Life · people


Seven years ago Bruce sat next to me on a flight out of Nashville. We both changed planes in Detroit and there I frantically wrote down as much of our conversation as I could remember. His heavy southern drawl forced me to listen to him carefully so I could mentally translate what he was saying as he spoke.

I remembered him, but my notes from that day sat unread — until this week when I pulled that notebook off the shelf while shelving last year’s journals. I leafed through and stopped on the page where I had written the heading “Bruce – Flight from Nashville to Detroit”. His story, even his voice, flooded back.

We had done the perfunctory small talk while waiting for take off. He told me he worked in aircraft manufacturing. I told him that I was a mother eight. I stared out the window at the other airplanes on the runway.

“I got me a Cessna,” he said, nodding toward a small plane that was in view. “One time I flew it out of Atlanta. That thang was like a wasp among eagles.”

I liked the imagery and smiled at it. Our plane took off. It’s my favorite moment of every flight — wheels leaving pavement.

“Lemme show you somethin’,” he said, pulling his wallet out of his pocket. He flipped through the pictures and stopped at a well-worn picture of a smiling little boy. “That’s my boy,” he said proudly.

“Very nice,” I said.

He tapped on the photograph. “17 years ago someone ran a red light and hit our car. He was six years old. Died instantly.”

“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, but it felt inadequate.

He flipped to another picture, that of a pretty young woman. “That’s my daughter. She’s a bad ‘un.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said again.  I didn’t ask for details and I couldn’t help thinking that 17 years before, she had been a little girl who lost her brother. Life is hard and sad — and we rarely know the other person’s story.

Bruce chatted with people across the aisle and in front of us. He was traveling with several people from his work.

He turned back to me. “You know, I just got done cancer treatments. Thyroid cancer. If I hadn’t taken this new job, probably wouldn’t have found it for a while. They found it on my pre-employment physical — and they still gave me the job.”

“That’s pretty amazing,” I said.

“My father died of lung cancer, you know. So the cancer — it’s kinda scary.”

Talking about his father led him to talking about him growing up. “We was dumb-ass poor growin’ up. Used to go haying with no driver in the pick-up.”

I used to help with haying here in New York, but it was purely for the fun of helping the neighboring dairy farmer. I loved riding in the hay wagon, but someone was always driving the tractor. I tried to picture haying with no driver.

Taking a few hay bales home. I’m the tough cookie on the right.

“You know what the Mason-Dixon line is?” he asked. I was worried that he was testing my knowledge as a northerner.

“Didn’t it divide the slave states from the free states?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said. “It’s the line that separates y’all and you guys.”

He laughed like he had just told a good joke. I laughed because I hadn’t expected a linguistics lesson from this burly southerner.

“You like sweet tea?” he asked, but he said it “swait tay.”

“I’m not much of a tea drinker,” I confessed.

“Northerners don’t hardly know how to make sweet tea. I once had a waitress tell me that I could just add sugar to my tea, like she didn’t understand that the sugar gits cooked right in with the tea.”

Frankly, I didn’t know that either.

In Detroit, I wrote it all down — about his son and his daughter and his cancer and his poverty and sweet tea. I tried to write the phrases exactly as I had heard him say them. Our flight had been less than two hours but he had shared so much with me.

I once heard Christian singer Jason Gray tell a story about a mentor that he had. Jason respected his mentor and wanted to be like him.  Jason asked him, “How did you become you?” His answer: pain.

The hardships in our life shape us but they don’t define us. Bruce had known deep sorrow and in our brief encounter had shared some of the difficult times he had known, but he also knew how to embrace life.

I’m thankful I got to sit next to him for that flight and listen to his story.



Ashokan Farewell

It felt like such a private moment. The delicate strains of the violin playing Ashokan Farewell swirled around us in the great sanctuary.

I watched her play, and then I had to look away.

It was Bob Herst’s memorial service. I knew that I needed to be there.  Our families’ lives have long been intertwined. Both families, ours and the Hersts, arrived in Cooperstown in 1967. They had four children, we had five — my youngest brother the only one without a corresponding Herst.

In those early years, I sat in the front row and played tic-tac-toe with Calvin on the nap of the velvet pew cushions of the Presbyterian Church while his father stood at the lectern and preached. Calvin knew the Lord’s Prayer and all the words to the Nicene Creed; at the age of 8, I was duly impressed.

We vacationed with them in Myrtle Beach. One time, at a crowded restaurant, in order for our large party to be seated, we had split up — adults at one table, children at another. Ricky harassed our waitress by flipping up his eyelids and batting them at her while he ordered.

Oh, the memories.

When someone at the memorial service talked about the Herst’s hospitality, I remembered sitting in their kitchen while Ricky prepared blue mashed potatoes. I mentioned it to him yesterday.

“You were ahead of your time,” I told him. “I thought of you when they started coming out with blue foods.”

I thought of me when they started making blue foods,” he laughed.

But their house was always open. I never felt unwelcome there.

And it seems like there was always music there. Sweet music. Rich music. Cello. Violin. Piano. Trumpet. French horn.

Calvin played the organ at my wedding. He has made a living of music.

Jean Herst -- waiting to play
Jean Herst — waiting to play

He accompanied his mother at the memorial service.

Ashokan Farewell — gentle and sorrowful.

She began playing solo and then Calvin joined in.

Although, she had a music stand in front of her, I don’t think she looked at it. Her eyes were closed and the music rose as the bow passed over the strings.

Heartache was etched in the lines on her face, but love poured from the violin. I watched until I couldn’t bear it.

She held the last note and left it lingering over us.

When she stopped, silence fell on the seated congregation.

How can anyone speak after that?

playing Ashokan Farewell
playing Ashokan Farewell

Later I hugged her.

“You were so brave,” I told her. “You played beautifully.”

“It was his request,” she said.

Nearly 66 years together. She honored him well.



The following is the text of what I read at the reception for Sam and Donna, my newly-married son and his beautiful wife. Enjoy.DSC04550

Once we had a guy re-shingle our carport roof – a mostly flat roof, only slightly pitched downward from house to gutter. Bud uttered a minced expletive when he saw what the workman had done.

I thought the roof looked good with its neat black lines of overlapping shingles.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“He did it backwards,” Bud complained, but I still didn’t understand.

I’m slow to understand construction problems. I had to look at it for a long time before it sunk in. The shingles overlapped in the wrong direction. He had started at the top and worked his way down, so where they overlapped rain could work its way underneath the next shingle.

But this really isn’t about roofing or shingles or mistakes made in shingling.

It’s about Sam and Donna.

And it’s about the way our lives overlap, like shingles properly installed on a roof.

It’s about Sam’s first Christmas.

Not his first Christmas as a baby. He probably didn’t even get any good gifts that year. With him being the third child, I had figured out that babies almost one year old don’t care very much about shiny new toys. Hand-me-downs are fine as long as they come wrapped with paper that can be ripped into tiny pieces and with curly ribbon that can be waved and boinged.

Honestly, I couldn’t even find any pictures of Sam’s first Christmas. It was that non-monumental. The plight of the third child.

No, this is about the first Christmas when, as an adult, Sam didn’t come home.

“I just don’t get enough days off,” he told me, “and the holidays are such a busy time at the store.”

“What will you do?” I asked. “You can’t spend Christmas alone.”

“No worries, Mom.” He likes to say that. He knows I worry. “I’ve got several invites.”

“Who,” I asked, demanding to know, trying to make him a little accountable.

“The store manager invited me to spend Christmas with him and his family,” he said.

Perfect, I thought. Maybe the manager will like him so much he’ll start giving him better hours.

“Dan and Lindsay invited me, but I’d have to get over to the island,” he said.

Victoria Island. I had never met Dan and Lindsay, although I had heard stories about them and their child, Denali. I had chatted with Lindsay once on Facebook about the nutritional value of hemp. That could be a good choice, I thought.

“And a friend from school invited me to spend Christmas with her family,” he finished.

“Who is it?” I asked, like I might possibly know.

“You don’t know her,” he said, reading my mind.

“You should go to your boss’s house,” I told him. It seemed like a good career move.

When Christmas arrived, he didn’t go to his boss’s house. He didn’t go Dan and Lindsay’s house. He went to some stranger’s house, some girl I didn’t even know.

We skyped Christmas morning.

“Hey, Mom,” he said, “Donna’s mom wanted me to tell you that she gave me a hug today. She said that every mom would want to know that her child got a hug on Christmas.”

I laughed, and thought it was so sweet, and wondered how awkward that hug was. We’re not the most huggy family.

Donna. Sam referred to her as his friend from school. “We’re just friends,” he told me. At Christmas.

Six weeks later, around Valentine’s Day, I got this message on my cell phone – ““Hi, Mom, this is Sam. I was just calling because I have some exciting news. I have a girlfriend. Her name is Donna and she’s pretty much awesome…”

The rest, you know, is history, with more history being made here today. Sam and Donna.

Where do the shingles tie in?

It’s in the overlap.

While I was fussing because I would really rather have had Sam home for Christmas, God knew that it was important for Sam to be somewhere else that Christmas.

You see, that was Donna’s mom’s last Christmas.

Ruth Mayer’s last Christmas.

Her only chance to hug Sam on Christmas morning.

Her only chance to fuss over him and make his Christmas special.

No one knew that at the time, but it was a perfect overlap of lives, where Sam could meet her, get more than a hug, actually spend some time with her – and then, months later, be there to support Donna, to cover her protectively, like an overlapping shingle going in the right direction, so that the sorrows could be shared and run off both of them together.

Sam’s first Christmas away may have been his most important Christmas – until this coming one, Christmas 2015, when he and Donna will have their first Christmas as husband and wife, together, building a life with each other.

Sam, Donna — May your shingles always overlap in the right direction.


Pieces of Stewart

IMG_3634[1]The following is the text of what I said at my brother’s memorial service.

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.


A New Notepad

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.

the tip of the iceberg

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.


The Receiving Line

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.”

A young couple said, “Stewart performed our wedding.”Stewart 017

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.”

“Stewart listened.”

“Stewart helped.”

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.

A Month with a Muse (or an amusing month) · Stewart

Ash Wednesday

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,
That’s all.”
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.