Yesterday, my friend Laura Lynn Brown launched a new site: makesyoumom.com.
I have previously written about how I met Laura at Laity Lodge.
I was honored that she asked me if I would be willing to submit a piece for her new site, so I found an old piece I had written, dusted it off a little, and sent it to her. I was even more honored when she decided to include it in her launch.
“Momswimcoach” was written about my time coaching the Cooperstown Girls Varsity Swim Team.
Feeling nostalgic, I pulled out another piece written about that era and read through it.
Gosh, those were the days.
No, they weren’t, really. They were hard and stressful. I was in my forties, pregnant for some of it, working outside the home for the first time in decades, trying to homeschool, and still in the wake of the storm I mentioned yesterday.
But Bridget — Bridget was a gift to me.
She was a high school girl with a sunny smile, a giving soul, and Rocky Balboa’s work ethic.
When I started coaching, I had no experience coaching anything ever. Yes, I was a swimmer. Yes, I was a swim official. Yes, my children swam. Did that make me a coach? No. Yet there I was, on deck, being called “Coach” by eighteen girls, one of them named Bridget.
I threw myself into coaching to the best of my ability. I used workouts that the previous coach had left me, started watching videos on teaching the different strokes, researched swimming on the internet, and shamelessly asked other coaches how they did things.
The girls knew I was new. Some used it to get out of work. The most common technique was to negotiate during practice.
Negotiations would go something like this.
Swimmer: Coach, do we really have to do 10 100s of freestyle?
Me: Is that what I wrote on the board?
Swimmer: Yes, but I was thinking, maybe I could just do 5 50s of butterfly since that’s what I’ll be swimming in the meet.
Pushover me: Sure, I guess so.
Swimmer: Coach, do we really have to do a 200 kick?
Me: I was thinking we need to work on our kicking.
Swimmer: I have this blister on my foot from some new shoes and kicking hurts. Can I just do a 100 pull?
Pushover me: Sure, I guess so.
Eventually, I started to catch on. Only certain girls asked me and without exception they were negotiating for something easier. Also, as I planned out the practices, I became more and more keyed into what I wanted to work on and what I wanted the team to accomplish over the course of the season.
The more I grew as a coach, the more the negotiating irked me. I started to say no to all negotiations.
One day, when the chief negotiator began to propose her own sets, I said no, but she continued whining and wheedling. Something in me snapped. I took off my whistle, handed it to her, saying, “Apparently you know more about coaching than I do,” and walked off the deck.
Bridget came and found me in the locker room. “Mrs. Zaengle, I’m so sorry,” she said.
I looked at her – Bridget, who never gave me a problem, never questioned anything I asked her to do, was apologizing to me.
She followed up that verbal apology with a letter that she had every girl on the team sign. In the letter they thanked me for my time and my efforts; they apologized for not respecting me; they promised to work hard for me.
I think that was the day I realized what a gift Bridget was to me.
She worked so hard at every practice. Sometimes, in my quest for sets, I went to college sites and selected sets that were probably too hard for the girls. One of those times, I looked at Bridget’s flushed cheeks mid-set, realizing how hard the practice was.
“Let’s change the interval, Bridget, or shorten the set,” I said.
“No, Mrs. Zaengle,” was her reply. “I can do it.”
And she did.
She worked, and her work was a joy to me. Even when I messed up. Even when what I asked was unreasonable. Bridget was a gift.
Bridget’s attitude was infectious, too. I noticed more and more of the girls adopting her positive ways.
In the end, the team and I had the relationship described in Momswimcoach. That was a gift, too.
And Laura Brown? She’s also a gift. Encouraging me to keep trying.
We’re surrounded by people who are gifts. I’m quite sure of that. We just don’t always recognize them.
When I was a teenager, I worked at a small Baptist camp in the wilds of upstate New York.
I was initially hired as the cook — don’t ask me how — but eventually was moved into the lifeguard position after they tasted my cooking and the other lifeguard left.
To my Baptist friends, forgive me, but sometimes Baptists can be stodgy.
Although I attended a Baptist church at the time (which wasn’t stodgy), I was unprepared for the strictness of this camp.
I had to sign some sort of statement of faith to work there, and, being 18, gave it only a cursory reading. Yep, I agreed (or so I thought) and quickly scrawled out my signature.
Trouble arrived on two fronts. One had to do with speaking in tongues.
For the record, I do not speak in tongues. I speak English and know a smattering of other languages. In worship services, I speak in the tongues of men – mostly American — not angels. I told someone else at the camp (I’ve never really been sure who) that I believed that the gift of tongues could still exist today. Before I knew it, I was called in before a panel of pastors to discuss the matter.
You have to picture it — I was a slip of a girl, blonde, freckled, unschooled in theology, wearing t-shirt and shorts — and, in my mind’s eye, I still see them wearing suit coats, sitting in a semi-circle around me, grilling me about the charismatic movement, of which I was not a part. I stood my ground, though. I do believe the gift of tongues could still exist. In the end I had to promise never to discuss tongues with any campers, and they would allow me to continue working.
The other problem was music. The dining hall was a long low building with a kitchen at one end, rows of tables and folding chairs in the middle, and a turntable with speakers at the far end. I had just discovered Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. His album, Keep on Singing, lived on that turntable.
While I worked in the kitchen alone, I blasted Andrae Crouch over those speakers and sang at the top of my lungs.
Take me back. Take me back, dear Lord.
To the place, where I first believed…
I closed my eyes, clasped my hands, and swayed while I sang:
How can I say thanks
for the things You have done for me?
Things, so undeserved,
Yet You gave to prove Your love to me.
The voices of a million angels
Could not express my gratitude.
All that I am,
And ever hope to be,
I owe it all to Thee.
I opened my eyes to find two Baptist ladies staring at me.
“Turn that music down,” one said.
“You can’t play music like that here,” the other one added.
I turned it down temporarily, but, oh, I still played Andrae Crouch — for two solid weeks. He kept me company and lifted my spirits. He gave me confidence. Trouble came from time to time, but that’s all right, I learned not to be the worrying kind.
Maybe that was why they booted me from the kitchen.
Andrae Crouch passed away yesterday. I’m sure he’s singing now in heaven.
But one summer, I sang his songs on a mountaintop. Today, I just gotta tell somebody.
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.