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Let Us Be Part of the Solution

Feeling helpless in the face of the Pandemic Racial Tensions?

It is normal to feel helpless in the face of something as huge as both the Pandemic and the current atmosphere of Racial Tensions. Both are national in scope, and in some cases international.  Sometimes, if you can do even one thing, or more than one thing, it can help make a difference. You and I can help to make a difference right where we live.

The required disclaimer is, that I write as a white woman who is over the age of 55. I do not know what it feels like to be a black person. I only know what I see and hear in the news media and social media. The chances of my being stopped by a member of a police force for simply “driving while white,” is unlikely. That being said, I want to offer some suggestions that I think can help to make a difference.

The second disclaimer is that it is, not unlike the Commandments, it is difficult to phrase them all in positive language. Here goes:

black neon sign with white letters. Words, "Think about things Differently"
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

Stop sharing negative posts on Social Media. Why? They are designed to stimulate animosity and limit communication and compassion. If you doubt that, pay careful attention to the photograph that accompanies the post, and the responses that it garners. The result is little better than an inflammatory tweet. It is like throwing gasoline on a fire.

There is a difference between protesting and rioting: I do not know anyone who thinks that rioting, looting and violence will solve anything, and those actions are upsetting. They also get in the way of our being able to hear the pain and anger of the protesters. Not all protesters are rioters and not all rioters are protesters.

Some people are taking advantage of the situation and are intentionally making things worse. Please do not let that stop you from hearing, learning, speaking up and acting in positive ways.

Do not engage the haters. They will not listen to you and you will be wasting your breath, and perhaps even making them happy because they succeeded in getting you riled up.

It is okay to “agree to disagree” with someone. It is okay to walk away from an unproductive conversation. I would go so far as to say it is healthy to do so, when you cannot come to an understanding or a meeting of the minds.

Don’t be dismissive. Have you ever shared a story of a deep, personal pain with someone only to have them dismiss your feelings, hurt or experience? Sometimes people say things like, “You think that is bad, wait until I tell you what happened to me!” I know that has happened to me; and I know that I have probably done it to others. It may be unintentional, of course, but it hurts nonetheless.

From an outsider’s perspective: When you look at the protests, riots and demonstrations and ask, ‘How is this helping the Floyd family?’ Try to understand that the initial response that sparked demonstrations was in response to the murder of Mr. George Floyd. It was for many people, the last straw, on top of many other last straws.

There is a significant list of similar deaths that have occurred in the last eight years. I see the demonstrations and protests as responses to a combination of all of that; the murder of George Floyd and many others. Say his name. Learn their names. They mattered. They were somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter.

Seek Understanding: Have you ever said in response to the statement, “Black Lives Matter” “All lives matter,” or “Blue lives matter” or something like that? The “Black Lives Matter” movement is in response to the large number of black people and black bodies that have been murdered or killed by police. It is it’s own statement and does not need to be edited by us. It is a statement that tells a story and deserves to be respected.

It does not mean that all police are bad or evil or murderous. But there are sufficient document cases where this has happened, and for the most part gone unpunished. The last time I checked, the role of “judge, jury and executioner” is not accorded to police at any level. I do realize there are circumstances when the taking of a life becomes necessary in the performance of their duties. Black Lives matter!

Taking a Knee at a football game: People I know, love and care about have been upset with this demonstration of protest in National Football games. I am sorry that I kept silent. I did not want to offend them.

Those I know who vocalized their frustration, and perhaps anger, saw this action as disrespecting the flag. I wish I had said, as often as necessary, that it was an act of silent protest in response to the frequent loss of black lives at the hands of unethical police practices. Protest is still a civil right. Football players taking a knee in protest on a national stage could have started a needed conversation. We just did not hear what they were trying to tell us.

“I am not a racist.” I do not know anyone who is racist. But there is a difference between not being racist and being anti-racist. The distinction may seem subtle to those of us who are not inclined to be activists.

In not being a racist, most of us would not think to do anything against a black person. But it is time to do something positive: Be an ally; educate yourself about the problems of racism, and racial injustice. I will include some resources at the bottom of this post and hope you will seek others on your own. Perhaps through your local library, your church or clergy person.

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

Make Friends with someone who does not look like you. This can be a challenge where I live and serve, because our communities are pretty white. Our churches are pretty white, too. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been quoted as saying that 11:00 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the United States. Fifty plus years later, that hasn’t changed from what I can see. So, maybe it takes effort, but it should not be impossible.

Listen to someone’s story of racism. Do not interrupt, do not counter share, that is counter with your own ‘you think that is bad’ story. Just listen. Perhaps if more of us had listened things would not have gotten to this point.

I know that I am not always a good listener. I am such a talker, that I get in my own way. When we listen, we are supposed to be paying attention to the words that are being spoken and the feelings that are being shared, not listening for a place where we can jump in and talk. Just Listen.

Don’t just tweet, or post or make a poster. Resolve to do something positive to be part of the solution. These are all simple ways to overcome that feeling of helplessness and I believe we can make a difference. We can learn to know better and then do better.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Some resources worth exploring:

www.naacp.org

www.blacklivesmatter.com

http://www.raceamity.org

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Timeless Advice from a (somewhat dated) Chick Flick

One of my favorite all time romantic comedies is You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.* Even though the technology featured in the film is now dated, there are some timeless ideas and advice in the movie that have stuck with me through the years. Okay, I also have to add that it has stuck with me through the numerous times I have watched this movie.

picture of a manual typewriter with some stuck keys
Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Near the end of the movie, just after a significant turning point, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) visits Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) at her apartment. He says to her in a half-hearted attempt to apologize for putting her out of business, “It wasn’t personal,” he says “it was business!” She respond by saying, ‘Well, it was personal to me! It was personal to a lot of people. Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

I wrote in a previous post about Friendships and types of friendships and pretty sure I just scratched the surface. It seems to be me that most relationships ought to be personal at some level. Long gone are the days when items like milk and bread were delivered to our doors. But mail is still delivered. And many of us still shop “in person” for groceries and other necessities. I am one of those fussy people who prefers to pick out my own food and clothing.

There was a period of time when my then favorite store stopped carrying women’s dress clothes in the store, but there were plenty of “misses” or “Women’s” size casual clothes available. I was told by a compassionate cashier that I could always order online and if an item didn’t fit, I could return it through the store. “Or,” she said lightly, “you could return the item by shipping.” I was crestfallen at best and slightly depressed. While I am not one to try to decide what someone is thinking without their saying so, it felt as if the store were saying to overweight women everywhere, ‘You can’t possibly need dress clothes, the sweats and jeans are…over there!”

Pcture of a woman ina store hanging clothes on rack
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya from Pexels

I pleaded my case with a couple of cashiers, fighting back the tears. It was an hour’s drive, to get there and to my way of thinking, picking out something to try on at the store, is more efficient than ordering online, waiting for the item to arrive to try on and then having to go through the work of returning the item. Much quicker to put it back on the rack in the store; without paying postage or shipping.

I prefer the personal contact. I always engage cashiers in the briefest of conversations, in the hope that I can add something to their day, a moment of pleasantness or even compassion. If you want or need a cynical reason for a personal contact with a cashier, it helps to keep their attention on me and my money or credit card while the transaction is taking place. Rather than them talking with another associate, while ringing up my purchase. I think the personal contact is crucial.

The isolation and social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 virus have made this that much more important to me, and I think, to others. In small towns people tend to wave at each other, even strangers. Sitting on your porch and someone drives by, wave. Walking down the street and someone drives by, wave. And don’t forget to smile.

picture of a woman in a store paying with a credit card
BUt most important is the smile on the cashier
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Does it matter if you smile if you are wearing a mask? No one can see your smile! I recently arrived at a meeting a few minutes early, with the intent of checking my hair and putting on some lipstick. I do not wear much make-up. I realized when I saw someone else who had arrived for the meeting already had their mask on and then I realized that the lipstick was superfluous, but smiling is not. I am pretty sure when we smile, it exercises all of our face muscles and shows around our eyes. Life is tough and has recently gotten tougher. Soften it with a smile.

Beyond that, part of my concern is that fear of the virus and the potential spread and the need for social distancing, has made limited personal contact an imperative. I think, not to sound alarmist, that we are in danger of losing something vital in our society. It has been weeks, months since this all began and there are some things that will not go back to the way they were; in person connectivity should not be one of them. “Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

PLAN B for “Brave

Earlier in the story, after an unsuccessful protest and media campaign fails to turn her business around, Kathleen makes the dreaded decision. She shares this with her mother’s friend Bertie and when she tells her she has decided to sell the store, Bertie tells her it’s a brave thing to do. “You are daring to imagine that you can have a different life.”

picture of suggestions pinned to a bulletin board
Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

What happens if your heart is set on a goal that cannot happen? So many factors apply, aptitude, talent, education, but also job market, economy, etc. I got my college degree at 49 years old in 1999. I was already a pastor and headed to seminary. I settled for a liberal arts degree, for reasons that don’t matter here. But I had two academic loves in college; History and English. I had significant credits and course work in those subject areas and it was tempting to either do a dual major or shift from liberal studies to major in one of them. I did not want to teach and I was eager to finish college and get to seminary. But there was also a joke making the rounds at the time: “What did the History major ask the English major?” The answer was, “Do you want fries with that?”

As a much younger person, I started out at nursing school, right after high school. From the time I was ten years old I wanted to be a nurse. I read every youth nursing series that was popular at the time (Cherry Ames, Kathy Martin, etc) and I had been a ten year old surgery patient. It didn’t take more than a few months in nursing school to realize that I did not have the maturity or other necessary attributes.

In Kathleen Kelley’s case, closing the store gave her the opportunity to consider what else she might do with her life. One can have a retirement Plan B, or a career Plan B. It may be good to have a few additional letters in your option basket.

Retirement Plan B

There are some ways I/we did not do a great job of retirement planning. What younger person can think ahead to financial needs 40 years in the future? But I did begin in my last year of full time ministry to begin to prepare, especially prepare myself emotionally; I had watched some friends really struggle with retirement. The planning I did was partly financial (we bought a house) but it was mostly spiritual and emotional. To paraphrase a song from another movie (White Christmas)** “What do you do with a pastor, when she stops being a pastor?” That took a lot of soul searching.

Of the pastors that I know who have served over 30+ years and many longer, many seem content to stop and go onto life fulfilling retirement goals. I had only been a pastor for 22 years and I wasn’t ready to stop, just cut my hours back. The full-time expectation for United Methodist Pastors is 55-65 hours a week (emergencies included) and the closer I got to 65 years old, the more I knew in my bones that I no longer had the energy for full-time ministry. (Slight disclaimer here, this picture was taken at my retirement party and while I may look really tired, I had been crying – a lot!)

Picture of myself and Roger at my retirement party. Interesting, not sure why the dates is wrong in the picture!
Retirement Celebration 6/23/18 ~ Photo by Jean Barber

But I only took 6 weeks off and have been serving part time (about 30 hours a week) for two years. It is not unusual for our pastors to go back to work part time, and it fulfills a need, both for pastors and churches. I am not ready to stop yet, but I am finally at a point in life, when I can imagine something different. I am hoping for another full year. But I know it is getting near time to be brave. Time to develop a Plan B. Time to imagine a different life.

There is one other thing. When I first entered the work-force, the average person expected to retire from the same company they began working at, or at least the same occupation. So where a person my age may have begun a career with that expectation, I think people entering the work force now have different expectations and perhaps begin working with several different letter options in their baskets.

What about you? Have you ever had to rely on your Plan B? or Plan C? Or are there other timeless movie quotes that have become a part of your life?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

* You’ve Got Mail. Director: Nora Ephron. Performers: Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Jean Stapleton, Greg Kinnear. Laura Shuler Donner Productions. 1998.

** Song “What Do You Do With a General?” Bryan Darcy, Irving Berlin in White Christmas. Director: Michael Curtiz. Performers: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen. Paramount Pictures. 1954.

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A Sideways Look at Life in Lockdown

I feel compelled to begin with something of a disclaimer. I realize the weight of the pandemic that has caused much of the world to grind to a screeching halt and retreat into a science-fiction-like version of society.

I am embarrassed to say that all this, our time in lockdown, has snuck up on me. Like many, I saw it coming on the news and watched with the wariness that one watches weather forecasts of massive amounts of snow, or none, if the cold front moves in exactly the right way; or a hurricane, unless it moves out to sea. (Or some other natural disaster.) We try to prepare, stock up and pray or whatever one does to get ready for an unwanted event. I am often struck by the messages that people write on the plywood they use to board up their windows in preparation for a hurricane. Go ahead and write, tell the weather where to go and what to do, but please do evacuate when that is called for; do not however, expect plywood or painted words to keep you safe.

Picture of a lighting strike at night, dark sky, black water
Photo by Philippe Donn from Pexels

Just so, I thought the news media was fear mongering and maybe they were doing just that. I do not think we need a steady diet of stirred up emotion, “Just the facts ma’am.” Then our Bishop urged us to close our churches for two weeks in March in an effort to “Do no harm” in the face of the growing pandemic. “Do no harm” is not only an important part of the Hippocratic Oath that Doctors take, but an oath that others take as well.

I thought, and perhaps others did as well, “I will do as I am asked, but I can’t wait until we get back to church and we will…celebrate, and have a party, and have a dish to pass dinner, and a hymn sing, and hug each other…” Then schools were closed for two weeks, and then the “Stay at Home” orders came rolling in, like storm clouds moving rapidly from one region to another. Now school was closed (In Pennsylvania) for the remainder of the school year, and our stay at home order was in place for 30 days and there was no going to church. But there could be church. Online.

I have often joked that I am ‘a-technical’, and so when I assumed the appointment to serve two churches in retirement and learned that it would be my job to prepare the power point each week for the smaller of the two churches, I was indeed stressed. I was glad to be serving a church where power point was expected, but in my recent years in ministry, I was able to expect someone else to do it. Someone who considered it a breeze, a snap, a walk in the park, a piece of cake!

picture of a slice of cake, chocolate, thick chocolate or peanut butter icing and blue berry tooping
Photo by Abhinav Goswami from Pexels

Yes, that piece of cake, comfort food with icing. That was what I wanted. I did not know for instance, how to locate lyrics online, copy and paste and make them fit the power point screen. Tasks that more technically minded people take for granted. You may be surprised to know that it takes longer to type hymn lyrics if you sing them when you type them! Trying to hold open a 2″ thick hymnal so you can see to type the words without the weight of the other pages flopping back down takes coordination and determination.

It took a while and even that “copy and paste” thing is not as user friendly as I would like, but it did help me prepare for bigger things. Now, to record a modified service on “You-Tube” and upload, download, reload, I am never quite sure which load it is. Figuring out which computer is the best option, my desk top or lap top, what room in the house has the best connectivity, and then the big shock. While recording on You-Tube is pretty straight forward, other options were more attractive. It took me at least 4 weeks to figure out that as a-technical as I am, I could learn to edit the mistakes out of the video. But that was more easily done in a different format.

Picture of a young woman in front of  a computer, looking like has a headache or is thinking.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The big shock was recording in a different format and then loading it onto You Tube or another option takes H-O-U-R-S. Meanwhile my stress level is increasing and all I can think of is Sugar, give me Sugar. Chocolate Chips, in cookie form or just poured into my hand. Skip the Jack Daniels, you can have a beer. Just give me sweets! Many of my blogging friends who are into healthy eating are probably cringing or at least nodding sympathetically and thinking, “Ah, Michele, this is why we are stressing health eating in lockdown.”

Then came the Sunday, as I was trying to learn the intricasies of getting a recorded service loaded so I could email the link to those who were not on Facebook and did not yet realize that this other different format was still not going to load in the 10 minutes I had allotted. Instead of a 10:30 a.m. service, some of the flock had checked out other online opportunities, while I sheepishly was unable to load my service until 3:30 p.m.

It has been a process made better by two younger, patient, technically savvy colleague/friends who were able to walk me step by step through the process to some success and talk me off the ledge of chocolate chip cookie overload. Did I say I stress eat?

Picture of a half dozen chocolate chip cookies, lots of chips on a board
Photo by Brigitte Tohm from Pexels

This has been a large part of my ministry-life in lockdown. Don’t misunderstand, I am grateful that I have been able to do this and other things to help the churches I serve stay connected and have some meaningful contact with their own church. Let me just add two words: Learning Curve.

I fully understand the seriousness of the situation we have been in and are not out of yet. While I am in a confessional vein though, I confess to savoring the time to simply be home. I was unable to stay put the first few weeks because of impending surgery, physical therapy appointments, pre-op appointments, and the like. So it has only been the last four weeks that I have been able to just savor being at home, except for needed food runs. This has been permission giving, and it helps me look ahead to a time when I will no longer be partly retired and see the possibilities. My husband and I live a quiet, simple life which I relish, when I am smart enough to stay home (ministry is generally not done long distance or only online).

Being at home more, has given me an opportunity to write or to be more intentional and dedicated in writing and reading. While often my “reading’ is actually listening to audio books while I drive to classes, meetings, services and other gatherings, I have been able to hold my Kindle or an actual book in my hands and read it.

Picture of our dog, Sheba, a tall, lean mixed breed, black and tan dog.
Sheba, checking things out

I was going to say something about healthy eating in quarantine, but that “Cat is out of the bag.” I will say, that I am not totally ignoring the advice of blogging friends and have been working at healthier eating, in the hopes that something is better than nothing and while I am not the least bit athletic, our dog Sheba, has to be walked three times a day and that is generally good for a significant amount of steps on my Fitbit.

Sheltering in place at home without going anywhere but the store, has been mostly good. I have not turned into a hermit and there have been a few days when I have been weepy for no apparent reason. Between writing, emails and phone calls I have had lots of social contact, though I miss hugs from friends. I have not accomplished some of the things that I had hoped to do. I haven’t given up on them, just have not gotten to them yet.

Picture of an "oen "ign
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

As of this writing, I have no clue when we will be able to fully re-open churches. I am quite sure no one in my area does either. We want everyone to be safe. I want, for myself and my flock at least, if not our culture in general, to think more deeply about needed changes. Speaking for myself, I have not gotten all the way there yet. I thought I would have a few other projects done by now and I expected to be making loads of homemade bread, but then came shoulder surgery. What am I hoping to gain from what remains of this ‘lock-down time?’

I would like to gain some mastery of the technical tools I need to use in this season, and thereby reduce my stress level and increase my efficiency. I want to laugh more; I want to stay home more (while still earning my keep at church) and I want to bake that bread. Okay, and maybe some chocolate chip-peanut butter-oatmeal cookies too! Perhaps most of all, I hope to reason my way through needed changes before life in lockdown is history and I unconsciously go back to the way things were.

What about you? I would love to hear from you. What has been your biggest learning or gain from this time? Have you been able to use it to your advantage? What do you hope will change, or do you hope everything will change back, as though it had been a bad dream?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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On Friendships

I am thinking about two different themes in this post. How do you, or does one, determine if a person is a friend? And then I also wonder, how do we help our children and young people determine or distinguish about types of friends?

And here is another question, can the category of BFF (Best Friends Forever) be determined in the first months of friendship, or is it something one can determine, only after years of solid history, looking back from the other end of time? Being someone’s BFF can be a lot of pressure.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

The best compliment anyone every gave me as a friend, came many years ago, more years than I want to count. They said that I was very accepting as a friend; that I did not judge them, but accepted them as they were. I liked hearing that, and tried to be that person to the best of my ability. My ability has not always lived up to the ideal described by my friend (what was his name?) so many years ago. See what I mean? I can be very “out of sight, out of mind.”

In addition to that, I procrastinate, and live with the “shoulds.” I should give “so and so a call,” but maybe later. Later, turns into much later until I am embarrassed. As I recently said to a friend of over 40 years, “Well, the phone does work both ways.” I really wish I hadn’t said that. It was immature and even if it is a truth, it does not excuse my failure to call a good friend with whom I have a long term shared history.

Oddly enough, Facebook has helped me to see the need to think about different types of friendly relationships. I think Facebook’s categories are useful, (Friend, Close Friend, Acquaintance and Unfriend), but I also think that is a starting place. To them I would add the following:

FRIENDS FOR A SEASON: I met Gloria in Spanish class at the then, Pensacola Junior College, when I was a lonely and confused Navy wife in Pensacola, Florida. She was also a Navy wife and our husbands were not in Pensacola. She taught me so much, made me laugh and cry. She was Lutheran and I was Catholic and we went to church with each other and bemoaned not being able to take communion in each other’s churches. We spent some real quality time together, but lost touch after I moved way. I am still grateful for her and miss her, but it was a relationship for a season.

Photo by Tobi from Pexels

WORK FRIENDS (Colleagues) I am an itinerant pastor, which means I go where the Bishop sends me for as long as I am sent. It is part of my ordination vows, and something I knew going into the process. I live and serve in a defined geographic area (Central Pennsylvania ~ from the Maryland Line to the New York border). It is not unusual for our moves to create a crisscross pattern, like a team building exercise where a group tosses a ball of yarn back and forth, creating an acrylic web. In the process, I have had some colleagues that fit all of Facebooks’ criteria, but that has also made me think of other criteria as well.

CONFIDANTS That is not a noun I use very often, but, ask yourself this question. Out of all the people you connect with in your life, especially if you are the gregarious, extrovert type of person, how many of them do you trust with your most personal thoughts, experiences, hopes and dreams? As far as I know I have never been burned in this area, but I know people who have been very hurt by a failure to be trustworthy.

I think for many of us at least this is, and probably should be, a very small number, compared to all of the other people who we relate to in various capacities. Twice in twenty years, I responded to a colleague’s question by saying, ‘We do not know each other well enough for you to ask that, or for me to answer.”

I read somewhere that there is a limit to the number of sustainable friendships a person can manage. That makes sense to me. While one can have a lot of acquaintances (should they be forgotten?) close friendships require an investment of time and the development of history. I am not talking about those relationships that are sometimes, truthfully or callously referred to as “high maintenance.”

PROFESSIONAL FRIENDS (Mentors, mentees and others.) Not splitting hairs, but I see this category as a little different than work friends. When I was going through my process toward ordination, I had several very good mentors. At the time we worked together they seemed like friends, and I suppose they were. But our friendship and relationship had time and content boundaries. When that stage was over, and it was a relationship that was assigned by our supervisor (District Superintendent), it was time to move on to the next phase and the next mentor.

Pastors are in a slightly different situation than other professionals, like doctors or counselors. For instance I have had many people say to me in recent years, “You are not just our pastor, you are our friend.” Pastors are, hopefully human, and we are expected to have good boundaries and we are expected to love the people we pastor. We are also expected to move on at the end of our time, and that makes the ‘pastor/friend’ category somewhat challenging.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

FRIENDS YOU LEAVE BEHIND:

Every move that I made as an appointed pastor, I cried the first two weeks in the new place, not because anyone was mean or unkind, but simply grieving the loss of the previous relationships. It was a little bit like housekeeping for the heart, making space in my heart for the new flock, meant setting aside the prior relationships. Not ceasing to love them but ceasing to relate to them for the most part. When I retired, I cried. A lot.

FRIENDS WHO ARE LIKE FAMILY: My brother whom I love, is only six years older than I, but I lived almost half my life in a place he never lived. We have seen each other through the toughest of times. I cherish our relationship. For most of our adult lives we have lived at opposite ends of the country. While that relationship is important to me, I am also very grateful for friends who are like family. Friends I did not grow up with or even know in the first half of my life. But they are a present and ongoing part of my life, work and daily experience. Every time I pray, I give thanks to God for family and friends who nurture and enrich my life.

BLOGGING FRIENDS: A new category! Strictly speaking I have only been blogging since just before Christmas, 2019, although I have been writing for years. I realize that it may seem premature to label the connections I have made with other bloggers as “friendships.” Yet, while these women and men are unknown to me personally, having read their thoughts and experiences and their having read some of my most personal and formational stories, provides an interesting sense of connection. I am grateful for their feedback on my writing and stories. Perhaps because writers need to be readers, and bloggers especially, need to read other bloggers, a new depth and richness has been added to my experience of writing and to my life.

PIVOTING TO AN EXTENSION OF FRIENDSHIP:

Even for all of the categories and types of friendship I have described, I have probably just scratched the surface and that is part of my argument against an early declaration of someone as a BFF. I am not, however, arguing against close friendships; I think that we need them. Further, I think that close, trusted friendships are part of our mental health and are genuinely good for society.

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

I do want to suggest before closing though, that the best qualities of friendship can be part of healing the world. We do not have to be friends with someone in order to treat them with respect, honor and kindness. We do not even have to agree with them politically, religiously or otherwise. When I shop, I try to engage the cashier in a brief conversation, ask about their day and how they are being treated during the busiest seasons. I admit to having favorite cashiers, but I never mistake those relationships for friendships. Just simple humanity. A simple opportunity to help make someone’s day better, because it can affect everything that follows.

CALLED TO KINDNESS: My friend Donna says that she sees herself as “Called to Kindness,” during this Pandemic especially. She says that it is not that she is trying to impose that on others, but it defines her understanding of who she is called to be, especially now. There was a movement a few years back, perhaps more than a few years, encouraging people to practice “Random Acts of Kindness” I think now, we need more than Random Acts, but Intentional and Frequent Acts of Kindness. It can make such a difference and it is not superficial. Kindness won’t cure illness or disease, but it undergirds compassion. It seems to me that kindness and compassion ought to be the middle names of a group of people known as humankind. Kindness fueled by compassion and simple respect can be part of healing the world. I.M.O.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Last Call for Alcohol (Jack, Maggie and Alcohol)

One of my favorite childhood memories, in terms of my dad’s drinking, (yes I know how strange that may sound) was the sense of celebration when he got home. After the opening of the suitcases and the giving of presents was done and supper was started, he would go to the neighbors and invite them to “Stop in and have a drink with us, I just got home.” I remember going with him one time, young enough to be holding his hand and knocking on the same doors I would knock on a few years later to sell Girl Scout Cookies. Somehow it felt special to be part of the invitation crew.

Dad circa 1929

If there was any orientation or any preparation needed for living at the Union Villa, it was simply living at home. There would be people who cursed and used bad language at the bar. Dad was a sailor, check and check. There would be people drinking to excess and being drunk. Dad was a sailor, check and check. It was called ‘Celebrating.” In addition there were all the times I accompanied them making the rounds to the local bars, including the Glen Cove Hotel and the Union Villa and several other bars that are no longer in existence. Check and check again.

One thing that made this all bearable for me, especially after I was a teenager, was that I knew there were people who were mean drunks, I had witnessed it first hand, but not from him. Surprisingly, I never felt unsafe. Mom did all the driving, but she also drank. I marvel now, that there were no accidents (or tickets, as far as I know).

Jack and Maggie did not fight, and I am pretty sure she was never embarrassed by him either. There was one time that still makes me sad to think of it. We were out at a restaurant and there was some kind of local community meeting. They were attending the meeting after dinner, and he had already started to drink with dinner. Maybe he had already started before that. At some point during the meeting he got the microphone, but between the hiccups and slurred speech, it just wasn’t pretty. Somebody said (out loud) “get that microphone away from that drunk.” and Mom, was not embarrassed by him, but for him. I still wince to think about it.

Photo by Chris F from Pexels

I have talked about some of this in an earlier post and said that dad drank when he came home (celebration) and when it was time to leave (the goal of feeling “no pain”) and mom would say of those times that she “poured him” onto the train or plane. It was how they celebrated and how they coped. Yet, neither of them were inclined to sit alone and cry in their beer. Drinking was always a social event.

Dad “celebrated” when I graduated from High School, I was the first person in my immediate family to do so. I did not see him before graduation, but after the ceremony, it was clear he was celebrating. I wasn’t worried about any of my friends noticing, but in the picture that someone had taken of him, he was clearly “three sheets to the wind.”

It is not that I never got upset. I learned at an early age that you cannot reason with someone who has had too much to drink or have an intelligent conversation with them. We played a game of sorts when I was in high school. I was old enough to stay at home when they went out, this was in the winter when the bar was closed. I put two Alka Seltzer packets on my mom’s pillow and three on my dad’s. When they came home, they played along. Mom would say, ‘Michele, I’m drunk, hang up my coat, and Dad would say, “Michele, I’m drunk, hang up my jacket.” I coped too.

Photo courtesy of Lynda Ames

We had drop in company when the bar was closed, and it was often invited. I am pretty sure that the fellows who came to visit knew that the drinks were free, and the conversation, jokes and laughter would flow too. In addition, they were good paying customers during the season the bar was open, as well as people who were considered real family friends. The most frustrating thing that happened during that time was the time that one of the guests got so sloppy drunk that he fell into the Christmas tree, knocking it to the floor, hitting it hard enough that the oranges in the Christmas stocking were smashed. I was not happy, to say the least and while it could have ruined Christmas for me, I loved Christmas too much to give it up that easily.

Several years ago, when my children were 8, 9 and 10, they came home from a family visit with their grandparents and my former husband. One of the kids shocked me by saying, “Daddy said Grandpa Jack was an alcoholic.” It does take a lot to make me angry. I was on the phone fast and I was furious. It may, or may not, surprise you to know that I never even considered that as an option. Maybe it was all the euphemisms. It never occurred to me that all of that drinking was something other than normal. It was normal in our house.

I talked about this with my brother shortly after that, and again a few years later and he suggested, and we concluded that mom and dad were “functional alcoholics” and that seemed to fit. After all, in spite of everything else, they worked hard and dad did not drink during the busy season, and mom did not drink at all, not that I was aware of, when dad was drinking at the bar. In spite of this, I believe that my parents were fairly well respected in the community. They worked hard, they contributed to the community and the local economy. And, they were sociable!

Some might ask why would I tell this particular story, or include it in the collection? For one thing, because this too, was part of life at the Union Villa, life in a barroom in a beach town in the 1960’s. Maybe something in this story will help someone else. I write about my own experience. I cannot speak for anyone else in my family or my father’s or mother’s families either.

I do not write this with any intended disrespect or desire to tarnish my parents’ memory. It was what they did, and not all the time, it was not who they were. I loved my parents and love them still. I am glad, grateful that they were my parents.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I was a light social drinker in my 30’s. My husband still likes to tease me about the time I only had one glass of wine, but I kept refilling it and could not for the life of my touch my nose to my face without using my other hand to help. It was New Year’s and we were at home. Wine, cheese and crackers were our New Year’s tradition, until he became diabetic. I am not inclined to drink alone either, now our New Year’s tradition, when we remember is crackers, cheese and lights out before midnight.

When I was leaving home to assume my first appointment as pastor, my pastor told me that I would hurt my own witness if I drank at weddings, etc. Methodism is a dry denomination, (It’s in something called The Social Principles) although not all United Methodists know that. I haven’t had wine or anything else since, except for a few Anglican Communions in seminary. It is always a little startling if you are expecting grape juice, but get a warm feeling all the way down to your toes.

After I had been a pastor for a few years we were invited to a church family’s Christmas party. We walked in and I saw beer cans seemingly everywhere. Pretty sure I blushed. I thought I had not done a good job of teaching my own flock, but it was lovely of them to invite us and we had a good time and drank diet soda.

I know that alcohol can destroy lives and I don’t take that lightly. I often wondered why no one ever confronted me in my youth because all that alcohol my parents sold paid for much of what we had. For me personally, I think moderation may be more important than abstinence. I am much less comfortable around people who have been drinking than I was as a youth. There have been some special people in my life, both friends and parishioners who have worked very hard at their sobriety and I am proud of them.

Mom and Dad behind the bar at the Union Villa circa 1963

The waitress fishes in her apron pocket, pulls out a quarter and slips it into the coin slot in the juke box. I can almost hear the sound of the quarter as it slides into the coin box. She pushes the buttons, the machine retrieves the record and she sings along with Ray Charles, “I can’t stop loving you, it’s useless to try…” Dad grabs a bar towel, soaks it in the water and cleaning solution, wrings it damp and wipes off the bar in circles. He stops, looks at the remnants of the evening crowd and winks. He grabs the bell pull, gives it a tug and along with the ringing of the bell he cries out, “Last Call for Al-co-hol.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

{Song, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” written by Don Gibson, Produced by Sid Feller, release 1962}

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Birthday Blessings

I am a “Baby Boomer” and recently celebrated a significant birthday. Although I have not been greatly concerned about my age through the years (there are a few exceptions that follow), I admit I have been dreading this particular number. You can say, “It is just a number,” that is what my doctor said. I believed her for a while, but then it got the best of me. You can say, “You are as old as you feel.” But I have had arthritis since my mid-thirties. When I found out at the age of 40 that I needed to have hip surgery because my joint was in bad shape, the surgeon said I had the hip of an 80 year old woman. A friend told me to “give it back.” So, I don’t necessarily want to be as old as I feel somedays.

BIRTHDAYS OF MY YOUTH

My first birthday memory was sitting on the kitchen counter next to my mother, while she decorated my birthday cake. I was probably not more than 4. It had white satiny frosting and she used an aluminum cake decorating tube and used pink and blue frosting. I remember the colors. I would like to say definitely it was a blue border with pink flowers but that would be exaggerating the prowess of my memory.

swirly pink krose decorated birthday cake with three curly red and white candles and a bouquet of flowers
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pexels

We got to choose what we wanted for our birthday dinners, and I realize now, that was a lovely gesture on her part. She certainly did not grow up with birthday celebrations, when her father was wandering around and her mother was hiding from the bill collectors or the gas man.

I have a good friend who was born on July 4th and pretty sure no one ever asked her what she wanted for a birthday dinner, the menu was set by the entire culture, as if it were embedded into the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. In my husband’s family birthdays were an ordinary day, you did not get to choose the menu. My favorite birthday memory comes from the Union Villa. I do not remember if it happened more than once. But I do remember having a few friends over, sitting in the corner both with pizza, soda and birthday cake. Yum! And that was paying customer space.

Typical for her time, my mother did not reveal her age to many people, it was one of those things “a lady did not tell.” Truth be told she may have been sensitive about it, I am not sure. I remember turning around in the car and telling a woman my mom had given a ride to, “My mommy is 26 years old!” and considering mom was 40 when I was born, her passenger must have had a good laugh. A few years later mom started to color her hair, which she did until she was 82. I didn’t know how old my parents were until I was 9 years old. My dad was at sea and he sent a cable to my mom (1959) that said “Celebrating 49 today!”

TURNING 30

I am not sure I have my mother’s senstivity about age, except for two things. When I was approaching my 30th birthday, I did make a really big deal about it. I am sure it involved some whining and complaining on my part. I don’t remember the specifics, but my friends were extravagant, and took me to the National Theater in Washington D.C. to see “A Chorus Line.” I left myself a note on my desk calendar for the next day that said, “You don’t look a day over 29!” I whined and carried on a bit the next year, when I turned 31, and they gave me birthday cards.

picture of a calendar with writing at the bottom.
Photo by Bich Tran from Pexels

MY OWN GOOFY TRADITION

I am not sure how I started this, especially with my protests of not being sensitive or worrisome about my age, previous story excepted. Somewhere along the line, I began to celebrate or honor the day before my birthday as ‘the last day to be x years old’ and hanging on for dear life. It is something I have continued to do. But, not so much this year. This year, I have been distracted by the number. I envisioned myself as hanging on for dear life, not unlike a movie heroine, holding on to the railing of a cellar, while a tornado was passing by, trying valiantly not to get sucked into the whirlwind. And then, I gave up. About 3 months before my birthday I began to think as though it had already come and gone and I was already the dreaded age.

MOM in her 70’s

Mom in her 70’s was and is my hero. She finally started admitting her age, I think she realized that she did not look her age. And, it was a different time culturally; Mom was in her 70’s in the 1980’s. She continued to sew, and branched out in new areas. She made and wore her first slacks ever, making her first pantsuits, making blouses, and coats. She planned and organized parties for a group, covering all of the details and not getting (too) flustered. Location, menu, prizes and more. She did volunteer work and was always willing to pick up groceries for neighbors in need. She still drove to Massachusetts, from Baltimore, to visit friends and made a few trips to Washington State to visit my brother.

Mom,, not at 70! always young at heart.

She learned how to swim and started bowling all in her 70’s. I was a struggling single parent with three young children and she went overboard to help us. So much so, that I would be embarrassed to give details. In addition to all the other things she did to help, one day a week she picked up the kids after school, to help cut down on childcare expense. My kids loved her! And she had a wicked sense of humor. She was not a saint, but definitely pretty special.

One day, after I had remarried, she came to stay with the kids while my husband and I went out to a party. My youngest daughter, a sixth grader at the time, began telling mom jokes (dirty jokes) and mom wrote them down in shorthand. She was doubled over laughing and said she couldn’t wait to get home to share them with her friends!

FINDING THE BLESSING

I try to be a positive person and a grateful one. I try to regularly express gratitude to servers and cashiers, family and my friends. In my prayers I thank God every day for the family and friends who nurture and enrich my life and I try to be very detailed in listing out the many things for which I am grateful. I think it is a good practice. But something happened a few days before my birthday this year, that created a significant shift for me, in almost every way. I realized how fortunate I am because I “get to” be this age. Many people would have loved to have made it this far; there is no given or entitlement when it comes to age. And certainly many people wish their friends and loved ones had made it this far. My father was 60 when he died.

Realizing how fortunate I am, that I get to be this age, helped me shift the focus from my birthday, to my birth. The breath of life was breathed into me, the gift of life was given to me. It may strike some as being semantics, but I do not think so. Birthdays are about celebration, gifts, cards, parties and cakes; for those who are lucky anyway. But it seems to me that birth is about something deeper.

I had been afraid that turning 70 would turn me into something else. Someone old, something less than vital; a caricature of someone who no longer had value. Someone considered “elderly” by my community. Someone to need to have help, and not someone able to help. Someone whose day, maybe even hours are numbered. Perhaps it was even in a sense of reticence that I have gotten to the bottom of this post before admitting, I am 70, now. As of Saturday.

a picture of me, the author with my favorite sweater that says 'One Starry Night"
Photo by Donna Lynne Vaux
Me, about 3 years ago, a favorite picture

EMBRACE EVERY MOMENT

I still know that life is a gift and that tomorrow is not given and that anything can happen in the blink of an eye. I have lost loved ones to cancer and seen my husband through a battle with cancer. But I choose a deeper level of gratitude than I have yet lived. In the many birthday wishes I received from friends on Facebook, in addition to cards and phone calls, one phrase stands out. A friend wrote “Embrace Every Moment,” and I chose to do just that. In gratitude.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Things I Learned at My Mother’s Knee

There are three things I learned from my mother at an early age, Faith, Storytelling and stories, and the joys of shopping. I have written about her influence on my faith in other places, but let me share this memory. As much as I love shopping, and that is the confession at the heart of this post, it was always more than a little boring when she was pouring over dresses. What is a little one to do except go in and out of the dresses on the racks, back and forth, pushing the dresses aside as though they were a thicket of cotton, silk or wool? Or, standing on the base of the dress rack swinging back and forth asking the question, “When are we going to be done?”

picture of clothes on a rack in a store
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

I asked a similar question as a young child in Catholic Mass, in between the prayers in Latin, standing, sitting, kneeling and standing again. I tugged on the skirt of her dress and asked in a hoarse whisper , “When’s it going to be over?” The fact that I am now a Pastor, I regard as evidence of God’s sense of humor. Church is never over!

I loved her stories and could listen to them over and over again. She told stories about her childhood, lining the bottom of shoes with cardboard, because the soles had worn out and there was no money for new shoes. In fact, there was no tradition of throwing out old stuff and buying new because you felt like it. Stories of hiding from the gas man, or the electric man who had come to shut off the utilities, because there was no money to pay. She told me Bible stories and stories of the saints. It always struck me as funny since in the 1950’s and even 1960’s Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible for ourselves, but she had a good grasp of the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) and other Bible stories as well.

My favorite children’s book that she read was “The Pokey Little Puppy,’ it was a large Golden Book. (Written by Janette Sebring Lowery, 1942). The first books she bought for me to read were classics, “Jane Eyre” and others. I also read “Little Women” and “Gone With the Wind,” before I was 11. It didn’t make me an eclectic reader, but even back then, I could appreciate the drama in the narrative.

NEW BEDFORD BOUND

It was about a half hour drive from Onset, to the city of New Bedford, Massaachusetts. Mom’s favorite department stores in New Bedford were The Star Store and Cherry and Webb. (The Star Store, and probably Cherry & Webb too, used pneumatic tubes to send money and receipts back and forth between floors. I still remember the whooshing sound as the tubes were sucked up into the works, as well as the thud when the tube came back with her change and receipt. We also hit the Mill outlets, Arlans and the Fairhaven Mills. It was a pilgrimage. I have two trinkets or three that belonged to her, a vase and some smaller pieces that I am not sure if they came from the Mills or the Mediterranean from one of dad’s trips. I also loved going to Cornwell’s Department Store in Wareham, especially the housewares department.

A good shopping trip also involved lunch, preferably at the Star Store lunch counter, but there were other places as well. A good shopping trip also included one of her friends, Abby or Billie. She would call them in the morning, when she was thinking of shopping and ask, “What’s on your foolish mind?” which turned out to be mom speak for “Want to shop?” I don’t necessarily remember her doing a lot of buying, but mom sewed her own clothes and mine and it may be that she was looking for ideas.

picture of dishes, various types with colorful designs
Photo by Eneida Nieves from Pexels

One of the outcomes of shopping with mom as I got older, was a love of housewares, and especially dishes. Ironstone, bone china, it really did not matter. I took accordion lessons at DeRossi’s Accordion Studio (I was not very good and did not advance far). The Studio was very close to the Star Store, and if we got to New Bedford early enough, we would window shop at the jewelry store near the intersection and look at all the china patterns. I fell in love with Lenox China at a tender age. We never bought dishes, not in those days anyway, but we sure looked. I like housewares and dishes so much that truth be told, I would buy a new set of dishes every two years, if I thought I could get away with it. Time for a new pattern!

Maybe part of the reason I don’t remember the buying as much as the looking is that shopping was all about the hunt, the search for that one special something. For reasons that don’t matter here, I got to spend three and a half months with mom, in my early 20’s, the year after my dad had died. We went to Mass on Sundays and 3 days a week minimum, there would be shopping. Mostly in New Bedford, but sometimes we would go to Braintree to the Mall and I loved that too.

picture of a woman holding a and inspecting a winter coat.
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

THE ART OF SHOPPING

We had set on two simple goals for the three and a half months of shopping, we searched for a soup tureen and a glass pedestal cake plate, both for me, with the understanding that I would know what I liked when I saw it, and there was no real hurry. I am pretty sure the soup tureen was mom’s idea and the pedestal cake plate was mine, but I was all about the hunt. And the companionship. It had been a hard year for both of us and shopping was a lovely diversion and quality time together.

All these years later, I still like to shop. And call me reactionary, but I prefer to shop in person. Admittedly, I buy some things online, mostly books but occasionally clothes that I cannot get any other way. I suppose it is not much different from the days when we ordered things out of a catalog. But I much prefer to make my own choices, to see the actual color, feel the fabric, try the garment on and see how it feels and fits and looks in the mirror.

I realize that shopping with children and youth is a whole other game that can be emotionally and physically draining, especially when it has to be fit in between work, rehearsals, practice, scouts and other pressing events. I have my own memories of the challenges of shopping with an infant and two toddlers, and later, with three middle school youth. There was the time when my young ones took great pleasure in trying to fill my grocery cart with frozen turkeys, faster than I could pull the turkeys out. “Lunch! they said with glee. “More lunch!” they said, grabbing another turkey. Middle school mischief makers!

I try to shop locally, or items that I cannot buy locally, within an hour drive. This has become even more challenging in the last two years as more and more chain stores and mall anchor stores have closed. I know it may sound very superficial, especially considering our current situation and need to wear masks, practice social distancing and get in and out of stores as quickly as possible. But, I still love to shop.

Partly, it is about the lingering, the free time to carefully choose and ponder the purchase. Lingering over a decision to buy is the opposite of caving into high pressure sales and instant gratification. That is one of the things that makes me sad at the moment, no time for lingering and socializing is not considered safe. A few weeks ago I saw a woman whom I know at the store and do not see her often. I wasn’t going to rush up and hug her, but I was clearly happy to see her. However, the expression on her face, as well as her body language seemed to say, “Hi-Bye, Stay where you are do not come any closer.” I understood, but admit to being disappointed to not have a six foot greeting and smile. This was before masks became mandatory.

If shopping is about lingering and careful choices, for me, it is also about the human connection. Several years ago I led a group in a prayer walk at a shopping mall during the Christmas Shopping Season. The point was not to preach, or be preachy, showy or pious. The goal was simply to walk around the mall and in stores, quietly praying for the shoppers and store employees and to ask, when possible and practical, how the clerks were doing, how there day was going and how they were being treated.

Because I want to practice what I preach, it is a tradition that I have brought into my every day life. I don’t expect to have a full blown conversation in the check out line or expect anyone to tell me, a stranger, their life story. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to look the cashier in the eye, ask them how their day is going and during the busiest times of year, sales, holidays, etc. to ask them how they are being treated. Oh humanity! Because I am in the store way too much (eight miles away to the nearest Walmart) it forces me to be aware of the person on the other side of the register and not whisk through the line as they they were not human, or important.

picture of a cashier and a woman at the register
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

One day I was in a check out line and the cashier caught me off guard, she asked me the questions I generally ask the cashiers. I bit my lip just in time. I wanted to say, “Wait! That’s my line.” But I just smiled a grateful smile. It doesn’t take too much effort and it can make a big difference in the life of a busy, hardworking person who often may feel unappreciated and underpaid.

I know that not everyone looks at shopping the way I do. Many people have recently celebrated the shopping plans that Walmart and other stores have introduced, shop online and pick it up at the door, or have your car loaded. It is a genuine blessing that our local grocery store in town has also started making that service available. That would never be my choice, but I have neighbors who have been rejoicing at the time saving factor. Perhaps that shopping program was introduced just in the nick of time for COVID-19.

picture of a woman looking at fruit
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

I admit two things in that regard. I did get a bit anxious about shopping in person, even though we are not in or near the epicenter of the virus and our county has a relatively low number of cases, compared to other parts of our state and other parts of our country and the world. My husband managed to talk me off that particular ledge. When it comes to shopping for food, we both prefer to pick out our own meat, fruit and vegetables. Touch, smell and appearance are important.

My other admission is the fear or concern that this could become an irreversible trend, either shopping online or doing self-check out. I want the personal contact. I want to linger over my choices. Shopping for food or other items is not an area of my life that needs to be streamlined. The more limited my social world becomes as a retiree, the more in-person shopping I will want to do.

picture of mom, myself and my brother.
Big Brother, Mom and Me

It’s my mother’s fault, and of course she is not here to defend herself. She transmitted to me, the thrill of the hunt, the joy of the find, the companionship of the journey and the simple gratitude of human connection.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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On Languages, Accents and Being Home

I am from a small town just southwest of Cape Cod; On our end, the Cape Cod Canal begins in the waters of Buzzards Bay, just outside of Onset Bay. My husband says that people here “talk funny” but that is because I don’t have an accent, not a discernable one anyway. My mother wouldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t let us ‘Pahk our cahs.” For that matter, she insisted on being called “mother” not “mom or mommy.” She did not like nick names. She was from Baltimore, where people generally call everyone “hon” (pronounced ‘hun’ and short for honey) and they go “downey ocean” which means they are going to the ocean, literally ‘down to the ocean’ short cutting the articles and infinitives. Somehow those local shortcuts offended her sense of the English language. But please, don’t stop reading.

Light blue ceremaic mug with small bowl and plate, dark blue outlines and pink flower in the center
Made in Portugal

My grandmother was from Lisbon, Portugal and she spoke wonderful broken English, with a thick Portuguese accent. I loved to hear her talk. I loved my grandmother, I loved the sound of her voice and because of all those things, I learned to love the sound of all languages. She loved the soap operas which she called “her shtories” (that’s not a typo, but an attempt at her dialect) and she would point to a character who was especially bad and say, “Him no good! Him bashta!” Now, I am not sure if that is Portuguese or if it was her mangled English, but it meant that his mother was not married.  My husband though, has a different translation. When I tell him that he is a “bashta” after what I think is some genuine provocation, he turns to me and says, “That is Portuguese for ‘you sweet loveable man.”

I had a lot of opportunities to do overnights with my grandmother and I was enthralled with the slow, definite, way she would do things.  At night she would take the hairpins out of her long, grayish white hair and brush it, probably 100 strokes like many of us were taught. Her furniture was very modest. The couch was a bed with a couch cover and bolster cushions. She had at least one large wicker chair if not both. When I was very little and spent the night, after she tucked me into bed, she would push the wicker chair over to the side of the bed to keep me from falling out.

Picture of my an old woman, a young child holding a baby doll. My grandmother, Mary Perry Marcellino and me.
Grandma Marcellino (Mary Perry Marcellino) and me, circa 1955

I never learned Portuguese and my father who most likely spoke it, never spoke it at home. That worked out in my Aunt Myra’s favor because when I was at Grandma’s and Aunt Myra came over from her house next door and she began to rattle off in Portuguese and they would talk. I never knew what they were saying, although now I am pretty sure that the conversation started with Aunt Myra saying, “Is she here again? Why don’t her parents stay home?”  

I am not sure I can spell my mother’s name the way my grandmother pronounced it, but it was something like “Mahhhhhh ga retttttttttta, you got ‘em cup shugah? ” One of the best accent stories about my grandmother could get me in trouble here; It is the day my grandmother got in trouble with the bus driver. She was taking the bus uptown and wanted to be dropped off at the USO.  But what she said, from the back of the bus was, “Bus drivah, you let ‘me off UASSO?”   She really wasn’t calling him names; it was just how she spoke. And if you are reading this and thinking, that sounds like….you would be correct.

Grandma wasn’t the only one in the family to get in trouble or embarrassment over accents and languages. I recently checked into a unit for vacation and two men were discussing the best location to set the new thermostat. They were rattling away in a language I didn’t recognize, and so I asked them what language they were speaking and where they were from?  Imagine my embarrassment when one of them said, “we were speaking English!” He was polite, I was red faced. He said he was Turkish, and his friend was Albanian. As embarrassed as I was over this little international incident, it also made me wonder why we could come from 3 different backgrounds, have a conversation in which one of us had committed a social guffaw (that of course was me) and walk away peacefully without retaliation?

I can’t say that I have a studied ear for accents but when I hear any accent that is not native to the particular locale we are in, I generally ask “Where are you from?” and it can be a good conversation starter. When my husband and I made our first short trip to Massachusetts, after he ordered breakfast and the waitress walked away, he looked at me and said, “These people talk funny.” I really don’t remember what I said in response, but what I wanted to say was “Shut up and let me listen!” Because that accent sounds like home to me. 

Picture of the Cape Cod Canal, clouds reflected in the water.
The Cape Cod Canal on a Sunny Day in October, 2019

I recently made a phone call from home in Pennsylvania to a local businessman in Wareham to request his services. We talked for a bit about when he could do it, etc. and I wanted to say, “just keep talking.” I just wanted to listen, not so much for the sound of his voice, but to the sound of his accent. But I didn’t want him to think I was flirting, so I concluded the conversation and hung up. 

 Even though my husband says that I do not have that accent and therefore do not ‘talk funny’ he has said for years that when I get tired my “A’s” get a little broad. He says that when I am referring to the Lord, it would be spelled “G-a-w-h-d” and then there is the little matter of the liquid one uses to make tea, coffee and the like. It is probably not strictly a Massachusetts accent but something I picked up from the Philadelphia nuns who taught school at Sacred Heart, near Plymouth. “Wart-er” has crept into my conversation. In one of the churches I served, every time I would say “Wart-er” the youth in one of the families would nudge their parents, as if to say, “she is at it again.”  Indeed, I am. One night last October, I had dinner with 11 of my high school classmates, and to hear them talk! Really, you should hear them talk! It was wonderful, it was music to my ears and heart.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Photo Courtesy of Onset Bay Association
Featured

Life with a Tentative Dog

When we brought Sheba to our house, she had not yet lived in a traditional home. That is, if the hoarding situation she had been rescued from was a home, it was a home filled with stacked dog crates. Then after she was surrendered/rescued she was in the local animal shelter for about two weeks. The staff was kind and gentle and it was a good transition.

She had missed the learning curve on a whole lot of things, relationships and, living in a house, just to name a few. When we took her outside she was scared; she stood still and shook. She did not attempt to sniff anything and did not move. I think, perhaps it was too much wide open space for her, even standing on our simple patio.

We had a crate for her in our room, but because of her background we didn’t want to force her to go there and we let her have the run of the house within reason. It didn’t matter much. She spent most of her time in the dining room. We had a large oval table and put a bed for her under the table near my chair. She spent most of the time there, unless she was eating or “doing her business.”

First night in the living room after being here for 7 weeks

We watch television in the evening and would routinely invite her to come in. She would stand in the doorway and look, and then went back to her bed. We put a dog bed in the living room too, but she wasn’t having any of it. She would allow (that is the right word) Roger to pet her, if he was physically close. If she saw him coming, he would not get the chance to get close.

He loves dogs, he is even more of a dog person than I am, which is probably why our first three dogs gravitated to him, although in theory they were mine. Finally one day, when she wasn’t looking, he got on the floor on the other side of her bed, so she was between my chair and him. He just lay there looking at her. Eventually she reached out her paw to him, very tentatively, and he petted her. Then he pulled back until she did it again. That went on for a while that day and for several days more. I have a picture of this, but as I have said in the previous post about Sheba, dark dog, dark bed, dark house, you can barely see her. But here is a slightly fuzzy picture showing Sheba reaching out to Roger. This was after her being with us for seven weeks.

First Contact

The truth is that Sheba had visited the living room several times before, but not to visit. We started paper training her, thinking that would be the best starting point. At the beginning it seemed like she was getting it and we thought she was about 90% there, when she started having accidents and/or failing to discriminate between the paper and the carpet. We soon had puppy pads on one-third of the living room floor, in addition to pads in the dining room and kitchen.

It was discouraging, to say the least, and a lot of clean up. Most of the traditional things that people suggested did not work “Move the pads closer to the back door, so she knows she needs to go out there.” Did not work. “Walk her around her yard.” Nope, not that either. “Spray part of the yard or use one of those incentive sticks so she gets the scent and understands.” We did, she didn’t. “Give her five minutes in the yard, if she doesn’t go, put her in the crate for thirty minutes, then take her back outside.” She just looked confused. Then, as summer went on, when my husband worked in the yard or in the garage, we would take her outside and she loved it. She would lay on the grass and stay there for hours while he worked. But she would not “go.” It seemed to us that she thought it was holy ground.

I admit, I briefly got jealous of my neighbor, who could take her little dogs out to the yard, tell them “Go pee!” and they did! But jealousy is not an attractive trait and Sheba would not go on command. After several months of this, we figured out that if we walk her, she “does what a good dog does” on her walks. We walk her three times a day and there are occasional accidents, but for the most part, the walks work. She likes long leisurely walks and now she sniffs everything; E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G!

Walking Sheba is an adventure on its on, at least for me. Truthfully, I dreaded having to do it in the cold winter, especially walking on ice and in snow, but we managed. I talk to her when we walk. I try to say encouraging things, praise her when she is good. Some days I say things like, “Come on Sheba, please!” (read that with a whiny voice). When she acts afraid I tell her I will not let anyone hurt her.

One day I did this and a lady I know was walking into the school building. I said, ‘She is not going to hurt you.” She responded by saying, “I am not afraid of her,” to which I said with a laugh, “I was talking to the dog!” Because Sheba is afraid of everyone, the football players that walk near our home on the way to the field, the teachers and staff going into the building, the children in the playground, the neighbor dogs, regardless of size, small dogs, everything and everyone.

She likes to be near me and in small spaces

I have received the largest amount of Sheba’s attention and affection. I have never experienced that before, and it does feel good. But there is a flip side to that that is hard and heartbreaking. Of all the things she is afraid of, it is mostly men, and my spouse ends up paying the price for something he never did. After Fourteen months of having Sheba with us, she consistently leaves the room when he walks in, or moves in the opposite direction.

Often she runs to me when I am here. When I am not, she lets him take her for walks, he can pet her, she will go to him to be petted when I am busy, but I know it hurts. Imagine if you had this experience with a person you lived with, who every day, every time you came into the room walked out. And yet, she gets excited to se him come, rushes to the window when she hears his truck, rushes to the door, then rushes to me. She backs up, but her tail is wagging happily. It is as if she wants to engage and play, but as with humans, the tapes of her negative experiences seem to be the louder voice.

I love this dog and cannot imagine my life without her. I believe she has found a good home with us, but I also believe that every day we live with the long term affects of her previous life, of someone’s thoughtless cruelty and it is frustrating at best. Life with Sheba is a delicate trust and a delicate balance for a tentative dog. She has come a long way, and maybe she has come as far as she is going to come. Sometimes she will shake for no apparent reason, and all we can do is pet her or talk to her. I wanted a dog that needed us and that certainly is her. We get to offer her love, security and the necessities of a dog’s life and I hope it keeps making a difference.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Faith Journeys

When I began my process to explore the possibility of becoming a United Methodist Pastor, I heard many people refer to a “Faith Journey.” “Tell me about your faith journey” the interviewer would say. I do not know if other traditions both Christian and non- Christian use a similar phrase, or if it is particularly Methodist phrasing, but it is one that makes sense to me. Before I tell you why, please don’t stop reading until you read this disclaimer. My faith is as much a part of me and who I am, as my heart is to my body. Yet, I am not writing these stories to convert you to Christianity, or Methodism, any more than I am writing stories about alcohol and bar rooms, to convert you to Alcoholism. They are just stories of my life and humanity that I hope might touch you in some way. Perhaps they are things you can relate to, or better yet, that bring to mind your own stories that have been on the back burner of your life.

picture of hikers on a forest path, tall green trees, moss and other green growth.
Photo by Ben Maxwell on Pixels

When I hear the phrase “Faith Journey,” I think of God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you I will make of you a great nation, and I will less you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So, Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (Genesis 12: 1-4a) I also think of a twisting, winding trail, that darts in and out of thicket, near a lake or river and away from it. In other words, not a smooth, easy journey. What fun would that be?

GROWING UP CATHOLIC

I was raised Roman Catholic, and although I have chosen a different denomination to live out my life and faith practice, it was foundational for me. It was not an easy decision to leave that Church behind, but it was made easier by the fact that I was divorced but wanted to remarry. Some of the things I gained from my Catholic childhood and youth are a love and appreciation for the sacraments. I like liturgy (the formalized process of prayers and ritual in Sunday Church Services). There were three things that especially marked my life as a child growing up Catholic. Two of my mother’s sisters were Catholic nuns, members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. They were teachers and they wore habits, (What the dresses and head pieces were called) broad, starched head covers that were lined with white. (See picture). In addition to my two aunts, there were two cousins who were also nuns, members of different orders (organizations of Catholic sisters) and my mother’s brother was a Priest as well as one of her cousins and one of my cousins.

Black and white picture of my family, circa 1952.
Mom’s family including Uncle Jim (Fr. O’Hara, Sister Hilaire SSND and Sister Lucitta SSND) and others

I am a baby boomer, so I was young when the Catholic Mass was still in Latin, and I remember when the Catholic Church was making the transition to dialogue Masses. We had cards that had the Latin printed on one side and the phonetic phrases printed on the other side, (transliteration), so that the people could respond to the priest’s statements in Latin. We could read them phonetically, even if we didn’t understand what the words meant.

One of the changes in the Catholic Mass that I especially appreciated in the 1960’s was the Folk Mass, the introduction of Guitars and more contemporary songs instead of hymns and by that time the Mass was said in the language of the people.  There were things of course that I did not understand, and things that later in life I came to disagree with, but one thing my background as a Catholic helped me see is that I am a “denominational kind of chick.” What I mean by that is that I value the structure and accountability of denominational life. In addition, I suppose that part of that structure and accountability that is important to me is the inclusion, practice, and understanding of Communion and other sacraments.

BOARDING SCHOOL

It didn’t take my parents long to figure out that perhaps living at the Union Villa 24/7 wasn’t the best environment for a young girl, and so while I was visiting family that summer in Baltimore, mom got me registered for boarding school. I attended Sacred Heart School, in Kingston, Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth, from seventh grade through tenth grade. When you hear the phrase “Boarding School” you might think “Rich girl prep school” but you have to substitute the words “Catholic Boarding School”, in order to get a clearer, more accurate picture.”

There were lots of things I did not like, but one of the big benefits was that it was a life that was book-ended by prayer. Not only did we pray in classes, every Friday we got up early and went to Mass, we went to chapel for rosary after supper before going back to study hall and in the evening after we were ready to bed, we padded our way down the hallway to the choir loft of the chapel for evening prayers in our pajamas, robes and slippers. In addition to all of that, the whole school had Mass in the auditorium the first Friday of every month.

Looking back now I would say it was not so much the specifics of the services and the prayers, as much as it was the sense of a life of prayer that is my “take away.” One other important “take away” came from a visiting priest who told us in a retreat that at some point in our lives the faith we were given by our parents, had to become our own, but not without thinking it through, growing to a mature faith that was accepted as an individual choice, but not forced. Faith is chosen, not inherited.

picture of a rosary, white beads, gold chain light colored wood background.
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

I went to Sacred Heart from September of 1962 until May of 1966. We wore uniforms, black and white saddle shoes, Navy blue knee socks and Navy blue jumpers in 7th and 8th grade. We felt really grown up when we graduated to navy skirts and blazers in high school. Although it didn’t really happen often, I remember at least once when the nuns lined us up in the hallway and measured our hems. Some girls would roll the waistbands of their skirts to make them shorter.

Things like going steady, teasing one’s hair and the wearing of paten leather shoes were not allowed. Going steady could get one thrown off of student council, should the infraction be discovered. And then, there was this rumor that during school dances, the nuns would gather and watch the dance from the mezzanine of the gym and if they saw couples dancing to close, they would point it out to the sister on the gym floor, who would tap the couple and the shoulder and remind them to leave a foot of space between them for the Holy Ghost. “Foot, foot for the Holy Ghost,” we would say to each other and smirk.

LESSONS FROM MY MOTHER

My mother did not get her driver’s license until she was about 43, maybe a little older. All those trips that we left on, to take dad to work in Hoboken, New Jersey, to go on to Baltimore, Maryland to visit with family, were nerve wracking for her. I learned how to be a white knuckled driver from her. Truly! There are some times after a long trip when I wonder why my hands are so sore. my first thought is arthritis, but the reality is “White knuckled driver!” There were times when mom was driving and she would second guess herself, think she had missed an exit or got anxious about something that I would shake my head.

picture of heavy traffic 
on a highway with on and off ramps, city in the background.
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Because of all that nervousness though, she prayed. As we left home, she would pray and as we crossed from one state line to another she would pray. Now, because we were Catholic, the prayers that she prayed were The Our Father (The Lord’s Prayer to us Protestants), the Hail Mary and maybe the Glory Be. But at the end of those prayers she would say, “Thank you dear Jesus for bringing us safely through Rhode Island, please bring us safely through Connecticut.” I have adopted that prayer in my own fashion and love it when I am traveling with a friend, even for a shopping trip, or to a seminar or conference when we begin that journey with prayer.

The other two major faith lessons my mom taught me were in her example. She had open heart surgery at the age of 82 to have a valve replacement. I was able to be with her in her room before they took her to surgery and accompanied her to the outside of the OR. When the attendant stopped her gurney so we could say good bye, she sat up and said, “What can I say but, Lord, Into your hands I commend my Spirit.” (Luke 23:46a). She did not remember saying that, but I have never forgotten that she did. Then two years later, the day before she died, I visited her, she told me to take her birthday flowers, she didn’t need them. She handed me her pocket book, and then most profoundly, handed me her prayer booklet that she used and said, “I don’t even have to pray anymore, I just have to wait.” Life lessons for me, for sure.

picture of a womans wriest with a bracelet with the word Faith encircled.
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

While I claim a love of liturgy, as a Protestant Pastor I also appreciate the potential for informality that exists in worship in my denomination. For instance there are some prayers and traditions that qualify as liturgy, because within a given Sunday Service, there can be some back and forth conversation between the pastor/worship leader and the congregation; laughter, joking and tears are all acceptable interactions. Yet there is an order, or ritual, to the service that includes prayers, readings from the Bible, singing of hymns or choruses, sharing of joys and concerns with the congregation and reading of written prayers but also spontaneous prayers. Because of all of that, the order of worship, with the potential for conversations, laughter, tears and other spontaneous happenings, I self-identify as “semi-liturgical”. I do not want to trade formality for the Spirit. Sometimes people even shake one another’s hands or greet each other with a hug. And the use of reason!

“Reason” maybe one of the reasons that I am United Methodist. Not that Methodists, or even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism invented reason. But Wesley held, and we still teach that there are four main ways we learn about God: Scripture, Tradition (the teachings of the apostles and early Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith), Reason and Experience. The fact that I can apply reason, question, doubt and understanding and question again to the teachings of my faith are priceless to me.

I have posters on every door in the church (including the bathrooms) with the church’s mission statement, and signs on the doors going out of the church that say, “You are Now Entering the Mission Field” The signs I should also put on the doors going into the sanctuary though, would say, “Please do not check your brain at the door.” Being able to question faith, preaching and the Bible are important. It is how we learn. There is a “song” that I “sing” often. I know many people will say that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you do believe. For me personally, that is way too generic. My song is, “It is important to know what you believe, why you believe it and where it came from.”

If you have gotten to the end of this blog post, I hope in some way it has inspired you to give some thought to your own faith journey, the ups and downs, joys and frustrations, the times you have felt near to God or a higher Power and times that God has seemed far away. I hope that it has inspired you to think about what you believe, where it came from and why you believe it. And thanks for sticking with me to the end. Since I first wrote this post, the COVID-19 has become a pandemic, and each of us are trying to find our way through uncharted territory. Can there be a better time to think about what you believe, why you believe and where it comes from? Might this situation we find ourselves in be an invitation to do just that?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Featured

How Will You Use Your Time?

Responding to cultural quarantine in a time of crisis.

I believe that time is a gift. It is a gift that I often waste, breeze through and forget to carefully plan. Sometimes I waste good time by working too much. Other times though, I waste it by spending too much time on social media, or too much time on the phone and then, time is the thing I lose. Perhaps most frustrating of all, I do not always do a good job of anticipating how much time a given task will take. Yet, I have also learned that time is precious. When I was a young person, even a young adult, I would often say, “I can hardly wait until________.” But now, I can wait. While I am tired of being cold, it is still winter in Pennsylvania in mid-March, at least temperature wise, and I do not want to wish my life away by wishing it was another season or time. Time is something I have finally learned to save and to savor.

picture of a yearly planner with a pen
Photo by Plush Design Studio from Pexels

How many sayings about time can you recall? “Time and Tide wait for no man (sic)”, “Time’s a’wasting” I asked that question of my Facebook friends recently and got a lot of responses, many were different from what I expected. Here are a few of their comments: “A day late and a dollar short,” “For such a time as this…” (From the story of Esther in the Bible, Esther 4:14), “time after time,” “How many times do I have to tell you___”, “Third time’s a charm,” and “Long time no see.” Poll your friends, make your own list, and see what you learn.

I had a friend years ago, who had a home made sign on his wall that read, “What is time for?” or, it might have read, “What is it time for?” Either way, it is a worthwhile question. As a pastor, I have a lot of freedom to set my own time schedule (except of course for Sunday mornings or if I had a Saturday evening service). I don’t punch a time clock, can choose my own day off, and while I do periodically report to a team about how I spend my time, there is a lot of freedom given.

Within that freedom though, there are certain expectations. Although denominationally, leaders are trying to be more realistic about time commitments, the average expectation for my 23 years of full-time ministry was 55-65 hours a week. And John Wesley, the founder of Methodism had some interesting things to say about time. Basically, ‘Be on time,’ ‘Do not waste time” and, ‘Spend the exact amount of time needed, but not a minute more; paraphrased, of course.

Every morning, since I have become a pastor, I have one important tradition or ritual. My second favorite ritual is sitting on the edge of my bed, clutching my pillow to my chest, while trying to make myself move. Wait, maybe that is my first favorite ritual. But before that, I have to ask myself these two crucial questions: “What day is it?” and “Where am I supposed to be?” As long as I give myself the right answers, everything is good. But there are times I wake up in a panic, Is it Sunday?

picture of an alarm clock with roman numerals and a bell on top.
Photo by Krivec Ales from Pexels

Please do not put too much energy into analyzing this, but, my recurring nightmare for 23 years has been that I overslept and arrived at church so late, that there were only a few disgusted people left in the building who were on their way out, and I had no reasonable explanation for my behavior! Fortunately that is not an every week dream, but I have lost track of the number of times it has darkened my door in 23 years.

But my chief concern in writing this piece is to ask you, not your favorite expressions about time, but how will you spend the gift of time in these days of chaos, fear and toilet paper purchase power? I say that, not belittling the enormity of the crisis before us, which is indeed worldwide, but attempting to look at the gift of time that is hidden in all of the closings. Please do not yell, or think me thoughtless, I realize that there are huge financial/economic issues tied to those closings. But one important reality is that many of you, like myself, can act as though you are “human-doings” and not “human-beings. ”

Picture of two people at a square table, one has a cell phone in hand.
Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

When those who work come home, those who cannot work are still there, and there are no distractions of meetings, games, events, concerts, dinners out, what will you do with the extra time you have been given? How often have you wished that you had more than 24 hours in your day, wished that you had more time to read, relax, visit, bake, write, build, play, opportunities to do good to those around you? In addition to all the things this crisis has handed us, fear and chaos, to name a few, it has also handed us a temporary gift of time.

In addition, although we have never been here before, we are not the first generation to face such a daunting challenge. We can learn a lot by studying how our grandparents or parents, made it through World War II, The Depression, and other major social disruptions. Many of us have gotten so married to our conveniences, that the basic skills of cooking, canning, gardening, sewing, baking from scratch, using hammer, nails and screws or heavens, “making do” by using things up until they are beyond repair, and an unheard of discipline, of not buying big ticket items until we have the cost saved up. But I think some of us are planning to rekindle those disciplines out of necessity. Not only is the bread aisle empty in our local grocery chain, so is the flour, and yeast!

Picture of a little girl learning to crack an egg into a bowl.
Photo by Elly Fairytale from Pexels

Some families I know are teaching their children such basic skills as a matter of course. But this thing that has happened, this awful virus with unknown potential and forced closings of schools, dining places, churches, non-essential businesses and gathering places, can bring couples and families together; perhaps in new ways. It is somewhat ironic that the tools of social media that have blocked real conversation, can actually be life-lines to connect with family and neighbors in the midst of self-imposed or government imposed quarantine.

This crisis will tell the world and speak volumes about who we are, depending on how we handle the challenge. Can we take care of “our own,” and still be mindful of the needs of our neighbors, the vulnerable among us? Will we be compassionate people or fear driven hoarders? Only time will tell.

I would love to hear from you. How are you handling time in the midst of crisis and social distancing? How are you staying connected to those you love and care about when you are not in the same house? Where have you seen acts of compassion? What opportunities have you had to show compassion?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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INTRODUCING SHEBA

Sheba is our fourth rescue dog in thirty years. When we lost Misty in the Fall of 2019, my husband and I had an unspoken agreement, or assumption, that we would be adopting another rescue dog. There were certainly some concerns, we are not young (sigh!), we are retired, well, partially retired in my case, and I was pretty sure that a puppy was out of the question. We agreed that we were going to look for a senior dog.

We also were going to wait until the first of the year, because we already had planned to go away for a week after Christmas and did not want to bring a new dog into the house, only to have to kennel it before it had been here long enough to get adjusted. And, although many people consider “Christmas” a pastor’s busy time of year, it is actually the entire four week season of Advent and leading up to Christmas Eve that constitutes that “Busy time of year.” I knew that I was going to need to focus.

In the interim, we looked online, especially to check the dogs listed at our local animal rescue center, looking at older dogs. Finally, one January day, we showed up in person, looked through the book of the dogs they had in residence and asked to see Sheba.

Picture of a tall, lean, black and tan dog.
Sheba, checking out the driveway.

If you have been following my blog, your first thought might be, “That is not a beagle!” True. Sheba is a long, lean, black and tan dog of mixed parentage. She weights about 45 pounds, and when she thunders down the stairs in the morning, you would swear it was a horse! Why, when I love beagles so much, did I not get a beagle? My answer, might only make sense to animal lovers. I know that in theory, animals do not have personalities. Wait! If you are an animal lover of any kind you are amazed at the ability of your pet to express any range of emotions: joy, happiness, anger, fear, annoyance, betrayal, stubbornness, to name only a few traits. Scientists, psychologists and any number of specialists can have, well, scientific explanations. Here is mine. I did not want to adopt a dog who might look like Misty, or Sammy, as much as I love beagles and it seemed like the best way to allow our newest family member to assert it’s own “personality” and not be mistaken for Misty or treated like a “Misty II” was to adopt a dog that was totally different, not only in temperament, but also in looks.

There is no mistaking Sheba for Misty. Sheba is younger than we were thinking. Not a puppy, but not a senior either. She was four-and-a-half when we adopted her, she will be six in June. Her story, is not one I have ever put in print, although we have shared it with people verbally. Sheba was one of sixteen dogs surrendered/rescued from an animal hoarding situation. It may have started out well meaning, but all sixteen dogs were kept in crates, stacked up on each other, maybe 2 or 3 crates high and I suspect she was surrounded. Sheba, as big as she is was, was probably in a crate that was on the bottom. It may or may not have been a “puppy mill” but she had recently had puppies within a month of her surrender, but there were no puppies when the dogs were handed over. That is really all that we know about her background.

She had been at the shelter for about 2 weeks, when we arrived to visit. When they brought her into the office to meet us, it was clear that she had made friends with some of the female workers, but Sheba did something I have never seen a dog do. As she came into the office, and saw that there were strangers there (us), she lifted up each paw and held it in the air before putting it down and lifting up the next one, and she shook. Well, she wasn’t a senior dog, but she was definitely a dog that needed us. I could have held out for another dog, but I couldn’t. She was so timid and scared. When we brought her home the next day, my husband wisely suggested that one of us sit in the back seat with her and the other one drive, instead of leaving her back there on her own, cowering, As it turned out, perhaps I should have been the driver. But I was the “back seat with the dog person.” I petted her and talked to her all the way home.

That was fourteen months ago. She has truly come a long way in fourteen months, but we often wonder if she has come as far as she is going to come. Here is a rare picture of Sheba:

picture of a black and an dog getting a bath at a groomer's
Sheba at the dog groomers

What makes this picture of Sheba so rare? It is the only time she let the groomer pick her up and put her in the sink! The next time we went, she took 5 treats out of his hand, but then hid under my chair when he tried to pick her up. Sheba is afraid of ________, fill in the blanks. She is afraid of men, small dogs, children, strangers, men, sudden noises, men, the football players from the nearby school who walk by on the way to the football field. She is afraid of everyone but me. There is a meme/prayer on Facebook that says, “Lord, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” My husband says, that would be impossible, because Sheba seems to think I am perfect. Fortunately, we both know I am not. He is as good to her as can be, and she will take treats from him, allow him to pet her (sometimes), beg him to pet her when I am not giving her enough attention, or if I am not here, or if I have stopped petting her in order to try to accomplish something. But sad to say, when he walks in the room, she runs in the opposite direction. I am far from an expert, yet everything about her affect and behavior seems to shout trauma.

It would not be accurate to say that she is an affectionate dog, but more accurate to say that she soaks up affection, loves to be petted and fussed over. She is funny, needy, stubborn, challenging on many levels, and I cannot imagine life without her. One other thing for now, that you might notice in the top picture. She is a black and tan dog, living in a brown, tan and gold world. Every room in our house is paneled and every room has different paneling: all shades of brown. The carpeting in the living room and in the bedrooms is brown and dark gold. We foolishly (I) picked out a dog bed that is dark brown. It can be difficult to tell her apart from the dog bed, the floors and her indoor surroundings. She blends in.

Picture of a black and tan dog partially hiding under a desk
Sheba half under my desk.

I wish that we knew more about her life, some days I wish any pet could talk and then there are days I am glad she can’t. We just keep offering her love and care and a good home and do our best to be up to the challenges. There is so much more to tell, but that is it for an introduction.

Not holding back the tide.

Michele

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A Slice of Pizza and a Slice of Life: A Union Villa Story

A little over two years ago, when I was in the middle of a December baking frenzy, I went to the local grocery store to replenish my supply of flour, sugar and butter. When I got my change from the cashier, it included a red quarter. She said, “I’ve never seen a red quarter before.” I was a little startled to see one myself, it had been years. I told her I had seen one before and asked if she would like to hear the story? The last time I saw a quarter like this was probably late summer of 1968, although I used to see them on a regular basis. Jack had a roll of quarters that were painted with red nail polish on both sides. They were used to prime the pump, as it were, to encourage customers to also play songs on the juke box. Not unlike bar snacks, it encouraged participation.

picture of several quarters on a desk top including one with red nail polish.
The Red Quarter

It was great for me, because I could ask him for a red quarter, almost whenever I wanted, and he would give me one. It was a bonus to be able to chose my own music, since living there forced me to listen to everyone else’s music. The other benefit was that when the owner of the juke box came to collect the money in the coin box, he not only returned the red quarters to Jack, but he would give me the records that he was changing out. It was a nice way to build my collection of 45’s, and even if it wasn’t all my kind of music, the price was right. I hadn’t thought about red quarters in a long time. You can be sure this one is staying with me.

ALL THAT AND A BAG OF CHIPS

There is a slightly awkward story, that I am going to share with you anyway. It is awkward, somewhat embarrassing and true. There was a potato chip rack at the end of the bar that held small bags of potato chips and other similar items. I remember the vendor coming in, the metal clips that held each bag in place, and no, I did not get leftover potato chips when he came with new ones. I am not sure I ever ate potato chips at the Villa, especially when I could have pasta and pizza any time. But for some reason that I credit with living at the bar, or visiting all those other bars before my parents bought the Union Villa, I love the smell of potato chips, especially when a new bag has just been opened. It is very seldom that a bag of chips comes into this house without my getting to open the bag, and inhale the aroma before the dispensing begins. See, I told you it was somewhat embarrassing, but it is also true.

I don’t know if “décor” is the right word for a bar, most of the decorations were neon lights advertising the selection of local beer. There was a player piano, off to the center and a stage area for the band. There was a brass ship’s bell on the wall behind the bar next to the shelves of whiskey. That, of course, was a slight nod to Jack’s career at sea. In addition, there was a wooden sign above the porch that read, “The Union Villa” and above those words were added the words, “Jack’s Port O’Call.”

Post Card of the Union Villala Hotel circ 1880
The Union Villa in the early days, Courtesy of Angela Dunham

The first winter they replaced the orange and green wooden booths with “new to them” booths and tables that had bought in a restaurant sale. The booths were wooden, brown, highbacked booths with light ivory colored padding. They also bought black metal tables with silver stripes on the side and standard wooden bar chairs with seat backs and seats that Maggie re-covered. To all this, they added light colored paneling in both the bar room and the pool room. If you do not know this, paneling was all the rage in the 1960’s. Mom had just had the living room paneled in our house in Point Independence a year or so before we moved to the Union Villa. As a side note, that paneling salesman must have gotten around because our retirement home is paneled, and I suspect it too, was done in the 1960’s, but that is another story.

Although the quality of the pictures is very poor I want to share these with you. The picture on the left is Jack and Maggie, my dad and mom. She must have come out of the kitchen to have the picture taken and they are clearly, standing behind the bar. At least, it is a close up. These pictures, as old and beat up as they are, are the only ones I have of Jack and Maggie at the bar. The pictures are held together with love and plexiglass and a picture on the other side that I am afraid to move, lest they all fall apart. The picture on the right was taken from the other end of the bar. You can see the old metal cash register on the left, Jack is behind the bar in a plaid flannel shirt. You can also see the faded hand of someone pouring a beer and one of the customer’s smoking a cigar. If memory serves me correctly, it was one of our regular musicians.

Two faded pictures of a man and a a woman standing behind a bar, and in the other picture some of the customers at the bar.
Home

The television in the corner was a very big deal because it was color t.v. That television traveled up to our apartment for the winter, where the three of us could enjoy it. That must have been a big deal to Dad, because he would even watch “Bozo the Clown” because it was in “living color.” That of course, was something he would only do in the apartment. The television traveled back downstairs to the bar by the April 1st opening, so the patrons could watch the game in color or whatever else they were interested in watching. When it wasn’t busy, I could sit at the bar and watch Star Trek Episodes. The original.

Picture of two pislner glasses on a bar
Photo by Matan Segev from Pexels

While it may sound odd for a bar, they did their best to keep it a family place. That is if the noise of the juke box, clinking of glasses when the bottle of beer hits the side of the glass were sounds you might expect on a typical family night out. You would not hear the sound the foam makes as it bubbles up to form a head on the beer. You would hear instead, the shouts and cheers that came from the pool room and the sound of the cue ball breaking up the recently racked billiards. You might have heard the clatter of someone stepping heavily onto the wooden pallet at the bottom of the steps and the sound of the screened swinging doors being pushed open. Jack or one of the regulars at the bar, would call out a greeting to whoever came in, if that could be heard above the laughter that occasionally erupted from “The Dirty Corner” (see Life at the Union Villa). And maybe, if you were lucky, you would hear an old roofer named Lou exclaim, “Merciful heavens” as though he were laughing the words.

I am always interested in learning how or where people learned how to do the things they do, whether it is in earning a living, doing a craft, playing an instrument, installing anything and repairing equipment. It seems that the combination of Jack’s early life as a rabble rouser, a young seaman, a boxer, being an officer on a merchant ship, in charge of crew, placement of cargo and other things, and being a life long social drinker prepared him for the occasional work of being his own bouncer. He would not tolerate lewd behavior, or language, and he had no problem shutting someone off who had too much to drink, or was otherwise out of line. On rare occasions, the local police came to the rescue. While it would be an exaggeration to say that he flew across the bar as needed, he could move pretty quickly around the bar and out front for a fifty-something stocky guy.

Picture of a person's hand  holding a slice of pizza.
Photo by Kenneth Carpina from Pexels

SATURDAY NIGHTS IN THE SUMMER

Saturday nights in the summer were “All hands on deck.” There was one waitress, Jack behind the bar, plus an additional bartender, Maggie in the kitchen, plus one additional cook. For reasons that I can’t quite explain, I played hostess. I spent Saturday afternoons with my hair in curlers and sometime after supper, took the curlers out, brushed out my hair, donned my favorite dress and went downstairs to the bar. I greeted customers and on occasion when it was busy would ask some folks to share a table, if I knew that they knew each other. I could help take pizza orders and just visit with people. No one asked me to do it and there was no expectation that I had to work. Although, pizza boxes, that might have been an expectation that I fold pizza boxes. Even though my parents were way too busy to talk, it was much less lonely downstairs in the crowd than it would have been upstairs in the apartment, watching “Saturday Night at the Movies” on the black and white television alone.

The most difficult thing about Saturday nights was the smoke. With so many people smoking cigarettes, cigars and occasional pipes, the smoke was thick enough to burn one’s eyes. I would end up going into the restroom several times in any given Saturday night, pull some brown paper towels from the rack, soak them in cold water, wring the water out and hold the cold, damp paper towels over my eyes. Then I would go outside for some fresh air, and back into it all over again.

Every night at the bar would end the same way, whether it was a busy, hopping night, or just a slow evening. Around 11:45, Jack would stop wiping down the bar, walk over the where the ship’s bell stood, grab the rope pulley and yank it against the side of the brass bell. After the bell sounded, he would lift his voice above the din, and call out “Last Call for Alcohol!” He called it out as if each word had extra syllables, and while it was not musical, it sounded as though there were a crescendo to it, with a drop off on the last syllable.

When our loved ones have fought the good fight, battled cancer and other demeaning and debilitating diseases, we could not wish them back to suffering. But I tell you, I would love to see those sights and to hear those sounds again. To see Maggie in the kitchen again, decorating a pizza with slices of onion and pepper and other things; to hear the background noises, the conversations, the juke box, the ship’s bell, and Jack once more raising his voice above the din, “Laaaaast Callll for Al-co-hallllll”

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Jack and Maggie in Business

I received some obvious but important advice from a friend two years ago, as I prepared for my fist trip to Onset in almost 25 years: “Expect everything to be different.” Well, yes. of course. In my excitement about the trip, those obvious words were helpful. There were lots of surprises and changes. That was a good thing. Rather than be disappointed by the changes, I met them with a measure of relief.

Picture of woman, boy and little girl in front of a home.
Mom, my brother and me, about 195., before the porch was added to the house.

When my parents officially moved to Onset, around 1944, or a little later, they bought a house in Point Independence. It was a large corner lot on an acre of ground. The driveway went around it in a horseshoe configuration, and there was a dirt road from their property all the way to the beach.

THE COTTAGES: MARCELLINO’S REAL ESTATE

I don’t know whose idea it was to build the cottages, Maggie’s or Jack’s or both, but it was a pretty smart idea. Between the proximity to Onset Beach and the proximity to Otis Air Force Base, they had no problem renting them, either to “summer people” or to young Air Force couples. The cottages were modest, mostly two bedrooms with eat in kitchens, small bathrooms with showers, not tubs, and they were furnished. Jack did much of the outside work, along with a neighbor who was retired Air Force and a local contractor. Maggie did the inside work; she picked out furniture, made curtains and couch covers, laid linoleum, (flooring), cleaned the cottages between residents and handled most or all of the renting duties. She also handled the bills, contacted local contractors as needed and at least on one occasion, crawled under one of the cottages to wrap frozen water pipes.

picture of cottages in the back yard. mom, Aunt Millie, Phillip and myself.
Mom, her sister and my cousin, and myself on t he right. Cottages number 5 & 6 in the back circa 1955?

There were times I know she was afraid: there were times I know she was lonely, but in all times I knew she was competent. I don’t know how she knew how to do most of the things she did. She took the commercial course her one year of high school, that was where she learned typing and shorthand and other office skills. She learned how to sew when she was in fourth grade, and sewed all of her life, until about the last two months before she died. She did not have any special training for running a business, but growing up in the poverty of the early 1900’s, she learned a lot about being careful with money. She and Jack were both young working adults by the time of the 1929 stock market crash. She must have liked making curtains and spreads because it is something she did a lot. Even years later, in her own apartment, she would make curtains and a bed spread to match and changed them two or three times a year.

picture of cottages on maple Street
Taken October 2019, looking left to right, cottage 8, 7, 6 and 5. Compare with the previous picture from 1955. Photo courtesy of Angela Shwom

THE UNION VILLA

Maggie worked hard, and truthfully, some of that came with the territory. She did not get a clothes dryer until 1970! Prior to that, everything had to be hung outside to dry, even at the Union Villa. Ironing clothes and sheets were standard, and most things had to be sprinkled before you could iron them. I still own an iron and an ironing board but only use them when I am desperate. With the fabrics of most of our clothes, and linens, that kind of work is not needed. There was no dishwasher either, not even at The Union Villa. Some of the work she did was just necessity, and some of it was how she coped. I did grow up a little spoiled. When I tried to help with ironing my own clothes she said I was taking that away from her, and she needed to do it. I was about 16 and dad was back out to sea. Now she was lonely in a much bigger house, a five story hotel, and I was still away at boarding school during the week.

Jack worked hard too, but when the bar was closed and they were working on projects in the winter, he would stop working a few hours before her and say, “Come on Maggie, why don’t you knock off?” I was never aware of money growing up. I know that my dad made good money in the Merchant Marine, and we had what we needed, but they reinvested everything back into the business and there was no real luxury. They didn’t go out and buy themselves things, the money they did spend on themselves was mostly on entertainment, dinners out and yes, all those drinks.

When they bought the Union Villa, it was much the same. Maggie, at 52, was on her hands and knees laying linoleum in the hallways of the hotel, and hanging new curtains in the rooms. They spent the winters replacing old furniture in the bar and remodeling. It wasn’t anything extravagant, but it looked nice. Most of all, as much as possible, they did their own work. When the bar was closed for the winter and everything else was cleaned, she took the curtains down from the windows, took them to our apartment and soaked them in the kitchen sink repeatedly, until the water turned from dark grey until it was finally clear, with all the nicotine washed out.

When we returned to Onset in 1994 for my mother’s burial, we had less than 40 hours in town. I did notice that the cottages had been renovated and improved, some had solar panels in the roof. I didn’t have a lot of time to sit and stare. You can drive on the road, but there is no street parking, only private driveways. When we returned in 2018 I had more time to look, and even more time to spend walking around and taking pictures when I was there last fall. In 1994 the Union Villa still looked like I remembered it, but it was mostly empty. The bar was no longer there, but there was a Real Estate office in the corner of the downstairs. When I was home last fall, it was completely different. It was no longer The Union Villa Hotel, Bar and Restaurant, but the U.V. Apartments.

The U.V. Apartments
The U.V. Apartments 2019. There are now 10 apartments that are full time rentals.

WHAT ELSE CHANGED?

In the intervening years, the cottages have been totally renovated in some cases rebuilt from the foundation up. A few of the cottages added a second floor, many have solar panels and decks and most have a second door, which was probably a legal necessity as housing codes were revised. The funniest change I experienced however, was in 1994, when we returned to town for the second part of my mother’s funeral. I had been talking to my husband about the wonderful seafood we used to get from Besse’s Seafood Market, just across the stone bridge. Locals who are old enough remember, you could call up and order fried seafood to go, fish, scallops, clams and more. Or you could go in and order it and watch them prepare it. I still remember watching them toss the seafood in question in the egg wash, and milk, the flour, watching the cooks shake the wire mesh basket up while the flour flew every which way. I remember the smells, the lobster tank, the sizzling sound of the basket going into the deep fryer. Or, if you wished you could buy fresh seafood and cook it at home. I talked about it so much that my mouth was watering. I couldn’t wait to get there. I took my husband and daughter and we pulled up into the parking lot, of … a closed ice cream shop. I think it is a Real Estate office today, but if I am wrong I am sure someone will correct me.

CHANGE IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD

I said in the beginning of this post that I was relieved by the changes I saw. Change is essential to growth. Truthfully, I love what I see in both the cottages and The U.V. because real people live there. The really hard thing, would have been to arrive in Onset and see that the buildings had been abandoned, torn down or otherwise dilapidated. But people, investors, have loved them into new life! I love that! I love the fact that the two “mom and pop” businesses that were the heart of my parents’ work, livelihood and energy, are still that for someone. And I am not saying it is because of them, it is not because of Maggie and Jack. The present incarnation of both of those places is because others have looked at those sites, those buildings and seen new possibilities and invested funds and energy and hope and loved them into a new existence. But because of Jack and Maggie’s vision and work, seeing what those places have become fills me with hope, joy and gratitude.

Sometime soon, I will show my hometown some love, and share with you some of the good things that are available in Onset today. Summer is coming with all kinds of opportunities for family vacations and getaways.

In the meantime though,

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Misty

When we lost our dog Roxanne, in April of 2012, I said I was not getting another dog until I retired. That anticipated retirement date was six years in the future. I lasted a little more than six weeks. I meant what I said, and I was determined, but I was somewhat unaware. I was unaware, or had not realized, what a huge void Roxanne’s death would create in our home. She had been part of our family for 14 years. She was a living presence with traits, traditions and a relationship history with us! So her absence was keenly felt.

A picture of Roxanne laying behind the couch. She is a big, long dog who looks a little bit like a beagle on stilts.
Roxanne

I know that some people have more than one dog at a time and while we had considered it, we never did it. There were reasons, expense mostly, but also each of our dogs has seemed to be like “only children” who wanted all of our attention and did not want to share. Some folks, when they realize their family pet is well into old age and may leave at any time, bring a new pet into the household and we weren’t going to do that. Plus, even though Roxanne was almost 15, we didn’t sense the end coming. So we agreed, and I said it, “No new dogs until I have retired and we are in our own home.” But then…

But then one day a friend and parishioner came to our home with his roto-tiller to till garden space for us and brought his beloved Lucy, a friendly, loving Bassett Hound. They were at our house for a relatively short time, but when they left, and Lucy went with her master, I began to have a deeper sense of what was missing in our home. Puppy love; but more than that, devoted presence, dependent distraction from the cares of life?

Well, we were getting ready to go on vacation, so no decision, no adoption yet. But once again my sweet spouse began to read to me from the classified ads. A shelter near us had a Beagle that needed a home. His name, I think, was Tucker. He read that more than once, and we talked about it a little bit, and said, perhaps, when we got home from vacation, we would visit the shelter and check it out and take a look see at Tucker. Then we went on vacation. I don’t remember the details of where we stayed, or how long we were gone, except that while we were away, we visited two families who are friends, who also had sweet affectionate dogs. Doxie loved hanging at our heels and being petted and was generally sweet. I was in trouble.

Then there was Maggie, my friend Carol’s dog. Maggie was a big dog, a Labradoodle and although she was routinely cautioned away from us and the table, came around and loved to be petted. Perhaps it was me and not the dogs who needed to be warned off. They should have met us, me especially, at the door with signs that said, “Hi Michele, DO NOT PET THE DOG! But they didn’t and I did. When vacation was over, I probably asked more than once, “Well, do you want to go to the shelter to see if they still have Tucker?”

So we went, but Tucker was at the other facility getting some needed medical treatment. But they did have another Beagle. A few actually. They brought Misty out to meet us and I knew I was in trouble. In puppy love. My husband says too, that he knew as soon as Misty pranced into the room, that she would be going home with us.

Picture of a beagle with a harness, sitting on the back seat of my car.
Misty the Wonder Dog

Misty was a popular dog at the shelter and on outings to schools or when school children visited. Everyone loved Misty and loved to feed her. She had acquired a nick-name among the shelter staff: “Porkchop.” She got some exercise and a more regular diet when she got home with us. She loved to be taken for walks and she loved to hunt. Unlike Sam, our first Beagle, she would go diving into the brush, through the woods, on a trail, no matter. Misty had been a hunting dog, part of a pair (a brace) of dogs and been surrendered when her human was getting to a place in life when he could no longer care for her. He kept good records though and that was nice to have, especially since we had no information on Sammy at all.

I did make two mistakes with Misty that cost me, but it was okay. We filled out the paperwork to adopt her, but had to come back the next day, to give them time to check our references. It gave us time to, to get a dog crate, leash, collar and all the things one needs for a new dog. None of that was a mistake. The problem was I had to leave for a conference 45 minutes after we brought Misty home. I was gone four nights and three days, which was plenty of bonding time for her and Roger. When I got home, she was already his, or, truth be told, he was hers. A good friend referred to my husband as “her (Misty’s) Roger.”

To make up for what I missed, when I got home, I let her get on the couch. I wanted to be able to sit with her and pet her. We had not let either of our other two dogs on the furniture. Not that they never found their way there; but they were not invited or given permission. Since I gave Misty permission, she assumed that she owned the couch and was never dissuaded. Did I say that she adored my husband? She would get onto the couch, throw herself up against his side, throw her head back, looking up to him in total adoration. It soon became clear that where Misty was concerned, I was the other woman.

picture of a white bowl with scraps of gingerbread.
Gingerbread house scraps

Despite being the other woman, she was my constant companion in the kitchen, especially during what I lovingly call “The Gingerbread season.” If you are making gingerbread for houses, it plumps when you bake it and you have to trim it while it is hot, or the pieces won’t fit together correctly. She was always willing to get rid of the evidence. She ate her food very fast, vacuumed it out of the dish. That probably came from being one of two dogs and competing for food. The funniest thing she ever did where food was concerned though, was the time I gave her a little bit of leftover chili and rice. I thought it was a treat. She barked at it and would not touch it!

One day, when Roger and I were both sitting on the couch, she came up to me and put her paws on my knees. That’s sweet, I thought, she wants me to pet her! No, that wasn’t it. She used me for a ladder to climb up onto the couch and promptly went over to him, threw herself against in and looked back up at him in adoration. Admittedly, I was gone a lot, meetings, classes, gatherings, etc. and I was working on my Doctor of Ministry Degree which meant two weeks in January in Rochester and two weeks in June for three years. Roger was home.

She did get back at me though. One time Roger was away for a few days and I was working on homework. I had to leave her alone 3 times in one day to tend to different pastoral functions. The first two times she was great. So I didn’t pen her in. She never did like or adapt to the crate. The third time I left her was not the charm. She got a page out of my notebook that I had carefully written notes about my reading, and chewed it a bit but mostly tore it up. But I am stubborn. I taped it together and took it with me to school to prove that even at a post-grad level, my dog ate my homework!

To be fair, I was always greeted warmly enough when I came home and it’s not that she didn’t like me. Sometimes, it really did hurt. In theory she was my dog, in reality he was her master, her hero. One other time she climbed up on the couch on my side of the couch and I thought I was going to get some attention, but no, I was just convenient. She practically ran over to him on the other side of the couch. But I could not have not loved that dog. And for many reasons, but here is one. The picture below is not as clear as I wish it was, but it is important, and worth way more than a thousand words.

picture of a beagle curled up at a man's feet.
Misty the Comforter

In 2015 my husband was diagnosed with cancer and our family doctor told me to prepare myself. It was a rough go round and I know many have gone through that. The treatment made him sick, and almost killed him, the side-effects did the same, and then the treatment for the side-effects was no picnic either. We were fortunate in many ways because he was the first patient in our health system to receive a newly approved cancer drug and he is alive today because of it. But through those rough, weeks and months, Misty was faithful. Never underfoot, always near by and ready to cuddle up with “her Roger.” How could I not love a dog like that?

Picture of eagle curled up on a blanket
Another picture of Misty, curled up at Roger’s feet.

In March of 2019 we learned that Misty had an inoperable tumor in her bladder. We weren’t sure what to do at first, because despite the diagnosis, she seemed pretty normal, ate and drank and played and showed no signs of pain. The vet gave us medication that would help minimize symptoms and we agreed to monitor her. She had six good months that she might not have had, if we had reacted immediately. When it came to her last day, it was pretty clear it was the end of the road. Our vet was very compassionate and we never let a dog cross that rainbow bridge alone. We held each one, cried and mourned.

Why Beagles? I don’t know how to answer that. Many are bred for hunting, but I am not a hunter. I think they are really cute and the dogs we have had, have been great members of the family. I am glad that we were able to give her a home and she gave us laughter and so much more. I blame Lucy, our friend’s Bassett Hound. I blame Doxie and Maggie too. But I guess most of all I blame Lucy, or maybe the right word is credit, for encouraging me especially to visit the shelter and adopt a dog who needed us as much as we needed her.

(Photo credit for featured image at top of page: Photo by Arteim Beliaikin from Pexels)

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Last Day of Vacation

It is my last full day at home, and I have come to the Canal for one last look. I have taken several pictures with my phone, sometimes needing to point, shoot and hope, because the glaring of the sun obliterates any view on my phone screen, and I am no photographer. When I think I have taken as many of these “seeing, yet not seeing” pictures as I should, I tell myself that it is time to go, gas up my car, work my way through my vacation rental gathering and packing anything I won’t need in the morning and prepare for the trip home.

Picture of the Cape Cod Canal taken at the Herring Run Recreation Area, facing the Sagamore Bridge. Clear sky, blue water, green grass
Herring Run Recreation Area Just above the Sagamore Bridge

It is time to be efficient and mature and say good-bye to the Canal and leave, but something catches my eye and it freezes my feet to the ground. So, I return to my car to retrieve my notebook and find a place to sit. The wind seems to swirl the water a bit, but there are no waves. I learned that this is caused by the current and not the wind. They swirling circles are eddies, pulling in the opposite direction of the current. None the less, the water passes, moving east to Sandwich at a fair clip. Yet, the movement of the water is smooth and reflective like glass. The sun shines on the water and it shimmers in places. The current moves the water along, as if to say to the water, “move along, there is nothing to see here.”

There are many eddies of different sizes and I wonder if I would stare at them long enough if a fish will push through the water or if I tried to focus on one eddy, how long I could keep it in view. Occasionally a bird, a Canada Goose maybe, will sweep down across the water as though it were coming in for a landing but not quite touching it, looking for food, I imagine. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it takes off again. By now, the eddies that passed by my spot are probably at the Sagamore Bridge on their way out to sea.

Clouds reflecting in the water of the Cape Cod Canal, stones along the water's edge.
A beautiful clear October Day at the Cape Cod Canal

I want to take a few more pictures or buy them. I want pictures of the Railroad Bridge in Buzzards Bay and the Bourne Bridge and the Sagamore Bridge that cross the canal, taking countless visitors to Cape Cod. The bridges were both built between 1933-1935 and are some of the most familiar landmarks of my childhood. Seeing them for the first time makes me draw in my breath. I want pictures of my childhood homes too, but there is not enough wall space in my home, so I will have to carefully catalog these sights and store them in my heart.

picture of a sail boat on the canal, a square, wooden picnic table and the fence along the park.
My last look before leaving the Canal

Perhaps what I long for most of all is a video of this gracefully moving water that I can play it over-and-over again. There are some wonderful pictures posted on Facebook taken by good photographers with expensive equipment and daring shots. Colorful sunrises and sunsets, and nighttime pictures of the Railroad Bridge. I admire them and am grateful that a friend has shared them with me in my newsfeed. But this is the view right here, the blue glass water, the sun shining on the canal making the water shimmer, the blue sky and white clouds, the gentle breeze and the persistent current.

This is the picture that I want. The sound of the traffic on the road behind me cannot tarnish the feel of the breeze and this sight on my being. Sitting here, I think I understand how Robert Frost might have felt when he wrote “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I do not want to go. But home, family and work beckon; so I grow up, gather my things, including a perfect half of a mussel shell and leave behind a tear.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Water Works

I grew up on Onset, Massachusetts. We did not have a park or a playground in the section of town that I called home, Point Independence. We had something much better: the beach. Onset sticks out into Buzzards Bay, like chubby fingers on a child’s hand, spread out in the Bay so that each finger is surrounded by water on three sides. It is difficult to drive around Onset without catching glimpses of the Bay. My street ends at the water, ending about two feet above the beach sand. In the years since I left home the boat population has soared and what used to be Janes’ Yacht Yard (Now Safe Harbor and Onset Bay Yacht Sales) and the Point Independence Yacht Club have both grown in size. We used the Maple Street drop off as one way to get to the beach, at low tide that is; at high tide the water comes up to the drop off.

Picture of Onset Bay and Point Independence with an Inn
Photo of Point Independence Inn, Photo Courtesy of Onset Bay Association

There is a lane directly down to the beach from our old house and that was always a better choice to get to the beach, otherwise one would have to walk a couple of blocks on the main street to get to a better access point for the beach. Yet, thanks to the finger effect of the shoreline, there is a lot of tourist friendly beach in Onset. The shore was so curvy, that it gave the impression that it had been laid out by a capricious artist, who carved and chiseled the shore, curving this way and that, at whim. The part of Onset Beach that we claimed, west of the Point Independence Yacht Club, was a low frills kind of beach. There were ropes with flotation devices to denote the swimming area, but no life guards or rafts, that I remember. Those were at the main beach in town that attracted the tourists who didn’t rent houses in Point Independence.

Having grown up near the inlet waters of Buzzards Bay and so close to the Cape Cod Canal, I have always had a fascination-fear relationship with water. Most of the bad storms that came our way were nor’easters, and they can be pretty bad. Plus the fact that we always lived close to the beach probably increased the fear factor. In Point Independence, the beach and thus the Bay were about two hundred yards down the lane. When we lived at the Union Villa, we were just across the street from the beach and the pier. For me at least, that proximity to big water made it that much more fearsome.

If you do not live in New England or the Northeast, you can learn more about Nor’easters from the National Weather Service. But let me share a picture. I arrived home in Onset on October 17th, the day after a Nor’easter had gone through the area. Actually, it lasted a little longer than a day. It was sunny but very windy when I blew into town. The water was only a little choppy, but it seemed like more than a typical high tide, and the water was an angry green. I had to take the picture from my car because the wind was strong enough I could not get my door open more than a few inches.

Picture of the beach, the day after a storm. Picture was taken from my car window.
Photo from my car, taken on Onset Pier, October 17, 2019

There were hurricanes that made it up to Massachusetts in the 1950’s (and certainly later too). One memorable Hurricane in the 1950’s lifted up one of the snack bars in town off its moorings (Kenny’s Salt Water Taffy). There were booklets published with pictures of all the local storm damage. As young as I was, I still shiver when I think about the high water mark of those hurricanes. There was a beach front house that had a large privacy wall. It was the last house on the left of our lane at the beach. Walking past that wall and seeing the high water mark that was several feet above my head, in a place that normally the water didn’t even reach at high tide, gave me shivers for sure, as well as a healthy respect for water. Perhaps that is where and how my fascination-fear of water was born.

The dirt lane that went from the edge of our property all the way to beach front served was a good path down to the beach. When I remember those storms, mom is still my hero. She had a knack for making it seem like everything was okay, or trying to make a game out of it, even if she was scared. The wind drove the rain sideways as it pelted our windows. We couldn’t help but wonder if the water would make it all the way up to our home. Mom moved the overstuffed chairs from the living room to the dining room to be closer to the heat and we sat at the table playing parcheesi and rummy and probably even fish. The storm windows were full length windows, with thick wooden frames and they latched over the regular windows somehow, and shook and rattled in the strong gales of the hurricane winds and shook our bones as well.

In June, July and August, the beach was a great place for sounds as well as sights. You could hear the voices from a hundred different conversations going on at once, blended in with the static from transistor radios. The voices of life guards calling through megaphones to kids fooling around on the rafts, were mixed in with the cries of circling seagulls. There were other sounds as well coming from the snack shack, that were noticeable as one stood inline to place an order. You could hear the sizzle of hotdogs or hamburgers frying on the grill, the boiling sound of the oil, as baskets of French fries and onion rings were dunked into them. Then of course, there was the ca-ching, ca-ching of the cash register being rung up, and the occasional sound of coin wrappers being hit on the side of the register to break them open as the coins fell into their holders. Even today when I see a cashier do that, I think of an egg being cracked open and its contents spilled onto a hot griddle or frying pan.

A picture of Onset beach in the summer, with people on the beach, umbrellas, lifeguard stands, etc.
Onset Beach, Courtesy of the Onset Bay Association

Beaches are inviting places, even to the locals and when we went out to play during the summer, it was most often to play at the beach. We went to lay on the hot crystalline white sand, to dig in the water logged sand at low tide and try our hand at sand castles, not unlike the tourists.

We went to swim or wade in the water, dodging seaweed and crabs and the gasoline rainbows left by the motor boats and yachts. We even collected sea shells and carried sand pails. As a rule, the locals didn’t own or carry beach umbrellas, we sold them. We didn’t wear tee shirts that said “Cape Cod Massachusetts,” we were there for the duration. Not that we resented the tourists; that was how many families, including mine, earned a living. But in a sense, the tourists were fair-weather friends. When the warmth was gone, the wealth was too. Maybe that’s why we called them “summer people.”

The Cape Cod Canal on a sunny day, the clouds are reflected in the water, the rocks line the side of the canal.
Cape Cod Canal, October 2019

It was in Onset that I first learned about the musical qualities of water. I remember the woosh-swish sound of the water, rising and falling on the beach, as though the bay were breathing. Although I moved away from there almost fifty years ago, it takes very little effort to recall the sound of the water climbing and falling up the gentle slope of our little beach. It is streams and creeks that are most noticeably musical. If you stand besisde a creek long enough, you can begin to discern the sound of notes and tones as the water rushes over various shapes and sizes of stones, rocks, boulders, sticks and fallen trees. The creek seems to sing as it passes by, the larger the rock, the deeper the tone: it is the music of the earth and sea.

My connection with water is undeniably sentimental and very much rooted in my childhood, but it is so much more. It is a connection with life itself that is both sensual and spiritual. I cannot drive by water without wanting to stop and admire it, whether it is a stream, lake or ocean, man made or natural. I want to know every stream I cross; I want to know the width of the stream, and the quality and depth of the water. I steal looks as I pass by, snatches of observations, to peer into the clear water and see the outline of every rock that lines its path. I don’t name the streams or call them mine, but I notice when they are low, when the huge rocks often covered with speeding water are dry and bleached looking. Sometimes the streams overflow their banks with café-au-lait colored water, moving at a clip that would suggest it was being chased by something much bigger, more fearsome than itself.

Picture of the Cape Cod Canal at the Herring Run Recreation area, just above the Sagamore Bridge.
Herring Run Recreation Area, The Cape Cod Canal, just above the Sagamore Bridge

As a child I learned to ride in the car with one eye on the road and one eye on the canal or bay and that is the way I drive now. One eye on the road ahead, and one eye out for any body of water that does me the kindness of running parallel to the road on which I am traveling. Often, it is the Susquehanna River. Sometimes it is Sugar Creek, Towanda Creek or the Tioga River. I drive with a sense of longing, wanting to stop, to ponder and drink in the view, though I can’t drink the water. When the river and streams are overflowing, muddy and moving fast, that same fascination-fear pulls at me to stop and gaze. But I drive on as though some weight were holding my foot to the gas pedal. Though I seldom stop, I do not drive on without noticing or longing. In Psalm 42:7, the Psalmist wrote. “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” Deep calls to deep, and so it is with me.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Home

As I sit at my computer, I think of some of the sayings or expressions that people have penned about home. I wonder if I will appear to be too trivial, if I mention them, like a middle school student who begins an essay with Webster’s definition of their particular subject. Perhaps no one cares what Miriam Webster defined something as, because there are so many online sources for definitions and descriptions. For myself, as much as I like and use social media, this blog, for instance, my “sort of smart” Android phone, Google and other search engines and my Kindle, I still prefer the heft and feel of my dictionary.

As a student in both college and seminary, I learned to keep my dictionary close enough that I could reach out my arm and get hold of it. This was an act I frequently found necessary, because if one tries to simply go on context one could get derailed. Maybe I needed a dictionary so often because I am not as smart as I think I might am. But the main reason, is that scholars who write text books seem to feel or be driven to show off their vocabularies, throwing multi-syllable words into every paragraph. I would circle those words in my own books to force myself to admit that I wasn’t quite sure what they meant and would be better off looking them up. Why all the bother about dictionaries and definitions? Because when used, they can open doors and windows to meaning that deepen understanding.

picture of a woman sitting on stone steps in front of an old house. A young boy sits next to her and a young girl stands facing her.
Mom, my brother and me circa 1953

But what of home? When I was growing up, I only had two homes in eighteen years, the one on Maple Street, the home of my childhood, and the Union Villa, the home of my youth. In the years since, I have lived in more than eighteen homes, in five states in fifty years. When some people leave home, they never look back. That wasn’t me. It is just that having left home, with the change of circumstances over the years, going back was, well, difficult. I wasn’t raised in a family that did much in the way of cemetery visits, none that I knew of at any rate. So, the first time I visited my grandmother’s grave was on the day my father was buried. Two years after dad died, mom moved back to Baltimore to be close to her family. As a result, the second time I visited my father’s grave (and my hometown) was twenty four years later, when my mother was buried, next to my dad.

Picture of a tomb stone in a cemetary.
Grandma and Grandpa Marcellino

We had less than 40 hours to be in Onset, so it was a quick but sentimental journey and then there was so much to get back to: packing up mom’s apartment and moving everything out, going through pictures and making decisions and then everything got busy. In the months that followed, my youngest daughter graduated from high school, the other two had long flown the nest. We moved from our four bedroom, four story rental to a two bedroom apartment and prepared for my daughter’s move to Florida. A little over two years later, we were packing again and moving to a parsonage, as I had been approved and licensed as a newly appointed United Methodist Student Pastor.

The following eight years, I was an obsessive full-time student, serving three churches (part-time?) and barely lifted my nose from a book except to preach sermons and other pastor-like tasks. Letting anyone know where I was, except the post office, and our immediate family, did not even occur to me. It is not that I never missed home (Onset) or never got home sick (boy did I). I missed my parents, who were gone, I missed the place I loved (Onset) but did not think there were any options for visits.

picture of open books and a note book on a table
Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels

Years later, we were finally able to plan a vacation home. I was excited, to say the least. We planned a few days at Old Sturbridge Village and the rest of the time at home in Onset. That trip had to be cancelled at the last minute due to a health crisis. By the time my husband was released from the hospital there was precious little vacation time for such a trip. We tried again a few years later, I registered for my Fortieth High School reunion but, once again we had to cancel due to health reasons. During all these years, I really did not have any contact with classmates or my father’s family, so it was all about place, but not people.

After cancelling two trips, I told my husband the next time I wasn’t going to plan, we were just going to go. Spontaneously. Ten years past. As I prepared for retirement in the spring of 2018, a life changing invitation came my way, though I didn’t realize how big an impact it would have. I was invited to do a wedding in Maine, that summer. I readily accepted. Not long after accepting, I realized that the location in Maine was just four hours north of Onset. I was going to do the wedding and I was going home. Because I would be retired at the time of the wedding, I assumed we could take an open ended vacation. However, after the details were set, I accepted an appointment to serve two churches part-time. That changed my open ended vacation to once again, only have 2 days to be in town.

The primary image for the Beach Girl Chronicles. Onset beach on a cloud day. sand, seweed and water with an old building to the right.
Onset Beach, September 2018 ~ The Beach Girl Chronicles

We arrived in Onset on a cold, cloudy, sometimes rainy day. I did not care! I drove around and around, stopping, walking on the beach, taking lots of silly pictures of gulls on the beach, on the Onset pier and pictures of home. When my husband and I talked to a friend after our return she asked about our trip. His response, “Well, let’s see. We saw the house where she grew up, we saw the beach. We saw where her grandmother’s house used to be and the Union Villa, and we walked on the beach. We saw the house where she grew up…” I suppose he was bored. It’s okay; but I could not get enough of drinking in views and memories, sights, scents and sounds. A beach on a cloudy day is better than no beach at all, and clouds and drizzle do not prevent the search and rescue of a few sandy seashells.

picture of an old home. it is the same house as in the previous picture with the woman, boy and girl, but 65 years later.
Home from birth until March 1962, when we moved to the Union Villa

I had really thought this trip home would be a once and done. After all, I had no contact with old friends, did not know any of my dad’s family or have contact information for them. This trip was about memory and place, and a slice or two of pizza and at least one seafood dinner. It was a bittersweet trip, because while there were people in town who vaguely remembered the Union Villa when it was a bar, there was no one in town, fifty years later, who could say, “Oh yes, I remember Jack and Maggie.” Bitter. Sweet. But there was this surprising, nudging, nagging thought. Every place we went, every place I set my feet, that thought came as a simple word: “Write!”

And I understood that ‘once and done’ was not going to work. I wanted more; I needed more. So, I began to hope, plan, plot, dream, calculate and wonder if there was a way I could return. I did not expect such a profound pull on my heart, on my whole being to return. I had thought it was all about memory, but I think now it was about something larger. I began to wonder if I had left something behind when I moved away, something more significant than the things one fails to grab and throw into a suitcase before checking out. While I could share simple answers to that soul searching, the truth is that journey continues.

Serendipitously, I found contact information for a high school classmate before leaving town. It turned out that I was two weeks shy of being in town for the Fiftieth Class Reunion. Coming back for the celebration was not an option, but she put me in touch with other classmates and we connected through Facebook. I am grateful for that in more ways than I can say. When I was able to return to Onset for an entire week, to visit, take more pictures of gulls on the beach return again and again to my childhood home, connect with family I didn’t know I had and write, “Write!” I learned some important things. Many other people in the last fifty years have come to rightly claim Onset as their home. Some of them are quite active in supporting their town and helping it be what it is today and they are doing great work. (See http://www.onsetbay.org) I know that in that sense, Onset is only where I am from, it is not where I live. For me, it is home in the past tense. Yet, not.

Light blue ceremaic mug with small bowl and plate, dark blue outlines and pink flower in the center

I know some people who have never wandered far from home, who have at least lived in a discrete small radius from home. This applies to most of my in-laws, except one who left the state for his education and whose work keeps him darting all over the map. But most have stayed close. I know some people who have either bought what they lovingly refer to as the “old homestead,” or who never left it. My brother and I both left early on, both traveled differently but permanently. My children also left the nest behind, each of them in their late teens. My fault, I admit. I raised them on tales of my adventures, leaving home to visit my brother, getting my driver’s license at 19 and getting my first apartment. But I also tried to nurture their dreams and not hold them back with apron strings.

My husband and I have been together longer and lived together longer, than anywhere we have lived in our lives or anyone we have been with, almost thirty-four years. Two years ago, just before my retirement we bought our first home together. Every day I thank God for our home. It is a simple, old house, for a simple old couple and a goofy dog. It too, is home. Thirty four years ago he said to me, “Anywhere I hang my hat is home,” and then later, “Anywhere you are is home.” That is an important, yet humbling reality.

As a pastor, and a pair of parsonage dwellers we lived with a realistic sense that every home was ours to use, part of the benefit package, but not truly ours. Home. But not home, until the Bishop determined otherwise. Three such homes in twenty three years, to hang our hats and be together, not rooted in place, just simply tethered.

Picture of a brown turtle on green grass.
Photo by laura parenti from Pexels

Like a turtle that carries its home on its back, so I have carried home with me, in seashells and beach sand, cranberry scoops and Portuguese Pottery. I have carried them from house to house, state to state and some thing more precious than even those. Some thing that does not require bubble wrap, or shipping charges. Some thing that will not fade or crack like an old photograph and some thing that the heart might not be the right combination of delicacy and strength to hold. These are the things I have carried in my soul. And that begs the question: is home where you live, or something much more?

I am just a vintage chick on a journey of discovery, and I am not, NOT holding back the tide.

Michele Marcellino Somerville

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The Collection

Don’t get nervous! Although I am a pastor, it’s not the Sunday offering that the title refers to, but the pitfalls of being a collector.  Although my most cherished collection is my seashells, I have collected one other thing in recent years; turtles. Not live turtles but carved, ceramic, glass, resin, steel, all kinds of turtles. It started with a simple purchase of a small carved turtle that I named “Spots”.  He was the inspiration for a short story that I wrote over the course of a few lunch periods. I kept him on my desk as I wrote, and as I wrote Spots became more and more real to me.  And, because of the story, I had lots of opportunities to talk about him.

Picture of a turtle with yellow and red  spots on his shell and body
“Spots, my first turtle”

You know what happens when friends, relatives and others find out that you have something “collectible”?  Turtles started showing up. The variety of turtles that I mentioned above doesn’t even begin to describe it. One good friend gave me a turtle lamp for Christmas, the “shell” (carapace) was amber glass and the body was bronze colored metal. It had a “night-light bulb”.  Another friend gifted me with a large colorful, fleece turtle pillow, about two feet by three feet.

Turtles would occasionally show up on the pulpit or even in the offering plate.  I had turtle jewelry, a turtle backscratcher everything but turtle clothes! ( This is not a request for turtle tee shirts!) Two rules I set for my family and friends were, no live turtles and no artifacts or items that were made from real turtle shells.  When my seashell collection was on a respite, I lined the windowsills of my office with my turtles.

Just to be clear, one of those windows was a picture window with two smaller windows on either side, plus a regular sized window on the other wall. So I am talking significant window sill space. Once, a couple came for premarital counseling and the groom said, “look honey, an infestation.” He wasn’t far from the truth. Another friend also gave me a turtle lamp, an exact duplicate to the one I had but what could I say? Thank you, but no thanks? Although Spots was the first turtle in my heart, my second favorite turtles are Sea Turtles so predictably a few sea turtles made their way into my collection. 

Picture of a seat turtle with the sun shining through the wter
Photo by Jeremy Bishop from Pexels

One day, a parishioner very thoughtfully brought me a “new to me” turtle lamp. They were cleaning out a closet at school and she thought about me when she saw it. This one had a pretty blue glass shell, but other than that was just like the other two turtle lamps. It was so thoughtful, but I knew the time had come to do something about my growing collection of turtles. I was running out of display space and we were getting ready to move.  The ladies’ group at church was preparing for their annual rummage sale, so I gathered some donations and discretely placed one of the turtle lamps in the box. Surely someone from the community would buy it, or maybe it would even go home in a box lot kind of situation. Nope, one of my other parishioners, who knew I collected turtles saw it, and bought it for me!

 Over the years I have given a way a few turtles but still had a pretty significant collection. In my quest to declutter and downsize, I put my turtles out in our yard sale last spring and was thrilled when a young couple who love turtles bought them all. They listened very patiently as I told them where each of the turtles had come from (one from Mexico, one from Corning Glass, one was the kind of turtle you hang over the edge of a planter or flowerpot.) Some of them were just pretty, but I do not have the space to display them. All my shelf space is needed for books that I haven’t found the courage to let go. So, the yard sale finished, I came in the house, sat at my desk, moved a few papers and low and behold, there was my blue, bobble-head turtle. I think he was hiding!

A group of different turtles. Spots, Blbble-head, magnet and leather.




Now, this presented a dilemma. I had just enough turtles left to warrant starting a new collection, or, not. Of course it is no question that I am keeping Spots. And my husband made the leather turtle with the googly eyes for me. Can’t give him away either. That does beg a question though, when does a collection become a (mindless) accumulation? Or just as pressing, at what point in your life do you begin to let go of copious possessions so someone else does not have to do it after you are gone? Or, how much stuff do you have to have before you decide to declutter?

Sister Mary Jose Hobday (1929-2009) was a Roman Catholic sister and an elder in a Seneca tribe. According to her obituary she traveled about 75,000 miles each year, giving talks, leading retreats and seminars. She visited my seminary one year and while she imparted a lot of spiritual wisdom to us, it was the tangible, practical simplicity of her life that struck me.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels.com

At the stage in her life when she came to Rochester, she was not living in a convent but in a small home on a reservation. She kept her possessions to a minimum. She told us that she owned 3 skirts and 5 blouses, and that was her wardrobe. It was interchangeable to be sure, and easy to pack for all her travels. In addition, she said that while she always kept a few mementos in her home, anyone who gave her a gift understood that she would keep it for a while, but would eventually pass it on to someone else. That might be one of the most challenging parts of ending collections. When you know someone collects something, it takes the guess work out of gift giving. But when someone gives you a gift and you pass that gift on, what happens if they visit and don’t see it prominently displayed? I know this isn’t an issue for everyone, but it is for some people. Some of you are cringing right now.

When I was a child I had a fairly large collection of international dolls, most of which were not intended to be played with. I had two very large dolls with “big hair” full skirt dresses that could be spread out like a fan. Every time dad came home from a trip he would bring gifts for each of us and I watched with anticipation as he opened his suitcase or other package to see what he would give me. But at the time that one outgrows such things, or maybe later than usual, I gave all of my dolls away to a younger girl whose family frequented the Union Villa: Barbie dolls, the 18 inch tall teenage dolls that my mom had made clothes for, and all the dolls from India, Italy, Greece, Turkey and other ports that dad had brought to me. It was the right decision, but there have been many times over the years I wish I still had them. As with my turtle collection though, a few things fell through the cracks. I have one dancing lady doll, from Turkey I think and two leather camels and those three simple gifts from my dad, someone else will have to deal with, because you have got to draw the line somewhere.

a close up slightly blurry picture of my bow legged one hump 60+ year old camel.
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The Gift

I was never the kind of mother that painstakingly folded her children’s clothes, matched and rolled their socks and lined them in their chest of drawers once they were old enough to do those things for themselves. In fact, I felt a burst of independence when my children were old enough to begin doing their own laundry. They already knew how to cook and at 12, my youngest was solo cooking family dinners. That meant dinner was ready when we got home from work, and I could get her to special events that much sooner.

So, it surprised me shortly before she turned 13, that the sting of being less than needed assaulted my sense of motherhood. Fear of the unknown, parenting and step-parenting five teenagers, gnawed at my bones. I began to feel an emptiness, a nagging void in my life that I was sure could only be filled by a dog, preferably a beagle.

I began to hint outrageously for a dog. You see, I not only wanted to nurture nature, I figured this dog should be a gift too. I had a birthday coming, it would be the perfect gift. I asked, begged and continued to hint with great enthusiasm. From time to time I would read the pet section of the classified ads out loud, while my husband drove us home from work. My husband would interrupt my reading and say, “Gee , honey, I don’t know maybe next year.” But I was an optimist and remained undaunted.

All through supper the night of my birthday, I’d look up from the table hoping to see a beagle, with a bow on its collar, working its way down the hallway to the dinning room. It never happened. After supper, I drew in my breath as Roger took my plate and replaced it with a coffee mug sized box. I pulled off the wrapping paper and tried to conceal my disappointment as I opened the box. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings just because I was disappointed.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

But when I opened the box, I had to choke down anger. Yes, I had been obnoxious in my hinting, but there was a stuffed animal dog in the box; that was cruel! If he was trying to be funny, he sure had missed. I lifted the dog out of the box, about to protest, when my eye caught sight of a piece of paper in the bottom of the box. Training paper I thought wryly, as I lifted it out of the box. But then my eyes saw these words, “This coupon entitles the bearer, Anne Michele Somerville, to the dog of her choice from Animal Rescue, signed Roger Somerville.” Tears rolled down my face. The kids came in the dining room and asked Roger was I was crying, but I couldn’t say a word.

The following Saturday we visited Animal Rescue and I did indeed find a beagle, a three year old named Sammy. He was a sweet and funny dog. We didn’t have any information about his past but he fit in just fine. It took him awhile to get us trained properly. Like many dogs, he was afraid of thunder storms. When the thunder started roaring, Sammy started shaking. He would look for the smallest possible places to squeeze himself into, including places he couldn’t get himself out of, like getting stuck under the china closet. More than once in our apartment, he crawled through the opening under an end table and squeezed himself behind the couch.

He was not afraid of heights though, once when we were gone he let himself into the parlor, pushing through the swinging door, climbed onto the recliner, to the top of the recliner and grabbed the peanut butter cheese crackers from the top of the book shelf and had himself a feast. His bag of peanut butter dog treats was open on the floor by the book case, but they were untouched. When we got home later that day we found the evidence, a few empty wrappers, on the landing of the steps, his favorite perch.

Sammy had what I considered an amazing sensitivity, in this respect. My mother would visit from Baltimore and had to bring her oxygen tank, which was not very portable back in those days. My family had had a dog in the 1950’s, but she was long past being used to being around a dog. She was fighting leukemia and she didn’t let her oxygen tank keep her down. But Sammy, instinctively I think, did not get under her feet as she walked, did not jump up on her, although he let her pet him and thankfully did not chew or step on or do anything to her oxygen tubing. As wonderful as our other dogs have been, I don’t think they would have had Sammy’s sensitivity. In truth, Sammy was pretty laid back and we used to joke that he was a California beagle.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

After the youngest graduated from high school and we moved from our house to a two bedroom apartment we decided to get a crate for Sammy. There were no teenagers living at home to look out for him while we were still at work and felt he needed to be more contained during the day. At this point we had had Sammy for five years, which made him about eight years old. In two weeks or less, he was not only used to the crate, he would go in there for a place to relax without being asked.

Sammy also traveled very well. A little over two years after moving into the apartment I was approved and appointed to serve three United Methodist Churches in North Central Pennsylvania. Sammy comfortably road on the front seat or the floor of the front seat of my car for the four hour drive. We moved in, to what turned out to be Sammy’s last home. I wanted a dog to fill an empty and aching spot in my heart and we found just the right dog and hopefully, he got just the right family.

When I say nice things about my husband, he teases me about tarnishing his carefully built reputation, but he was so right to point me in the direction of a rescue site. If you have a home full of love and room in your heart, I hope you will do the same. I am glad that we didn’t get a puppy from a pet store, but got a slightly older dog who needed to be part of a family.

I learned something from Sammy that I am only now beginning to understand. When we got Sam, I foolishly told my husband that I didn’t think dogs understood English. Actually they learn at least the basics of whatever language their family speaks. They can also tell time, well they think they can, especially when it is time to eat, or time for a snack. I wanted a dog to love and care for, but I had no idea that Sammy would begin the tradition of carving out his own space and become not just a pet, but a part of the family. I didn’t know when a pet died that it hurt in many ways as if it had been a family member; because that is exactly what Sammy was, family. He truly was the best gift.

Sammy was the first of four rescue dogs that have carved out space in our hearts and home in thirty-one years. And we have been the better for it!

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Jack, Maggie and The Union Villa

It Wasn’t a Sand Bar

When I say that I grew up in a bar, it is a slight exaggeration; but, not in the way you might think. My parents bought the Union Villa Hotel, Bar and Restaurant in December 1961, just after it closed for the season. In mid-March 1962 we moved to an apartment on the first floor of the hotel above the bar. We lived in that apartment until they sold the business in November of 1969. Dad tended the bar and mom ran the kitchen, making pizza, subs (grinders), spaghetti and meatballs and stuffed quahogs. (Pronounced Co-hogs). If I wanted to spend time with my parents, it had to be in the bar, so yes, I really did grow up in a bar, but it wasn’t just The Union Villa.

Long before they bought the Union Villa, my parents were avid social drinkers and it was one of the main social activities when my dad was arriving home from sea (Celebration), spending time in the community (everyday life) or getting ready to go back to sea (saying goodbye). When I was very young I obviously did not go along on those outings, but stayed with my grandmother, but as I got to be 6 or 7, some of my earliest memories are sitting in a booth in any given barroom, coloring, reading, playing with paper dolls, or for a brief time, trying to learn how to knit, while my parents sat at the bar visiting and drinking. They made the rounds and so did I. I could recite or sing most of the current beer commercials before I was 10. 

Most of the bars no longer exist, although I remember where they were. There were three bars in Onset that were part of their regular stops, The Union Villa, The Glen Cove Hotel, which has been renovated and reopened. https://glencoveonsetbeach.com/ and Henderson’s Bar. I liked Henderson’s Bar too because it was right next to Lowell’s Drug Store and I could sometimes get permission to go there and get an ice cream cone to take back with me to Henderson’s. I watched in fascination as Mrs. Lowell turned the cone upside down and dipped it in chocolate jimmies, wondering how the ice cream managed to not fall in or off.

There was Nickerson’s on Route 28 , right next to the White Rabbit Restaurant (I think that is a gas station now) and the China Maid Restaurant and Bar, and a bar in Middleboro, a neighboring town. I think it was the Fireside Inn. I liked that place because they had vending machines in every booth, where it was possible to get a hand full of pistachio nuts for a nickel.  The China Maid had table side juke boxes where you could turn the pages and play 3 songs for a quarter. I have more memories of being in the Restaurant at the China Maid than in the bar. Imagine, not all bars welcomed children!  Dad was an Elk too, so a trip to the Elks was often, but not always, part of the regular circuit. When we went to the Elks, I had to sit in the lobby and was not allowed in the bar at all. While they didn’t always hit every stop on the circuit, it was seldom one stop and then home.

Mom was excited. She sent this postcard to her sister.
Picture postcard of The Union Villa and the back of the post card with a note in my mom's handwriting.
The union Villa Postcard @ 1945

At some point in the late 1950’s all this bar hopping turned into research and “what if” conversations about buying a bar. They certainly had a lot of experience as customers, and a good supply of experienced bar owners who were willing to share their knowledge.  I know they had conversations back and forth about which one of the bars they frequented might be available for purchase, but by 1961 had settled on The Union Villa. I have vague memories of mom spending time with the previous owner to learn how she made the pizzas, learning how to make the dough and sauce.  This purchase was a dream for them because this was the business venture that allowed dad to retire from sea and be home all the time.

Picutre of my first home, a two story frame house, with a car parked near it, picture taken from my car window in 2019
My first home, as it looks in 2020

There were many times when the party came home. When we lived at the house in Point Independence, it was not unusual for dad to invite neighbors to stop in and have a drink, or two or three, and celebrate with him because he was home. After we had moved to the bar, there were some friends and customers who visited our apartment in the winter when the bar was closed. They knew they would get free beer in the off season and during the season that the bar was open, they were regular paying customers.

It may have been more of a semi-retirement, the first three years Jack and Maggie spent the off-season making improvements, getting rid of the old orange and green wooden booths, and putting in newer black and silver tables and booths, getting rid of antiquated equipment.  I was especially glad about that. The apartment only had one bedroom so the first year I slept in the living room. I could hear that old beer cooler that was directly under where I slept, it was noisy. There were times I wondered if it was going to explode.  They spent the off season working downstairs, making improvements during their first three years of ownership. They extended the bar by a few feet, creating a more private entrance from the bar into the kitchen. They paneled the barroom and pool room; paneling was all the rage in the 1960’s, and finished updates on the kitchen equipment. After that work was complete, dad returned to sea during the off seasons when when the bar was closed.

They were 51 when they bought the bar and  it was tiring work on their feet, for long hours; but they were together, and that made all the difference.  The night they opened the bar however, my mother ended up in the hospital for emergency surgery. Dad tended bar, there was nothing else he could do. I sat on a bench directly in front of the bar, but on the floor where dad could work and make sure I was alright. And yes, I was scared. I was 11 years old and it was noisy, and my mom wasn’t there. All this took place in April of 6th grade. It did not take very long for my parents to decide that maybe it would be better to send me to Catholic Boarding School, than have me be around the bar all the time. So that September, I went to Sacred Heart School in Kingston, from seventh grade to tenth grade; but I was always home on weekends and the summer, the busiest times in the bar.

Brick path through a park that overlooks the Onset Pier
This park over looks the beach and is directly across the street from the U.V.

The second year we were there, they made a doorway between our bathroom and the hotel room that had served as a linen closet, and that became my bedroom. Although it was the linen closet for the hotel, it was a full bedroom. At least my bed was no longer directly over antiquated equipment but my bedroom in general, was located above the juke box. Do you know what often happened when people were drinking a lot and were unhappy? They fed the juke box with quarters and played the same song over, and over again. Please don’t think less of me when I say, that is how I learned to dislike country music and some singers.  I will not tell you the unkind things I thought and said about Johnny Cash when I was 14, but today in 2020, I love the sound of his voice.

Close up picture of a juke box
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

I am not saying any of this for shock value or pity, it was just where and how I grew up. I was fortunate to have two parents who loved each other and worked together very well. Admittedly, there were drawbacks; our apartment was directly over the bar, the pool room and the kitchen. When it was time to say goodnight to my parents, they couldn’t just stop work to walk me “home.” I said goodnight to my mom in the kitchen and slipped behind the bar, just long enough to give my dad a kiss on the cheek, then walked upstairs by myself to the first floor of the hotel and let myself into our apartment. Sometimes that felt scary. There was a measure of freedom in that, however; I would sometimes read with a flashlight after my bedtime or stay up late watching television. One of them always came upstairs to check up me, but they didn’t come upstairs together to stay until the bar was closed and everything was cleaned up, which was close to 1:00 a.m. As a result, I watched the Tonight Show a lot when I was 12.

One of the biggest drawbacks for me, was being around so many people who had too much to drink. You cannot reason with a person who is drunk. You can’t always understand slurred words or slurred intentions.  All these years later, I still remember what stale beer and cigarettes smelled like. I think that I had a lot more patience and understanding being around so many people that were drinking or had too much to drink when I was 15, than I might now. 

Picture of a pepperoni pizza in a box with other boxes on a table.
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

In many ways I was limited in how helpful I could be, but I spent a lot of time folding pizza boxes, cutting 40-pound blocks of cheese and running it through the grinder and occasionally helping to make pizza dough. When it wasn’t busy, I could make pizzas. I could empty ash trays and liked helping people find places to sit when it was busy, but because I was under 21, way under 21, I could not touch a beer bottle or empty drink class.  It was alright though, my parents had to work, and if I wanted to spend time with them, I had to do it there, downstairs. I never felt forced, however; but making myself useful was the best opportunity to have their company.

There were no family dinners. Mom would cook as good a meal as she could so that we didn’t live on pizza and spaghetti, but cooking a meal was one thing, eating together was impossible, so we ate in shifts, myself included. We did go to a local restaurant for breakfast together every morning before the bar opened. Mom had tried cooking breakfast that we could sit and eat together, but invariably a customer would lean over the booth where we were sitting and say, “Gee, Maggie, that looks good. Can you make one for me?”

There were no cell phones and we did not have any phone extensions so if my mom wanted my attention or wanted me to come downstairs for any reason she left the kitchen, went into the pool room, grabbed a pool stick, and you guessed it, she knocked three times on the ceiling if she wanted me. Long before the song made famous by Tony Orlando and Dawn. (“Knock Three Times” as written by Larry Russell Brown Larry Brown Lyrics © BMG Rights Management, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Spirit Music Group).

 It was a different way to grow up, but for better or worse it was home. My parents worked hard, and their work provided a good living. Even more than that, it gave them the best opportunity to be together nine months of the year for those seven years. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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Proof of Life

No, it’s not what you might think. Perhaps I should have written”proof of having lived.” Except for two years in a two-bedroom apartment, my husband and I are living in the smallest home we have ever occupied in our thirty-three years of marriage. I love our home, and truth be told I still have a lot of things that I am attached to emotionally. I have a college degree plus two post graduate degrees, which means I have a lot of books. Many of my books are professional in nature; far more non-fiction than fiction. In addition to all the books that are left, I have a kindle with about 100 books on it, give or take and a library card. Okay, two library cards.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

Books are still the hardest for me to get rid of, even if they are not emotional attachments. I serve two churches in retirement, so I have held onto all my preaching resources.  In addition to writing this blog, I write monologues and other stories for use in Biblical Storytelling, so any academic resource about women’s lives in biblical times is still on my shelves.  When I retired and we bought our own home I had to leave behind the wonderful built in, wall to wall, bookcases that were part of every parsonage we occupied. My office in our retirement home is 8’ by 8’ and contains a computer desk, an old oak teacher’s desk and three bookcases that are only a little over 2 feet wide. They do not hold nearly as many books as any parsonage I have ever inhabited. I have given away books to friends and colleagues, I have culled my books and donated some that might be useful to the local library and done so several times. Everything in me abhors the thought of throwing books away.

Sometimes I have given books away, only to wish I still had them. After carrying my high school year book with me for fifty years with no contact with any of my classmates, I grit my teeth and threw it out, just before our retirement move. Five months later, in October of 2018, I reconnected with a few former classmates and in October of 2019 sat down to dinner in a restaurant with 10 of them. No yearbook.  In another case I had a book on my shelves that was written by a local colleague many years ago. I bought it because he had written it, and it might be useful in a different context but never read it. It too went into a give-away pile. It was a smart move. Yet, ironically shortly after doing so, I was appointed to serve the very church he had written about!

I once knew a woman who lived in a camper and the rule of thumb she and her husband practiced was if something new came into the home something else had to go; blouse for blouse, book for book. Stockpiling anything was not allowed.  Now, near the end of my first year of retirement and my first year living in our own home I am working intentionally to make my possessions fit our space and not the other way around. I don’t want to feel boxed in by stuff, or by boxes containing stuff. I don’t want to add more furniture to hold the stuff that won’t fit anywhere else. But combing through my possessions, whether it is clothes, books, knickknacks, gifts or even paper files it is just not easy.  And let’s not even get started about family pictures.

Photo by Liinnea Hansen from Pexels

When it comes to keeping or eliminating possessions, being an itinerant pastor has been an advantage. We move when and where the Bishop sends us, by agreement. It is so easy to accumulate additional possessions without realizing it, they generally just fit into places, or storage boxes, or closets and we hardly notice, until it is time to pack. So, with each move we have made since we were married, we have, without any argument, held yard sales. In our first big move we sent two loads to a local auction house and held two yard sales. In addition to the sales, we have donated to local thrift stores and gotten rid of anything that was broken beyond repair. The most difficult time we had was during our first pastoral move when after the moving truck had left and we loaded everything we could fit into our two vehicles, we resorted to leaving the things that would not fit on the curb or in the trash. (We still haven’t replaced that Hibachi Grill).

Photo by Mister Mister from Pexels

Make no mistake, this is not easy physical or emotional work. Many of us are so prone to hang onto things we might one day use. That beautiful dress I haven’t been able to fit into for 15 years might still be in style when I lose the weight that I have gained. Or, that table you might get around to fixing, the chest you might one day refinish…you get the idea.

Parting with clothes is another obstacle to downsizing. A few years ago, at the beginning of Lent I grabbed on to the popular “give 40 things away” trend and used that for my Ash Wednesday service. We even rolled up black trash bags and tied them with red ribbons to give out along with the imposition of ashes.  Because I try to practice what I preach, I attacked my own closet with robust determination. Have you ever had to put your hands together as in prayer, and use those hands to forcibly push coat hangers and their clothes apart so you can pull something out to wear? I did, but I don’t anymore. I kept at it and until I could see the clothes that were in my closet and not have to pry clothes and hangers apart with superhuman strength, just to get dressed.

Not perfect, but greatly improved

Now, I am no “clothes horse”, so this is relatively easy, but not totally. On my days off I tend to live in jeans and tees or sweaters, depending on the season. My wardrobe for Sunday worship is likewise simple, black dress slacks, colorful polo shirts with the names of the churches and denominational seal embroidered on the shirt. That might not work in every church setting, but I am a retired pastor serving rural churches.  In my current setting, our retirement home, I am resolved to keep only those clothes that will fit into my dresser, my closet and one tote of off-season clothes.  In addition, I have a few items that pass for professional dress as needed for funerals, weddings and other official things. Despite all this, I really do like to clothes shop, but I try to be careful that if I bring something new into the closet, something else must go.

The most difficult possessions I have ever parted with had lived in my china closet. I had carefully collected, a simple set of Lenox China, a service for eight. It was the most inexpensive pattern, the silver band on the rim of the plate and I bought them one place setting at a time after my youngest child was born.   But we hit some very lean times when our children were teenagers and I came to the difficult conclusion that one cannot eat sentiment. So, they were sold in a yard sale.

 Then there was a lovely, heavy cut glass punch bowl that my mother had given me, bought for me. I used it a few times and loved it. But as we prepared to move from our four-bedroom four story rental to a two-bedroom apartment, I grit my teeth and let it go in a sale. It still makes me sad because it was a gift from mom. But in truth, I cannot think of one time in the last twenty-five years when I might have used it. It would have stayed in the bottom of a china closet collecting dust.

When my mother died, we were certainly left with some difficult tasks, funeral details, cleaning out her apartment and disposing of her things but she had done much of the emotional work for herself.  In the weeks leading up to her final health crisis, she began going through her china closet and deciding who she wanted to have the things that were there. She went a step beyond carefully packing them and mailing them or preparing them for the mail. She also did one final read of all my father’s letters to her and destroyed them. I had read many of them as a teenager and I admit I was disappointed not to find them. But I appreciate the fact that they were her personal possession and her right to do with them what she wanted.

My husband is a wise man and he is the one responsible for my current train of thought. He began getting rid of cards and other sentimental things. At first, I was hurt, but then I realized the wisdom in doing that.  But that wisdom also begets this question: When I finish getting rid of all the things, I should get rid of, will there be any proof that I have lived, that I have passed this way? And If I want to leave some kind of “’proof of life” behind, what should it be? I am not trying to be morbid, and as far as I know, I am not currently actively dying. But these are decisions that I should be making for myself and not leaving to my spouse or children or strangers.

Light blue ceremaic mug with small bowl and plate, dark blue outlines and pink flower in the center
Made in Portugal

The work of downsizing or decluttering can be so hard. I have had modest success but am sure that I will never be a minimalist. These are a few secrets to the modest success that I have had:

First, a determination to ruthlessly evaluate every possession. Second, a determination to not be surrounded by boxes filled with stuff. Third, a determination to practice what I preach. Fourth, gritting my teeth and just doing what needed to be done. Fifth, I agree with organizational experts who insist that the way to declutter is not shiny, new closet organizational structures. The way to declutter is to ruthlessly eliminate things you no longer need, want or use so that others might be able to use them. Sixth, I have tried to adopt a mindset that says if I have enjoyed something for thirty years (pictures, mementos of all varieties) it is time to let someone else have the pleasure.

So, what about you, dear reader? Do you have suggestions or advice that you would add to this list?  There is no danger that I am going to pick everything up that I own or ever touched and throw it into a dumpster. I am carefully combing through books, papers, trinkets, etc. and giving them away, or taking them to the neighborhood thrift shop or trying valiantly to find a home for them. I have a long way to go but I am trying to do the intelligent, emotional work of limiting my possessions and being careful about the choices. But I also don’t want to lose myself in the process. If my son or daughter were to come into my home after I am gone and see the things I have chosen to leave behind, I hope they would say, “That is so mom!” 

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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All My Relations

When I was a little girl, my mother taught me this bedtime prayer, “God bless mommy and daddy, Steve and me and all my relations. Please let daddy have a safe journey…” I do not remember how the prayer ended, or if it simply ended there with an “Ah-men.”  We always prayed for dad to have a “safe journey” because he was in the Merchant Marine, and at sea more than at home. And because when storms came, it was not unusual for people to pray for them to go out to sea. I haven’t thought about “…all my relations” for a long time. Both of my parents were from large families. We lived near some of my dad’s family in Massachusetts, but we saw much more of my mother’s side of the family and most of them were in Baltimore. Although I occasionally saw Marcellino cousins, it was my O’Hara aunts, uncles and cousins that I knew best and saw most often.

Two children and two women in the foreground of some beach cottages
Cousin Phil, Mom’s sister Millie, Mom and me

After both of my parents had passed away and I had moved on and out-of-state, I frequently commented that “I wouldn’t know any of my cousins if I fell over them.” And I also said that while I thought my father was very loving, I thought his family were a bunch of cold fish. I had my reasons. (Sorry cousins!)  I should say however, that I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, my dad’s mother, when I was quite young, and I loved her. She was from Lisbon, Portugal, and spoke beautiful broken English with a thick accent. She would talk about ‘the old country’ and because of her, I love the sounds of all languages. And my ears tune in to the sounds of regional accents wherever I may be when I hear them.

The park above Onset Pier.

Something happened recently to make me think again about “all my relations” and to see them with new eyes. The “Something” was that I had an opportunity to go to Onset and spend a whole week. It was the first time in 45 years that I had more than two days in town for a funeral or a quick visit. I had a few unanswered questions about my father and his family before heading home and when I posed them to my brother, he put me in touch with some relatives I did not know existed. They are, in a sense, new relatives. We have always been related; we just didn’t know it and we didn’t know each other existed. I would have known sooner, had I shown my brother’s interest in our family heritage and culture, or even if I had shown interest in the research that he was doing. One keen example of this is when we went home for our mom’s funeral service, besides walking around our home town separately, he and his family went to the town hall to look at birth records, and I went to the beach to look for shells. But several relatives, including my brother and the grandchildren of some of my dad’s siblings have taken advantage of the offerings of Ancestry.com and other similar organizations and started digging.

women sitting at a table in a restuarant
Cousin Day!

In some cases, the cousins who were doing this research have been at it for years, in other cases; some of us have only recently turned our attention to our father’s or grandparents’ family, and have only recently come to the party. Nevertheless, one day a few months ago, eight of us met for the first time in Antonio’s (Portuguese) Restaurant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, https://www.antoniosnewbedford.com/ for a long, leisurely lunch. With spreadsheets, cell phones and pictures, we compared notes, histories, stories that had been passed down, shared myths and worked our way through “myth-information.”  We talked about old conflicts that had torn the family apart, inherited diseases, longing for knowledge and healing.

woman standing behind parents headstone at a cemetary

We found love and hope, in the open hearts of our cousins. We walked each other through some of our individual family stories and helped each other pick up loose threads.  We made decisions to repair the breach, to not carry old wounds but to heal them and to go bravely into conversations that perhaps our parents and grandparents would have wished we had left “well enough alone.”  We laughed, cried and embraced, scoured the cemetery where the grandparents’/great-grandparents are buried and took pictures.

For me personally, the knowledge I seek is more about my father’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, than it is about those who came before. Because those who came before, are people I can learn something about, but the cousins who are descended from my father’s siblings are people I can know. In getting to know them and their stories, I can see something of my father and grandmother and hopefully, learn something about myself along the way.

So now, I need to pick up something of my old bedtime prayer and say, God bless mom and dad, Steve and me, my spouse and our children and grandchildren…and all my relations. I think about my “new” cousins and a smile breaks across my face and a tear glistens in my eye and there is a spring of sorts in my step that wasn’t there before. I am a vintage chic on a journey of discovery and determined to press on.

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At Home in Onset: A Jack and Maggie Story

There is a funny, but perhaps universal thing about children and their parents.  We tend to think our parents had no lives until we came along, born or adopted, we think it is all about us. Truthfully, there are some things we do not want to know about our parents and perhaps that is as it should be. I say this because it occurs to me that while I know my dad was from Onset, it never occurred to me that he lived anywhere but onboard ship once he went to sea at thirteen until he and my mom got married. He was thirty-one when they met and married.

Older man, older woman, young man in a suit, holding a cigar.
Anibal, Mary and Jack

It strikes me that it is an unrealistic assumption that he did not return home for visits. Although a cousin recently shared with me that there was a period of a few years when no one in the family was sure where he was. Again, these were things my father never talked about. It does make sense though, that before he was signed on a ship at 13, that his father must have ensured that he had some skills. As one of the older children in a large poor family, he could not have been coddled or spoiled. It also makes sense that in those early years there was an expectation that all or part of his salary went to the family. Sometime in his youth he began boxing and he also learned other skills at home that he would not have learned at sea. For instance, at least two of his brothers were masons and there is considerable proof that he learned masonry from somewhere, whether it was from his brothers or some other source.

Dad sailed for American Export Lines as a Chief Mate in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which later became American Export Isbrandsten Lines. Regular trips to the Mediterranean Sea were about three months long. In between trips to other countries and a coastwise trip, he would sometimes have a week off to be home before sailing. A coastwise trip, was a journey up and down the east coast to drop off imports, or pick up products for export. Trips to the Indian Ocean were much longer, as long as five or six months, so again with some time at home in-between trips and six weeks of vacation a year, he was gone much more than he was at home. I have vague memories of him going to work on my uncle’s turkey farm on those breaks, including a time he had stepped on a nail and had to get a tetanus shot.

 While he had traveled all over the world as a sailor, both in the Merchant Marine and the United States Navy, my mother never left Baltimore, until their honeymoon. He took her to Onset to meet his parents and family. They lived in Baltimore, or rather mom did. Dad sailed out of Hoboken, New Jersey and traveled to Baltimore for the first few years they were married. Then, when my brother was not quite two, they moved to Onset and bought a house on an acre of ground in Point Independence, just up the street from the beach, and a few blocks away from my grandparents’ home. Mom had saved up the money that dad sent her, literally “socked it away” in a sock, so they had the money at least for the down-payment if not the whole thing.

 They built eight cottages on the outside edge of the property in a horseshoe configuration. Dad laid the foundation for the houses, and he also put in the cesspool himself. He worked with a neighbor and local contractor to build the cottages. They were primarily there for “the summer people” who came to visit the local beaches, but the cottages were winterized and soon there were more Air Force families than summer people living there.  Mom did the painting, made slipcovers for the couches and handled most of the business and rentals.

A young man in a suit holding a cigar

They worked together well, and it gave mom plenty to do when dad was at sea, which was most of the time. They were proud and grateful to have the land and the business. Mom also got active in the local PTA and made friends. There were no Marcellino family gatherings or parties, just occasional individual visits, but no real companionship or encouragement. I think if it were not for her two best friends, one from Onset and one from Wareham, mom would have been lost. She missed her family in Baltimore, and she missed dad at sea.

There was a black iron grate in the ceiling in the hallway that went upstairs, for heat and at night we could hear the sounds of her at the typewriter, typing letters as she wrote letters to dad, or to her family at home.  Now, one does not generally hear someone typing a letter on a computer, unless you are sitting near them. But in 1950, there were no electric typewriters, let alone computers, but old standard manual typewriters that made a racket, especially if one was typing with great emotion or in a rush, and one could always hear the ding of the carriage return. Sometimes we would hear the typewriter and sometimes we heard sobs.

Woman and boy sitting on the steps of a house, toddler girl facing the woman
Mom, my brother and me 1952

 The separations weren’t easy for him either. People made a lot of assumptions about the lure and romance of the sea, but by the time he and mom met and married he had been a sailor for almost twenty years. It was a job; it was how he earned his living.  He often said after the first two weeks at sea, everyone was all talked out. Except for doing their best in building and investing in the cottages, I doubt he saw any way out. So, they would drink their goodbyes, and mom would say that she “poured’ him onto the bus, train or plane, depending on how he was going to get back to New Jersey before it was time to sail.

Sometime after 1953 she got her driver’s license and then was able to drive him to Hoboken and they could spend his off hours together, before he sailed. I would stay with my grandmother or with family friends. Sometimes though, we would all go to Hoboken and spend family time when he wasn’t on duty and then after his ship sailed, we would travel on to Baltimore to spend some time with mom’s family before heading home to Onset.

My best memory of doing that happened when I was in high school. We were living at the Union Villa at that point, and dad went back to sea in the off season. He was scheduled to be in New Jersey shortly before Christmas. School wasn’t out yet, but it would be shortly. Mom was getting dad’s things ready to pack. A thought popped into my head and I asked, “Why can’t we just take dad to Hoboken and then go on to Baltimore after he sails?” I did not have to ask the question twice; we were packed, and in the car, heading for Hoboken in 45 minutes.  That is why in my High School Class Will it states, “Michele Marcellino leaves on another trip to Baltimore.”

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

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The Beach Girl Poem

When I arrived at my new parish, I learned that one of my parishioners was also a Beach Girl, from New Jersey. When I told her I was going to be going home for a quick two days for the first time in twenty-five years, and asked if I could bring her anything she said, “Salt Water Taffy.” It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped, being in town during the week, during the off season, but I did manage to find some taffy for Betti. Not sure how fresh it was but I wanted to keep the promise. Her health was failing. When she had passed away the following spring, and I was struggling for something original to share at her funeral service, I wrote this. In truth I wrote it for her as well as for myself.

Picture of a scallop shell from Onset Beach, September 2018

For Betti and for me

When you are a “beach girl” and you live close to the water, and you don’t have to drive for hours to get there, you know the smell of the ocean, and the beach; the sound the waves make, inch by inch, lapping up the sand.

You know the call of the tides, the crispness of sun-dried seaweed left on the beach after low tide, and the sight and sound of the gulls, circling over head or hopping on the beach.

You relish the squishy feel of wet sand between your toes, and maybe you remember when you were little jumping up and down on the wet sand, amazed at the light color that appeared where you jumped, as though it were a sunburst in the sand, pushing the darkness away.

When you are a beach girl you never outgrow the  search for sea shells, perfect or not, left abandoned  by their former occupants, an amazing collection of calcium carbonate with ridges, colors and textures that range from a pale peach translucent, to an iridescent purple black or even chalky white.

When you’re a “beach girl”, you always know where to get the best salt water taffy. And if you move away, it won’t matter because you always remember the sights and sounds and smells of the beach because you carry them in you heart.

a.m.s. 5/20/19

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Christmas Cards

I have been thinking about the tradition of writing, mailing or giving Christmas cards lately. In some ways it seems so 1950’s. I remember my mother keeping a list of names inside the cover of a large Christmas card box, so she could check off each one as she signed it. No Christmas letters for mom, no long notes, and no expensive cards, just a simple box of different scenes. I love receiving cards, especially cards with notes in them, but truth be told it has been years since I have taken the time to send very many. Some years I have simply sent cards to people as I received theirs, or limited my card sending to immediate family. Last year I gave out cards at church as “Epiphany Cards” because I couldn’t get them done until after Christmas. For me, the big factor that determines what “fun” Christmas activities I do, depends on my having the Christmas Eve Services ready to go. And in the years I served as a Student Pastor, my final papers had to be written and turned in before I could plan the Christmas Eve Service.

Back to Christmas cards though, if I were to restart the practice of sending or giving cards to everyone I care about, something else would have to go. I am pretty sure that rising postage costs have limited the number of cards that people mail, but many church folks have found a way around that. They write cards to church members and bring them to church. Some churches have a special card box and one or two members take responsibility for sorting through them and putting cards into stacks that can then be handed to people, or folks have to wander up to the front rows where no one in their right mind sits during worship (excuse the sarcasm). Some folks just hand them out. And then there are those e-cards that people send. And the infamous Christmas letter.

Time is, or should be, a determining factor for many of the pursuits we choose to pack into the month of December. I don’t know anyone who can take time off of work to shop, wrap, bake, party, travel, visit, and decorate and all of that without factoring in seasonal concerts, plays, special services and cleaning the house to get ready for company. Even though my children were grown and on their own before I became a pastor, I still feel that time crunch. I write from the perspective of one who loves all of those things, the “trappings of Christmas.” But I have learned to be choosy, even if some of the things I choose take a lot of time. For instance in the years that I have not been in school (can you say life long learner?) I have spent some significant time playing with gingerbread. I don’t make complicated houses, I am not that talented. But I have taken great delight in making large amounts of gingerbread dough and hosting gingerbread house workshops at church, especially for the youth.

So, here is a question I want to raise: what about you? Do you still send or give Christmas cards? Why or why not? And, what do you think about the tradition of the Christmas letter? Perhaps an even more important question I have to ask myself, and so I ask you, have we lost something in abandoning this tradition of writing notes, signing and sending Christmas cards? There is so much pressure on us today to hurry, to fast food, to self check out and online buying with as little human contact as possible, all in the name of efficiency, or expedience. What if buying, signing and sending (or giving) Christmas cards to people you care about and appreciate is a simple act of rebellion against the impersonal bent that characterizes life in December 2019? Does it have to be this way? What do you think?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

On Toothpaste and Counting to Ten

I have always prided myself on being careful about what I say. I am not alone in having experienced the hurtful speech of others, so I try very hard to not point my sense of humor at anyone, to not make disparaging remarks or say things that might hurt. I try to never criticize anyone, friends, family or strangers. I do not always succeed however.

There was the time at a wedding rehearsal, when without thinking, obviously I was not thinking, I said to the bride’s father, “Well, if it’s a shotgun wedding, at least it’s a white shotgun!” (Formal wedding). Oh, my gosh, how he managed to not yell, swear or fuss at me, let alone managed to not write to the Bishop and complain, I do not know.

Then there was this “Marcellino Family” thing (or maybe it was jut a Jack and Maggie thing) that I brought into my second marriage. If I did something that my mother didn’t like, but it wasn’t something that was really going to get me in trouble, she would say to my father, “Jack! Speak to your daughter!” and he might say, “Hello, Michele.” Obviously, that was not what she intended. Or, if I had done something equally vexing, she might say to me, “You are just like your father’s people!” (Sorry cousins!)

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

My husband quickly adapted to that tradition. One day the dog had done something that annoyed him (Sammy, our first beagle) and he said to me, “He is just like your side of the family!” Out of my mouth flew, “That’s right! He’s got hair!” Don’t feel too bad for him, thirty some years later, he has never let me live it down.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, and possibly longer, when children’s feelings were hurt, parents’ usual reply was “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you.” We were taught to say that back to our tormentors. But now we know, it was never true.

Words hurt, unintentional words can hurt, and verbal abuse is genuine abuse. How many spouses, or significant others, have stayed in painful, destructive relationships because, “It’s only words. He/she never hit me.” But their mental health and self image have taken the hit. Words when they are out of our mouths, or keyboards, are not unlike toothpaste. You can get it out of the tube, but you cannot get it back into the tube.

Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

I often wonder in courtroom settings, when a judge addresses a jury and says that a particular statement by an attorney has to be stricken from the record and that it cannot be used in deliberation, how do you unhear something? In the television courtroom dramas, that often seems to be the point.

Now, when many of us, not only in the United States where I live, but many areas in countries around the world are in essential lock down, stay at home, social distancing protocols, our homes have become really small quarters. We are in close proximity to one another with very little chance for alone time. Especially if there are more than two of you. There is another old expression that can apply, but I pray that it does not, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Photo by Designecologist from Pexels

Tempers are bound to flare, feelings are bound to be hurt. Now would be a good time to develop a strategy. How are you going to respond the next time your spouse, or child or significant other says and does something hurtful? Counting to Ten may help, but not if you are counting by tens! Each person in a house is going to have a different way to cope, but I want to suggest that this is important. Count way past ten. Take a deep breath, go outside if you are able, pray if that is your tradition. This might be a good time to start that tradition, no matter who you are. Color! Phone a friend. Do something nice. Forgive. Make a list, make it work, we are in this for the long haul.

Now, more than ever, you need each other. We need each other and the world still needs love. When I do premarital counseling, we always talk about the wedding ceremony, and plans about what that will look like. But in my counseling sessions and in my wedding homilies I always stress the importance of tangible expressions of love, practicing and expressing gratitude to your spouse. forgiveness and respect.

Photo by Kristin DeSoto Photography from Pexels

As I write, I can think of all kinds of song lyrics, but am frankly, too lazy to look up the copyright information, and out of respect for other writers and myself, do not want to quote things that would imperil my blog. But it might be worth checking your “go to” search engine for songs about respect (pretty sure there is at least one!), forgiveness, love, and choosing your words.

The things we say to those we claim to love, our families our friends may be more important than ever in the close quarters we call home. Saying we didn’t mean them is counter-productive and once our words are out, once the email has been sent, or the phrase tweeted, it is like toothpaste. It is out of the tube, and there are no “take backs” that can make up for it.

None of this is easy, but I know Someone who can help us through.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

A postscript for my readers: I try to do two posts a week. As it turns out I have a shoulder injury that requires surgery in a few days. I will try to get one post out a week in the interim. Don’t want to lose you.