The Emptying Nest

I’ve previously written about a sense that despite the struggles my daughter had in high school, she was about to launch, and launch spectacularly.

We may be at T-minus-ten…nine…eight…seven…

This week we learned that three months out of high school, she has been accepted for a position at James Madison University down at Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she will be working on the staff of the Forbes Performing Arts Center. Working with her supervisor, she will manage two of the campus’s auditoriums: one frequently used for dance and other recitals, the other often used for guest speakers and diversity events. She will be meeting with potential clients–groups wanting to use the space–and helping them prepare their event, then helping run the technical side of the event (lights, sound), for about 30 hours a week on average. She starts in just ten days–so we’re in the midst of trying to find her a place down there and planning a move for next week.

She is super excited about it, and we are super excited for her. She had said her goal for this year was to get a job in the technical side of theatre, to learn more about whether this is what she truly wants to do. Now she has a chance to do that, to learn more about theatre management in the process, and to do so on a college campus–so she can also get experience with that world, and consider whether that’s something she actually wants to do, as well. There are so, so many potentially great things that can come from this, I can’t even begin to list them all.

Of course, we will worry. A little. She’s a fiercely independent young woman, so I’m sure she can take care of herself two hours from home. She will figure things out, she will adapt to what comes up. And I know she will face setbacks along the way, and I pray she brings the resilience to handle them all.

But most of all, I will miss her. I will miss having her around, I will miss being able to share a laugh about something that we both, in our twisted senses of humor, find funny. I will miss hearing her and her friends laughing in some corner of the house, and I will miss hearing the front door chime when she gets home late from visiting them. I will miss sharing Ultreyas with her, and seeing her on the mountain for Chrysalis.

The house is about to become much, much emptier: just me, Mary, and the dog (who will be beside herself–what, all y’all keep leaving!). There’s going to be a little less life around here, a little less of what made this home special.

The nest is well and truly emptying, and while there is that touch of melancholy, I couldn’t be prouder of my kids.

Love Letters

OK, right up front I have to confess to being a bit of a pack rat. This is important to the story because part of what I’ve been doing, while a furloughed Government employee this week, has been cleaning out my basement from decades of accumulated junk. I’m also going through the boxes of mementos, trying to simplify those; for instance, my parents had saved a box of my elementary school work. I don’t think my kids or grandkids are going to find my fifth grade spelling test to be as fascinating.

I came across one set of boxes, though, that contained about ten shoeboxes, each crammed with all the letters from various friends I’d received and then saved from the early 1980s through today. (Although the number of letters saved dropped off d-r-a-m-a-t-i-c-a-l-l-y in the mid-1990s, about the time email came along. Go figure.) I had completely forgotten that I had saved them all!

I went through the boxes of letters, and decided to have almost all of them shredded. I pulled out the stack of love letters that Mary had sent me when we were still dating and just becoming affianced; those I’m definitely saving. But all the rest: they’re going. Ones from my mom and dad, included. And in so doing, I get to say goodbye to a lot of other love letters and ghosts in my past.

Laura, the first real romance I had (if you can count 8th grade as romance, but hey, we exchanged letters about another 7 years). Then Cynthia. Heidi. Dawn. And Julie, my first true long-term relationship. All were some stage of relationship I had, each in some way preparing me to be who I am.

I will confess to a quick peek through some of them before I tossed them in the shred box. They speak of life in a simpler time, when letters were the only way to share (because long distance phone calls were SO EXPENSIVE) and when all of us were young, oh so young, with raw emotions and little experience in dealing with them. The awkwardness, the daring, the vulnerability–the whole range of emotions.

To be honest, it’s with mixed emotions I let these letters go. Of course, I’m not in love with these women anymore, and I certainly don’t need to have these around. I mean, looking at the letters today was the first time in decades that I’d seen them. Some of these young women were more into me than I was into them. Others, I know I hurt when we broke up. All of them, I would apologize to for any hurt I would have caused. All of them, I truly wish well, and hope they’re doing well. One, I know, is a thriving wife and mother. Others, I’m not so sure. But I’m not about to go find out. And yet, they’re just letters, just relics of a time gone by that will never come again, will never amount to anything.

In exorcising those ghosts of my past, it also occurs to me that they each pointed to what I have today. My wife is the total package, if you will, of all I had pieces of over my life. Laura’s smile and (frankly) sauciness is Mary’s. Cynthia’s sense of humor and small-town genuineness is Mary’s. Dawn’s faith is Mary’s. Heidi’s vulnerability is Mary’s. And Julie’s warmth and dedication is Mary’s.

I remember aching for one of my early romances at the time, and wondering if she were the one God had in mind for me. Little did I know he would have many others in store for me, before unveiling the grand prize, the one who brought everything together for me, the one without whom I couldn’t imagine the last nearly 29 years. And as I prepare to put my trust in him one more time, for one more big step, it seems right to let go of all the past, all that’s extraneous, all that isn’t what I have now and need to have in the future.

God bless you all. Forgive me my shortcomings, and allow some fond thought instead. I truly wish you every blessing. And now I’m off with Mary to our next adventure.

Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.

Mourning

The time to mourn is short that best becomes / The military dead. We lift and fold the flag / Lay bare the coffin with its written tag / And march away. Behind, four others wait / To lift the box, the heaviest of loads. / The anesthetic afternoon benumbs, sickens our senses, forces back our talk. (Karl Shapiro, “Elegy for a Dead Soldier”)

The funeral service for Mary’s dad was only ten days ago. The ground, packed down around his urn’s vault, is still settling, the replaced sod still seeks roots. The summer storms lash the stone marker, the crickets and frogs chirp in the sun, another day, then another day.

We each have begun our own return to what mom calls “the new normal,” back to work, back to the rest of our lives. But we cannot shake how different it feels. The kids and I flew back the next evening; Mary stayed on a little longer, before returning to the office and the to-do lists that don’t involve her father’s estate.

But those to-dos are still top of mind. There’s lots to be done with paperwork and setting up the next stages of mom’s life. There’s a camper trailer to sell (anyone interested in a fifth-wheel?), and a truck (funny story about that I’ll have to tell you sometime), and a John Deere tractor or two, and that’s before we look at the absolute piles and stacks of novels that Dad had around, which won’t be needed anymore. Or his tools, or his clothes, or his Army uniform.

And we begin mourning who could not do so at the time. We begin aching because we no longer have to wear our “the strong one” or “devoted child” masks all the time. We begin feeling the incredible, undescribeable exhaustion that mourning brings, and the reluctance to do much of anything some days. We find ourselves feeling emptiness that we never really thought existed. We keep waiting for Alan Funt to jump out, or Ashton Kutcher to admit we’ve been punk’d, so we can have a good laugh and get back to the way it’s supposed to be. Only it won’t be. There’s no do-over, just like there’s no Easy button for this.

And so we plod on. We make our plans to get back up to see mom in a couple of weeks, because there’s work to be done and quite frankly we want to be there, we want to be a part of it, despite whatever madness may be happening back here at the office with stuff that, really, just isn’t as important anymore.

We will go on. It will get a little easier, each day. It will, eventually, stop being so front-of-mind, so searing, so present. And when it does, it will be fresh cause for mourning.

Henry P. Tarrier, 1943 – 2018

On Tuesday morning, Mary’s dad unexpectedly passed away at home, aged 74. This whole week has been a blur of getting Mary up to Vermont to her family, then the kids and I following. He had wanted a very simple funeral, but as a 31-year veteran of the Army National Guard, received full military honors at his burial. We’re still processing through feelings that are quite raw, and I’ll be sharing more about that as time progresses I’m sure, but today I wanted to share the comments I made at his graveside funeral as a way of honoring the only other man I ever knew as Dad.

I want to thank the members of the United States Army for their service today in honoring Dad and his 31 years in uniform. I’ll let them honor that today; my role today is different, to share a few words about Mike in all his other roles, husband, father, grandfather, brother, and friend.

I knew Mike only 28 years, and I got in trouble before I even met him, when I didn’t come out to the house to meet him when I met Mary for our first date. I remember having to go through initiation with him as Mary and I dated, with his brothers Chuck and David grilling me on life, career, politics, everything, as Mike just sat back and watched, wondering if this one will be good enough to be worthy of being part of the family.

Because for Mike, everything began and ended with family. His wife, Sandra, and he were married for over 50 years; their devotion is a model for us all. They were absolutely inseparable, did everything together, which was a hard lesson for Mary when we married, that occasionally a husband may want to do something different than his wife. He loved his girls, and it absolutely broke his heart every time Mary and I left to drive back home to Virginia.

I just want to say a few words about the character of the man that we honor today: eight of them, in fact.

I won’t say Dad was stubborn, but I’ll say he was determined, and he had a very definite sense that there is a right way to do things. He was persistent, he never gave up trying to figure out a fix for something around the house. He worked with his hands, doing simple, honest work; he didn’t have to be a General, he was content with who he was. He was selfless in serving others, which we saw both in his career choice and in how he sacrificed to make sure his family had everything it needed. He had a tremendous heart for others, one that had a quiet depth to it. He might not speak often, but when he did, his words conveyed meaning. There was a genuineness to him that meant what you saw was what you got, there was nothing artificial about him at all. And he was a man of character and integrity, a wholeness that everyone came to understand.

We marked Fathers’ Day yesterday (it’s not right to say we celebrated it, given the circumstances). To become a father is fundamentally a foundational act: you are establishing something you intend to be permanent, to live on forever. Mike lived a whole life, devoted to establishing something permanent, and as he would look around today at everyone gathered here, I believe he would feel he was a success. Who a father is, his values, he hopes will live on after he’s gone. I believe Mike’s will, because of his grandchildren–and it’s with them that I want to close today.

I want the four of you to know, to never doubt, that you were loved by your Grampa, that he was incredibly proud of you. And, everything we’ve talked about here today about him, lives on in you.

  • Naomi, you are persistent. You didn’t give up on college, you went back to classes this year, and I know that made him proud. You are also incredibly genuine. Your Grampa lives in you.
  • Monica, you have such a heart for others, and a quiet depth about you. You have your Grampa’s heart. He lives in you.
  • David, you too are called to work with your hands in simple work, and you are becoming a man of incredible character and integrity. Your Grampa lives in you.
  • And Sarah, I won’t say that you’re stubborn, but I will say you’re determined, and that you also know there’s a right way to do things. And your selfless serving of others is reflected in how you serve the Lord. Your Grampa lives in you.

At our funerals, the stories that are told won’t be about how early we walked, or our grades, or that time we stayed late on that project, or made this incredible Powerpoint…none of the things the world says are important. Instead, the stories that will be told will be about the life we lead, our values, and the legacy we leave behind in our children and grandchildren.

And so, as we commend Mike’s remains to the earth and his soul to his Lord and Saviour, we reflect on the legacy of the man it was our privilege to know and to love, and we celebrate how he lives on.