Hope Is a Green Bean Casserole

There’s a single hearing aid on the corner of my desk. I’ve picked it up and put it down several times. It belonged to my aunt.

Back at the end of May, my sister and I planned a fiftieth anniversary dinner for my parents and invited all our relatives, including my dad’s younger sister, Aunt Nancy. As we were heading to the restaurant to decorate, we learned that she was being rushed to the ER.

We soon learned that she’d had a stroke and then spent the next few weeks unconscious in Barnes Hospital, suffering multiple seizures. It didn’t look good.

Then one day, she woke up. When my dad and I went to see her, she was tired and a bit confused but more alert than we’d expected. We counted it a miracle. After she was discharged, she spent a few days in a rehab facility before going home to be cared for by her most loyal and loving friend, Beverly.

The whole summer was a roller coaster for her, with trips to the ER and surprising comebacks. When things were going well, I joked about her having nine lives. I came to expect her to bounce back, since she had defied the odds so many times.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, she ended up back in the hospital. When I stopped by her room one afternoon, she looked frail and helpless, with a feeding tube threaded through her nose. But she was awake and smiling and talking – the picture of health compared to her comatose-like state back in the summer.

Mostly, she was disappointed to have missed Caroline’s birthday in October – our family’s big fall gathering. Although she had been too frail to join us, she was determined not to miss Thanksgiving.

“Tell your mom . . .” she said, turning to me with the NG tube taped to her nose. I waited while she caught her breath.

“Tell your mom . . . I’ll bring the green bean casserole.”

I glanced over at Beverly and we both smiled. Bev tried to temper her big plans, and we both agreed that she should maybe play it by ear and work on getting strong enough to go home first.

We were amused, but we also knew better than to underestimate her. She had come back from much worse. So we made plans for her to ride with us to my parents’ house on Thanksgiving, and Phil agreed to carry her up the front stairs. By that point, she weighed less than an average fourth grader.

However, Thanksgiving dinner was not in the cards — she’d landed back in the hospital. I was secretly relieved, because I’d been mentally stress-rehearsing how to get her safely in and out of the car and then up and down my parents’ stairs. She’d always been petite, but she’d become unthinkably tiny and fragile.

Early in the week after Thanksgiving, I visited her in the hospital. She was alert and as hopeful as ever. She talked about the PT team who’d walked her up and down the hall that day, and how she was working hard to get stronger. Bev asked me to bring a pair of scissors next time to trim my aunt’s bangs.

Two days later, I trimmed and curled her hair, and she looked like Aunt Nancy again. Just a few days, and she’d be back home. That was the expected pattern, anyway.

Early that morning, my phone buzzed. Bev asked me to drive her to the hospital. A nurse had called to tell her that things did not look good. I stayed a few hours in her hospital room but had to go home and get ready for work. My sister came after I left and continued the vigil with Bev. A couple hours later, she texted that Aunt Nancy had died. Part of me couldn’t believe it, even though I’d witnessed her sudden decline.

A few days later, her siblings gathered for a simple memorial. Afterwards, my mom gave me her bag of belongings from the hospital, which I planned to wash and donate. I emptied out the tiny hoodies, track pants, and socks into a laundry basket. Then I heard something land on the carpet with a dull thunk. Squinting at the floor, I thought it was a blob of gum. When I picked it up, I saw it was her hearing aid.

“Oh,” I said involuntarily.

It wasn’t the sadness, the surprise of her death that had knocked the wind out of me but the sudden realization of her struggle. She had lost her hearing at a young age and struggled not only with that but with people often treating her poorly for it, shouting a bit more aggressively than needed. As if she were not hard of hearing but stupid.

It was hope that had led her to half-helpful surgeries and hearing aids, promising technologies barely hidden beneath tufts of her hair. And it was the sheer force of hope behind that promise of green bean casserole on the Thanksgiving table.

I still plan to do some googling to see if there’s a group that collects used hearing aids. Just haven’t gotten there yet. For now, it sits on the corner of my desk, missing its mate, a reminder that every one of us struggles in some way, some more visibly than others. It’s also a reminder of hope, that thing that keeps us afloat against the current, that thing that sets it heart on green bean casserole one more time.

Not Much of a Writer

I spend one evening a month with my friend Carrie Schuetz writing brief letters to college students. College Connections, as the group is called, was started several years ago as a way to remind the kids of our church that we still care about them when they’re away at school. It has expanded throughout the years to include students who are loosely affiliated with the church, their names submitted by a loving aunt or friend in the congregation.

As far as ministries go, it is not glamorous. Carrie and I sit at a table in silence, after a few minutes of chatting, filling card after card with messages of encouragement and love. Last night, we wrote a little more than twenty letters to college students in Kentucky, Ohio, California, and even the exotic locale of Fairview Heights, Illinois.

I like to do this because I had a hard time away at college. When I went to college, only an hour away from home, I was not prepared for being away from my family. I was academically on top of things but emotionally very much unprepared.

This threw me into a mental health storm of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. I dropped out in the middle of the year and moved back home. Mom called it a nervous breakdown; the doctor shrugged and called it “just situational,” as if the mundane situation made it somehow less real.

I was relieved to be home, and I spent the spring semester at the community college, often going for days without speaking. When I did have to speak, my voice was little more than a whisper.

My mom had tried everything in her power to keep me at school, often sending me letters covered in stickers, enclosing a five-dollar bill or a cute article torn from a magazine. Once she sent me a Grand Marnier ad from a magazine with vibrant colors, orange branches, playing cards, phases of the moon, and a bottle in the corner labeled “love potion.” It delighted me, so I hung it up on the wall behind my desk. I had to take it down because it promoted alcohol, which was verboten at the college. I went ahead and took everything down.

After dropping out, I remember attending a family gathering. One relative greeted me with, “Hey, I heard you couldn’t hack it.” A female relative approached me more tenderly and said while searching for something deep in the refrigerator, “Your mom asked me to write you at college, but I’m not much of a writer, Em.” I said, “Oh, it’s okay, not a big deal.”

But it was a big deal, apparently, because I’ve replayed that scene so many times, her rummaging in the fridge, me standing stupidly in the light of the Kenmore. Writing comes easily to me, and I couldn’t understand the reasoning of not being much of a writer. But she didn’t know I was drowning.

I haven’t been a college student for many years, but I assume that pressures on young people persist – not to mention all the complexity that comes with social media and pandemic times. I’m guessing it’s hard.  

Anyway, God has given me words, and if I can use those words to encourage a student with a letter in the mail, that’s what I’ll do.


Mom, Archivist, Devotee

For years now, I’ve been documenting Caroline’s life so she can read about her childhood when she gets older. It started with a baby book, which went up to age six. I was pretty faithful about filling in the many blanks, but somewhere in the house, there’s a plastic baggie full of baby teeth that still need to be taped inside. Baby teeth are the height of creepiness and sentimental value, am I right?  

When she entered school, I started storing her ephemera in file folder boxes – artwork, Christmas concert programs, report cards, photos. This year, however, was different. She finished sixth grade, partly remote, partly in person, fully indifferent, and all she got was this lousy t-shirt. But seriously, there were only two keepsake items: a dance recital program and a certificate marking her confirmation at church. Soon, I’ll drop her vaccination card in the folder and call it a year.

Not long ago, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “artwork” coming home from school and church. I tried not to feel guilty as I buried papers in the recycle bin, hoping their absence would go unremarked. But today, with zero artwork and not a poem about poop (or any other topic) in sight, I feel a bit let down.

I keep these records with an eye to the future, imagining looking through the file boxes together someday, laughing at the letters she wrote us begging for a cat, cooing at the sweet little handprint turkeys.

FYI, handprint art is a genre unto itself. Preschool teachers have handprint craft ideas up their sleeves for every occasion, Juneteenth and Tax Day included.

Alas, we are way beyond the era of handprint art, but grimy fingerprints on phone and iPad screens remain. While I’m trying to wean myself from writing too much about Caroline these days – she deserves the chance to tell her own stories – I will continue to document her days, as my mom documented mine.

A couple years ago, my parents cleaned out their attic and brought me a wicker trunk and large plastic tote filled with my life – yearbooks, artwork, beloved toys, and more. I don’t know what to do with it, but I see it as a symbol of Mom’s pride in me. It represents what she thought I’d want to remember – the poems I wrote, the pom-pons I shook, the proof that once upon a time I was a Sparta High School mathlete.

Because of this special kind of mother-love, I was struck by a passage in Michelle Zauner’s book Crying in H Mart when she comes across the ephemera of her childhood her mother had kept: “She was my champion, she was my archive. She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions. She had all knowledge of my being memorized. The time I was born, my unborn cravings, the first book I read” (223).

The author’s mother had died, sadly, but this collection of childhood memorabilia would serve as a sort of identity guide in her adulthood: “Now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind.”    

Here’s the zinger sentence: “She observed me with unparalleled interest, inexhaustible devotion” (223). Yes, I know something of that devotion, and I acknowledge how very blessed I am.

Next school year, I hope for band concerts and photos with full facial nudity (that is, no masks), but whatever the future brings, I’ll be standing by with my file boxes ready to archive her one wild and precious life.

-Em : )

Creatures and Other Comforts

This past year has shown me that I need creatures. While Charlie Parker, feline, doesn’t require as much attention as our dog did, he requires a lot of presence (and belly rubs). Wherever we gather, he is in the midst. When Phil and I are in the living room and Caroline is in her bedroom, he sits equidistant from us. Maybe it’s a magnetic force. Maybe it’s love.

Creatures, wild and tame, have meant a lot to me during the pandemic. Last fall, after a long stretch of staying close to home, we ventured to Arizona. The desert landscape was magical, and even the freezing hotel pool was a high point. However, the most amazing part of that weekend for me was meeting a hawk.

The hawk’s job was to deter pesky birds from bothering people who were dining on the patio. I was in awe of this majestic bird, so after we ate, I went over to talk to his handler. The bird towered over me with piercing yellow-green eyes and a beak that could take my finger off. The curved talons gripping his handler’s glove unnerved me. Then the handler asked, “Would you like to pet him?” Honestly, the thought of petting an apex predator hadn’t crossed my mind.

But okay.

I reached out slowly and smoothed his chest feathers with the back of my hand thinking only please don’t hurt me. I was awed and relieved that he ignored me.

Throughout the winter, we took note of the creatures outside. Birds and squirrels, rabbits and stray cats, all made their way through our yard in the course of their quest for survival. Early in the year, I started leaving birdseed for the squirrels and cardinals right outside the window, prime space for wildlife viewing. Charlie da Cat and I loved watching the squirrels grow fatter day after day. On the bitterest days of February, we watched a rabbit crouch under our deck, the wind shivering its fur.

When it gradually warmed into spring, I let the birdseed bowl run dry. The squirrels found other ways to survive, and the shivering rabbit gave birth to a brood that quickly learned to mooch from Phil’s garden full of Chinese cabbage and radishes.

Finally, this spring we headed to Florida for a couple days of warm sunshine. On our last morning at the beach, we came upon the most alluring creature. A glassy blue blob shaped sort of like a Chinese dumpling. Phil saw it first as it hung out on the wet sand, just out of the tides’ reach. “Should we help it back into the water?” he said. As the creature’s pointy end seemed to probe blindly at the sand, I nudged it with the toe of my sandal into the next wave.  

Later I learned that my right foot had been thisclose to a world of hurt. A quick internet search revealed the blue blob was likely a Portuguese Man o’ War, an animal with a painfully venomous sting.

This creature, I see now, signifies the polar opposite of comforting. Still, I’ve studied its picture on my phone many times since returning from Florida, awed by its pearly-blue surface and mysterious blue blobs lurking underneath.

In times like these, perhaps amazement passes for comfort — the comfort of knowing there’s still a big world out there and we’ll get back to exploring it soon. As I hang a hummingbird feeder outside the window, I give thanks for the comfort of creatures.  

-Em : )

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 5 of 5)

If you missed it, start at Part 1.

Over the years since that night, I’ve tried to conjure the pinball feeling of anticipation that runs through the body like the best warm shiver. It can’t be summoned at will, and entire years can pass without that silver ricochet of wonder that Christmas lights once brought. But some experiences have come close.

Riding in a taxi along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive with my future husband, glittering lights of the big-shouldered city on one side and the vast nighttime shimmer of Lake Michigan on the other. Catching a glimpse of Cinderella’s castle through my daughter’s eyes, its lavender spires rising in glory from the navel of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Reading a poem, or even a finely-wrought sentence, that sparks a memory that travels through my eyes, down my throat, and oddly kindles my heart.

And, to a milder degree, the lights of our own family tree stationed in the front window of our house will do the trick now and then.

Driving my daughter home from dance class one evening, I take the long way around and stop right in front of the window from which our Christmas tree peeks out. “Wow,” I say to the girl in the back seat, “I wonder who lives in this little house—and who put that tree in the front window? Must be a small family, maybe just two or three people?” I feel a bit like Gramps, awkwardly narrating levity into life. She plays along with Mom’s silly game and agrees, “Hmmmm. Must be.” She humors me less every day, this almost-teenager.

I wonder what she will remember about these Christmas days in the decades to come. Truthfully, I’ve made no great effort to manufacture memories with spying elves or baking traditions. Magic will emerge naturally, I trust. She won’t remember the thrill of a brown bag full of nuts and citrus or a cold walk home from Grandma’s house. God forbid she hear the ringtone of bad news early on Christmas morning. I cannot know which ghosts will travel into her future.

Of course, the ghosts of Christmas past aren’t really of the past. They are always present. These ghosts, after all, aren’t really ghosts. If they haunt us at all, it’s a quiet lurking, bittersweet like sugared coffee, like a yellow glow from a window, like cold relatives coming through a warm front door.

For the truth is that memories are indistinguishable from matter in that they can neither be created (despite the claims of vacation brochures) nor destroyed.

From Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

-Merry Christmas to all! ~Em

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 4 of 5)

Then the unimaginable happened. My grandma died of lung cancer on Christmas morning, just a couple weeks before I turned nine. She’s the one who told me I was almost nine one day when we visited the hospital. A nurse had asked my sister and me how old we were, and I said, “eight.” Grandma weakly interjected that I was almost nine, and it was a sort of revelation. I’d been going along all this time as an eight-year-old, and then suddenly I was almost nine. January birthdays are often eclipsed by the excitement of Christmas. Really, can a child imagine anything beyond Christmas?

I looked out the hospital window onto the dreary, gray parking lot and tried to imagine being nine. After Mom had explained that Grandma might not make it through this illness, I tried to imagine her not being in the world. It was too much to fathom.

On Christmas Eve, we visited her at home. That Christmas morning, the phone rang early, way before dawn.

The next few years seem blurry and irretrievable—nine, ten, eleven. I must have gone to school, church, McDonald’s, the skating rink, the neighbor’s house, but I remember so little.

I do remember riding around town looking at Christmas lights when I was eleven, or, as Grandma might have said, almost twelve. Grandpa, never quite at home in this world but even more estranged as a widower, sat in the back seat with me and Sis. Dad drove through all the usual subdivisions, while Grandpa commented now and then, “Will you look at those blue lights?” His saying something lighthearted was always a small surprise; you could feel the discomfort just beneath it. Gramps was the best of grumps.

Rounding a cul-de-sac and staring at a manger scene projected on a garage door, I remember the thought that bubbled up, unbidden: they’re just lights. No more shiver of anticipation, that ping-pong of hope that ran from head to belly and back again. It was not a winter wonderland, this cul-de-sac, and those were mere bulbs strung on a wire.

I recall this moment and wonder at the reasons behind it. Was it the chemicals of puberty washing away childhood astonishment? Or was it the censure of religion, the attitude that this world is a mere façade? Maybe it was the daily erosion of living without Grandma close at hand and never voicing what a raw deal we’d been dealt that Christmas of 1984.

The voice in my head insisted, “They’re just lights.” And I didn’t argue.

To be continued. Jump to Part 5.