Inspired by…

This week I was inspired by bloggers, Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists. They write about living a meaningful life with less stuff. Joshua wrote an essay about owning just 288 things and published a photo of his apartment. Minimal is an understatement. Also beautiful.

Although I have quested after simplicity for years, this photo and their writing has inspired me to a new vision. I am far from owning just 288 things, and it’s not as if we’ll end up with a bed, a sofa, a table, two lamps and a chair, …

But this week, I have four fewer pieces of furniture in the house and less clutter.

When Ben moved in five years ago, he brought with him a beautiful work table he had made. We put it in the short end of our L-shaped living room along with his computer desk, printer, and filing cabinet to create an office space for him. The table was to be a photography work area for me.  I thought I’d mat and frame photos. Instead, the table collected clutter. Plus, there was no time to putter with the mat board or framing. Then, it was mom’s stuff; her boxes that had to be sorted sat under the table for months, her briefcase of papers spilling over the table. After getting her things sorted and the paperwork done, there was still my stuff left.

Saturday the table went out and all the clutter removed or stored.

A long desk that was painted turquoise (yes, turquoise), sat against the opposite wall from the work table next to Ben’s filing cabinet and desk. A sewing machine we never use was on top of the desk. In the drawers were photos and sewing paraphernalia I also rarely use. Out went the desk. An old dresser we were using for storage also left. An old sofa was jettisoned a few weeks back.

We moved a computer hutch from my office (actually the original dining room) into the space formerly occupied by the desk. It now holds my photography equipment and albums (behind closed doors).

We created a living area where the work table had been and moved two teak bookcases that  had been in that room (yes, crowded room) into my office. Now, behind my desk, but visible from the living area, are my favorite framed family photos, precious keepsakes, and writing books. It’s orderly, my desk is clean and when a client came yesterday I wasn’t embarrassed.

Another way Joshua and Ryan inspired me was with a blog post a few days ago, Struggling with Choices, under Essays. I was struggling with a choice, hashing over mind clutter through a restless night’s sleep. I read, The truth is that many things in our lives have dozens of correct answers. And we can pick the correct answer that suits us best. Sometimes we don’t know if our choice is the right choice until after we make it—and sometimes we never know. Often, the most important part is that we make a choice and stick to it.

That morning, their words were exactly what I needed to read. I made a choice, made a phone call, went for an appointment and discovered that my choice was correct. Those choices have come with more difficulty these days and I was grateful for their straightforward advice. (It occurs to me that dealing with physical clutter is just another series of choices. Make a choice, throw it out!)

Thanks to Joshua and Ryan, I am breathing a little easier this week as my house and thoughts get more organized.

But I must also mention that this reorganizing, although partly inspired by Joshua and Ryan, has been an ongoing quest inspired of late by more time to actually do it and good friends to help me.

Friend Angie and her husband and son helped move mom’s things into the house after mom died. Angie then helped to figure out where things should go. Then friend Deborah, a home organizer, came to give me a push in the right direction. Then Angie and family came again Saturday for the recent push and moved out the furniture and reorganized what was left. She then stayed for hours helping me sort through the clutter we had unearthed. She even tackled my desk drawer. I am grateful.

There’s obviously much more to do in the ongoing quest for simplicity. Now I must begin sorting through the bins of photos I have collected for decades. Any suggestions, Josh and Ryan?


Report card

School teachers just don’t do things the way they used to.

“Lemon Avenue School, La Mesa, California

Date: November 14, 1952

Child’s name: Martha Solleder

Grade: Second

Dear Parents:  Martha’s oral language expression is very good. She reads orally with expression, understands what she reads and is rapidly extending her reading vocabulary. Her handwriting and spelling are very good. She is beginning to understand the number concepts with which we have been working. She participates with enthusiasm in our social studies activities.

In spite of a very strong will of her own, Martha is a cooperative member of our group. She works and plays well with the other children, and has made many friends from among her classmates. [My favorite part]: Her sunny disposition and sense of humor more than offset the occasional disturbance caused by her exuberance.

Mrs. Marian Grisier.”

Thanks Marion. What a great way to say I was a pain in the ass only part of the time.

I have a photo somewhere of me in the second grade class photo. Everyone is stony-faced, like they were in a photo taken at the turn of the 20th century when no one smiled. But there I was at the far end of a row, with a smirk on my face, my “sunny” disposition on display. I’m wondering if that is how my husband would describe me now.

Simple compassion

I saw a woman acquaintance at the grocery store with her elderly father last week. At a networking meeting we both attend, I asked after him and if she was his caretaker/caregiver. She is, in fact, his caregiver, the one who moved him into her home to give care, and also to take care of everything, including working at home instead of at her office. He’s 82 and has dementia and has just been diagnosed with lymphoma and she had the hard choice about treatment options.

I want to say, “I understand,” but mostly I know just to listen, only adding what is relevant and what can fit in a 10-second comment, like, “Mom had lymphoma at 96 and had radiation and they got it all and she lived to be nearly 102.” She said, “Oh, I would give just about anything to have him live to 102,” and I think, “No, just wait.” I feel bad giving a false sense of the wonderment of 100.

I am in that odd place now between two lives, watching some who have been there done that, those who transitioned from being a child to being an orphan, and not ready to be taken care of themselves, to those who are caregiving or caretaking or being long distance and helping in any way they can.

I’m in neither place. I’ve been reading old journals and cleaning places I haven’t had time to clean in years, and organizing photos, and some times I just lie back on the floor in a heap of memories and photos and journals, and cry. It’s not as if I’m unhinged….just moments of, “what the hell?”

We camped this past weekend with two couples. The four of them are ten years younger than husband and I.  One friend’s father died years ago of a heart attack, but his mother is approaching 80 and doing well. He has a sister who will take responsibility for her care, when necessary. His wife’s mother is 78 and does well, but her father, remarried, is nearing 80 and was just diagnosed with cruel Lou Gehrig’s disease. When my friend learned that he was ill she came to me and cried and said she felt like she was on the outside of the circle, that her sister was taking charge. I encouraged her to step into the circle, which she did and then thanked me.

The other man lost his father to suicide when he was 15, waking up in the same room with his father to find him dead. His mother leaned hard on him for three years before remarrying the savior second husband. Now, 40 some years later, she is in a nursing home in Montana, out of his care, but not out of his thoughts. His sister offered to care for her because he provided so much early on. His wife’s father has early dementia and life-long bi-polar disease. Her mother is doing well, but just recovered from a lumpectomy, and looking for ways to escape the tyranny of her husband.

As much as I miss her, I am relieved that it’s over for mom. I feel a strange disconnect when people talk about caretaking their parents, then a flash of envy that they have their parents to fuss over, and then simple compassion.

That’s sometimes followed by the thought, “Who’s going to take care of us?” a thought I can barely wrap my mind around. Mom and I were 37 years apart. I was on my hands and knees in her kitchen one day and said, “Just think. If you had me in your early 20s, I’d be 80 and wouldn’t be on your kitchen floor.” She laughed. Hopefully by the time I have need, son (who I had at 37) will be mature enough to lend a hand.

In the meantime, we’re planning to sail through the San Juan Islands for a week and act as if we are among the retired (we are not), but are those in-betweeners who are free to come and go as we please (except for finances–a dirty trick, I’d say), not encumbered by aging parents or teenagers at home. What a mixed bag it is.

Knocked out of orbit

A few days ago I told a friend that it was as if we (meaning all the people who took care of mom, as well as the family) had been in orbit around the mother, the grandmother, the great-grandmother,…the Queen.

The family was in an outer orbit, visiting once or twice a year, celebrating birthdays, bringing the great-granddaughter to visit, coming to say goodbye numerous times, orbiting just beyond the daily task of taking care of mom. They had their job and fulfilled it.

Then there were the co-residents of her retirement home, the managers and housekeepers and kitchen staff and the hairdresser and manicurist who were in the next orbit. They watched out for her. She reached the age of 101 and still lived in an unassisted living facility, so everyone did their part in keeping her okay.

The next closest orbit were her immediate caregivers. They  knew the intimate details of her daily life better than just about anyone–except for me…and even then, there were things they knew that I didn’t that I had to encourage them to tell me for her safety, like when she had a sore on her foot I never saw.

She grew to love her caregivers, like granddaughters, in a way. She would ask them personal questions about their life and one caregiver tearfully shared at mom’s memorial that mom “made me a better person.” Mom chided another caregiver, who had been with her for two years for four nights a week, for her “lady of the night” high heel black boots that went practically to her knee. Mom never said anything to her about the tattoos that cover her upper arms, but she did say something about her wearing jeans with holes in the knees to work. “There is a dress-code,” she told her.

R has black hair, often with a streak of a variety of color. She wears a lot of makeup and gaudy jewelry. None of that mattered, just like she truly was a granddaughter who shows up with a nose ring, and grandma doesn’t really see it. What was important was that she knew how to give mom a shower and was patient and kind. (R is the one who saw the white owl the night before mom died and thought it was a harbinger of her own death, not recognizing it then as a message from mom).

And then there was my orbit, closer than the other orbits. I was the one who hovered and hounded, paid the bills and took her to doctor appointments, stood at the hospital bed, heard one diagnosis after another, hired and fired and paid and cajoled those in the adjacent orbit, sat with her and heard and recorded the stories.

Then I read on the Internet….  If the earth did, somehow, (even though it is impossible) get knocked out of orbit, it would die. Without a constant source of energy like the Sun (which indirectly provides all energy on earth), the earth would eventually run out of resources and die.

Well shit. That was one bad analogy.

I never knew I would feel as if I’d been flung to the nether regions of the solar system, searching like a lost planet for something around which to orbit, but damn if I’m going to die over it. I loved mom and she may have been my focus for a very long time, but she was not my sun. I will work on a new analogy.

Ocean love

My son’s girlfriend went to the Oregon Coast last week with a friend. While there she had a dream about mom. K only met mom twice, but when she did, she brought her flowers and I took a photo of them together. There was a connection. But sometimes people simply have dreams to bring a message to someone else.

DH and I and friends were setting up a camp on a mountain ridge above the Kittitas Valley in Central Washington when my son called and asked me if I was going to buy him a birthday present. It was a rhetorical question, of course. He wondered if one of his presents could be a set of chess pieces. And could I order them Monday when I got back from camping. I said, “of course.”

I walked away from the noise of the trucks finding the perfect spot for our trailers when he said, “K had a dream about Grandma while she was on the Oregon Coast. She dreamed she was young, glowing and was very happy. It made me feel good.”

I was thrilled at this dream and thought it remarkable that K had the dream on the Oregon Coast, one of mom’s favorite places. Son and I talked about how much she loved the coast and how this dream was brought to us both to make us feel better. It was the first time we talked about mom since April.

After we hung up, I told DH and our friends about the dream. DH said, “Maybe that’s where she is.”

Mom lived in the Yakima Valley for more than 18 years, never complaining about being away from her beloved ocean. She learned to love the open skies, the rolling green hills of spring, turning the color of buckskin through the summer, often white in the winter. She complained about the heat, but it was just habit, I think.

Before I was born, mom and dad had a sailboat and lived in Hermosa Beach, California for a time. After he died and she moved to San Diego, we lived away from the ocean, but on a clear day from our hilltop home she could see the ocean 20 miles away. Not long before her second husband died, they took a four-month cruise around the world. She loved being on the open ocean.

When she remarried a third tine, they went on several smaller cruises after settling into a home in Gold Beach, Oregon. They had a cedar home in the woods overlooking the Pacific, with access to a private beach. After he died, she moved to Carlsbad, California to be near me and my son and the rest of the family. She had a view of the ocean.

Then we moved to the desert. One year I took her to Long Beach, Washington, thinking a trip to the beach would be fun for her. But our motel was too far from the ocean and there was no view. On the way home she got sun stroke from the sun hitting her in the car.

When she was 93 we rode Amtrak from Seattle to Santa Barbara for a family reunion. She rode in the viewing car during the day and along the coast she reminisced about driving the coastal roads of California when she was young and California was too.

By the time we reached Santa Barbara mom could barely walk. I was numb with exhaustion after being in a tiny sleeper car with her for two days–or was it three–bracing her as we walked to the commode or to the dining car over the shifting of the connectors between cars. On the way home, we rented a sleeping room, in which she could use a private commode and order meals sent to the room.

Mom never saw the ocean again after that and she never complained. Whenever I suggested she move back to California to be near the family and the ocean, she would say things like, “Wherever we are, that’s where God wants us.” And besides, there were no longer places by the ocean where she could live.

I can’t help thinking that where she is now is by the ocean: not a lazy azure sea, but beside a sometimes tumultuous ocean like the Oregon Coast, waves crashing, sunsets lighting up the sky, seabirds whirling or skittering along the sand in search of food. I see her walking with dark hair blowing behind her, her head thrown back, unafraid of sun on her face or wind through her hair. She is wearing loose pants and a pair of huarache type shoes. She is young, she is glowing, and she is happy.

Iantha–A legend in my mind

When I visited a friend this weekend, I learned that her mother was turning 90 and has 22 great-grandchildren, many of whom will help celebrate her birthday. What struck me was that I never knew any of my great grandparents, dead years before I was born. I know little about my father’s grandparents, left in Nova Scotia when my grandfather came west.

But my great-grandmother Iantha, my mother’s paternal grandmother, has been a legend in my mind.

Mom always blamed her for breaking up her parent’s marriage and for being cold and aloof.

“She never hugged me,” mom would say.

But what was behind Iantha’s stony facade, I wondered.

Iantha’s photos from the early part of the 20th century implicate her as mom described, but who can tell from late 19th and early 20th century photos. Everyone scowled. Subjects were left standing squinting into the sun until the film captured the light and darks.

Iantha was born in March of 1853 to William Scoville and Lydia Wright ten days after their sixth child died.  They lost five sons and one daughter before the age of two. One or two children dying before age two in the 19th century was not uncommon, but six babies lost seemed a heavy grief to bear, even for 19th century folk.

Iantha’s survival, while a blessing, must have placed a heavy burden of responsibility upon her young shoulders. Two years later, her sister, Theodora, arrived. She, too, survived. I wonder how William and Lydia treated their young daughters. Were they solicitous, overjoyed once their children passed the age of two, or on edge waiting for what seemed inevitable. And as it turns out, the family travails were not over. But this time it wasn’t a child.

William died in 1858 at the age of 48 when Iantha was five and her sister just three. Lydia died three years later in 1861 at the age of 42, leaving Iantha, age 8, and Theodora, age six, orphans. A great-uncle took them in and raised them.

A family asunder.

Were they afforded nice clothes, a good education, friends and family, I wondered. Photos of the two as children let us see that they are well dressed and groomed. But what about the emotional experience? I doubt they had grief counseling over the loss of their parents and six siblings.

Iantha married Isaac Tyler at 21 and had six children. The first one died at age two. What was she thinking then? A curse upon the family? But she and Isaac had five more children. The first son, Linden, ended up in prison for a time, the black sheep of the family. Alva, my grandfather, was born in 1881 and became an engineer. Three sisters followed. Two became nurses and later homesteaded in Montana.

After Alva was grown and married to my grandmother, Iantha and Isaac moved to Southern California with two (or maybe all three) of their daughters, to live with Alva and their daughter-in-law Florence, my Grannyma.

Problem was, Florence didn’t know they were coming. Pregnant with my uncle, she looked out the window one day and saw the troupe traipsing down the street toward the house. My mother was five and for the rest of her life she would blame her grandmother Iantha for breaking up her parents’ marriage.

“She upset the apple cart,” she said.

I used to say that my grandfather had a hand in it as well, considering that he told his bride in 1908 that he wouldn’t move her away from her parents and then moved her from Illinois, where mom was born, to Southern California because he got a job at Cal Tech teaching engineering. Can’t really blame him for that.

But then, without telling his wife, he invited his family to come live with he and his pregnant wife and five-year-old (my mother).

After Gordon was born, Florence left Alva and moved with her children back to Ohio, where her parents lived. She returned to California two years later and briefly reunited with Alva. She got pregnant, had an abortion, and almost died. Iantha clearly had nothing to do with that joint debacle.

But I don’t doubt mom’s appraisal of Iantha, that she interfered  in her parents’ marriage, but clearly everyone shared some responsibility. It’s all conjecture now, of course. A few photos, reminisces of mom’s I’ve written down, and the family genealogy neatly chronicled with dates and not much more informs my story telling.

Mom always said, “It was a muddle,” which is an accurate description of most family histories. But in the muddle are the greatest of stories.

Iantha (r) and a cousin.

Iantha as a young woman

Iantha, 1912, age 59.