales. While romantic liaisons figured in early literature (i.e. Romeo and Juliet), the modern concept of romance novels didn’t occur until Samuel Richardson published Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded in 1740. This was the first popular novel to be based on a courtship as told from the perspective of the heroine.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Last Breath

A daisy dances on my kitchen windowsill. It is the plastic made-in-China sort, with a solar panel that when charged by the sun, stirs the flower to life and sets it swaying from side to side. Slender leaves simultaneously flap up and down as if trying to free themselves from the spot where I placed the little flower two months ago. Each morning the sight makes me smile, makes me remember my younger sister. The daisy first graced her windowsill.
Gatholyn Lee McIntosh took her last breath the evening of April 21, 2012. I know, because I was there, sitting at the end of her hospital bed, hoping for one more shared moment. I arrived in the wee hours of that morning after a fifteen hour drive spent rehearsing what I could say to perk up her spirits, to give her hope, to let her know I loved her.
I forgot it all when I held her frail hand, nails neatly lacquered in bright pink, her face thin and drawn, flush with unnatural color. I blubbered useless memories, asked stupid questions…the kind where I already knew the answer. When she complained of hearing voices I shut the door to her ICU room to mute the conversation of nurses and doctors, the squeak of rubber soles on tiled floors, the urgent warning clatter of machines.
“My sister and I got our blue eyes from our father,” I told the nurse. “Unlike me, she doesn’t have any strands of gray hair.” Gathy smiled at that, and for a brief instant I was reminded of daddy’s gentle laugh. I pretended cheerfulness and waited for her to die and, yet, when she took her last breath I was unprepared and surprised. It came quietly, almost softly, between one intake of air and the next.
In the days that followed I learned the extent of my sister’s growing paranoia, the real problem of excessive hoarding, the depth of her denial about the state of her illness. My daughter, husband, and I helped my niece sift through drawers, boxes, storage tubs, suitcases, and large plastic sacks. We found thousands of useless receipts dating from 1974 to the present, a collection of ancient holiday cards, newspaper and magazine articles, college papers, pamphlets, irrelevant legal records, and keys of all descriptions. We found decades of bank statements, cancelled checks, bible study notes, and every letter she ever received, including the ones I wrote to her.
We found letters and cards she had written, but never mailed. What we did not find was her will, her life insurance, her savings account, her car title, her safety deposit box information…what we did not find were the necessary documents to finish her last affairs, to put her to rest.
Fortunately, death is not an everyday companion to most of us, or surely we’d not be able to rise each morning. Yet, we know it lurks, if not for us, then for someone we love. Years ago, Gathy and I buried our grandparents and parents. We knew what it was to be left behind, to settle up with the funeral director and close out accounts. So, why had she chosen to keep secret all that we would need to finalize her departure from life?
Perhaps Gathy thought we’d surely find the hidden documents. If so, she overestimated her family’s detective abilities. The search goes on, encumbered by state laws governing death and the right of heirs. Alone, her daughter must now tackle a mountain of boxes stacked to the ceiling in a storage unit.
As for my husband and I, we’ve made sure our daughters know our affairs and where to find important information. The story behind each family heirloom is collected in a notebook so that history is not lost when our girls are faced with their cousin’s unenviable chore of what to keep and what to get rid of. We do this not only for our descendants. We do this for the ancestors that once claimed each aging item.
Those mornings that I rise early and stand at the kitchen sink and stare at the motionless plastic daisy, I am reminded of my sister’s last breath, how between one second and the next, life slips away and all is still.
Lately, I wait a bit to go in and start my coffee. I wait until the sun’s light moves past the back awning and comes through the window to set the flower to dancing again. It is then I remember camping out as children and wading along lake shores or through fields awash in wild flowers, or squirming at Easter time in organdy dresses with daisies appliqu├ęd across the front. I remember my sister, Gatholyn, and it makes me smile.

Did you know: Despite massive campaigns about the evils of smoking, lung cancer due to smoking is still the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. In the U.S., lung cancer is responsible for 29% of cancer deaths, more than those from breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined. The lung cancer mortality for 2012 will not be known for several years, but my sister, Gatholyn, will have contributed to the total.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beneath Our Feet

There are many things that might be considered either mysterious fact or absolute nonsense. Into this category one might fit the often times scoffed at folk belief of dowsing also known as witching, divining, and doodlebugging. The technical name is rhabdomancy, a Greek word coined by the poet Homer meaning “divining rod,” though it was 1646 before this word with the slightly altered verbal definition of “divination by rods or wands” became widely used among practitioners of the art.
Whatever the preferred term, it refers to the process of finding something hidden below the ground––water, oil, pipes, gold and silver deposits, or other precious minerals, lost treasures, or buried bodies.
Though I’d tramped many a cemetery searching ancestral burial sites, I’d never gone armed with divining rods until recently. If I knew the cemetery, but not the location of a particular burial, I’d walk the rows reading headstones and in the unfortunate event there was no marker, I’d stand in the center of the cemetery and think, “I know you’re in here somewhere.”
The search for the unmarked grave of my husband’s still-born sister was the subject of an earlier post (see “Finding Mary Elsie”). Positive that we’d found the location, there was no way to prove the presence of a body short of digging…that is, until John Wilcox with Eagle Monument suggested divining the spot. Not only would it indicate a body, he told us, but it would reveal whether it was male or female.
That sounded good to me…one more piece of evidence wouldn’t hurt and, truthfully, I was profoundly curious. Mr. Wilcox presented me with my own set of rods (thin metal, 24” long with four inches bent down for a handle), taught me how to use them, and wished me luck. My husband and I hot-footed over to Clinton Oaks Cemetery and put this newfound, high-tech, piece of equipment to the test.
Elbows tucked close to my body, I held the rods out level with the ground, and slowly walked toward a known gravesite, approaching behind the tombstone so that I could not see the engraved name. Without encouragement on my part (I swear), the rods crossed, indicating a male (a female is indicated when the rods swing apart). The tombstone confirmed the reading. Amazing. Over and over we tested, getting more excited with each success.
This method of discovering what is hidden is not just an old notion, it is ancient….like 8,000 years ancient. The American Society of Dowsers notes the discovery in the Tassili Caves wall paintings of a dowser, holding a forked branch searching for water; etchings on 4,000 year old temples in Egypt reveal pharaohs holding dowsing-like tools. Written references abound dating back to Greece in 400 BC and appeared regularly throughout the centuries in various publications in England, France, and Germany. In fact, someone went to the effort of discovering 3,500 specialized books on this ancient art.
The tool used to search out a desired find varies widely. A forked twig, specifically from a willow, witch hazel, or peach tree, is probably what is most commonly used, although some say a branch from any species can be successful in the hands of the right person. The twig of choice will point down when over an energy source, water, oil, etc.
Since WWI, metal rods have become popular, and the type of metal doesn’t seem to be terribly important since many use coat hangers fashioned into long rods with a handle. In the hands of a believer, the rods will tremor, swing from side to side, or point down.
In past history, those people who possessed the talent to successfully use whatever instrument they preferred to find water or minerals, treasure or buried bodies, were often called diviners, dowsers, wigglestick men. Indeed, some were considered to be soothsayers, seers, mystics, witch doctors, etc. Many felt that such talent could come only from God or the devil, depending upon one’s beliefs. In 1518 Martin Luther condemned the practice, resulting in religious leaders coining the term “witching,” to describe the process and declare the pull toward the earth as the work of Satin. Regardless of such condemnation, many made a tidy living from their special abilities.
During the 1970’s the Red Cross of Norway registered diviners so they might be able to locate bodies buried under snow avalanches. Until recently, most city water departments had someone on staff who could find the location of forgotten water pipes via a pair of diving rods. During the Vietnam War, the rods were used to supplement the army’s electronic devices, and crossed over tunnels, booby-traps, munition caches, or metal objects.
What makes a successful diviner? A special gift, a skill, or as many believe, a talent inherited from an ancestor? In his book, “Witching,” Walker Wyman discusses a number of non-believers who discover quite by accident that they have the “ability” when they are unable to resist the pull of the twig toward the earth no matter how hard they try.
And, what makes the diviner’s tool react? An energy source, perhaps a magnetic field, a hidden source such as E.S.P., an intuitive knowledge of the signs in nature, or as some scientists say, self-deception.
Am I a believer? Yes. No. Maybe! All I know is that in roaming the cemetery with rods in hand, blind-testing locations, the rods were correct every time in identifying the sex of the earth’s occupant via tombstone inscriptions. I do not have to see a power to believe in it. But, I do have enough of a skeptic’s streak that I wouldn’t lay bets on the fool-proof accuracy of divining a buried body or determining its gender. Unlike being able to dig to prove the existence of water or other minerals, disturbing a grave site is unlawful, not to mention creepy.
For those that are fervent believers, they are in good company and can count Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Herbert Hoover, and Thomas Edison among their ranks. Indeed, when Edison was asked what electricity was, he replied that he had no idea but as long as it existed, we should use it. And, that, I suppose is my theory, as long as someone can find what is hidden in the earth, we might as well use their talent.

Did you know?  The biblical story of Moses bringing forth water from a rock in Horeb with a tap of his rod was often cited by practitioners as an early example of dowsing for water. Exodus 17:5,6

FOOTNOTE:  I relied heavily on Walker D. Wyman’s book, Witching – For Water, Oil Pipes, and Precious Minerals, for information on the practice of dowsing. The American Society of Dowsers’ website detailed the extensive history of the art, while a number of other websites discussed both the pro and con of using simple non-mechanical tools for the purpose of dowsing.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Finding Mary Elsie

Secrets. I speak not of those inconsequential sorts, like how much a new pair of shoes really cost or one’s true hair color. But, of the heart-hurting kind. The kind of secret you keep, because that is easier than remembering.
I knew my mother-in-law had a stillborn baby girl when my husband was about two years old and somehow the grave site in an old cemetery had been lost. The knowledge was just there in the family, something no one ever talked about, a mother’s sadness not really discussed.
            So, I was surprised when my husband, Carl, felt moved to search out the resting place of a silent life. What better gift, he reasoned, could he give his mother on the occasion of her eighty-ninth birthday than to know for sure where her baby had been buried?
            My husband sat with his mother, told her what he wanted to do and asked if this would please her. At first she smiled and said knowing the grave site would be nice, but her baby wasn’t really there, she was in heaven. Then, over the next week she would call with another bit of information, a piece here, a piece there. It was like slowly plucking petals from a rose, afraid if we went too fast they’d all fall off, leaving only the stem.
Riffling through boxes of papers, my mother-in-law found a yellowed certificate filled out by a hospital nurse hoping to placate a young woman who wanted proof her child once existed. The record states a stillborn birth occurred at 12:01am on February 28, 1942.
            For seventy years she’d lived with a sadness tucked deep down, but not forgotten. She’d not forgotten how she complained to the doctor that her baby hadn’t moved in days. Then how sick she was with kidney poisoning when the baby, already a week dead, was born. The wound to her heart was made deeper when the nurse remarked that since no one was there to pick up the little body, they’d just put it out on the windowsill.  
            With her husband out of town, it was up to her father-in-law to see to the burial. Much later, when they looked for the grave, it couldn’t be found. A sadness to be sure, but then, she told us the baby’s name––Mary Elsie, named for both grandmothers.
            A name. Suddenly this fragile baby was related, she was family. And, it became even more important to know where she rested. We knew the cemetery. How hard could locating a tiny grave be?
            We began our search by obtaining a death certificate –– Infant Steele, death date February 28, 1942; cause of death, “taxemis of mother”; funeral director, Winterringers; place of burial, Red Fork Cemetery. For Mary Elsie, her entrance into the world also marked the date of her burial.
            We turned to funeral home records for an exact grave location. In the ensuing decades, Winterringers had been sold to Whisenhunt and subsequently to Ninde Funeral Home. Though we had the kind help of Ninde’s genealogist, time and a flood had destroyed countless records and none existed for the era we needed.
            Red Fork Cemetery, located in west Tulsa, was essentially a couple of acres in the middle of a community known as Red Fork. Mrs. Dollie Hennings, the treasurer, sold lots for between $2 and $8, depending, I suppose, on what she thought you might be able to afford. She gave people a numbered stick, told them to go out, pick a spot, and plant the stick. Mrs. Hennings died in 1943 and since records were kept either in her head or on slips of paper stuffed in a drawer, we were again stymied by a lack of documents.
            The city of Tulsa assumed management of the site in 1945. At some point, Red Fork Cemetery became known as Clinton Oaks. In 1975 the Girl Scouts performed a valuable service by inventorying the location. Comparing an old cemetery map and the inventory, we found four unidentified infant graves. Four.  But which one might be Mary Elsie’s?
            We made a visit to this most charming cemetery, hemmed in by houses and shaded by oak trees that sheltered leaning tombstones dating back to 1898. Two of the little graves fell within a rock-lined family plot eliminating those possibilities. The third had a small, unreadable marker and since a tombstone was never purchased for Mary Elsie, we moved on to the fourth site located along the north boundary of the cemetery.
            Sure enough, as indicated on both the map and inventory listing, a vacant spot sprouted tufts of grass, perhaps hiding what might remain of a long-ago burial. Surrounding tombstones confirmed activity in the 1940’s. Had we, at long last, found Mary Elsie?
            There was one final test, an unconventional one to be sure. Balancing a pair of divining rods gently in my closed fists, I first tested the accuracy of this predictor of a buried person’s sex by standing behind a tombstone. That way I was unable to see the name chiseled into the granite and perhaps unconsciously persuade the rods to the desired answer.
            Crossed wires indicated male, widely separated they signaled female. The slender rods wavered very slightly in my hands, then, as I drew nearer the monument, swung toward each other until they crossed. The name on the tombstone confirmed a male. I tested over and over at other gravesites until convinced of this primitive tool.
            Finally I walked toward the vacant spot. Did we really believe in such unscientific testing? Would there be enough material left in the ground to effect a reading? I held my breath and stepped forward, one step, two steps. Unbelievably the rods swung open. Female. Over and over, the test produced the same results. Nonsense or not, we took it as further proof we’d found Mary Elsie.
For weeks Carl and his brother, Larry, kept the secret of finding Mary Elsie’s burial site, but this was a healthy secret, drawing two brothers close over the complexity of unraveling a long-ago event. Together they purchased a small monument for a sister they never knew, granite in a shade of soft gray like the underbelly of a evening cloud, and schemed like two school girls on how to get their mother to the cemetery without her guessing the true reason.
            The September morning near her birthday couldn’t have been prettier when we pulled onto the lone road that curved through the small cemetery. At our arrival, a brisk stirring of sweet breezes set the giant oaks to whispering, and I imagined them confiding to each other … there the mother is, come, at long last, to see the resting place of her baby.
            Larry produced a wheelchair from the car trunk. He’d conveniently forgotten to remove it some weeks earlier, he told her, and since it was there why didn’t she let them take her on a tour of the cemetery. The brothers, first one and then the other, pushed her over lumpy ground, ground that had been upturned and pushed down a million times.
             She gasped, her hands went to her mouth, when she sighted the monument, fresh dirt packed against the cement base as if the burial had only been yesterday. And, for her, I suppose it was.
            Ultimately my mother-in-law was right in what she’d told herself for seventy years. Her baby wasn’t truly resting in a shady cemetery. She was in heaven. But, placing a long-overdue monument on Mary Elsie’s grave site acknowledged the existence of a tiny being. Mostly, however, it banished a painful secret and soothed a mother’s heart.
Did you know? A cross inscribed after a date on a headstone indicates either a stillborn birth or a birth and death on the same day.

FOOTNOTE:  Along the way, we’d been cheered on by many interested in this project. But we owe deep gratitude to Roy and Sherry Heim who helped in a thousand ways and guided us through the process of obtaining permission from the city to place a stone marker. John Wilcox with Eagle Peak Monument suggested the addition of a teddy bear on the stone, made sure of the timely placement of Mary Elsie’s monument, and provided the divining rods, schooling us in their use.