Christmas - es Past

Christmas Eve 2012
This is our family's first Christmas without Jim. We have all come to Avila Beach where we have had several fun holidays together. Being here softens this FIRST a bit with other distractions - but we all know something important is missing. None-the-less this one is also part of the "memory box". And must be added to the collection - Growing the story - as family stories grow over the years. Christmas 2004 Jim and I flew to Robin's a week before Christmas and our daughter Karen arrived in Lafayette several days before Christmas. I wrote about Christmas Past then too.

Remembering California Christmas Eve 1974
Around the dinner table at Robin's tonight, everyone was taking a turn telling something about a Christmas Past.

Brad talked of a memorable Illinois Christmas at his grandparents house. Jamie, Robin and Brad's oldest, begged the question, not sure that this year might not be the one he would talk about later.

When it was our daughter Karen's turn she laughed.
"Ofcourse I remember the year I got all the stuff."
She paused and then added,
" but there is the Christmas Eve we were out here, in Madera, at Grandma's and we went to Yosemite."

Jim and Robin and I nodded. "Oh, yes."

This is not our first California Christmas.

My husband is a California native. He went to medical school on the East Coast and ended up staying out there. Jim's father died in March 1974.

We came back to California with our three kids for Christmas that year so that all the family would be together. It was a wonderful reunion of aunts, uncles, and cousins as those anniversaries often are.

Christmas Eve dawned. All the resident families had chores to do and fixings to complete for the holiday. We were at loose ends and in some ways in the way.

Jim suggested we take our kids for their introduction to Yosemite - only a 90 minute drive away.

As we climbed toward the mountains we met snow. There were snow capped peaks ahead as we drove through lightly dusted hills and valleys.

We stopped for breakfast at a lodge near the entrance to Yosemite Park. The dining room had a cathedral ceiling and large windows framed breathtaking views of the snow capped mountain peaks.

A floor to ceiling grey stone fireplace dominated one end of the room. Standing near-by was a 20 foot evergreen tree. The top just missed the rough hewn ceiling rafters. The room was perfumed with a mixture of spruce and wood smoke. The thick farm pancakes and maple syrup were as perfect as the setting.

We entered Yosemite Park through a tunnel. As we emerged the monumental El Capitan
stood before us on the left.

Ahead on the right we saw a bright white streak against a sheer rock face where
Bridal Veil Falls was frozen solid.
We were all so awed that we spoke in the same hushed voices we use in church.

The air was cold and crisp and pure. The skies overhead were bright blue with an occasional white cloud floating by.

Ours was the only car at the vista point. And that was how it continued all day. We saw no more than three cars all day. We owned the park.

Deer grazed in snow covered clearings.
When we walked toward a creek we heard the rushing water before we saw
it tumbling over the rocks. At every twist in the road there was a new view of the white capped Sierra peaks that surround Yosemite Valley.
Half-dome dominates and is my favorite sight.

That was thirty years ago today - but I can see it as clearly as if it were yesterday.

How could we have known that we were capturing a timeless moment that would live for each of us - -

Today I think of it as the day we spent in the Presence of God -

and I am so grateful we shared it as a family. Back to the present: I had not connected coming to California in 1974 to be with the family after Hal's death with this trip - but there it is. I suggested coming to Avila Beach because Jim had really wanted to come to California before he died - and is time ran out. So here we are - partly to make the trip for him.


Aunt Ida's Nightgown - A Christmas Story

I never really knew my mother's Aunt Ida - but I haven't forgotten her because this Christmas story keeps her alive in my memory. Do you have stories that bring back memories of long-ago members of your family?


Watching the Skies

Watching the skies tonight because the rest of my family is flying out so that we will all be together for this "first" Christmas without Jim. ** Since our daughter married and started her family Jim and I came here every other year for the Holidays - often flying on Christmas Day meaning we shared Midnight Mass with Jimmy's family on the East Coast and were on the West Coast for Dinner on Christmas Day. Lafayette, CA, outside San Francisco, is not a strange territory for me. ** Today I climbed and I do mean climbed into the Ford Explorer that I am renting. This behemoth and I are making peace with each other. Actually I am beginning to enjoy driving it - - except for parking. ** Since it was a lovely sunny day I took pictures around town - from the Library to a local thrift store. And, I finally had my chance to photograph the Lafayette Crosses. This field of white crosses, begun in 2006, are tribute to men and women in the Armed Services who died in Iraq. The field is a local non-official monument on private property which touches your heart.


Share your stories for the Holidays

My friend Lee Shephard turned the tables on me when he interviewed me on his cable tv show, "Out of the Past". We had a grand time and I told several stories. First a taste of Finding Gus and then a quick version of the Elephant Man, a story from Elmwood Cemetary. Both stories are true and both use genealogy and family history as the content of the story. ** Hope you enjoy the stories and that during the holidays you are telling lots of your own family stories. Happy Holidays


Close to home

Here is an old story that reminds us to look at home for the treasure in our lives. Peddlar of Swatham from Ellouise Schoettler on Vimeo. What is treasure anyway? Gold? Goods? or the love and people in your life. At one time in my life, I admit, I went for the gold and goods - now I think more about the people being the treasure.
Jim ofcourse. ** Even though Jim is "out-of-sight" he is "ever-present" to me and my most valuable treasures are the love and years we shared. Our children and their families and our extended families. ** Friends ** Memories and stories - their value was once again wonderfully clear when I visited with Jim's sister, brother and their spouses this week-end, telling stories that brought Jim back into the group with us. Just as my sisters and I shared stories earlier this Fall - - stories are the glue that bind us aren't they. ** I have a pamphlet on Grief and Grieving by Doug Manning a Texas minister, in which he talks about how important it is to focus on the significance in your life of someone you have lost, how important it is to really understand what they meant in your life - as you grieve for them. ** The process of fully understanding what someone meant in your life is both a joy and an agony. Because now they are gone. You can't tell them.** Wouldn't it be wonderful to do that before you lose them - so that we know how incredibly rich we are? And, that they know they are the treasure? ** Just saying.


At home.

Today our country is mourning - mourning the deaths of twenty innocents in Connecticutt yesterday - and we hurt for and with the parents and families left in shock. ** This morning I wake up in a familiar hotel room in Jim's home town in California. We have stayed here many times since 1974 and even slept a few nights in this very room. I feel warm and comforted being here. Its as though I have stepped back in time - - I am home. Amazingly, Jim is here. ** Last night Robin and I had dinner in the restaurant downstairs with his brother, sister-in-law, sister and brother-in-law. We share the deep bond of loving Jim. Even when we are not talking about him we feel the connection. ** I was afraid of coming here. Afraid I would be overhelmed by grief and emotion. I am overwhelmed but its by the love and connection to Jim. Family. ** Dispite his own illness, Jim's brother came to visit Jim several weeks before he died. They sat together in our make-shift hospital room at home, saying little, feeling lots. I realized last night that Tom had not felt closure until we came and we could sit together. The same with his sister, who was too ill to travel. ** We will meet this morning to share Mass at San Joachim's where we have all prayed together and where we were all together for the funerals of Jim's parents and his sister. I know it will knit us still closer as we finally share prayers for Jim. ** One afteroon last February when he was in Sibley hospital, Jim fell silent. When I asked what he was thinking about he answered, "I am just wondering where you will be ten months from now." ** Now we know. ** Here in Madera - with him. ** As much as I feel my grief comforted this morning my thoughts circle back to the grieving parents of the innocent children in Connecticut -- just starting on their journey. I think of my daughter Gretchen who died when she was three years old- remembering walking that path and I pray for them. ** God Bless them with the strength to find their peace and comfort.



Today is the 48th anniversary of our daughter Gretchen's death. I have been thinking about her today - and about Jim. Jim was on active duty in the Air Force, stationed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, when Gretchen died suddenly. My uncle, an Army Colonel, advised Jim to exercise his Arlington option saying, "you can always move her later." But we never did and now Gretchen and Jim are together in Arlington - where I will someday join them. Feels right to me.


Coming to Ground

Hard for me to believe it has been nearly two weeks since I have written here. There has been a lot going on....but nothing I wanted to share particularly.
I have gotten a few jaunty Christmas letters from dear friends. This is not one of those. I can't point to many high points this past year. The best I can do is let folks know "I get out of bed everyday." People have been wonderful in helping me transition to this new life, in fact several angels have appeared to hold my hand. "Grieving" is hard work. For those who might not know - my husband Jim died in March and just to see if we were on our toes we had to wait for five months for his burial at Arlington National Cemetary. Two funerals, no matter how lovely, and his were, is just a bit much in one year. So, as I was saying, grieving is hard work. I just don't get as much done and am certainly not as efficient. All the books and articles on grief - and there are hundreds, assure me this is normal. I am glad to hear that but can't say that it helps much. Storytelling is the a grace and helps heaps. But now - - add a holiday. Wham - that really slows you down. I solved several parts of that by deciding not to decorate my house for Christmas. No tree this year. Jim and I loved putting up the Christmas Tree and we kept ornaments from every year. We still have a few left from the first time we had our own tree in 1957. Jim was an Intern at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. On his $63/month salary we had NO money to spend. But when another intern took us to Bargaintown USA - one of the first big box stores, we bought several boxes of shiny, colorful thin glass ornaments for $1.50 a box. Several have survived although the silver sprinkles have turned black. No, I am not taking a trip down memory lane as I unwrap every ornament. Instead I packed up and went out of town for an away-cation. Found someone who loves animals to live in my house for a few weeks to feed and love the animals. So far that's working out really well. United Airlines brought me to sunny California and its G O O D to be here with my daughter and her family in the sunny hills around San Francisco. This away-cation is a very sentimental journey. California is Jim's home state. He loved it. We came often to see his family and then our daughter moved out here and we came even more often to see her and subsequently our grand-sons. I am back in part as escape from home and in another part because Jim wanted to come to California but time ran out before he could. I was worried about coming. Wise Facebook friends shared many thoughts about what I should bring to support me through it. And I brought something of everything they advised from journals to that mouthy stuffed lion, Leo. He is the stand-in for Jim because Leo was on Jim's bedside table during the last leg of his journey. Last night I had dinner with long-time friends - one, Jim's college room-mate and Best Man at our wedding, reminded me of stories I had heard but forgotten. He brought back some wonderful memories - especially of one night he, Jim and I and one of my nursing school classmates visited the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorial at night - when they were bathed in moonlight. Oh, yes, I remember that - and Jim and I often took folks to those monuments at night because we knew how beautiful they were then. As well as other stories - - stories of a good friend. He told me how Jim called him when he had his stroke 15 years ago and rehearsed him on the answers with the psychiatrist the next day so that he could go home. And, it worked - just as he had sometimes coached him when they were in college. Gifts! Yes, I cried. Wouldn't you? But the tears felt warm - and healing. Once again - learning - the healing is in the stories.



Neil Gaiman won the Newberry Prize for The Graveyard Book. I read it, loved it and have it on my bookshelf. Let me tell you what led me to read it. One afternoon when Jim and I were driving back from PA we listened to a fascinating NPR interview with author Neil Gaiman. He was talking about his new book, The Graveyard Book. Gaiman told about taking his small child to a near-by graveyard to play twenty years ago and how, watching his youngster, the germ of the idea of a child being raised in a graveyard began to jell. Nobody Owens or Bod is the boy in this book who is raised by a community of ghosts. I had to get the book into my hands as quickly as possible. It reminded me of Mama. Mama told me from my earliest memory that she was “raised in Elmwood Cometary.”
Mama’s daddy died when she was about 18 months old. Granny was devastated. Everyday she took Mama with her when she drove to Elmwood, parked at the grave and sat with Gus Keasler – every day for eight year.
As Mama got older she was more and more restless on these long visits and Granny let her get out of the car. Mama had the run of the marble garden. She climbed over the statuary and eventually read the tombstones. She knew where everyone was buried. She could lead you right to anyone that she or Granny had known. She could tell you about them.
When Mama was about 90 years old our son Jim and his family went to Charlotte to visit her. She asked him to drive her out to Elmwood for a visit. Once they were parked she led them through the grounds, telling stories, introducing them to all the family. When I mentioned it to her she said – ” Of course I could do that. I was raised in Elmwood Cemetery.” When reading Gaiman’s book I enjoyed and admired the language, the images, and I liked the characters in the ghostly community. And, I thought of my mother and her relationship with all her ghosts. I have that too. At age 92 My mother died late in the afternoon on a Thursday.
The next morning Jim and I drove through the black wrought iron gates at Elmwood Cemetary. I stopped at Gus Keasler’s grave, now with my grandmother beside him, and I felt comforted. Years have passed and these days--- On Wednesdays I wave my pass for the guards to see as I drive through the black wrought iron gates of Arlington National Cemetary
, they smile and wave back.
Minutes later I park near Jim's resting place near the Tomb of the Unknowns. People say "why do you go there every week?" I go, as my grandmother did, because I feel comforted. Life is a circle.


Nothing Could be FIner...

My daughter Karen and I drove to North Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with my sister, Lynda, and her husband, Henry.

We had a great time. Lots of talking and old-time stories and a HEAVY traditional Thanksgiving Dinner of southern cooking at a local fixture-restaurant. It was delicious and brought back a flood of childhood memories through the familiar tastes.

We ate our dinner at The Old Country Kitchen in Snow Camp, NC near the site of a historical Quaker
community.  This place is a relic of past times and the walls were covered with more vintage Coca Cola graphics than  I have ever seen in one place outside of a museum. They did no waste time on or charge customers for showy decorating - it was totally roadside and down-home. I loved it.

We  ate hearty --- and left satisfied and happy.

This was the first Thanksgiving without Jim and it turned out to be a good decision to leave town and try something new and different.


Walking a Tight Rope

I am learning the truth about the warning, "Firsts" are tricky when you have lost someone.

And how.

So I decided to spend this "first" Thanksgiving in NC with my sister and her husband. Karen and I drove down yesterday.
It was a good decision!

We had a really comfortable ride in the new car. I loved sitting high off the road surrounded by lots of metal - driving it.
On the way to Lynda's we drove through Chapel Hill - where we lived when Jim was in the Psychiatry Residency at UNC Memorial Hospital. A quick ride through was not nearly enough so we are going back tomorrow. This is memory research and story building - - -and I like it, even when sometimes tears are dripping off my cheeks.

Today was something new. We went to Snow Camp, NC  - a place near Lynda's - for Thanksgiving Dinner at The Old County Kitchen. It was perfect. Old, decorated with more vintage Coke signs than I have ever seen in one place - - and the food - - well it was delicious. When I saw the buffet with all the traditional southern food - cooked home-style  - - my mouth started watering. From corn bread, dead green beans, mac and cheese, and fried okra the food captured pieces of my childhood. I can tell you frankly - I not only over-ate - I shamelessly made a pig of myself and it was all GOOD.

Talk, my gosh we have all been talking. And I am collecting stories. Just you wait.  Do you know about "butter and eggs" ? I didn't but I do now from my brother-in-law and -----

Tomorrow Karen and I are going to Southern Supreme to see where my favorite marvelous pecan pralines come from. After that we are going back to Chapel Hill.

Right now I am going to bed so I will have lots of "git up and git" for tomorrow.


Happy Thanksgiving

Wishing all my Facebook friends a very Happy Thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving I look back very gratefully to the 57 Thanksgivings Jim and I shared and my heart is filled with love and gratitude for the many blessings of those years.

Jim and I celebrated our 50 years together when we worked together to make this collage screen - an abacus - as part of my art show "About Time" at Studio Gallery, Washington, DC in 2005. 

Thank God for the gift of memory.

And,  for the stories we tell which keep our loved ones beside us!


Cars and Money Give Me Headaches and a PS

Facing up to buying another car and its hard.

I masquerade as a fairly practical person - but really I am a "creative" and crunching real numbers and making budgets gives me a head-ache.

When I was in high school we had a class called "Family Living" that was all about husbands and wives working together, budgets, talking things out - you know ways to have a reasonably functional family. Unfortunately my family was very dysfunctional which blocked my understanding of the class content quite a bit. I remember the cute blondes and serious others who made notes, brought in their hypothetical budgets and really loved the class.

I wished then -  and now  - that I was one of them.

In our marriage Jim was the practical money-manager and he often wished I had been one of them too.

But never you mind - life has a way of catching up with you and offering new chances to get those wishes.

Since Jim died I have had a continual nagging hear-ache - money and how to manage it. I am great at spending it - its the budgeting and managing that comes hard.

So here comes a BIG pain and test - buying a car.

What do I need?
What do I want?
What can I pay for - - - and how to pay?

First off - I am not buying a new car on a whim - the guy at the garage refuses to fix my 12 year old van because it is now and will continue to eat more and more money. Emotionally I am furious with this whipper snapper - ofcourse - but my rational side knows he has stepped up and done me a favor.

I hope he will also give me a bottle of Tylenol to go with the HEADACHE.

One of my primary needs is SAFETY.  To me that means sitting high up off the road and having lots of metal around me.

To start, since my van has been banned from the road, I rented a Chrysler Town and County van because its on the recommended list. When the guy from Enterprise drove up I tried not to laugh - this rental is shiny black and looks like a cross between a hearse and a Secret Service van like the ones that trail after the President's car when he speeds through Washington, DC traffic.

Its comfortable, lots of room, sits high up off the road, and the ride is smooth - its a TRUCK. Someone told me that Toyota Sienna's  - which I have driven for 12 years are built on a car body - while American auto makers built their vans on a truck body. I believe it.

The real extra on this Van - is that I can start a shuttle business and pay it off.

And, I love all the toys it has - things that were not even thought of a decade ago when we bought our Toyota - a back-up camera, navigation screens, hand free blue tooth telephone, Sirius radio with a whole channel devoted to 1950s music - all great! But - costly.

I tackled the Toyota dealer yesterday starting with new cars. The salesman was not high pressure so this morning I am going to drive a variety of Toyota vehicles.

I feel another headache coming on.

TA DA!!!

PS: 10 PM that evening.


After lots of agonizing, telephone confabs with my sister in Georgia and great help from my daughter Karen  and  - - - a handfull of Tylenol  - - I bought a car.

It sits high off the road. Surrounds me with lots of metal and  - it is filled with intriguing toys.

I bought a "fully loaded" 2010 Toyota Sienna Limited Van - in pristine condition that seemed to
be made  - - and waiting - -  for me.

There is a story for later.


Book-ends in History?

Whew! Elections are over!
I am happy!
Watched CNN where Wolf Blitzer and John King covered the count state-by-state until it was clear Barack Obama had won four more years.
I went to bed and slept well.

I missed sharing the evening with Jim.
We always tabled everything else and watched the Presidential election results together - by no means always agreeing about the best candidate, sometimes having "words" over it. Especially during the Nixon years. I was especially vocal and vehement about Richard Nixon.

Jim and I would have agreed last night as we did in 2008.

The way my story-mind works I also thought of other elections Jim and I shared.

The first election count-down we watched on television together was in 1960. We were living in San Antonio, Texas where Jim was stationed at Brooks Air Force Base - assigned to the staff of the School of Aerospace Medicine.  The 1960 was the first time I was aware of Richard Nixon and thank goodness John F. Kennedy won. Waiting for the results that night was so exciting and it went on and on. Finally we were so tired we decided to take the count-down to bed with us. 

We wheeled the small yellow television set on it's moveable stand from the living room to our bedroom. The rabbit-ears aerial perched on top of the set brought the black and white picture into any room in the house. Before there was a definite decision on the winner sleep claimed me. I missed Nixon's concession remarks and JFK's acceptance speech. I woke up as Jim came out of the shower and announced the good news!

Today people say the 1960 JFK win was the start of a new chapter in US History. As people will probably call last night - four more years for Obama - significant in our history. I can imagine historians will one day write books on how the two are related - will they call them book-ends to 50 years of US history?


Missiles, Canned Goods and White Shirts

Get Microsoft Silverlight

This is what I call "kitchen table" storytelling.

Sometimes something comes up - sparks a story - and you go ahead and tell it without deep preparation, relying on your memory to feed you the information as you need it. Well, that's what happened the day I told this story for the camera at Channel 16.  I watched the morning CNN News and 20 minutes later when I pulled into the parking lot outside the television studio I had decided to revisit my memories of a time 50 years ago. Perhaps the story will prompt your memories of October 1962 in your home.

This happened a week before Sandy the Frankenstorm loomed on the scene.  Funny that just 4 days later we were putting in supplies and preparing for our "survival" during Sandy.


About a Sister Visit

My sister Kathy came for a visit and even Sandy, the Frankenstorm, did not put a damper on our fun.

Ok. Ok. there were also tears - that just happens with me these days - and she understood - because she first met Jim when she was in 9th grade and Kathy has shared many things with us over the 56 years of our marriage. She misses him too.

We talked about our children and grandchildren and about our parents and our childhood memories.
In the ten days she was here - outside of storm Sandy - we crammed in a long visit at Arlington National Cemetary,
several thrift shops,
the Virginia Storytelling Alliance in Lorton where I told a story of a 1945 NC Hurricane at Wrightsville Beach that Kathy well- remembered even though she just 4 years old when it happened -
I switched my selected stories so that I could tell that story with Kathy in the audience.
(This is a link to a video version of the Hurricane Story   if you are curious.)

We talked of books and movies -
 I marveled at how she does all her internet work on her iPhone
she installed the Nook App on my iPad so that we can share our Nook books in future,
and I was surprised to discover that my sister is a dog-whisperer.

Our eight year old Shih Tzu, Leia, who was really Jim's dog has seriously grieved for him since he died in March. She has not been a bit interested in opening a loving friendship with me - not that I blame her - we have both been sad females. Kathy undertook to make a bridge with her and she did it.
She not only did it to her she showed me how to build a warm relationship with Leia for me. wow.

One day we drove to Baltimore for a sentimental visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the neighborhood where Jim and I met and began our marriage. Kathy spent a month with us during the summer and she remembered a lot about it. Most important she understood how important it was to me to be there with a "trusted" companion.

A security guard took this picture for us in the former Main Entrance with the legendary statue of Jesus, The Healer which has been there since the Hospital opened in the 1890s. People lightly touch the cool marble foot as they pass and often stop to sign a large visitors book which is kept on a near-by wall shelf - it is filled with petitions and gratitudes.

I lived here - Hampton House, the Nurses Home, when I was a student nurse at Hopkins. Jim and I met in the lobby for our first "blind" date. Every day I walked across the street and entered the hospital through the old Main Entrance. The first time I entered the hospital through that door the statue was such a surprise it took my breath away.

Being there brought back waves of memories and story possibilities - that's why I love storytelling.

And sharing these days - that's why I feel so fortunate to have sisters.


Waiting for Sandy

Sandy, the storm called the Frankenstorm, is on the way. Weather gurus predict sustained high winds for the Washington area which means a high likelihood that the power will be out - possibly for days. It has happened before. My sister Kathy and my daughter Karen took on the job of battening down the wood pile and getting anything else in the yard under cover so they won't "take off" in the winds. We have brought in water, batteries and other necessary supplies. We are charging all the electronics. We will shortly plug in the blow up beds so that we can settle in comfortably in the basement if we need to. We have a plan Jim developed years ago so its just a matter of following the 1 - 2 - 3. It seemed timely last night, when I was telling for a storytelling concert, so I changed my story and told this:


Sisters Visiting

My sister Kathy came up from Georgia for a visit - and we are having lots of FUN. Talking and talking about this and that - just like sisters do. We have done sight seeing and thrift shopping - where we found a few treasures. We have even been late-night grocery shopping to make sure we are prepared for the approaching storm, Sandy, in case it sweeps through here and the winds knock out the power. Kathy has charmed our dog Leia. She is completely spoiling her. But sometimes its good to have some spoiling going on.


NEW INTERVEW: Joel Markowitz, Editor and Publisher DCMetro Theater Arts

Recent entertaining and informative conversation on Stories in Focus with Joel Markowitz, Editor and Publisher of the popular internet news site, DC Metro Theater Arts.

Don't miss Joel's suggestions on getting Discount Tickets. 


VIDEO: Halloweens on the Way

The Blue Lights There is a Pumpkin Patch in Kensington and seeing it today reminded me to think about Halloween - then and now. Hope these memories prompt some of your own and that hearing this story will encourage you to ask your friends for their ghost stories. You could be surprised.


NEW VIDEO: Granny Makes a Cake

Granny Makes a Cake. Ellie Hall Keasler Baer was my mother's mother. She was very important to me from my earliest memories. Tomorrow I am telling a new story about Granny - so I thought I would post this story tonight. In a few weeks I will post Granny's Bed, the new story. Working on it took me back to bittersweet memories.


NEW VIDEO: Interview with Jessica Piscitelli Robinson

Recent interview with Jessica Piscitelli Robinson on Stories in Focus, Channel 16, Kensington, MD


NEW VIDEO: History Repeating Itself

My new kitten, now named Angel, came to me by surprise recently - as had other cats we have had - so I told her story for Stories in Time, Channel 16, Kensington, MD


NEW VIDEO: Sally Strackbein - Story Coach

Recently Sally Strackbein was the guest on STORIES IN FOCUS, Channel 16, MMCTV.org.
which resulted in this enjoyable and informative conversation.

Learn more about her and her work on her website.


Recording with Story Corps

October 1 - the day my son Jim and I were scheduled for an interview with Story Corps. As we drove into the library parking lot in Arlingotn, VA we saw the trim air-stream parked at the curb. Inside it is outfitted as a spiffy recording booth with wonderful sound equipment and a comfortable place to sit for conversation. The women in charge and the surroundings establish a very friendly environment that puts you right at ease.

Jimmy was the interviewer and I was the storyteller. We did not pre-script our 40 minute conversation but rather let it roll after he asked the first question - which was "so how did you become a storyteller?"

We talked of storytelling, family stories, genealogy, and how storytelling can restore the family storytelling that once took place at the lost dinner table. I talked of "finding gus" my one-person show of finding my lost grandfather and he asked me about my trips back to Charlotte, NC to retrace my childhood foot-steps. And we spoke of Jim and how his interest in genealogy had been a catalyst in firing my interest in investigating the family stories.

Jimmy and I laughed as we remembered our trip to Hallenberg, Germany where Jimmy and his wife Monica and Jim and I touched base with the roots of the Schoettler family.  I particularly remembered seeing Jim and Jimmy sitting with cousin Josef and a Schoettler elder, Edvouard (80ish) and noticing that the four men all had the same hands. Its an image that stands out in my mind because it gave me such a glimpse of the fact of family relatedness.

Jimmy was a wonderful interviewer and our conversation flowed freely and easily. We had wondered if 40 minutes would be too long - it wasn't - in fact it was not long enough. 

At the close of the interview we signed permissions for broadcast if they found anything interesting in the tape and they gave us a cd to copy for our family members. Another copy will be given to the Folklife Archives at the Library of Congress.

For me - I was grateful for sharing the experience with my son and for having this lovely recording for our family.

With Jim's passing in March I am so conscious of missing the sound of his voice that it is a comfort to have a recording of mine in conversation with Jimmy.

My recommendation - if the Story Corps air stream comes to your area by all means apply to schedule an interview. Share your story.



Its clear that I am going to have to buy a new car to replace our faithful 2000 Toyota Sienna Van - if not today or tomorrow - soon.

Looking at cars started me thinking about the cars Jim and I have owned over the 56 years we were married.

The first, a 1940 Packard, a real movie mobster car, was quite an experience. Jim bought it from another medical student and paid $25 for it. The black hulk had metal-encased spare wheels on the sides of the car and w i d e running boards. I learned when I drove into a service station and asked for someone to check the battery - that the battery was housed under the front seat. Jim needed a coat pocket when he drove the car because the way to lock it was to remove the large heavy front door handle. It clunked against Jim's side and made him look like he was toting a gun.  One of the real drawbacks in our Baltimore neighborhood at that time was that Jim had to move it to a new parking spot every other day. You can imagine - -  Jim finally sold it for $28 for scrap metal when he had a chance for another car.

Our second car was a blue 1948 Chevrolet two door car. It seemed to run OK but it had belonged to someone who lived on the Eastern Shore and many areas of the underbody were rusted out
The front seat was a divided seat that lifted front on each side so that you could get into the back seat.
That was fine for adults but when I had Jimmy in a car-seat in the front seat I had to be sure that one of the fittings was on the drivers seat so that one of us was bracing him - otherwise  he would pitch forward if we came to a quick stop.

When Jim graduated from Hopkins in Baltimore he was assigned to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY for his internship. We made that trip in the blue Chevy pulling our household goods packed into a small  U-Haul pull-it - up the New Jersey turnpike with a detour across a bridge to Brooklyn rather than going to Manhattan. Once Jim started his internship I became the regular driver for that car and it was up to me to shift the parking place every other day. As shabby and unpredictable as that car was we were glad to have a means of transportation.

At the end of the internship Jim had to report to the Air Force to ful fill his doctor-draft obligation.
We flew to Charlotte - where I was staying with Jimmy and our new baby Karen while Jim went to induction officer training in Mongtomery, Alabama. Before he returned  to pick us up at my parents he bought a NEW car - an apple green Ford station wagon. This was our entry into the world of surburban families in the 1950s. It was great. It had that wonderful new car smell with no fumes pouring in from the underbelly. And space - the space we needed for all the baggage and kid paraphenalia. It did not worry Jim one bit that after he bought one uniform he used the rest of his uniform allowance for the down payment on the car.

He drove back to NC to pick us up and several days later we four drove off on our three day drive to San Antonio, TX. where Jim was expected at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Randolph AFB for the training to earn his wings as a Flight Surgeon.

Jim and I went to San Antonio last November to re-visit our memories of those years. It was a sweet exercise  - - except I kept wishing our rental car was a vintage apple green Ford Station Wagon.

Who knows maybe we were


Passing it Down

Jim with our grandson Jamie.

Jim believed in documenting family history. And we have the legacy to prove it. Photos, home movies, videos, and audio tapes. I am in process of gathering them from closets and drawers to be sure we have them all together in one place.

When we met in Baltimore he was taking pictures with one of his father's range-finder cameras. Developing the black and white film was expensive so we don't have many photos of those days - but the ones we do capture the moment. I could never take pictures with that camera. It baffled me. My speed was a Brownie reflex. 

Jim learned to take pictures from his father who was one of those camera smitten amateur photographers of the California 1930s. Jim helped his father take 16mm movies of the family. We have copies of those movies - scripts written by Jim's mother and performed by his brothers and sisters - with sound. They are priceless and precious to us.

I remember the first time I saw those movies I had heard so much about.  One special evening in 1969 when we were at his parents house in Madera, CA for Christmas Jim's father brought out the big movie projector. It was a small crowd that evening - Jim's mother and father, Jim and me and our three kids.  Hal showed the family movies and a selection of Castle WWII films. 

A dozen years ago Jim's oldest brother Harold transferred those movies to DVD for each of his siblings. They are wonderful - except that he backed the films with the theme from Chariots of Fire. I challenge anyone to watch them without crying as those kids of long ago cavort in the snow at Bass Lake and act out their mother's scripts in their Fresno living room. We should all be so lucky as to have our childhoods captured for us to relive again and again.

With the advent of digital cameras which made photography immediate and much easier I took up photography as well. And albums became part of my art form.

Jim and I enjoyed and shared a passion for documenting everyday life. Jim got it from his father, I inherited it from my Aunt Katherine and we see it shared out in our kids.

Feels good.


I Heard Wolf Blitzer's Voice

Since I have been attending the Memoir Class at the Chevy Chase Library I have been harvesting strange bits of forgotten memories as they pop up from no-where. I was surprised to have a job I have not thought of in years surface. I guess it was prompted by the news.

For instance last week during the CNN reports on the scary Libya and region terrorist attacks and tragic killings I suddenly remembered the first time I ever noticed Wolf Blitzer on TV.  Today his face is so familiar in most households its hard to remember that he was once an unknown.

That morning the much younger looking Wolf was in Kuwait reporting on the start of the Gulf War while I was sort of stranded in one of the first floor corridors of the State Department in Washington, DC.  It was 1991, 6:30 am in the morning on January 17, I think. I am a bit shaky on the date but I know the time for sure.

I had an interim job working as an event manager for a DC consulting firm.  The firm had a contract to plan and manage a series of  international meetings of G-8 representatives who were developing strategies on how to combat the drug smuggling in countries where that stuff was going on. This was the opening morning. Our delegates were arriving to start the four day meeting at 8 am.  Jim dropped me off at 6 am on his way to his office. I came early to meet the caterers who were to set up my delicious Continental Breakfast and have hot coffee waiting for the delegates as they came in from the bitterly cold January morning.

As I walked across the the lobby I was aware that the television mounted on the corridor wall was on and I heard the now familiar voice of Wolf Blitzer. There was urgency and excitement in his voice as he described the start of Desert Storm - a war - in very vivid combat terms of missiles, explosions and attacking planes. I stopped in my tracks and stared at the screen trying to take this in - the United States - was at war.

Then I noticed across the lobby that the metal gates I had entered through half an hour before had clanged shut - locked  - and a crowd was gathering on the other side as the now-armed guards set the up metal detectors and watched over the badge checkers who had revved into action.

I was the only one of our group inside. When I saw my supervisor I waved and stepped over to the barrier which had been pulled out to block anyone entering. I explained what was going on. Everyone entering the building was floored. When they left home Wolf Blitzer had not been on the screen and for all intents and purposes the United States had not been at war - are far as we knew.

It was quite a morning. Quite a day. Tense and strained. And would continue that way for all the days we met at the State Department.

That was the first of five four-day meetings we planned and managed for the Department of Justice. You know what, each one has some story to tell. I have not thought of that in years - now I think I will.


It takes friends .....

How do you make a story?
With help from your friends and family..that's for sure.

I am working on a new story ---about junior high school. I have thought about this incident many time but just now crafting it to a story. Maybe its because of my current Memoir Class and the encouragement to capture stories from across your lifetime. That plays a part, true, but the biggest push is to tell stories that came before Jim. A long marriage is loaded with stories and I have some wonderful ones about Jim but I am holding those close right now.

Whatever the impulse to develop this story I am discovering how much I appreciate some bouncing my memoires off the recollections of others who were also there. Especially my friend, Betsy

Betsy and I have known each other since we were Girl Scouts in the Fourth Grade. We went through Piedmont Junior High School and Central High School together. And we have shared our lives since. We have accumulated a mountain of memories.

Betsy lives several hundred miles away. Thank heavens for the telephone.

Today we talked of Piedmont Junior High School and she shared what she remembers about the wonderful days of 13 and 14 year olds.  I am often awed by her encyclopedic memory of teachers, their names, subjects and their foibles.
We laughed.
We hooted.
We giggled
over the odd things we remembered about those old - to us then - people
who probably were not old at all.

"Don't you have your PORTHOLE?" she asked. Well no.

But she has her album from 1951 - the album from our ninth grade year.

Technology and email to the rescue.

She scanned some pictures and sent them last evening.

Now I have the faces of the Piedmont Faculty freshly in my eyes and memories are popping up
like popcorn in a pot on a hot burner.

Back to my point -

it takes a village to raise a child
it takes friends
to help turn misty memories
into real stories.



Writing a lot these days.

Lists - to keep myself on track I find lists very helpful. When I don't complete all assignments in one day I carry the left-overs to the next day. Some days there is a big pile-up - like a Beltway traffic jam - and I have to re-prioritize and run in place to clear some space on the list - - actually in my life. It was that way with last year's taxes. I kept putting them off until ----- but now they are done.
I am starting again with this year's taxes.

Blogs - these are another way I keep track of myself and what's happening in my life.  I love writing on the computer, watching the words emerge onto the screen right before my eyes and then self-publishing so that I can see the written page - - and maybe others will read them too. Adding pictures is a big plus for me.  Composing with words and pictures - - to make connections across time - or not - to try to understand the patterns in life. My blog writing often leads to story ideas or ways to tweak memories into a story. I played with Finding Gus on the blog before I started shaping it into a story. Now, my question is - what do I do with all the words that have accumulated on Ellouisestory? Hmmmm.

Journals - Yes, I keep those too - started that habit long before computers came onto the scene.  I carry a notebook with me everywhere calling it "my brain." Its filled with doodles, appointments, telephone numbers, email addresses and other notes. I started using notebooks in the 1970s when I was in graduate school after I saw how effectively a classmate was keeping herself organized with a mid-sized three-ring binder notebook. Since then I have used all kinds of notebooks. When I subscribed for many years to the more expensive Day Timers system I enjoyed using it - but it was more of a calendar-appointment book so I ended up carrying the monthly book and an extra to-write-in book. I always carry a blank book to write in - along with a Pilot Bold Gel Pen - preferably blue. Now I have settled on the $2 grid-ruled, 9"x7" composition book from Staples. Just bought a new stack of them the other day.

Letters - now-a-days people email rather than sitting down and penning a letter. I miss that. I love letters and I always enjoyed writing them. But most of all I loved receiving them. My aunt wrote absolutely fabulous descriptive letters from Baghdad when she lived there for a few years in the 1960s. I have them still.

Is it the southern influence or something familial I wonder?  Do we all harbor a hope that we will write something meaningful or turn out to be Eudora Welty or Harper Lee? If you tried you might patch together a line or two from my volumes that was written on a good day that are worth keeping. Are the mountains of words a defense against the way death acts as an eraser? Do we write to capture a bit of immortality - to prove we were here for a time?

An important value of the journals for me is that they contain close connections to the days of my life. When I sit down with my BOXES of journals I step back into those days. To me that's worth being burdened with a wall of heavy bankers boxes filled with yellowing paper notebooks  - - even filling my computer hard drive until it screams "overload". Now I also have DROPBOX which gobbles up and holds unfathomable amounts of typed pages and photographs.

The irony? I have started to consider the reality of what if and the consequences of people reading through these journals on their own - without my hand there to snatch them away.

I am considering editing them - just like I will have been edited.


Serendipity Magic


I love it when the Universe takes a hand and points me in a good direction.

Last week when I stopped by my local library I saw a notice for a
MEMOIR WRITING class that was starting soon. 4 Sessions. FREE.
5 minutes from my house at a good time. What's not to LOVE?

My storytelling is all memoir although not formally written down.  I am working on new material. This class could open the door to some new insights. Again, what's not to LOVE?

Yesterday was the first class.

20 plus seniors, men and women,  gathered in the basement meeting room of the library, surrounded by noise from an annoyingly loud air conditioner. Our instructor faced the group. He is a very tall and gangly elderly man with sharp blue twinkling eyes and a wide smile.  He reminded me of Jim when he waved us to our seats with his inordinately long, thin arms.  "Come in. Come in." Perched on the edge of the table he exuded the ease and confidence of experience. Later, someone asked him the direct question and he revealed his age - a biblical 91 years.

I had not known what to expect. I guess I thought there would be some didactic lists about what to do as you start to write your autobiography, your memoir. Wrong. Early on he told us that we would be on a
quest - - to know ourselves. One woman balked. "I did not come here for self-help."

The teacher was not phased. "Madam, how can you write a memoir if you do not know who you are?
or what your purpose is?"

I settled more comfortably on the hard molded plastic chair, if such a comfort is possible. The feeling that he would be a trustworthy guide for these four sessions flowed over me.

What better place for me, standing as I do on the edge of finding out who I am or will be in a new world, than on a quest.

Our teacher used exercises and prompts that are familiar to folks like me who take or teach storytelling workshops. But they seemed to me to have a different flavor. When we paired up to talk about prompts like our first memory or the first home we could remember they felt fresh. I wondered if if was because we were all the same general age or if it was because we were not there to "achieve" something for the outside world but had something we wanted for ourselves or to share with a more private circle.

He assured the group that once you started on this quest and then began the writing that it would take hold of you and change your life. I believe that to be true because more than twenty years ago it happened for me when I encountered storytelling for the first time. But I heard him opening another door - not just the finding and telling of our stories but the finding of ourselves, who we are and how we came to be ourselves.

The homework? To write a confidential mission statement  - what is our purpose in life?

Yes, I think I am in the right place.

And I have no doubt the Angels brought me here.


A Change

Jim died 6 months ago today.  That's like yesterday.

Watching the DNC tonight and wishing Jim was here with me so we could talk about it. But that is not unusual.

Everyday something happens, or a letter arrives, or I see someone and I wish  I could talk about it with Jim.
If anyone wants to know what grief feels like - for me this is it - its missing Jim. And facing the sometimes crushing reality of knowing he is not coming back home. I have cried until I am dry

For these 6 months I have written about my new widowhood here on this blog - - but now I have decided to move that writing to a new blog - -  Me, the Widow

Because writing about these new days helps me I will continue to write - but I won't be posting it out.
You are welcome to stop by if you are interested.

Why do I do it?
Because, believe it or not, although grief sits on my shoulders all the time, that's not all that's in my life.
Everything is changed for me and I am working to rebuild my life. I will talk about that in this place.

I am very grateful to have storytelling and my art work to help me back to work. This month I have at work in a group show at the Katzen Rotunda, American University. This is a group of former AU alumni who meet together, a group I have belonged to for seven years. The best thing about it is being with people I have known for years - - friends and the comfort of familarity is incredibly important to someone like me right now.

On the storytelling front  - I have been invited as one of the storytellers for a special storytelling concert here next week-end. Thanks to good advice from a wise woman, storyteller  Elizabeth Ellis, I chose the story carefully to protect myself from any emotional pot holes. Taping two TV shows most weeks along with producing Tales in the Village keeps me on my toes. And, I am telling a school night for middle school students the end of the month.

Things came together in such a remarkable way that I decided to go the National Storytelling Festival in October with a small group of close friends. I have to admit that the real draw for me this year is the chance to see the marvelous Jeanne Robertson in person on Thursday night. I don't know what to expect. It could be a hard trip filled with memories of the wonderful times Jim and I had there together. Or --- it could be a celebration of those very same warm and wonderful days.

Handling the "stuff" to keep the house in shape which always fell to Jim now falls on me. There is plenty to do in this seventy year old house. Would you believe that the copper pipes in the basement have now developed little green pin holes that seep water? So, in two weeks the plumber will be here to replace them with new PVC pipes before they flood the basement. Believe me I don't feel kindly toward those pipes.

You get the picture.


Mama's New Story

Mama's New Story Before she died my 93 year old mother, Louise Keasler Diggle,  told her priest the story of her romance with my father.
It turned into quite a surprise when he told it at her funeral.

I love telling Mama's New Story so really appreciated
being part of a recent Better Said Than Done line where I could bring it out again.


Tea and Michelangelo

Yesterday while sitting
in my neighbor's kitchen
over a cup of fresh brewed tea
we unexpectedly revisited
memorable art treasures in Italy.

It started when
I noticed a 24" statue
of the Blessed Mother
standing on a wooden fence
within in sight of Jane's kitchen table.

The smiling plaster virgin
 reminded me of the
24" Michelangelo plaster DAVID
my aunt gave to me
three decades ago
that is out-of-sight
in my basement.

"DAVID should only be
 massive and marble
standing outside like he does in Florence.
Puny and white plaster,
like my statue,
standing on a bookcase.
he looked downright obscene"

We laughed out loud
and then agreed
our favorite Michelangelo sculptures
in Florence
are the powerful captives
wrestling to free themselves
of their stone prisons.

Our memories moved us quickly to Rome
where we revisited
Michelangelo's powerful MOSES
in San Pietro in Vincoli.
after the long walk
on a hot day
to get to that church
where the light on the statue
costs a coin.

Then we jumped to
the town of Arezzo
for basking in the wonder and richness
of the The Legend of the True Cross
frescoes by Piero della Francesca
in the Church of San Francisco.

It was a rich hour
as we returned together
to places we visited separately
on different days years apart

As we each saw
the vivid images of timeless art masterpieces
held in our memories
like photos in an art history textbook
we forged a new connection.

Post Script:

Our sharing those experiences of Italy and Michelangelo brought back some memories of wonderful trips Jim and I made to Italy. 1978 was Jim's first trip to Italy. Since I was the one who had the hours in Art History he decided to read the Agony and the Ectasy and focus on Michelangelo. It was a great idea.

At that time I was completing my MFA in Painting and had logged a LOT of hours in Art History, something I really love. His concentration in all science classes to prepare for medical school and then the years after had left Jim a bit art history challenged. So the focus on Michelangelo was a wonderful solution to bringing us together as we walked miles from church to church for three weeks.

That was the first of other trips to Italy - but those are other stories.

And, art was always a memorable companion.


What is Memoir?

When I was a young reader I was very influenced by memoir-type books. I particularly loved the stories of upbeat, fun-loving people who talked about living adventureous lives.

(This is me - age 13 - at Piedmont Junior High School, Charlotte, NC - dressed in my initiation outfit for the Junior Honor Society. That basket was filled with books and we had to carry them on our heads throughout the day.)

Take for instance the two smart-talking young women on their first trip to Europe in "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay".  I was about 12 years old when I read OHWYG - and had no idea about an ocean voyage much less about traveling in Europe. The two heroines were new college graduates ready to confront a wide-world - something so far removed from my life as to be unimaginable to me - but I loved their spirit and the way Cornelia Otis Skinner described their adventures and mis-adventures.

Skinner's writing style influenced my letters for years as I tried to translate my pretty bland ordinary every day life into up-beat slang infested language. Then I became enamored by Irma Bombeck - one of the women of the 50s who wrote funny vignettes of family life. I loved those writers who could find the funny in the housewife's life.

The stories I tell today are drawn from life...ok ok my life. Sometimes I turn to funny. Some times I touch the truth and pain of real experience.  The constant thread in my work is the wish to record my life and the times, to make sense of it, to give these days of living meaning and value, to keep the people I love and loved close, to share whatever I have learned. Why? Because I believe each person's story has meaning and is important in the large fabric of life.

What's all this about?
Well, I am starting a memoir class this week.
I want to hear how the instructor describes what it means to "write a memoir" that's different from "telling a story?"

Have I been on the right track with my blog? If I have maybe I can cull through the past 6 years of writing and sift those words into my memoir.

No doubt about it.  Jim's death taught me the truth that we don't have all the time in the world. There is an end for each of us. 

 So better tell the story now - - if that's what you want to do.



Things I am learning: People tell me that when a person is grieving they are not themselves - they are a bit looney. That's not right for me - I am a lot looney a good bit of the time. Now I could be more myself if sudden feelings of sadness and grief did not slip up on me and slap me upside my head. Like the other day at the dentist when sedated on Nitrous Oxide I roused up to feel tears flooding my checks and the assistant brushing them off. That's how it is - you cry without warning and without giving that water permission to run.

Filling out forms to change your status from wife to widow is hard. Its not just a form its a declaration. And if you have done it at the doctor's office it's saying right there - I am in charge of me. I am the responsible party.

When you are on your own and beginning to figure out how much money you need to run your house - every thing will break down - from the water heater to the washing machine to the toilets. There must be rule somewhere - go ahead mess with her.

Keep saying to yourself over and over - "I am the boss of me." because everyone you talk to will have some ideas about what you should be doing and have nothing to say about how well you are doing anything - even sweeping up in the kitchen.

Thank God every day for good friends who understand that you aren't yourself right now - and you hope to be back soon.