the strength of character I seek

In my life, I seek to be like my late great-aunt Vi, who never stopped in her practice of her faith.

I have unending respect for Vi. She was a teacher who, in the 60s, taught her fourth-graders lessons about human rights and dignity, issues people were dying for daily in those years.

My great-aunt, Violet Panzram, 1910-1996
My great-aunt, Violet Panzram, 1910-1996

She did more than teach those children. She sent money to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as evidenced by a letter now in the archives of The King Center, dated April 20, 1967.

“You have been in our fourth grade Hall of Fame for many years,” she wrote to this great leader, “but never have I held you in such high esteem as since your strong statement against the war in Vietnam.”

She went on to refer to a slide show she’d seen of children affected by napalm. She was appalled.. In response, she sent a check to Dr. King “for (his) peace efforts,” and told him she prayed for him daily.

If she said she prayed for him daily, that’s what she did. There was never a truer Christian than Violet Panzram. Her faith led her to action and compassion, and a kindness that shown like a beacon.

In her 86 years no doubt she faced trials that tested her strength, character and faith, but I have no idea what they were. A few years ago, I found myself wishing I knew more about how she worked through her dark days as I faced my own.

I’d been betrayed by someone I trusted to a point where I’d lost my career, my home and my trusting nature.

I’d been betrayed by someone I trusted to a point where I’d lost my career, my home and my trusting nature. Thankfully, I didn’t lose my friends, nor did those who knew me best stop believing in me, and never did they believe the horrible lies that spread through our community.

I realize that because of mental health issues, I’m limited in some of the ways I can change in my behavior. There are times when the beast within me takes control, and I struggle to fight without fully realizing what’s happening.  I’ve sought changes in my life, but some won’t come until I learn other hidden truths & solutions, or until I die and shed the constraints I’m bound by in this life.

Me
Me

Yet thankfully there are changes no amount of depression, anxiety or the multitude of issues I deal with can halt. Some of those changes include the excellence of character my great-aunt demonstrated, so I pursue that through the choices I make every day.

Surely Vi had her good days and bad, perhaps not in the same manner I experience them, but with their own restrictive features.

I move forward, and trust I’ll be a better person tomorrow, and even better the day after. I’ll always have my faults and my failures that anger and frustrate those around me, but I pray the good in me will be what’s remembered when I’m gone.

Featured image credit: (candles) © 9comeback — fotolia.com; (background) © lpopba — Dreamstime.com; (background) © Leksustuss — Dreamstime.com.

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Keep the Beasts Away

As a senior in college, my journalism classes were peppered with visits from real-life reporters.

One of them was a top crime reporter from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, whose name I’ve long forgotten. He showed up for our 9:00 class with rumpled hair, wrinkled shirt and unshaven face, holding a cup of coffee and looking too sleepy to be nervous. We weren’t shy about asking him questions, but it was when we allowed him to talk freely about his career that the most interesting information poured forth.

An earlier reporting job had been for the major daily paper in Chicago, where he worked the overnight shift. Most of the time he covered accidents and drunken brawls; if he was lucky, someone with some degree of fame was involved. One night, while playing cards with a colleague, he heard a call come over the police scanner. A woman had reported a foul odor emanating from her next-door neighbor’s home.

This kind of report was common and rarely went anywhere, but the two men figured since nothing else was going on, they might as well see what was up. Not expecting anything serious, they were intrigued by the growing number of emergency vehicles surrounding the house in question. Police weren’t talking and had roped off any access to the premises, so the reporters checked in on the neighbor who’d made the call.

A kind woman who’d lived in the same home for decades, she poured them some coffee and began talking about the man next door. Pleasant and polite, she said, but there was one strange thing. Young men, boys, really, would show up at his place on a regular basis. She’d seen plenty of them going in, but none ever came out.

That caught the attention of these reporters. They called their editor, and continued to investigate this increasingly harrowing story.

They broke the news to the world about John Wayne Gacy.

For those of you who don’t know, Gacy was one of the most notorious American serial killers of the 20th century.  Convicted in 1980 of the rape and murder of 33 young men he’d lured to his home and buried in the crawl space, he eventually was put to death by lethal injection.

The point of sharing his experience with a wide-eyed audience of journalism students was to remind us you never knew when or in what form opportunity would present itself. This horrifying story catapulted the career of these two reporters. Always seeking  information the hordes of other reporters missed, they helped fill out the tale of a gruesome tragedy.

They weren’t voyeurs, nor were the opportunists playing on the despair of others. This crime changed them in ways they were reluctant to discuss. As reporters, however, they called upon their training, formal and informal, to relay the full story. Much of what they reported is long forgotten, but a significant portion of it informed the world of the danger that could lurk in their neighborhood. If one boy heeded the lesson from their reports and saved himself from degradation and death, their work yielded the desired results.

Doctors prepare for the disaster they pray never happens; schools practice for the terror they never want to see. In our own way, preparing ourselves personally and professionally for the darkest parts of our society helps make our lives and the lives of those we care about safer.

No, we can’t live with a fatalistic attitude, nor can we worry ceaselessly about unseen events. We prepare, and go on with the joys and expectations of our lives. No better preparation can be made than that of cultivating a compassionate and caring heart, one that is grieved by tragedy but never hardened.

May you never face the worst of man or nature, and for those who do or will, may God carry you through it. And may all of us do what we can to keep the beasts away.


Image Credit:  ©Algol — stock.adobe.com

 

the art of being my mother

Centered on the living room wall when I was growing up was a drawing that tore at me. It was of a woman, clearly weary, her head in one hand looking off to her left, a sleeping child draped over the other arm.

Not sure what was going  on here, but it was clearly important.
Not sure what was going on here, but it was clearly important.

While I now see the beauty in this art, as a child I believed my mother identified with it because of her own weariness with her lot in life, namely, me, and I felt a great deal of guilt over what I’d done to her.

We didn’t get along, my mother and me, until after my stepfather died when I was 28. By her own admission, her focus then changed from wife to mother.  It took us years to work through all the barriers. Issues remain today, but they aren’t the structure of our relationship.

I see her getting older and I’m constantly mindful of the fact she’s only a few years away from the age her parents were when they died. She’s on a fixed income and can barely afford her own needs month to month, yet she still jumps at the chance to give to me.

That’s what moms do, I guess, at least it’s what my mom does. I resisted it inside myself until I realized how important it was to her. I turn around and send her money when I can to help her in any small way.

A few years ago I went through terrible times, and it left its mark on me long after that. I was so deep in the pain of it myself I didn’t fully realize what my mom went through each day, wondering what I was undergoing and imagining the worst.

I need to keep to myself what is mine to know.

I hold back on telling her everything because it is too difficult to express. I don’t know that she should know all the details. I need to keep to myself what is mine to know.

Perhaps she did identify with the woman in that drawing, for reasons I’ll never really know. As one of the few pieces of art she’s kept through the years, it seemingly has meant something to her. Just as I don’t fully involve her in my experience, certainly she hasn’t fully involved me in hers.

I told her once, in a moment of reflection, what it had made me feel, and she simply said, “Really? I never knew.” Then smiled a little. “I always loved that picture.”

sibling revelry

Today I called my brother with some upsetting news. Once again, factors beyond my control were thwarting my plans to move forward.

He was the only one who would fully understand how challenging it would be for me, because he’d been with me from the start of the events that led to the distress of today.

My brother was there for me before I even knew I needed him.

belinda-thom-1962

Growing up, we weren’t close. It was my brother and sister who were allies, often, it felt, against me. Certainly I was on the outside.

Yet we share a history, sometimes a laughable yet now bonding one. Once, he asked if I remembered the cookie-eating bear from the Andy Williams Show, a popular variety program in our childhood.

I didn’t, and he was legitimately shocked, because I have a tremendous memory. He calls it memory for useless trivia, which is a little hurtful, because my memory includes much more than that.

Some months later there was a two-hour A&E biography about Andy Williams that I watched start to finish, just to see if this cookie-eating bear would be mentioned. He was, almost as an afterthought, in the last 30 seconds.

I sat through two hours of a biography I didn’t give a rip about just for my brother. I’d do an incomparable amount more if I could.

At the end of my phone call today, I gulped out a thank you for listening to me. He said, with a bit of surprise, “of course!” He’d said the same thing several years ago when I thanked him for flying out, at great expense, to be by my side at a time I can’t conceive of surviving alone.

He took over when I was absolutely lost, and later let go when I’d regained my strength, focus and independence. I’d never known what it was like to have someone value me that much before.

He’s two years younger than me, an age difference that become irrelevant sometime around high school. We started to connect more then.

I remember a sweet, red-haired girl who had, to say the least, a huge crush on him. We had a class together, and she talked about him endlessly to me. I really wanted him to reciprocate her feelings, but I knew full well he did not.

I was, however, proud of the way he treated her. Although he was clear he wasn’t equally interested, he let her know he thought her interest was a high compliment. Of course that just intensified her feelings for a time, but it was the right way to handle it.

me & Thom 1994
circa 1994

Now he has a daughter, sixteen years old, who no doubt brings all the frustrations a girl that age can carry. I hold my breath, then relax, as I watch him value her in the same concrete ways he values me and valued that cute girl in our high school years.

He’s proven there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me. In a lifetime we may or may not be lucky enough to fully show our love for those who mean the most to us.

I’ve been blessed to be on the receiving end of that love and sacrifice from my brother, a humbling and heartening experience for me. It has changed the core of me, my essential self.


A special thank you to those of you who have been following my blog long enough to remember this post!

The Value of Things

“They’re just things. We’re all okay. Things can be replaced, people can’t. I’m just grateful everyone is alive.”

How many times after a fire, tornado or hurricane have we heard those brave words, sincerely spoken in the moment? Yet we know, sitting in our chairs in the comfort of our safe and secure homes, that sooner or later the woman on the screen will realize some things can’t be replaced.

The stone your daughter brought you because she thought it was so pretty and would bring you good luck. The books you’ve had since childhood, worn a bit, but beautiful. The Christmas decorations your mother and your children made.

The pictures, taken before digital cameras and cloud storage.

Yes, any of us would rather have our children, spouses, siblings, parents, friends and neighbors alive and hugging us close than a household of “things”…but the loss of the material is real, and eventually will hit the people struggling to find a change of clothing and water the day after their home is destroyed.

We say “you can’t take it with you” and as true as that is, you have it here on earth. While often that expression refers to money, here I’m talking about things, objects, what you know is in your house and makes it home for you. You treasure it, at times it sustains you. There’s nothing wrong with valuing those things.

A tragic loss does put all that in perspective, of course, and you can always find new objects to hold close to your heart. But they can’t fully replace what’s been lost.

To those who’ve lost everything, my heart is with you. I know your loss is real. I pray you have the support in your life to get through whatever has brought this loss into your life, all that it represents, and that you will soon find joy again.


Photo Credit : © marima-design – Fotolia

The Gift

Last summer I received an adoption announcement from a friend of mine, Brock. He and his partner, Dan, had a new little girl. Her name was Allison, but they called her Sunny.

I hadn’t heard from Brock in several years. We’d worked together ages ago, before he and Dan had met, but at a time when Brock was anxious to start his own family. It was a challenge, since he’s gay, and at the time, decidedly single.

The picture that came with the notice showed Brock standing next to a beaming Dan, cradling a baby I guessed to be about six months old. While Brock was smiling, there was a sadness in his eyes. Ever curious, I decided to call my one-time close friend. After all, he’d included his phone number in the announcement.

“HELLO!” He cried out when he heard my name. “I was hoping you’d call! I found your address, but couldn’t track down your phone number.”

In the background a baby was crying. “I hear sounds of a family,” I said. “I’ll keep this short.”

That call, however, was destined to be longer. While Dan comforted Sunny, Brock told me how she came into their lives.

Brock, you see, had an identical twin brother, Calvin. Calvin was straight, and like his twin, took his time settling down. Four years earlier he’d married a woman Brock was thrilled with, Anna.
Tiny Baby

Calvin and Anna had wanted children right away, but it took them several years to finally carry a baby to full-term. That baby was Allison, which, it turns out, is Anna’s middle name. As soon as she was born, Brock flew out to meet her, and he was the one who started calling her Sunny.

Sunny, however, was anything but a happy baby. She cried constantly, and while doctors initially dismissed it as first-time parental concern, a nurse finally took note and convinced Sunny’s pediatrician to run some tests. They discovered a heart defect and immediately took her in for surgery.

The surgery was successful and Sunny’s recovery was complete, but Calvin and Anna had a hard time leaving her side. Finally, when she was four months old (and by this time, a truly sunny baby), they left her in the care of Anna’s sister, who herself has four children.

It was a terribly windy night, and Calvin and Anna cut their evening short, concerned the weather was going to get worse. Three miles from their home, their sporty little Miata swerved or was blown across the median, and was hit by a semi. Both Calvin and Anna were dead at the scene.

Brock got the call, and flew out immediately. He desperately wanted to adopt Sunny, and after all, he was the godfather, but Anna’s sister was the godmother, and he was certain if there were a legal battle, he would lose.

Anna’s sister, however, liked Brock, and told him while she would happily adopt Sunny, she felt strongly he was meant to be her father. Sunny, you see, looks just like Calvin and Brock did at that age.

More than that, Anna’s sister knew this was perhaps the best opportunity for Brock and Dan to become parents. She only asked that she remain Sunny’s godmother. Brock eagerly agreed, and adoption proceedings were nearly immediate.

But there remains sadness in Brock’s eyes. He lost his brother, his closest friend, his twin. He is overjoyed at having a baby, and one who carries his DNA, no less, but is working through the pain.

I told him Sunny is a lucky little girl to have so many people who love her. I told him I was sorry for his loss, and I knew his emotions would be complicated.

Every day is a gift, Brock told me. Growing up, he had Calvin.

Today his gift is Sunny.


Sunny

Image Credit: Header © Bigstock; Baby Feet © Zbyszek Nowak – Fotolia

Crafting a Legacy

In my home, as well as my mom’s, there is evidence of my handiwork everywhere — evidence of me. It is my legacy, I suppose, along with other things I’ll let my family and friends determine on my behalf. But I love to create, and those I love are the recipients of my creative efforts, generally, I hope, because they want to be.

grey-white-nordic-hat
One of my young friends just moved from Arkansas to Wisconsin, and she has this cap to keep her warm!

Long ago I learned only to give to those whom I know, or have reason to believe, will appreciate the gift. Over the years I’ve received many gracious notes, letters, text messages and phone calls saying, “thank you!” The most memorable, I suppose, was the hug from a co-worker when I made him a mohawk cap (it was knitted, then felted, and when he wore it, it resembled a mohawk). He was in a band, and wore it when he played. Later he wanted me to make the same cap for the others in his band, but I didn’t have the time.

I asked him for a picture with him wearing the cap, and he promised me he’d take one and forward it to me, but I never received it. Never mind, he was so excited about the cap, and I hold that memory close.

mimis-waltz99
Some fingerless mitts I designed.

At that same workplace I made fingerless mitts for my friends who worked in receiving. Later, I knitted a second pair for one of them when she lost the first pair. Last year I designed and made another pair of fingerless mitts for a friend when she cat-sat for me while I took cared for my mom after surgery.

But take a look at my mom’s home. Never mind the plethora of sweaters I’ve made her, there’s the shawl, the pillow, the quilts, the dish cloths I embroidered, bookmarks I stenciled, jewelry boxes I decorated, a picture of a wild parakeet I drew and soon, she’ll have curtains in her kitchen (just waiting for the fabric to get that one done).

I come by this passion for creating honestly. My mom sewed while I was growing, everything from my underwear to my dad’s suits. She was incredible. My dad, a computer programmer by profession (which I think of as creative), made and sold pottery when I was in high school. If he’d wanted to, it’s likely he could have quit his job and been a full-time potter, but the timing wasn’t right.

renaissance-dress-double-ii
When my niece was younger, I designed and knit some clothes for her Barbie dolls — and I’m still designing !

Knitting is my primary outlet. I’ve been knitting for more than 38 years, and in recent years have been designing a little here and there. Actually, I’ve always done some design, I just never recorded it.

My friends and family keep warm in the winter because of the hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, cowls and the like I’ve made. For that matter, some strangers do, too, as I always make a few things for my church’s Giving Tree each year, where we collect cold-weather clothing of all kinds to give to those who come to the food bank each week.

Yes, it’s my legacy, and it’s a legacy of love.

quilts
A few years ago, I did a lot of quilting, and I may do some more someday. For now, these keep my home cheery and the bannister warm. Plus, the cats like to “hide” under the one on the left!

 

Craft