I know, I know — it was New Year’s Eve. With the busyness of the holidays, though, this is not the first year we’ve decorated the cookies after Christmas. As long as it gets done sometime during the season, it counts. Heck, we’re having our New Year’s party on January 3. Close enough, I say.
Traditions can be like the gossamer strands of memories. Tenuous. Fragile.
If we don’t cradle them gently, we lose something precious.
My brother, Stewart, was faithful about birthday phone calls. A tradition. I missed his last call and never called him back. He passed away less than two weeks later. Maybe in 2015 I can pick up where he left off and make those birthday phone calls.
Food and tradition walk hand-in-hand.
I was thrilled when Owen and Emily brought Chex mix to the nursing home at Thanksgiving. Party mix (as we call it) is a staple around the house from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. My mother made batch after batch after batch during the holidays to share with others. I love the smell of it baking in the oven.
My brother, Peter, has continued the spritz cookie tradition — making them and sharing them with us every year at Christmas. I get my cookie press out sometimes; it’s fun to squeeze out camels and Christmas trees and stars. But Peter is the one who has best carried on this tradition.
I remember decorating cookies with my brothers and sister. The oddly shaped kitchen table would be covered with cookies and sprinkles and icing.
Years ago my mother neatly wrote out the recipe for me years ago. It’s a sweet tradition that I’m happy to carry on. I told my children yesterday that they need to do this with their children. For their sake, here’s the recipe.
3/4 Cup Oleo (that means margarine, kids, but I use butter)
1 1/2 Cups Sugar
2 tsp Vanilla
4 Cups Sifted Flour (yes, I really do sift the flour for this recipe. Twice.)
2 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Salt
Mix together. (First four ingredients first, then add dry ingredients after sifting them together.) Roll to 1/8″ and cut shapes. (You don’t really have to measure the thickness.) Bake on lightly greased cookie sheet at 400 for 7 minutes. Ice with confectioner’s sugar and water (in lots of different colors).
And it’s okay if they don’t get made until after Christmas.
i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the glittering icy brilliance of snow
and the pink-streaked watercolor dawn;
for the bare branches of trees whose tiniest twigs
reminding me there is more.
thank you for the take-my-breath-away cold
that freezes in my throat,
and for the merino warmth of my scarf, hat, mittens, socks.
the bitterest cold helps me to appreciate
the snuggliest warmth.
this, this is a privilege
that my southern neighbors rarely know —
the nip on my nose,
the tears frozen in my eyes,
the soft flakes that land
(and sometimes melt)
on upturned chilly cheeks
thank You God for winter —
for leaned-on shovels
and salt-sprinkled sidewalks;
for glacial ground
where grass breaks instead of bends;
for barren landscapes
that belie the promise
of new Life
thank You God for most this amazing day.
may the ears of my ears awaken to hear
and the eyes of my eyes open to see.
may the tastebuds of my tongue
rejoice in snowflakes that land there,
outstretched and waiting,
as i am
I woke up this morning with the words of e e cummings’ poem “i thank You God for most this amazing” running through my head, but winter in New York has no “greenly leaping spirits of trees.” Instead, we have snow forecast. Still, I’m thankful.
There are strange things said, or at least so I’ve read,
By the neighbors up north of U. S.
It’s more than just “-eh”. What I’m trying to say
Is there’s lingo I need to address.
They have one dollar loonies and two dollar toonies,
And couches are called Chesterfields;
A kilometre’s a click, a hoser’s a hick,
And a parkade is for parking your wheels.
’tis really no trouble to understand double-double-
One coffee – two sugars, two creams.
Electricity is hydro. Donair is a gyro.
Washroom means bathroom, it seems.
Poutine, I have heard, means fries, gravy and curds,
And while that sounds kind of yucky to me
I could stomach that dish – hey, it might be delish!
But I was shocked that they switched out my zee.
Just why do I feel that zee’s a big deal?
It is ’cause my name begins there.
I say “zee as in zebra” when I’m spelling to people
How to write it – a simple affair.
But still they say Daengle, instead of Zaengle
For them, I say “zee”, they hear “dee.”
Zed — it could help there, so listeners would not err
When distinguishing the good letter zee.
Yes, they use different words, these Canadian birds.
Like commotions are called kerfuffles.
When you awaken, they may serve you back-bacon,
And they carry knapsacks, not duffles.
They buy Timbits at Timmies. (Do they use sprinkles or jimmies?)
But, O Canada, this needs to be said —
Even though you say decal* — hey, what the heck, I’ll
Say thank you for making zee zed!
My brother told me that they’re expecting upwards of 80,000 people in Cooperstown this weekend. The population here is usually around 2,000.
That’s an eight plus four zeros.
As Phil Rizzuto used to say, “HOLY COW!”
If you’re coming because you want to see Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, and Joe Torre all inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, you’re here on the right weekend.
I remember when they used to hold the ceremonies downtown. The little park next to the Baseball Hall of Fame would be so jam-packed full of people that they would spill out onto Main Street, and Church Street, and Fair Street.
Back in those days, the Hall of Famers freely roamed the streets wearing a ribbon that marked them as a Hall of Famer. Autographs were free, and many felt honored to be asked. Cool Papa Bell won my heart with a smile and a signed strip of paper.
A number of years ago, though, they moved the ceremony to a field beside the sports center where I work. It holds a lot more people. But 80,000? I guarantee this crowd will spill over Susquehanna Ave and down Brooklyn Ave, where we used to live.
So if you’re here because you want to hear the speeches and see some baseball heroes on a Jumbotron, you’re in the right place.
This year, with 80,000 people making their way to Cooperstown, I want to talk to the ones who are the tag-alongs, who aren’t here because of baseball, but because they heard Cooperstown was a charming quaint little town.
To you I want to say, please don’t judge Cooperstown by this weekend. The people who make Cooperstown Cooperstown are far out-numbered for these few days. The quaintness that is Cooperstown will be virtually non-existent this weekend.
Come back in January, when the air is crisp and cold. Parking will be plentiful on Main Street. The beautiful decorations from Christmas may still be up. You won’t have to wait in line at Stagecoach Coffee to get a cuppa. The doughnuts will be hot, crisp, and fresh out of the fryer at the bakery.
If you go to the Hall of Fame, you’ll be able to stand in the Hall of Fame gallery and read every word on every plaque. In fact, it will be so quiet in there, that you’ll feel the need to whisper.
And you’ll see the locals — the ones that are hightailing it out of town even as I write these words — greeting each other on Main Street, because everybody knows everybody. That’s the blessing of a small town.
If you don’t want to wait until January, pick a small town near you, one with a population under 2,000. Go sit on a park bench or in the local coffee shop. Watch the people. They clap each other on the shoulder when they meet. They ask about family — spouses, children, parents, grandkids, even the dog. They laugh and reminisce. They talk shop and they even talk baseball sometimes.
But if you’re a crowds-and-baseball kind of person, come on down. Be part of the 80,000.
Gosh, it was pretty. Early in the morning, the waning moon drifting in and out of clouds. Dawn broke, soft and pink, full of clouds that were fluffy like cotton candy, but I was still pondering the pre-dawn moon.
Recently I heard the story of Columba, a 6th century saint, about how he was banished from Ireland, set adrift in the North Irish Sea in a round boat known as a coracle. The story was meant as a way of explaining liminal space, that place where we are unsure of everything, where we are “unmoored.” Part of the legend of Columba was that in this round boat he had no means by which to steer and that his fate seemed hopeless.
I wish the speaker had told the rest of the story — how Columba had landed his coracle on the Isle of Iona, how from there he worked spread the news of Christ to the people of Scotland, and how his “unmooring” actually advanced the church.
In C. S. Lewis’ book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep the mouse sailed off in a coracle. Strangely, he did not feel unmoored. While he didn’t know his final outcome, his sole purpose was to pursue Aslan’s country.
“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world into some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
~~ Reepicheep the Mouse
My coracle moon, drifting in and out of the clouds that morning, seemed unmoored. Yet I knew that it was held in its orbit with the earth by that invisible magic we call gravity.
And the earth is held in its orbit with the sun by that same unseen tether.
When I feel unmoored, like a coracle tossed on the sea, I know that, despite what I feel, I am being guided by a mighty unseen Hand.
Like Columba, like Reepicheep, I can rest in God’s great plan.
My siblings and I carry little pieces of Stewart in our hearts and in the way we live our lives. Each of us reflects Stewart in little ways. Today I want to mention some of the ways I see Stewart in my brothers and sister.
First, I want to say something to my mother and father. Dad, Mom, as I went through the papers from Stewart’s apartment, I saw something about you that I didn’t want to go unnoticed or unmentioned. Mixed in with all the other papers were notes from you – words of encouragement, spanning years and years of his life. Every step of the way, you were there for Stewart. In his times of accomplishment – when he graduated from Hamilton, Yale, and Syracuse – and Dad, I know you were especially proud that he passed the New York State bar on the first attempt – and when Stewart encountered difficulties, both of you were faithful and supportive. I don’t say it often enough, but thank you for all you have done and still do.
Donabeth – you and Stewart shared the secret language of Presbyterians. And it is a secret language. You Presbyterians say the word “Session” with a capital “S”. I can hear it when you say it. You and Stewart used words like synod and polity and stated clerk, and you knew what they all meant. The Book of Order, a Presbyterian thing for sure – you know, Stewart had at least 20 of them. And all that General Assembly stuff, you knew about it. I was clueless. Donabeth, the other thing you share with Stewart are the most memories. Being the two oldest, you had the most time together. Things like Stewart doing that dance before he pulled up the stump are memories I have only because of the movie Dad took – you probably remember that moment. Lucky you.
Peter – When Stewart passed away, the mantle of the oldest son passed to you, and you took it on admirably. You handled the phone calls and the arrangements and speaking at the Memorial Service in Pittsburgh so well. Thank you. When I think of the similarities between you and Stewart, I think of his sense of humor. It’s a sharp wit, an educated wit, that makes mathematical jokes or periodic table jokes. I also think of the way your minds both can see numbers as playthings. The tessellation art that you gave each of us for Christmas one year reminds me of that fractal thing Stewart had running on his computer in Jamesville. That was back in the days before everyone had computers. Stewart had a home computer and wrote computer code things back in the ’80s. Stewart also could take the complex and make it seem simple – something a teacher does, something you do, Peter, as you teach and tutor. It’s a gift – and a similarity to Stewart.
Jim – You and Stewart are the bookends. I have always appreciated the symmetry of our family – boy-girl-boy-girl-boy. Stewart was the oldest, and you were the youngest. When we were cleaning out Stewart’s apartment, I found a pile of neatly cut wood blocks in the closet, and they made me think of you. You’ve made some beautiful things out wood: shelves, frames, planters. Stewart was obviously planning his own wood project. It’s that ability to create something tangible, something beautiful, the ability to craft something – you shared that with Stewart. I’m only sorry that the wooden walking stick that Stewart made didn’t make its way back here to you, but all things are transient. We have to hold everything with open hands, even the memories, as Mom reminds us. But we can tell the stories and relive our times with Stewart. You’ve mentioned to me several times about your time spent with Stewart when he moved to Tarentum. What a gift for you to have had that one-on-one time with him! Precious memories of two bookends together.
Me? – Stewart and I shared a love of books. Mary has been going through the boxes of books at our house. “I just love the smell of books,” she said to me one day, because there is something special about that dry papery smell and the feel of old hard-bound books; a Kindle can’t replicate that. Stewart and I also shared a love of new notebooks. When I was a kid, one of my favorite places in all Cooperstown was the back room of Augur’s Bookstore, where the office supplies were hidden away. I loved to go look at the brand new notebooks, clean and unspoiled. There’s something about a new notebook that holds so much promise. As we cleaned out Stewart’s apartment after his death, we found, I daresay, over a hundred legal pads, composition books, steno pads and other notebooks, nearly all with only the first few pages written on. He was always looking for that fresh start – and I can relate to that.
In closing, I found Stewart’s little black notebook that he used for funerals. On one page was written the poem “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye. I rewrote it for Stewart.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I’m a ride to the doctor, a helping hand.
I’m the good listener. I understand.
I’m the synod, the session, the stated clerk.
I’m the thing that is funny, the little quirk.
I am wit and pun, fractal, tessellation.
I am homemade chili on family vacation.
When you see and feel the beauty of wood,
Think of me then, and do something good.
I’m a partly used notebook, the words of a hymn.
I’m in Donabeth, Peter, Sally, and Jim.
So do not mourn that I’ve gone afar.
Once again I have passed the bar.
It became a theme. A legal pad with only a few pages written upon.
When I found the first few of these on his kitchen table, I laughed and commented to his friend, “I can’t believe he only uses a few pages on each pad.”
“Welcome to my world,” she said with a smile.
As we dug deeper and deeper into the apartment — my brothers, my sister, my father all helping — it became abundantly clear that we had had a minimal understanding of Stewart’s struggles. Layered in with the notepads was a paper trail that told such a sad, sad story.
I daresay that each of us wept, though not collectively. Individually. Privately. Alone. As my family is wont to do. Hearts breaking, not just with the loss of a family member, but with the pain that we uncovered.
While over the years I was busy looking down my nose and saying things like, “I don’t understand why Stewart doesn’t just (fill in the blank),” Stewart was hitting yet another pothole on the bumpy road of his life. And I had no clue. I truly didn’t understand.
“I found a notepad if anyone needs one,” one of my brothers would call out occasionally.
We would laugh. There was no dearth of notebooks. He had legal pads – yellow and white, composition books, loose leaf paper and three ring binders, ring bound notebooks, blank journals, and paper, just plain white paper.
As I put together a timeline for Stewart’s life — the hidden part that I didn’t know — I began to see a theme. An attempt to put old things behind and start new, followed by a problem, followed by yet another attempt to start new.
This plethora of notepads was a metaphor for his life. A clean notebook. A fresh start. Followed by something I couldn’t always see that made him want to start again.
At the beginning of the weekend, I had driven to the Pittsburgh airport to pick up my sister. On my way, I had passed a man standing along a busy road where there was stop-and-go traffic. He held a battered cardboard sign that read something like, “HOMELESS. VETERAN. PLEASE HELP.” I had watched through my rearview mirror as someone handed him money out the window of their car. My cold hard heart felt nothing for him.
At the end of the weekend, after driving my sister back to the airport, I saw him again. I had no loose change to give him, but I wanted to ask him, “Do you have a sister? Does she live in a little town in a two-story house with her family? Does she know about your gritty exhaust-filled life here by the road?”
Stewart had never reached that point of standing by the road. But I never knew all the struggles he did have.
I wanted to roll down my window and hand that homeless guy a notepad.
One by one they took my hand.
“I’m Sally, Stewart’s sister,” I would say. Then they would tell me their name and how they knew Stewart.
From the food bank. “I volunteered with Stewart at the food bank. We could always count on him.”
From Habitat for Humanity. “Stewart took the minutes for our meetings. They were always precise and thorough.”
From the church in Tarentum. “Stewart had been our pastor.”
From the Presbytery. “Stewart served on a committee with me.”
From his apartment complex. “Stewart sat in the gazebo with us every night and we talked.”
From a coffee shop that had become his family. “We didn’t even know he was a pastor for the longest time.”
One man told me, “Stewart changed my life.”
A man named Buster stood in front of me, humble, awkward. He was as tongue-tied as I felt all day, his eyes watery as they looked at mine. “Stewart was a good man,” he finally said.
“Thank you,” I said, over and over and over.
I wished I had more words.
No, I wished they had more words. I loved hearing about the lives he had touched.
“Stewart drove me to the doctor.”
“Stewart drove me to the store.”
“Stewart loved that skate park.”
The two hour receiving line became almost unbearable. All these people. All these names. All these words — good words — but I couldn’t hear any more..
After the service, while people were still milling around and chatting, I sat by myself a short distance away. Maybe I seemed uncaring. I only knew that I was exhausted. Mary came to sit beside me and I hugged her.
This may sound crazy, but instead of a two hour receiving line, I wished for a two month one, where I could sit, one day at a time, with the people, share a cup of coffee with them, and really hear their story.
I have so many questions for them.
Did Stewart laugh a lot? I always liked his laugh.
Did Stewart cook for you? He was a pretty good cook.
Tell me everything you can about Stewart and his life here. Please.
I’m so hungry for more.
It was an ominous way to begin Lent.
An early morning phone call let me know that my oldest brother, Stewart, had passed away from a heart attack.
And I stood in the kitchen, and I stared at the wall
And I prayed for some wisdom, so I could make a little sense of it all.
And I thought about the seasons, and how quickly they pass
Now there’s little to do but hope that the good ones will last…
Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”
I stood in the kitchen this morning, but I didn’t stare at the wall. I left the lights off and stood at the window, waiting for the sunrise.
Some sunrises are so spectacular with bursts of color lighting my horizon. I could have written, then, about how God spoke to me in the richness of the dawn, in the vast of array of pinks and golds and purples and oranges.
But He gave me an unassuming dawn, black to deep blue to gray. Gray. Non-descript.
I felt dull, like the sunrise.
My eyes filled with tears and I can’t even tell you why.
Stewart called me for my birthday, but I wasn’t home. He said he would call back, but he never did.
I had thought about it. I should call him, I thought, but I never picked up the phone.
And it’s easy enough to say, “He’s better off,
Chalk it up to the luck of the draw,
Life is tough, it was his time to go,
Well, I don’t know about that…
Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”
Life is so short. Just yesterday, I had been looking at Isaiah 40 —
The grass withers,
the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows on it.
Surely the people are grass.
I had thought about the Tenebrae services a woman at Laity Lodge had described to me, with candles being extinguished one by one until the church was in total darkness. I had been thinking about the breath of the Lord, withering the grass, blowing out the candles, one by one.
Our world is dark and sad.
I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, in the darkness and sadness of a broken world. Surely the people are grass. Surely Stewart is grass. Surely I am grass.
The grass withers,
the flower fades,
but the word of our Lord will stand forever.
I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, too.
Beyond this grassy withered world, there is eternity. And it is filled with hope.
Where did you spend your happiest memories with your loved one? Before all this, of course, were there special places you lived or traveled to that you can look back on and feel good about?
I forget how the topic came up. The way my parents used to tell the story, we were all begging to go to Myrtle Beach, because everyone else was, which just sounds wrong, because our family was never particularly susceptible to peer pressure. The way the story goes, though, is that we were all begging to go to Myrtle Beach so my father told us to pick out a place to stay and show it to him.
This was all back in the dark ages, before the internet. With a AAA membership, we were able to obtain a two-inch thick tourbook for the South Carolina. There was pages and pages of motels and hotels on the Grand Strand. Those little listing were hard to decipher, so my father suggested writing to the Chamber of Commerce in Myrtle Beach. I wrote the letter, and then had the thrill of receiving a whole bunch of mail. (Parents, if your children ever ask why they don’t get any mail, suggest they write to a chamber of commerce somewhere.)
With the stacks and stacks of brochures that arrived, we began culling through and narrowing down the search. I wanted a swimming pool. And small. Even then, I wanted someplace small and homey. Twelve stories simply doesn’t appeal to me, even if the rooms could face the ocean. Small, homey, swimming pool — yes, those were the criteria.
I found the perfect motel. It was called The Caravelle. It wasn’t huge. It had a swimming pool. It was right on the beach. Perfect.
Except they had no vacanices for the week we wanted to go.
So I went back to the pile of brochures and found our second choice. Small, homey, evening bridge games in the lounge (something I thought my parents would enjoy), a swimming pool, and a vacancy. We went to Teakwood Motel that year. And every year after that for about thirty years.
We patronized The Teakwood through several different owners and watched its decline. The last year we went the roof was covered with blue tarps and one of my children found an insulin needle under the bed. Now a parking lot for a high-rise hotel has replaced that motel.
In its heyday, though, The Teakwood was like family. We saw the same guests year after year. We knew the owners well, and one owner actually became family, in an extended sort of way.
There are so many, many memories of The Teakwood — an annual picture by The Teakwood sign, a bagpiper practicing in the Teaky Forest, cookouts, swimming in that pool, sliding down the slide into the pool (until they removed it for insurance reasons), kids freely going from room to room as we often booked four or more rooms in a row, crossing Ocean Boulevard to get to the ocean.
The Caravelle is still in operation today. I would drive past it whenever we went to Myrtle Beach, just down the road from The Teakwood.
I’m thankful that the Caravelle was full in 1972.
Would my mother have gotten lost trying to find the post office from The Teakwood. (see Six Ways to Anywhere)? Probably not that year. That would have happened further down the Alzheimer’s road; The Teakwood was like a second home.
If there’s a special place for us, it’s a little mom-and-pop motel in Myrtle Beach called The Teakwood that has now gone to motel heaven.