Monday, August 10, 2020

Repurposing Mozart

Well, the title is titillating, you'll have to agree. I'm not sure this tiny little bronze statue inherited fifty-years ago is really supposed to be a likeness of Mozart, but that's how I think of it. A vague memory ascribes it to my mother's childhood, a tiny trophy bestowed for doing well on her piano lessons. I've used it as a paperweight upon occasion, but most of the time it sits in a drawer in my desk--one of those trinkets that doesn't do much except take up space--seemingly useless, but of enough sentiment to prevent its disposal.

Because of Covid-19, I'm walking more than I normally would in the summer. The absence of classes at my local YMCA, not to mention having almost no social life, means it's healthy and easy to take several walks each day. And I frequently need a visor and sunglasses because this is the time of year in Seattle when the sun is out almost every day. 

For many years, instead of having separate prescription sunglasses, I have chosen Takumi brand frames because they come with matched sunglasses that snap magnetically on. That way, my sunglasses can be easily taken on and off while driving, and they are so small I'm never without them--tucked behind my wallet in a small zipped essentials case with me when I leave the house. But because of their small size, they are a little more fragile--and sometimes hard to locate if one sets them down thoughtlessly after removing them.

Because of my daily walks, I wanted to keep them somewhere more accessible than my purse for them. That's when I thought of Mozart! They balance perfectly on his extended wrist. SO . . . I am letting him hold them for me. He is doing a GREAT job, too. I always know where they are; they aren't susceptible to scratching, and just seeing the little statue being useful after all these years makes me smile. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

PT 4: Who Loved Me into Being

William Neill Hughes, Jr.
was 85 in this photo
Yes, you understandably might have assumed I was done with this topic. Not quite. There is one other person who loved me into being: William Neill Hughes, Jr., my great-uncle.

Although my mother kept up a correspondence with her mother’s only brother and the longest surviving member of her family, I didn’t meet my great uncle until I was a junior in high school. Uncle Will lived in Florida and although he was a veteran of the Spanish American War and WWI (European Theater), he’d never visited Washington state because it was an arduous trip to come from Florida where he and his wife had lived since his retirement.

When my family (mom, dad, sister and I) made plans to travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico in May of 1957, my mother was inspired to ask Uncle Will, a recent widower, if he would like to make the short flight from St. Petersburg to join us. She was thrilled when he wrote back return mail with an excited ‘yes.’ He would come for just a few days, motivated to finally meet his two great-nieces, then ages seventeen and twenty-one, and reconnect with his beloved niece.

When I first met him, I found him a little bit intimidating (after hearing about him from Mother for all those years), but also a little bit disappointing. We were there for the first-ever Casals Music Festival in Puerto Rico; my great-uncle was not. He was there only to see our family. At seventeen, I was passionate and even obsessive about music. Pablo Casals was my musical hero, and so were the specific musicians invited personally by Casals to participate in the Festival. How could anyone be indifferent to this event! Nevertheless, it was exciting to meet such an old relative! (He was seventy-nine then, a year younger than I am now.) Since all four of my sister's and my grandparents were deceased by 1946, it was quite exciting to meet someone old enough to be our grandparent. 

Within minutes of our introductions, Uncle Will asked my sister and me to please call him just ‘Billy’—not Uncle Billy.  H-m-m-m . . . that was really a fun idea.  It seemed almost irreverent to call him “Billy,” but we quickly obliged and changed how we addressed (and referred to) him. Mother, however, continued forever to refer to him as Uncle Will--the name she had known him by her entire life. [Note: In the post dated June 29, 2013, I wrote about my great-uncle and referred to him as "Uncle Billy." As I recalled our Puerto Rico experience during this writing, I realized we didn't use "Uncle" when addressing him, and verified that with letters I have from him.]

He didn't want us to use "Uncle" when addressing him
For most of the three day visit, Billy sat in the shade under an umbrella on the hotel grounds, eager to talk and bask in our company and conversation whenever we had time. He and my dad had a lot in common, but he especially wanted to catch up with my mother and get to know her daughters. Our family had tickets for all the festival concerts, but most were in the evening, so that worked well. Billy retired early, and besides, he wasn’t there for the festival; he was there to see the Johnsone family.

On the last day of his visit, my mother called me aside. She was visibly upset. “Sallie, Uncle Will has pointed out to me just now how disrespectful you can be to me. He said I should not tolerate it. And he’s right—I put up with your sassy retorts too much. So from now on, I'm not going to let you get away with a flippant tone of voice or rude reaction to my requests!”

Ouch! Naturally, I was annoyed—no, more like angry—with this old relative who felt it was his duty to share a punitive observation with his niece about me. Who was he to talk about my behavior! I barely spoke to him for the rest of his visit, and when he flew home to St. Petersburg, Florida, I wasn’t sorry. But . . .  deep down, I knew he was right and respected him for noticing. I could be feisty and ill-mannered to  my mother, and was especially annoyed with her in Puerto Rico because I wanted more than anything to gawk at, swoon over, the musicians at the hotel—the admired performers whom I idolized. In my heart I was a classical musician groupie and wanted to act out the part. She was determined I would, in her words, "Act like a lady."

When we got home, all of us received individual letters from Billy thanking us for the opportunity to get together. It was the beginning of a bond between the two of us that solidified over the next twelve years of his life. In that first letter, he enumerated what he saw as my talents and strengths and deplored me to live up to my potential and not to get bogged down in the pettiness that often happens with family members living in close proximity. Expressing outright admiration for what he saw as the good in me, he knew exactly how to get my attention and make me think about his observations. He implored me to continue developing our relationship by agreeing to correspond with him.

I invited him to my high school graduation, but . . .
I wrote him back, and thus began our deepening “pen pal” friendship. Throughout the rest of high school, all of college, and until he died in 1969, we corresponded regularly with long heartfelt letters. Billy consistently praised my writing, which prompted believing in myself as a writer, and he urged me to consider writing as a profession. Within a few years of our 1957 meeting, both of us had converted to Roman Catholicism, which gave us an immense amount of subject matter to share in our epistles. Understanding my devotion to him over the years, my husband strongly endorsed giving the Hughes family name to our youngest child, born in 1968, as a middle name. Billy was delighted!  

How lucky I was to have made the acquaintance with Billy while still forming my own notion of who I was and would become. Billy’s praise for, and faith in, my writing abilities might even be seen as the seed this blog. He was a true blessing in my life.




Sunday, July 19, 2020

The comfort of nature



Recently I realized in a different kind of way just how comforting it is to sit quietly among trees, and in particular, to feel--stroke--the bark of a huge Douglas Fir.

I'm fully aware this is not an original observation. In fact, it's probably as old as the spoken word and perceived long before language occurred. There is always comfort in nature. But as I sat in Blyth Park across the river from where I live, no one else was anywhere around. Although two cars were in the parking lot, their drivers must have been walking on a nearby trail. It felt like the entire park was all mine . . . and the birds, of course, and various critters that live in the trees and ground.

Stroking the bark of this giant fir was surprisingly soothing. I wondered how many others had sat there and felt the bark, its skin. If I could have stayed there all day, I would have. The cares of Covid-19, even the isolation it has dealt us, seemed not to matter much while I sat there. It was as though I was connecting with everyone who has ever approached this tree. Blissfully the tree is unaware of the virus and the new distancing protocol. How comforting to think about this magnificent tree could spread its branches--unconcerned if they should come into contact with another tree's branches.

I'm familiar with the concept of Forest Bathing. Although I didn't have a certified leader taking me through a sensory connection with the forest, I made my own bath of quietude and calm. It was better than bubbles for calming stress.

Monday, June 29, 2020

PT 3: Who Loved Me Into Being

I stalled writing this because I told myself I could look for photos of the special people who made me who I am--the people who"loved me into being."  But I realized quickly I'm never going to find photos of many without a lot of effort. And even with photos, I realized it would be impossible to ever do justice to those special people.

It's been fun thinking about who the people were in my life who profoundly influenced me. I'm just going to name three of them in this post and identify how and why they influenced my person-hood.

Mary Anderson, lifelong friend of my mother. 
Mary had two sons who were younger than I. Our families spent our summers at a remote enclave of four large seasonal houses built on the shore of large Idaho lake. It was accessible only by water (or an arduous hike from an automobile 'landing' a mile away over rugged terrain), so once we arrived, we stayed put! The houses had no electricity, just plenty of sunshine, water, and socializing. There were numerous youngsters at the lake every summer, all within a ten year range, but most were older than I To fill my need for companionship, I played every day with Jimmy and Johnny, Mary's boys. Because they were younger, I got to be the boss, and we made up a lot of fun activities and games, but I was in charge--quite a treat for the younger child in a family of two children. Mary loved that I paid so much attention to her little boys, and through that relationship, I felt great kinship. She hung out with my mom a lot, and I used to love to see and hear Mary laugh. Her style of parenting seemed so joyful and relaxed. She listened to my stories, and always seemed so pleased to share tidbits of my life. Mary and I began corresponding while I was in college--it was especially fun to hear her take on my student life, because she was a faculty wife at another university. By then we'd formed a deep, affectionate bond. She reminded me of my mother, but without all the 'strings' of conflict that accompany a young woman's bursting from the nest.

Ben Weatherwax: Friend (along with his wife) of my parents.
Ben made his living as a designer in an architect's office. He had great talent and an eye for style. He designed a beautiful year-round cottage for my family on the ocean, which endeared him to all of us, but even more exciting--he had a weekly radio show! I thought he was the most overtly talented grown up I'd ever met. When Ben would visit our home (with or without his family), he and my dad could talk and chuckle together, and I loved listening to them. Ben always asked me, a young-to-mid-teen, my opinions about current events! I really wanted to be an adult when Ben sat down to visit with my dad, because their topics were so vital and worldly. Ben knew I was a bookworm and always asked what I was reading, then would share his thoughts about the book, which, of course, he would have read years before. Our first literary encounter was over Jean Christophe by Romain Rolland. When he saw what I was reading he nearly jumped up and down with glee. "Oh, how I loved that book!" In the summer of '56 we had a long talk about my adoration for Thomas Wolfe. "Yeah," said Ben, "he sure did write some magnificent purple prose." (I had to look up that term!)  When he died in a house fire in November 17, 1956, I was torn with grief. He was the first person whose death I deeply grieved. At sixteen I was old enough to recognize the depth of loss when a vibrant person passes in the prime of his life. I was overcome with personal sorrow.

Gladys Phillips O'Day: Friend (along with her husband) of my parents. \
Gladys gave me a glimmer of what women could do in the world--besides being a secretary, nurse, or teacher, which were the three choices that "nice girls" had for their careers in the '50s. Gladys was an attorney! Not only that, she used her maiden name on her business cards! She wasn't stuck in the mold of just being the wife of a successful man. She made her own career and everyone knew who she was--for herself! That was a radical notion in the '50s. In addition, she was proud of her native American ancestry and shared stories and history of her family that made me think of native Americans differently from how I'd learned about them at school. Gladys had such reverence for her ancestral people, you couldn't be around her without catching a little of it from her. She was also a fellow violinist (clearly quite outstanding, as she was concertmistress of UW Orchestra), and always asked me what music I was working on. I found this immensely encouraging because she 'got' what was involved as a student of the violin. Our families drifted apart, and we completely lost touch before I entered my thirties. And--truth be told--I was intimidated in her presence. As much as I admired her, I could barely imagine myself as a bold, strong, bright woman who stood up to--and even flaunted--the expected norms of womanhood. She was a true inspiration on a very personal level. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Part 2: Who Loved Me into Being: Margaret Whiteman

I continue thinking about the people who loved me into being: Adults who influenced my life in my formative years, those to whom I attribute (in part) my values, my character, my overall personality.

Aunt Maggie created
this cross-stitched
silhouette for me 1958
From an early age, Margaret Whiteman opened her heart and arms to the little girls who lived across the street from her father, Mr. Strauss. My parents who purchased their first Seattle house in 1943 (I was three, my sister seven) happily engaged with this tiny, vivacious woman and her lively son, Chuck, who came to look in on their father/grandfather. Over the next four years, the Whiteman family became good friends with our family, and at some point my sister and I were invited to call her "Aunt Maggie," rather than Mrs. Whiteman. When we moved to a bigger  house, the Whiteman family was part of our inner circle of family friends and remained there forever.

Chuck, Aunt Maggie, sister Judy, me
1949
It truly was a lovely family friendship, with my father and Margaret's husband, Glenn, deepening their bond every year, and Mother and Maggie always finding hundreds of topics to discuss and giggle about. Maybe it was because she had no daughters of her own, but Aunt Maggie was always genuinely interested in what my sister and I were doing. She was a talented piano player and artist, too, capable of improvising a little jig on the family piano or making a quick sketch in our autograph books (see the two photos below). Because Chuck and my sister were closely matched in age, their interests and abilities much more advanced than mine in the first decade of our families' friendship, so I was the 'odd-man-out' when the two families got together in the early years. Aunt Maggie always made conversation with me, not just the adults. Maybe that's the reason I believed Aunt Maggie and I had special bond. Her genuine interest in me resonated increasingly as I grew older.

In 1952 our family moved to Aberdeen. I was twelve; pubescent, tall for my age and overweight. Not the easiest profile for buying clothing in a small town. Quickly Mother learned that the shops in Aberdeen did not carry much of a selection of clothing for girls shaped like me,at least clothes that she approved of for a young woman. The department stores of Seattle carried lots of youthful looking clothing in chubby sizes. (Would you believe there was actually a clothing-size category for girls called "Chubettes" ?) More than once Aunt Maggie came to my rescue by shopping at a Seattle department store and driving to Aberdeen to bring special occasion garments she'd purchased 'on approval.' If the item didn't fit, or meet aesthetic approval, Maggie could return them to the store. I still have such fond memories of seventh and eighth grade dresses that Aunt Maggie selected for me, and I absolutely loved them. I always got the feeling the she took great pleasure in doing this for me. 

In fourth grade marionettes had
become my hobby. Aunt Maggie signed
my autograph book Easter that year
But Aunt Maggie was more than just a personal shopper, artist, and musician. She was interested in me and what I was doing. I felt like I could talk to her about anything--a real auntie figure, especially welcome because my only actual aunt lived thousands of miles away and I didn't know her at all. When we moved back to Seattle in 1956, my parents bought the home next door to the Whitemans! Certainly the fact they would know their neighbors was instrumental in their decision to purchase, and I was ecstatic. By then I was a sophomore in high school, transferring into the same school from which Chuck had recently graduated, so Aunt Maggie's first-hand knowledge of the school--its faculty, strengths, pitfalls, etc--was extremely helpful to me, a newbie. She also was available to listen to me whenever I just wanted to complain about school. We often talked about music and she would show me whatever creative sewing project she was doing. Sometimes she'd sit at the piano and play a little Liszt or Chopin, too--on the baby grand piano that prominently sat in her living room.

In fifth grade I had a new
autograph book signed on the
occasion of a Memorial Day Picnic
In addition to being an artist, she was a creator of all kinds of needlework, crewel, cross-stitch, even quilting. Whenever I got new dresses, elegant shoes, or especially glamorous sweaters, the first thing I'd do would be to take it nextdoor to show Aunt Maggie, who, predictably, would ooh and aah. She'd admire the fabric, rave about the cut, the color  . . . the kinds of things a mother might do, but it seemed so much more meaningful coming from an unbiased 'outsider.' I even remember taking my wedding dress to her house to show her the minute we brought it home, and I still remember how excited she was to see it. She lent such strength and emotional support after both of my parents' deaths, and periodically would call to chat on the phone until Jay and I moved to Wisconsin in 1972. Then we reverted to letters.

When Jay and I moved back to Seattle in 1986, one of the first people I visited was Aunt Maggie. By then was living in a retirement community in the downtown area near my work. Occasionally I would visit her during an extended lunch hour. I can remember her asking my advice about travel insurance at one of our last get-togethers, and how flattered I felt when she asked my advice about something, after so many times I'd asked for her opinion.

Yes, Aunt Maggie was definitely one of the people who loved me into being. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Who loved YOU into being?

The question seems corny . . . but it's also so profound, the question Fred Rogers asked audience members to think about at the awards ceremony of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1997. WHO LOVED YOU INTO BEING? If you're like me, you probably missed that event, but I'm sure you've heard the quote--most recently in the recent movie, 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' with Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys.

Grandmother Elmendorf  with me 1942
With nothing better to do in this locked-down existence, I started thinking about the people who loved me into being, and discovered a few surprises--even a few people who helped form me that I've not talked much about to my offspring. Of course, they've heard stories about my big three: mother, father, and sister. And my offspring have also heard about my grandmothers, particularly my mother's mother, Margaret Elmendorf.

She was always referred to as "Grandmother Elmendorf" at our house. Never Granny, Nana, Grandma or any other cozy nickname. For whatever reason from the first moment we were introduced, she was Grandmother Elmendorf, and my sister and I (for the seventy-five years we've been alive without her) still refer to her by her full moniker. And although I shared her with my entire family, it felt to me as a very little girl that she was exclusively MINE!

Of course, that was absolutely not true!. When she visited Seattle from her home in Spokane, she was there to see everyone: her daughter, her  son-in-law, and her TWO granddaughters.I am certain she loved my sister as much as she loved me, but she was just so present when she was in our presence. She was clearly very good at focusing her attention.

She died when I was five, but I have vivid memories of her. They are my own memories--not stories about her told me by others. She taught me how to knit, and I remember her sitting next to me, watching me struggle with the needles, ready to help whenever I turned to ask for help--but never, ever meddling or reaching for the needles in exasperation. She praised every eight-stitch row with or without a dropped stitch. She taught me how to sew, too, and by that I mean the very beginning basics: threading a needle, tying a knot in the end of the double thread, pushing the needle in and out of fabric in even spaces, reinforcing the last stitch with three extra stitches, measuring the doll for sleeve or skirt length. My doll had a wardrobe of beautiful clothes Grandmother Elmendorf made that lasted until I was done with dolls, as well as a few primitive pieces I made under her watchful eye.

I never pick up a needle and thread without thinking of her. When she was in the room, snuggled next to me, it was as though I was the only person in world. I had her rapt attention even in silence. Such a gift, and one that we could all get better at in this era with its constant interruptions by pings and chirps, rings and blasts from myriad media. Yes, Grandmother Elmendorf was certainly one of the people who loved me into being.

In another post, I will write about several other people who helped form me, but who aren't related by blood. They aren't people I've necessarily identified as helping to make me who I am until this solitary existence inspired the exercise. It's fun, thinking of those people. I hope my reflections might inspire others to ask the question of themselves: who loved me into being?

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Perspective

Maybe the title of this post makes you think the topic will be profound. Nope--just a silly observation I made as I returned home after a short walk.

When seen close up, the little plants in these little round holes look like small flower pots with intentional
'starts' in them for some glorious summer flowers. But that's not what they are. When viewed in their rightful scale, they are weeds finding peep holes of light from beneath a rubber covering of a pathway.

It occurred to me that we can all try to be more weed-like in this current COVID-19 situation. Somehow in this dismal and dark covering of our lives, we can also find air and light (and maybe even laughter and delight). Go, weeds!