Sunday, February 27, 2011

Money can't buy it...

What do the possessions we have say about us? 

I was confronted in a very real way with this question as I sat amongst a pile of my Gramma's things yesterday. My two aunts are preparing to sell her little house in Syracuse. The house my mother and her family grew up in- the first house they ever fully owned. The house where I spent many holidays and good times. And tucked away inside it... are her treasures. Nothing she owned could have ever made a pawn shop man's eyes glaze over, but they mean the world to us--because they represent the hard work and love they had for their family. In many ways, they are a vestige of just a stitch in the fabric of what some call our 'greatest generation'.

I think I wasn't prepared for the tears that would come as I held in my hands the momentos of her life---those things tenderly immersed in the memories I was tied to--and those that were of a life before I was even born.

Things like this I don't have a story for unfortunately. This tiny peach pit carved into the face and body of a monkey was probably something from someone's vacation. It was carefully wrapped, this delicate souvenir, but no one remembers where it came, but likely from a tropical island she never set foot on.

Inside her jewelry box were many pins marking milestones of significance, my grandfather's high school graduation and her own. And this, my grandfather's pin from his service in the Navy in World War II. As I touched it, I thought about the tiny token of such sacrifice. I know that the pride with which she held her husband's pin was also inextricably mixed with so many tears while he fought overseas. Like so many wives, she had waited in fear and hope for him to return safe while she held down life at home with two young girls. This pin doesn't fully tell us his story, what he saw or experienced as he fulfilled what he believed to be his most patriotic duty. It doesn't fully tell us her story--the premature baby she lost (who might have been the aunt closest in age to my mom) just a few months after he shipped out. 

And this-- probably one of the more beautiful stories I have ever heard.
 A woman's watch and a man's watch. Both seem inconspicuous until I was told how they were acquired. The watch to the left was a gift my grandfather received for three plus decades of service, working for Allied Chemical. 
Yes, a women's watch. 
My grandparents were not rich people and finding out that he would receive a fine quality watch for his years of work, he wanted it to be a gift for her--one perhaps she never would have accepted otherwise. Such a fine gift would have been far too impractical. With conviction, he asked the company if they could instead of the traditional man's watch, give him a watch for his beloved Godelieve. The answer from the company had been no. It had never been done before. Workers were always issued a man's watch and no one had ever asked for such a thing. But my grandpa, as it was told to me, stuck to his request and did not relent. He didn't want anything if it couldn't be for her. On the day they honored him and several other employees (with cameras flashing), he was told not to open the box. He posed with the closed box. Inside was the women's watch inscribed 'to William Duxbury for 35 years'. When he retired a few years later, the company presented  him with a man's watch.

And this was upstairs. It is a lacemaking pillow. It belonged to my great grandmother, Emma DeClercq and came from her native Belgium. Before the family emigrated from Belgium, Emma and generations of women had learned to make lace on this stiff yet plush platform. The pillow still contains a partially finished strip of lace- the last to be made on it---in a craft not even Godelieve, nor her offspring would ever learn. A lost art from a country left behind. 

The importance of this heritage was displayed in the framed print hanging above Gramma's bed - Vermeer's the Lacemaker. As a child I never knew this was a famous painting. I once saw it in an art book at school and declared that it was my "Gramma's painting". I am sure some art teacher must have laughed inside at that remark.

A few years ago when I made my first visit to the Louvre in Paris...I barely made a quick stop to gawk at the Mona Lisa. I instead made my pilgrimage to see the woman who I had beheld (in replica) as a child so many times at that little bustling house in Syracuse. Feeling the silent comfort of my ancestors, and stories long forgotten, I stood before that masterpiece in wonder.

It isn't easy to say goodbye to a grandparent. Neither is it easy to hold their belongings in your hands and realize that the touch of their hands have long gone from them.

Just recently I was reminded sharply of my loss  while hugging a friend who had just lost her own grandfather. We prepare ourselves, knowing that one day nature and time ensure we will lose the grandparent(s) we cherish. Yet, inevitability doesn't make it easy. It doesn't ease the hole or the feeling of absence when they can't tell us in their own chosen words or we can't see in their eyes that recollection of history-- the one we never lived. 

But as I carried in the box of things I had selected into my apartment...and as I look on my nightstand at the gold necklace I took for myself--the one with her initials, I know I will carry Godelieve Valerie Duxbury with me---not in any vessel I can haul or store or put on a shelf---but in my heart.

Friday, February 25, 2011

My own February break

Every school year a week looms on the calendar that feels somehow like a heavensent offering. February break.

This year I miscalculated that break. In other words, I assumed it was the same week it had always been. I try to get away from Rochester (not that there's anything wrong with it) for my sanity. Each year I scrimp away and ask relatives for money for my airline tickets, in lieu of birthday and Christmas gifts. 
And my sanity becomes a plane ticket out. 

You faithful blog readers know I've been known to have "itchy feet". My older cousin Audrey in England swears I got it from her.

This year that miscalculation led to a trip that fell not on break, but the week before. No wonder the flight was only $200! We all know they jack up the rates for school vacations. Just before February break I went to Colorado. 
Though, I had to take two personal days from work to do it, I did make my way out of Rochester. Sanity was safely restored.

I spent one day with my friend Susan in Denver and 3 days in Breckenridge Colorado. Part of the trip was all in the name of friendship and fun, but I was also there to help my friend Tracy's think-tank for her new non-profit called 
SOLO Survivors, which is soon to be launched. It's going to be a resource for single people dealing with cancer. Tracy is forging ahead and she is going to do amazing things for people who often get overlooked in the cancer world!
Go Tracy!

AND then there was adventure...

The picture above was taken at Keystone. You can't see my face because I am laughing through tears. Also, I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get up. It is indicative of the pretzel like way I landed on my butt about two dozen times. Okay, laugh all you want.
Yes, on this trip I also had some fun learning to ski. 

I had never downhill skiied in my life. Sure, tons of cross country when I was knee-high to a tree stump, but not for at least ten years---and never downhill. So, leave it to me to take a stab at another Bucket List item in a big way. 

Heck no, I don't try it out at home first, I go straight to one of the highest places in our country to give it a shot. And amidst some of the most accomplished skiiers whizzing by me. Toddlers still sucking pacifiers ski hard and fearlessly the green slopes in Colorado!

Let's say it started out as a brave attempt---but my fears got the best of me before we made it all the way down the mountain. The altitude, the view of 11,000 ft peaks! Akkkkk! Okay, you can laugh again when I tell you the name of this slope was The School Marm

Ummm yeah...A story for another time when Sean (my fearless yet patient teacher) sends me the pictures that tell more of my first lesson.
Don't ask him about it, he will start chuckling before he even tells you how I did.

Thankfully, I really did have the best teacher beer could buy.
Beers and nachos with he and his roommate Ryan at the Dam brewery in Dillon, a little town nearby--- all he would accept for his lesson. :)

And now I write this from my couch, back in Rochester...a storm is expected today. Just when we think things are letting up. That's how it goes.
I'm whittling away at some paperwork...working on my taxes...back to reality.
But, I smile when I think back on the intoxicatingly beautiful combination of blue skies, sunshine, mountains and snow.

Rochester is home. But I can't help but heart Colorado. 
hahaha windy much up here?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What's your Dharma?

When Lauren Spiker asked me to come up with a name for a retreat we launched for our Teens Living with Cancer retreat last year it was a quick decision. 


Sound like a silly word huh? But take the first part of that: dharma.

It has various translations...but the English word I most favor in describing it-- is path.

Last year the word 'dharma' was kind of spilling out around in other places in my life. 
In both of the senior English classes I work with at Norman Howard School, we read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. If you haven't ever delved into the story of the man who would become the Buddha. It is  A MUST READ.

It's the story of a rich man's son, sheltered from the world outside the walls of his palace.
A world outside he needs to see, to feel, to experience.
He sets out on a journey to find things that make him whole, and invariably he stumbles and questions his choices along the way...

But who was he looking for?

You probably understand the answer to who isn't an external one...
the answer (as cliche as it may play in watered down description) is himself.

The novel is among my favorite selection of the senior literature course because it is applicable to all of us. Not because we relate to the particular details of Siddhartha's life...but because his search for fulfillment is relatively universal. Everyone is looking for that path...the dharma. We might not just put a name to it, but we are.

And I mean that. 
Even the Jersey Shore reality dregs of society are... granted, in their own sick twisted way.

I wholeheartely and abruptly digress.

How do we find our path without knowing our selves? 
How do we know ourselves without traveling that path? 

Helping teens and young adults walking the cancer path (a path I know well) is important to me. Giving them the opportunity to try new things and experiences is part of why I couldn't help but especially smile this year while putting the program together. It's hard working long hours, having two jobs plus. Yet, maybe the reason my body tolerates it... is what it does for my spirit. 

Aromatherapy/Fitness /Laughter Yoga/Writing/Drumming

Each gave them a taste of something new, something unique for their 'tool boxes'. 

Photo by Kris Murante/ Democrat and Chronicle

Yesterday for the 2nd year in a row we held Dharma Rama. The experience was a microcosm of a whole path. It's not a short-cut, not a detour. Bite-size, quick and easily fit into the space of a day. We gave them scribbled notes on a roadmap not bright and flashing signs posted on their path. All of it merely whispers. The take-away is theirs to use or just put away for another time.

In some way this day was and is part of my path...but to me what's great about a path is the others who come on in it with you.

I have so many pictures from yesterday in my head I can't spill out on this screen. I can't upload them here now. The memory card is locked in the office, but my memories are locked in my mind.