Embrace the Silence

She was silent. It was hard for her, introverted and shy, to join my book club. She had explained that she had been living amid COVID-19 and California wildfires, and still trying to align a life after the loss of her husband. But she brought a quiet, calming aura into our Zoom room with her. On the third week we read these lovely words by Mary Oliver:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

That day Elsa found her words. “I love being outside. I love the quiet. While I cannot find my words or seem to write much these days, I find comfort here. Comfort in the quiet. Comfort in being in this community.”

Her words pulled me back into my high school classroom where I remembered a beloved student who was shot in the head while chasing a customer who had walked out of Walmart with a television. I remember my classroom of bereaved teenagers who circled around the empty desk where Lucas had sat. It was in that moment that I learned my students, who wrote almost every day, could not write. They had lost their voice. They needed silence. They needed time to heal. I learned then when a personal story shatters, our brains need time to wrap ourselves in it. To understand it, to accept it, and to learn to live with it.

After Lucas death, I told my students about a powerful little book, Night. When the author, Elie Wiesel was a teen, he was herded off to the concentration camps in Germany. After these traumatic experiences, Wiesel claimed he was unable to write about them for ten years. He published Night in 1960. Fifteen years after the war.  But when he did write about his experiences at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, his words helped the world see inside the nightmare of his life during World War II. In moving his story into words, he came to understand his story and infuse it with meaning that would help him carry it forward to the world and help us understand the atrocities of living in Nazi Germany.

Recent studies support the fact that silence lowers our stress and allows us to internalize and reflect on new and painful information. With time our minds can learn to edit our difficult experiences and move forward. We can learn to interpret or hold a difficult story in a new way. After a memorial to Lucas a couple of weeks after his death, we were able to come together and create a beautiful journal of mementos and written tributes to our dear friend. We were able to find our voices and share our stories of Lucas.

Back to sweet Elsa who had lost her voice. Several weeks later, in a writing class, she began to share snippets of her painful story. First, she wrote about the shock of losing her husband John to a heart-attack. Then she wrote of her sister Margie whom she saw as strong and gifted in many areas. “She dove off the high dive on the first attempt at the L.A. High pool where we learned to swim. I crawled to the top and leaped–eyes shut, legs bicycling in a height-driven panic.” A fierce competition had splintered their relationship, and as they grew up, they grew apart. Eventually Margie charged forward as a career woman, and Elsa married John and became a teacher.

In our last class, Else shared the story of a Thanksgiving when there was a blowout with Margie angry at how John treated Elsa. The pain of the event pulled the sisters further apart until one heart-ripping night. Here is the ending to Elsa’s story that she read to us:

”It was Margie whom I called from Monterey Hospital at 2 am on April 18, 2015, to tell her John had a heart attack. In the coming days, it was Margie who drove me back and forth each day for the 45-minute drive, while John remained in intensive care. It was Margie who was there holding music up to his ear to comfort him in the last days of his life. It was Margie who brought me home to an empty house and stayed with me.

Margie has shepherded me through these last six years. She has helped me regain a sense of stability, stamina, courage, and fortitude.”

I looked around our Zoom room and as small as the screen photos were, I believe I saw glistening eyes in every box. After all these years, Elsa had found her sister.  Although it had taken time and silence, Elsa had something else, too. She had reclaimed her own beautiful voice.

A Legacy of Love

My dad wrote his first love letter in 1942.  As a Purdue engineering student at the time, he came to Richmond, Indiana, with a fraternity brother to celebrate Thanksgiving because he was short of cash for the train home to Pittsburgh. While in Richmond he had a blind date with my mom. “She was the smartest woman I ever met,” he once told me. “She was never uppity—and there was this light in those blue eyes.” He began hitch-hiking to Richmond regularly.

My dad wooed mom with Frank Sinatra music. In the coming years, he wrote a couple dozen love letters. I know because my mother admitted to me they were hidden in the nightstand by their bed. “He was no Romeo; he was an engineer,” my mom explained. “But his love letters showed me that he had a beautiful heart.” I wanted to read the letters.

Sandra's ParentsWhen dad graduated, they married and my mother followed him to Southbend, where my brother Les was born, and to Hartford, where I was born, and then back to Southbend where Charley was born, and eventually onward to Indianapolis, where we grew up in a suburb south of the city. In Indianapolis my dad helped design the first jet engine parts, and my mother undertook caring for our home and grew prize-winning roses.  Once she told me, “I missed my home in the early years of our marriage. Sometimes, I cried,” she admitted, “But your dad would hold me, and it was okay. Then we made our own home. Our own family.” She believed this was the most important thing you could do, and she did it well.

While she discouraged me from thinking I would grow up to be a homemaker, she embraced being one. I have endless images in my head of her hanging the laundry outside, scrubbing the kitchen floors, and sewing our clothes on her Singer Sewing machine. She hummed as she did her chores. Frank Sinatra tunes.

At noon each day my dad called my mom to check on the stock-market, but as I recall it now, he was really checking on mom. Telling a joke. Perhaps flirting with her. Since he was once was mistaken for Frank Sinatra, he would often insist he was the famed actor calling. Many afternoons after the school bus dropped me off, I would run up the hill, hoping for the smell of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies—my dad’s favorite. At four each afternoon my mother prepared a meatloaf or a casserole and then she took a bath and put on fresh clothes. When my dad pushed through the door with his briefcase, my mom always seemed to light up the room. Then there was a long, warm embrace. Every day.

My parents must have fought, but I only have images of them yelling at my brothers or me for bringing the neighbor’s dog in the house or forgetting to ask when we stayed late at school. When there was a disagreement brewing, dad had a tried and true line to spout, “No one can argue with a man who looks like Frank Sinatra.”

My dad met my mom on what he called “the luckiest day of my life.” They shared 72 years together, and during that time I took their love for granted, but I never doubted it. Only now do I realize my great fortune. When dad died five years ago, I asked my mom if I could read the love letters he wrote to her. She looked a little sad. “Your dad asked me to burn them a few years ago. At this moment, I am sorry I did.”

I would love to have those love letters. But at least I still hold in me the beauty of their story. Now my parents share a niche in a lovely church garden. I visit them from time to time to honor what they gave me and what they shared, a love that seems to have transcended time. This is my legacy of love. An incredibly fortune one.

What is your legacy of love?  Often we have to reach beyond the boundaries of family and even our losses to find them.  A sibling who has passed? A mentor?  A friendship? A lover? A pet? What is your legacy of love?

The Science of Love Letters

According to Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg, love is composed of three basic components–

  • Intimacy
  • Passion
  • Commitment

Which element matters the most when you are writing a love letter or declaring your love to another? While an ideal love needs all three, one study showed we prefer commitment above all else. It would a good idea to sign love letters with “Forever Yours” or “Love Always!”

The Gift of Being in the Moment

I have a reading chair in my family room by the fireplace. It has been empty since March. Pre-pandemic I used to read with my preschool grandchildren in that comfy chair. Often they would go to my book stash, choose a storybook, and toddle back to our chair. I love nothing more than reading with a child in my arms. I miss nothing more.

But these days I don’t see the little ones often. When I do, it is outdoors, and they hide behind bear or dog masks. Baby Evy and four-year old Harper blow me air kisses, and sometimes Harper forgets and hugs my legs.

Macy used to be a regular here for sleepovers, but since the first surge of COVID, she has been in online school, and I see her mostly on Zoom. During this time, she has grown taller, more serious, and sounds far too mature for her nine years. The change feels too sudden. When I Facetimed her a few weeks ago to discuss what she wanted for Christmas, she warned, “Gigi, this is not a normal Christmas. I don’t want normal presents.” She placed her finger on her mouth and looked skyward. “I want to see my best friend, Ellie. I mean really see her. We are in the same class, like the same things, but we have never been allowed to play together. Also, I want a vaccine to save lives!” I could feel the pain of being nine and not having time with friends. Macy missed her buddies as much as I missed her.

The pandemic is changing us, and each one of us has faced the strain of adapting and rewriting our personal story. While I struggle with the distance from friends and grandkids, not all is lost. I am finding new ways to connect. One tradition popped up unexpectedly.

Now that I write at home—which is an internal battle of its own—I have begun rewarding myself by baking cookies some afternoons. Word trickled out to the grandkids and within weeks I was dubbed the new Picasso of Pastry. This is a lie. But I perpetuate this myth with the hope of rare and socially distanced visits with the littles in my backyard wrapped in the warmth of the desert winter. Lately, my favorite moments have happened on that patio where we remove our masks only long enough to munch a cookie, and we share what is happening. Our pandemic stories. Some sad. Some happy.

While I have not resorted to hoarding toilet paper, I am guilty of stock-piling a near-truckload of Betty Crocker Cookie Mix which comes in a surprising array of flavors from dark double chocolate to snickerdoodle. I am learning how to improvise with extra milk, teaspoons of Madagascar vanilla, and when needed–extra chocolate chips. I am learning to release my inner cookie monster and fill an entire role of wax paper with baked treats in short order.

Before Christmas I stamped out countless sugar cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees, Santa, stars, and even airplanes for Steven, my young grandson. Martha Stewart does not live here, but I have managed to do a reputable imitation given these strange times.

Of course, COVID left its imprint on our Christmas. Three of our friends are sick —one seriously. One-hundred-year-old Grandma Edna became so anxious about visiting our home that she called ten times on Christmas Eve to discuss it, and finally cancelled at the last minute. Steven ate so many gingerbread cookies he spent most of Christmas day in bed.

But it was Christmas, and we did our best to carry on. My sons and their families, eight of us, gathered on our back patio for a Christmas picnic. Afterwards four of us played our favorite new COVID game, double beachball soccer. The children made it up and the rules change often, but it centers on keeping two beach balls on the grass and kicking or hitting the balls that come to you to someone else before it rolls out of bounds. It seems no one ever wins this game, but no one ever loses either. With two active beach balls zigzagging in all directions, you can get your daily exercise in short-order! The air shimmers with children’s laughter.

Later when we munched iced sugar cookies and chatted by the fireplace. I asked the children how this Christmas was different, and there was no shortage of answers.

“It’s a stay-away, stinky-cheese-man Christmas!”  four-year-old Harper said with glee. We all laughed, and Harper explained. “At school we didn’t like to call it social distancing, so Mrs. Vargas let us choose a better name. We read this book, The Stinky Cheese Man.” Harper pinched her masked nose. “Whew. Everyone stays away from the stinky cheese man—and when someone forgets the six-feet rule, we say to them “stay-away, stinky-cheese-man!”  One-year-old-Evy squealed with delight, “Chee-eese!”

“That’s cool, Harper,” Macy said. “Gigi, I got some Roblox toys, but this year the best part of Christmas was seeing Ellie at the park two days ago. She is my best school friend, and we had never really seen each other.” She paused for emphasis. “Seeing a friend–that was the best gift! Also, we got the vaccine, and I think that is a good gift for everyone!  Maybe in a few months we can have sleepovers at Gigi’s, and we can all read together again in the reading chair!”

Her words rippled through my heart. Harper clapped. “Yeah. One of my favorite gifts is Gigi’s cookies!” she bellowed as she flew an iced airplane up-up through the air with hope.

There in the warmth of both the sun and the children’s words, I realized how fully I love sitting in this moment with their joyful energy. In the time of COVID that was undoubtedly my best gift.