beautiful things, creativity, David, death, grief, love, mother, paper, things

What We Keep

What do the things we choose to keep say about us?

I recently shared a mixed media piece I created using objects that had either been my mother’s or reminded me of my mother, a project directly related to the theme of my upcoming book, Called to Be Creative.

Most of the those small mementos had been stored away in drawers and boxes. I love having them displayed where I can see them  now. Since then, I’ve been collecting items that remind me of my husband David; things like the last piece of jewelry he purchased for me, the tiger pin I wore when I was a waitress at Sambos, (where we met), and our 25th anniversary newspaper announcement. I’m planning an artist-facilitated “Memory Mixed Media” program at my workplace in February, when I’ll complete the project.

With all the talk today of the Kon-Mari method of decluttering and the value of simplifying our lives and homes, why save any memorabilia at all? These art pieces take me on a sentimental journey, reminding me of two very special people I loved, the mother who was the muse for my creativity, and the husband who encouraged me to spread my wings and fly in my endeavors.

What does it say about me that when I faced a move to a 760-square foot house in the summer of 2018, I easily parted with thousands of items; pieces of furniture, clothing, hundreds of books, home decorations small and large, but sifting through piles of paper, files, photos, and letters seemed an impossible task? At least two of the things I chose to keep, my mother’s cabinet and trunk, were with the intention of storing other things.

What does it mean that I saved every letter my mother had ever written me, the few my father did, and many I’ve received from siblings?

Until the winter of 2017, I hadn’t re-read Mom’s letters, but as I prepared to write a book chronicling the creative legacy she’d left behind, I did. In fact, I immersed myself in all things Mom, re-reading letters, her memory book, and notebooks, searching for nuggets of wisdom, like this, to share in the manuscript.

mom talents on loan from GodMuch of Mom’s words that appear in the book will be shared in her own handwriting because of what I kept.

In downsizing, I did manage to dispose of hundreds of greeting cards that had no personal message, only a signature. Because I saved others, I still have my very first “fan letter,” sent to me care of my publisher in 1996, after the release of Homeschooling From ScratchI also have the birthday card my pen friend and prayer warrior Pam Pierre sent me on the first birthday I celebrated without my mother, which also happened to be the anniversary of Mom’s death. That was the last note I received from Pam before she herself died unexpectedly.

I also chose to keep the ledger my mother utilized to keep track of her art sales. I’d flipped through those pages in 2017, marveling at her detailed notes and wondering how she kept track of the art work she’d done after the final listing of a courthouse carving in 1996. Surely an artist who’d carefully numbered her pieces, from the first wood carving at age 42 would have continued the tracking? Perhaps she’d done so elsewhere, in a notebook I didn’t have? I wrote about this in my book:

“If midlife means the mid-point of one’s lifespan, my mother hit hers at forty-one, a year before she’d picked up a hammer and chisel to create her first woodcarving. In the ensuing thirty years, Irma “Amy” Potter would produce 544 pieces of art, according to a ledger that tracked each piece. The entries are not dated, but begin with the first woodcarving in 1970 and end with the relief woodcarving that was commissioned for the Delaware County courthouse in 1996. Anything Mom had crafted before the age forty-two—the wall-hangings, pastel pictures, quilts, or homemade dolls—were not included in this tally. Neither was the body of work she continued to produce between 1996 and her death in 2010. That includes countless pillows, teddy bears, baby quilts, Christmas stockings, handmade ornaments, a painting that hangs in Breitbach’s restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, lavishly-designed walls my sister Pat commissioned Mom to paint in 2001 in the lower level of her Treasure Alley consignment store, along with numerous paintings and wood-carvings now displayed in homes of family members and strangers.

I could not begin to guess how many additional pieces of art my mother produced in those last fourteen years of her life, or why she stopped keeping the log, but suffice it to say, my mother was a prolific artist in the second half of her life.”

It was only yesterdaynine years after the death of my mother, as I searched the trunk for memorabilia to include in my next art project, I picked up the ledger again. Studying those pages of neat handwriting and record-keeping, I marveled at the low prices she charged for her work. Hours of toil on an owl carving amounted to a single ten dollar bill. Four small owls she sold to “David and Mary Kenyon” (me), less than that. I wondered again at that last notation. Why had she stopped keeping track? I flipped through the empty pages until something caught my eye; a lightly penciled notation on an otherwise empty page.

pencil notes about muralsSo, Mom had noted her mural work on the walls of my sister’s shop, though without a date. I flipped through a few more empty pages amazed to discover there were further records at the back of the ledger!

This list, unlike the beginning of the ledger, was not in chronological order. Many were numbers from the previous list, but some were newer, including a piece numbered 1040 (suggesting she’d completed at least another 500). An ad from a South Dakota studio was paper-clipped to the page. Did the Eng studio owner order the “carved Eskimo Girl” my mother noted, or did she own a “carved Eskimo Girl” by the artist? I’m fascinated by either scenario. (I later searched the Internet and discovered that Marion Eng, the co-owner, had passed away within days of my mother)

This. This is why I keep these sorts of things; the letters, a ledger, a list. Pieces of paper to some, precious treasures to me. A rosary, a pencil, a penny dated 1978. My mother wrote this. She drew with this pencil, prayed on this rosary. My husband kept this receipt for my wedding ring, he cherished this Valentine from his grandson fighting cancer. He wrote this note proclaiming his love and chose that necklace for me. Each foray into the trunk or cabinet, a warm hug. Each letter re-read, a visit with the beloved mother.

And sometimes, a surprise… a few previously unread pages, a clipping, a question unanswered. Who carved “Eskimo girl” and where is she?

If I ever find her, I’ll probably keep her too.

 

A Bed For My Heart, Angela Miller, Compassionate Friends, death, grief, Grief Diaries, Heal Your Grief, Lynda Cheldelin Fell, Mitch Carmody, National Grief and Hope convention

Connections of Love; Heal Your Grief retreat

Ten months ago, I paired up with two other women to begin planning for a “Heal Your Grief” retreat to be held in Dubuque this October. That day is almost here. (October 7 and 8th) The programs are beautiful, tote bags for attendees are packed, and we are working on tying up all the loose ends of what promises to be an annual event. We’ve already reserved the lovely Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque for next year’s retreat.

Heal Your Grief Program.jpg

Where did the idea for this event come from? I believe the seed for it came from having experienced the multiple losses of mother, husband, and grandson in the space of three years. While the hearts of those who have faced loss have the potential of becoming hardened and closed, mine was broken wide open. I found healing for that wound through prolific writing and public speaking, doing speeches on finding hope in the darkness of loss.

“We can become broken, or broken open,” one of my speeches is titled. That was the one I had accepted for the Compassionate Friends conference in Dallas, TX, last summer. Attending that conference was a leap of faith on my part. I was speaking on the behalf of a daughter who was not ready to attend the conference herself. I didn’t pretend to know the loss that brought attendees there. I do not know, do not want to know, what it is to lose a child. Yet my daughter asked me to go, and so I went. There, I avoided the grandparent groups, drawn instead to those young mothers who had faced what it was my daughter and her husband had faced, a particular kind of loss that I thought must permeate every moment of every day in their lives.

I’d been similarly drawn to one young woman at the National Grief and Hope Convention I’d attended in April of last year. When Angela Miller stopped at my vendor table, I somehow ended up with her book, You Are the Mother of All Mothers in my hand. During a break, I sat and read it, tears streaming down my cheeks. It was as if she was speaking all I wanted to say to my daughter, the mother of all mothers; the woman who’d spent years caring for her son during his cancer treatment, who’d only grown in her faith despite losing her most precious son. I felt an instant connection with the beautiful young woman who’d written a book that would touch my daughter’s heart, and somehow give her strength. I sought her out to tell her this. Angela and I agreed; we had crossed paths for a reason.

Months later, I followed my daughter’s wish, to step out in faith and travel by airplane to Dallas, TX, to speak, even though I was not sure why I was there. Walking through the hallways upon my arrival, and seeing so many women and men who had faced a loss so profound I couldn’t begin to understand it, I wanted to bolt. Then I spotted Angela Miller’s lovely book displayed on the speaker’s table, and I felt a renewed sense of strength. “Angela is here. Angela will make me brave. I can do this,” I thought. I went up to my room and messaged Angela.

“Angela, you are here at the Compassionate Friends! I was going to hide out in my room until I saw your book on the table and realized you were one of the speakers too. Where can I find you?”

“I’m not there,” came Angela’s prompt reply. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would my book be on the speaker’s table?” And then, this young woman admonished me, telling me to get out of my room, go back downstairs, and sit by someone who looked lonely. Then she wrote something that two other women (my two co-coordinators, Julia Theisen and Cathy Corkery) had said to me at one time.

“I feel like we’ve connected for a reason; that we’re supposed to do something together.”

Then I knew. There was a reason Angela’s book was on the speaker’s table. I would have hidden in my hotel room for most of the weekend if it hadn’t been. Angela Miller made me brave. Because of her encouragement, I stepped out of my comfort zone and went back downstairs, spending most of my time at the conference listening to young mothers, hugging bereaved women who’d lost a child, just like my daughter had. Because of that, I knew to change the beginning of my prepared speech, to admit first that everyone sitting in that room had experienced a kind of loss I had not. Despite how well the speech went, and how grateful I was to the women who’d shared their stories of loss with me, and helped me understand my daughter’s, I still wasn’t sure why I was there.

Until I entered a workshop where a man named Mitch Carmody was speaking, that is.  You see, I had been experiencing some very unusual and inexplicable events since losing my loved ones; experiences unlike any I’d ever had before. So was my daughter. I’ve shared some of those experiences on this blog and in a recent book created by Lynda Cheldelin Fell, the woman behind the April convention where I’d met Angela. That book is Grief Diaries: Hello From Heaven.

Despite those experiences that gave me hope and lifted me, I’d started to notice that people who were not open to the idea that we could get messages from Heaven, or had not experienced something similar, didn’t really want to hear about those experiences. Or worse, they might diminish my joy with a shuttered look in their eyes that I’d began to recognize, or with a comment like “It’s nice that you can see what you want to see.”

Yet there stood a man in front of a packed room, talking about “Whispers of Hope; Signs From Our Loved Ones.” His slide show not only validated what I had been experiencing, it gave every single person in that room hope. There is so much we don’t know about Heaven, or what happens after death; that the possibility of there being such a thin veil between life and death is not anti-Biblical. Whether we are devout Christians who believe the message is from Heaven or someone searching for a tangible sign from our loved one, Mitch Carmody spoke to the hearts of the bereaved in that room. I sat there and cried. I was in a room full of people who accepted, or at least were open to, the possibility that God or our loved one could reach out to us and give us comfort.

The following day, I picked up Mitch’s book, Letters to My Son. I devoured it in less than two hours, and immediately knew I must find him. I heard very little of the speech I crashed, because my mind was centered on the connections between Mitch and my beloved nephew, Steve Potter, who’d gone through a childhood cancer as an adult, and who’d used his art as therapy to get through that tough time. I approached Mitch after his presentation, and explained an unusual connection. Mitch listened to me blubber, probably understanding only half of what I said through tears, and then he looked at me and said; “I think there is a reason we met. I think we are to do something together someday.”

I’ll let Mitch Carmody’s words from a Facebook post this morning explain a little of that connection: “Barb Carmody and I are looking forward to this wonderful event Mary Kenyon has worked so hard on since we met in Dallas at the The Compassionate Friends/USA conference. I am so looking forward to meeting her nephew Steve Potter who will be co-facilitating a healing through creativity workshop with me. Steve is a cancer survivor of the same rare brain tumor that killed my son in 1987 ( most do not survive) Steve and Kelly, both Garbage Pail Kid card freaks and about the same age. Kelly had a near death experience on the operating table when his heart stopped for a few minutes. He recalled floating out of his body and holding hands with Jesus. He said Jesus looked just like Half Nelson ( GPK card). Steve is a GPK artist for TOPPS. This would have been a dream come true for Kelly to meet a creator of his beloved cards. If you draw it… he will come, like the movie “Field of Dreams in Dubuque” which I plan to visit. This movie project was started in 1987 the year Kelly died. The movie is based on the phenomenon of “Whispers of Love,” our Friday night opening event. The movie stimulated in me in my early grief to ask for signs. Ask for it…and he will come…..so I asked, Kelly came to me. It changed my life forever and those countless of thousands who now know Kelly’s story and the validation they received that whispers of love are real, they happen. The movie a fantasy; that love never dies is not. We plan to go to the Field of Dreams movie site & meeting a GPK artist the same age as my son would be & who survived the same cancer is something very full circle for me.”

Four people placed in my path at different points in my life since the death of my husband; each who said the same thing; “I think we are supposed to do something together.”

First, Cathy Corkery, who I didn’t really know, but hired to do a yoga class when I was a library director in Winthrop; whose true heart was revealed when she lovingly offered to help my daughter through her journey of losing Jacob.  Julia Theisen, who took my Beginning Writing for Publication class at River Lights bookstore in Dubuque, and whose heart was revealed through her lovely writing that appears in Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. Angela Miller, a woman I met in Indiana, who has used her heart broken by the loss of her son, to reach the hearts of other bereaved mothers. And Mitch Carmody, a man I met in Dallas, who does the same because of his multiple losses, including the heartbreak of losing a son. I had no idea back then that Cathy knew Julia and Mitch knew Angela. When Julia, Cathy, and I sat down to make preliminary plans for bringing healing to the hearts of those wounded by loss, it was easy to choose the team that would bring that healing; Mitch Carmody, Angela Miller, Steve Potter (the nephew who would use art to get him through cancer and who is now a Garbage Pail Kids card artist). Julia and Cathy would offer yoga and Cathy would utilize art as therapy in a journal-making class she’d done before. I would offer a workshop on writing our way through healing. To bring some balance for men who might be struggling with grief, I would bring in a man whose book-signing I had attended with my husband; Jim Swenson, whose wife had died of cancer. Jim had served as my editor for three years when I wrote a coupon column for the Telegraph Herald newspaper. Somehow, it seemed fitting that a man who’d gone down the path of grieving a spouse before I imagined going down that same path, would be added to the roster. Jim kindly mentored me through some of my grieving after I lost David.

In a little over 24-hours, these souls who have connected with mine will be in one room together.

Read more about the event, and sign up on Eventbrite.com

There is still a scholarship available from New York Times bestselling author of “90 Minutes in Heaven” Cecil Murphey. if money is an issue. Please contact me at marypotterkenyon@gmail.com for more information.

 

David, death, death of a spouse, faith, grief, loss of a spouse, love, marriage, widows, writing

The Wind Beneath My Wings

There hasn’t been a July 4th since that rivals the memories I have of the holiday in 2009. What an amazing husband I was blessed with. He encouraged me that morning to begin the book that I had talked about for two years, a book about the hobby that had been a part of my life, our family’s life, for 30 years.

“The hardest part is getting started,” he said. It turned out he was right.

I sat down at the table in my pajamas, in front of a white legal pad and my favorite black pen. I began writing, and couldn’t stop. I wrote like a mad woman. The outline came easily, as did much of the first chapter, and pieces of the next.

David stood nearby, refilling my coffee cup, taking care of the children, making lunch. What it must have been for him to see the woman he loved completely immersed in two of her passions; writing and couponing. When I later began conducting coupon workshops in 2011 and writing a couponing column for a newspaper in 2012, David would tell me that it was my “time to fly, to soar,” and how much he loved seeing me that way. I’d replied that I couldn’t do it without him.

Later in the day of that particular July 4th, David gently interrupted me to ask if we were going to go to my mother’s house for the celebration we always shared with her. I looked up at the clock and was horrified to see that more than eight hours had passed since I’d sat down to write. We made it to my mother’s, but when my daughter Katie complained of a stomach ache, I was secretly glad to bring her home. I continued working on the book while she lay on the couch watching television.

The bones of the book were constructed that day, but for some reason, I set the manuscript aside for several months. Then on March 10, 2010, David heard on Good Morning America that the New York Times had a cover story calling couponing the next extreme sport.

“Where is that book you started on couponing?” he asked that morning. “You need to finish it.”

I pulled the rough draft out of my file cabinet, and read sections aloud. My dear husband alternately smiled, laughed, and made helpful comments as I got excited about my book project all over again. That morning I worked on the questionnaire I would use for interviewing other couponers throughout the United States. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer that summer, I lost some enthusiasm for the project, though I continued working on it. Like my husband, my mother encouraged my writing. After Mom’s death in November, I inherited some of her notebooks. I read them and the Memory Book in which she entreated her children to utilize their God-given talents. It was with those words echoing in my head I would pick up my pen with a renewed determination. Much of the rest of the book was written in my mother’s empty house that winter. David would hand me a travel mug of hot tea and shoo me out the door to “go write.” Once again, he took over childcare and cooking while I spent hours alone in the house of an extremely talented woman who was my creative muse.

By early March 2012, David had shared in my struggle to find representation for the book I’d completed, observing two failed agent relationships and rejections from large publishers.

“Don’t worry. It will sell,” he’d encourage. “I believe in you. I believe in this book.”

Then he’d ask about the other manuscript I’d completed, the one about caring for him during his cancer. That book, relegated to a filing cabinet, detailed a caregiving journey that resulted in a revitalized marriage relationship, a relationship that allowed me to continue writing and left us with no doubt that we were truly loved by the other.

“It’s not really about cancer. It’s a love story,” he’d muse. “It will help people’s marriages.”

David didn’t live to see either book published. I signed a book contract for Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession seven months after his death in 2012, and the book was released the next year. I will never forget that July day, standing in front of a Barnes & Noble storefront with my book filling the front window. My daughters were jumping up and down with excitement. Me? I stared at the display, completely numb. My daughter Rachel took one look at my face and asked “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you happy?”

barnes and noble

I could barely choke out the words past the huge lump forming in the throat. “Dad’s not here.”

Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage was released in April 2014. Those first two books wouldn’t exist without my husband’s encouragement. Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace, released in October 2014, wouldn’t exist if it were not for the loss of him. I’m fully convinced that the fourth book contract, for the co-written Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink, was a gift from God so that I could observe my co-writer, Mary Jedlicka Humston, and vicariously enjoy all the firsts and perks that come with a book release, and the incredible excitement I have been unable to actually experience myself.

“I couldn’t do it without you,” I’d informed the man who’d become the wind beneath my wings after his cancer experience in 2006.  In the end, I would have to.

I continue to write, now as a reporter for a newspaper, and essays and pieces I must work on without the benefit of the writing marathon sessions my husband had gifted me with. I also do workshops; mostly classes for aspiring writers. Except for newspaper coverage of meetings and events, every single piece of writing I undertake, each workshop, and all the public speaking engagements I do are in honor of the man who believed in me. I  am surprised as anyone to learn, not only has my love for David continued despite his absence in my life, somehow it has managed to grow.

 

“But my grief is a clean grief. I loved my husband for forty years. That love has not and does not end, and that is good … Hugh will always be part of me, go with me wherever I go, and that is good because, despite our faults and flaws and failures, what we gave each other was good.”
Madeleine L’Engle, in Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, page 230.