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.

 

butterflies, death of a spouse, grief, loss of a spouse, love

Something Blue

I stood there, transfixed, while my daughters and grand-daughter went on ahead.

blue buttrerfly display.jpg

I’d specifically chosen Waterloo as a destination for a day-trip for the newspaper. Waterloo, neighbor to the Cedar Falls area where I’d met my husband and we’d attended college.  I knew if I was given the assignment, I could cover the Grout Museum, with plenty of time left to visit the small Sunrise Zoo on the grounds of the Cattle Congress where David and I had taken our older children many times.

She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts. – George Eliot

Not only has grief become my constant companion, I occasionally ask it to dance with me. To return to the small zoo and the museum where David and I had spent time together was to dance with grief; to purposely put my arms around the memories of a past I hold dear, even if that promenade might result in tears.

David would have enjoyed this, I thought as we toured the Bluedorn Science Imaginarium. He loved science. He would have loved the historical war displays, I found myself thinking as we toured the Sullivan Brothers Veterans Museum. He loved history. Even now, four and a half years after his death, I consider what David had enjoyed, what he is now missing. What I lack in his absence; a partner to walk with, talk to, hold hands with, share laughter and stolen kisses.

I may have gasped out loud when the girls and I turned a corner in the Museum of History and Science and I caught sight of the butterfly display.

Weeks before David died, he and I had shared a conversation that was unlike our usual bantering. We were in the car, talking about the opportunities that had opened up for me just in those past few months; I’d started teaching workshops and been hired to do a weekly couponing column for a newspaper. I was working on a book that I’d acquired an agent for. My husband was not only thrilled by my recent success; he truly believed there was more in store for me.

“You’re flying! This is your time to soar,” he’d often say, and I’d reply that I couldn’t do it without him; He was the wind beneath my wings.

“Would you be okay if something happened to me?” he asked that day, and I replied with a vehement no. I would not be okay. Our marriage was the best it had ever been. I was looking forward to growing old with David.

I’ll never forget the look of real fear in his eyes at my answer. Where had this come from? David was a five-year cancer survivor. He was 60 years old. We had every reason to believe we had many years together ahead of us. I hated seeing him fearful, so I hastened to reassure him I would be okay. To lighten the mood a bit, I asked him how he would show me he was okay if he did die before me. He never answered, but I told him to make sure it was “something blue” so I’d recognize it came from him.

David died unexpectedly a few weeks later, the day before his March birthday. Seven months later, in mid-October, I signed a contract for that book he’d encouraged me to write, the book that had initially been his idea, and that he believed would become a reality, despite my failure to sell it with two different agents. The day I signed the contract, I ran across the street to tell my son Dan. As he stood smiling on the porch, I noticed the most beautiful blue and black butterfly flying nearby. I stared, open-mouthed. I must have said David’s name out loud, because I remember my son shaking his head at my proclamation that his Dad was showing his approval.

Months later, at the very moment I submitted the completed manuscript for that same book, my wedding ring cracked. I clicked on SEND, heard a distinct “ping,” and felt a sharp pain in my finger. I looked down, and the ring had cracked in half.

I’ve thought about that butterfly many times since then, bemoaning my lack of a photograph. When a gray butterfly with delicate blue markings dropped out of the sleeve of my husband’s old winter coat I’d hung on the line on September 18 of that year, I’d taken a picture, distinctively disappointed that there wasn’t more blue.

butterfly with blue marks

Why hadn’t I thought then to take a picture of the extraordinary blue and black butterfly? I’ve wondered about it many times since. How rare was it, because I hadn’t seen one before, or since.

And there it was; the same kind of butterfly in the display case at the Grout Museum.

blue butterfly.jpg

I took photos while my girls waited for me further down the hall. What majesty in the wings of God’s creatures, what intricate beauty in the design of the display. A man passed by. “Someone likes my butterfly display,” he smiled, and I immediately felt as though I was in the presence of someone holy, for him to have been responsible for such beauty.

“Did you do this? Do you know how rare those blue butterflies are?” I asked.

“I think they’re very rare, but Mark Lane and his daughter collected everything in there. He’d know for sure.”

It was then I noticed the small plaque attached to the case. I snapped a picture, determined to find this Mark Lane and daughter Katie.

butterfly mark lane and daughter katie

Thanks to Facebook, I did find him, and he told me the 8-year-old daughter Katie was now 26. His answer to my question about the rarity of the species:

“That butterfly is called a blue Morpho, more specifically a Morpho Deidamia. They range from Panama to Brazil… That one is from Guyana. The only US butterfly close to that is called a red spotted purple or Limenitis arthemis.

I started crying as I read his answer, but tears of joy as I remembered that October day, and the beautiful butterfly I’d seen with the distinctive black and blue markings. I believed anew that it was a message from the man who had loved me with every fiber of his being, or from the God he now resides with. I realized I had experienced a kind of love that even death couldn’t rob me of. To see such a beautiful butterfly appear on a momentous occasion was awesome enough. But could it be that I’d seen a butterfly that wasn’t even indigenous to the United States? That would be even more remarkable.  I told this man, a stranger who no longer felt like one, my story, and asked him if he thought I could have seen it here in Iowa.

“… There is NO way that Morpho would ever be here… There are no host plants for it they are only found in tropical areas!” Then he added “But there are a LOT of things that can’t be explained!!”

There are a lot of things that can’t be explained, that’s true. I’ve experienced more than my share of remarkable experiences; the blue butterfly, the cracked ring, a Neil Diamond CD appearing in my locked vehicle, a shiny penny in a closed money box where only bills had been a moment before. I’ve made a list and it covers six notebook pages. I don’t know where these kinds of “messages” come from; the person we loved and lost, or God.

But I do know one thing; sometimes a dance with grief ends in joy.

POSTSCRIPT: (from the man responsible for the butterflies in the display, after he read this blog post and saw the butterfly that fell out of my husband’s coat) the dead butterfly in the grass is called a “Mourning Cloak”

David, death of a spouse, grace, grief, love, marriage, wedding

On this day…

I didn’t expect to wake up crying the day after my daughter’s wedding, but then there are many things that come as a surprise in our journey as a mourner, things we are not prepared for, or cannot comprehend until we experience them. I remember those early days of grieving a spouse when I would wonder; is it normal to feel like this? Am I going to be okay? Even a seasoned mourner can be sideswiped by a tide of grief at milestone events such as weddings.

August 13, 2016. More than four years after the death of my husband David, a daughter was to be married. This would not be the first marriage in our family after David’s death; son Daniel got married in the summer of 2014. The mixture of joy and grief was expected then, but perhaps tempered by the fact that the wedding was extremely small; just the couple’s parents and siblings, in the back yard of my brother’s house, officiated by my dear friend Cecil Murphey. I cried then, too, but joy overshadowed the tears. At the time, I lamented the lack of a reception where we could celebrate with others. Now, I believe it might have been too much to bear then, a wedding reception following on the heels of yet another loss; that of our little Jacob, my grandson who passed away from cancer the year before.

dan and lydia wedding

I had a hint this wedding experience would be different than Dan’s wedding. Emily would be the first daughter to get married after David’s death, the first daughter to walk down the aisle without a father by her side. I expected this absence to be keenly felt by my daughters. As a symbol of our female solidarity and in homage to David, we cut hearts out of one of his shirts, using Velcro to attach the heart inside each of our dresses.

shirt hearts
None of my impending sadness as the date approached had anything to do with the marriage. I whole-heartedly approved of Emily’s choice. Hugh was a devout Christian, and he’d asked for my blessing on Thanksgiving. The young couple began a Bible study together shortly after their engagement. I had no qualms about who my daughter was marrying.

Nor was it about the wedding itself. Hugh’s family, having experienced two daughter’s recent weddings, took charge of the majority of the work involved in planning and decorating.

It was always about the missing man, the father who’d loved his sons and adored his daughters. The man who’d fought cancer and won, who’d smiled indulgently at this daughter who’d taken to hugging him repeatedly and daily in those three months before his death. Privately, he’d wondered at her hugging. “Do you think she’s okay?” he’d asked me. “She’s hugging me over and over, and telling me she loves me.”

Emily had wondered the same thing.

“I don’t know why, but I keep feeling like hugging Dad,” she’d confided.

Only after his death would we marvel at the timing of this compulsion.

What had I wanted for Emily, for me, on this wedding day?
I desired, more than anything, to feel the presence of her Dad. I wanted a sign that he was there with us, a message from the heavens. I yearned to see a rainbow in the sky, a blue butterfly landing upon her wedding dress while her brother Dan took photos. I wanted piles of shiny pennies to appear in the pews, white feathers among the rose petals little flower girl Amy dispersed from her basket.

After all, anyone who reads my blog or has read my book, Refined By Fire, knows I’ve experienced this kind of thing before; little messages from Heaven, proof that there is so much more to everlasting life than we here on earth can possibly comprehend; that our loved ones live on, not just in our memories, but with God. So, why wouldn’t I expect more of the same on such a momentous occasion?

The wedding ceremony was beautiful. My heart was full, as I did the one thing I have not been particularly good at since David’s death; I lived in the moment. I reveled in the experience of a daughter getting married. The circle of blessing, when Hugh’s parents and I got up to circle the couple and pray together was especially moving. The reception was lovely. A cozy after-party at the new in-law’s home included a first dance between the couple. Memories captured on camera, and inside my heart.

But throughout the day, I found myself searching for that elusive sign; a message that David was near, that God would gift us with a message that he hadn’t forgotten our loss. I went to bed inexplicably disappointed.

And woke up crying.

It was this morning, as I sat alone and sobbed, that I thought to pray the prayer I should have prayed yesterday with my daughters as we did our make-up, or with Hugh’s mother or grandmother during the wedding party’s hurried lunch.

God, let me see YOU.”

Not David. Not Jacob. Not my mother, who had passed away in 2010, or my father who has been gone since 1986.

God, let me see you. Let me feel YOU.

As I sit alone in the front pew of the church and watch my daughter get married, let me feel you. As I stand alone watching my daughter dance with her new husband and remember dancing with her father, let me feel you. When I catch a glimpse through my camera lens of his parents leaning into each other as they watch the couple, let me not feel such a sharp stab of sadness at what I no longer have, at what I have lost. Let me feel gratitude instead, for what I once had.”

Emily and Hugh wedding dance.jpg

In the moments after I prayed this morning, little snippets of yesterday’s events flitted through my mind’s eye. I reflected on those moments that will remain with me forever;

My daughter’s delicate, slightly shaking hand as she clung to my arm when I walked her up the aisle.

The hugs from Emily and Hugh after I affirmed that I was the one giving away the bride.

The emotional blessing Hugh’s father gave, and my sudden realization that this man would be a father figure in my daughter’s life, would look out for her best interests as if she was his own daughter.

And after the ceremony, when I was so desperately searching for a sign from David, I won’t forget the appearance of his brother walking out the door of the church into the foyer where I stood, and the lurch I immediately felt in my heart. His brother, Keith, who David had loved so dearly. Keith’s wife Margie, who has experienced tremendous loss in her own life. Their hugs were followed closely by hugs from David’s two favorite sisters, Linda and Susan. Members of David’s family always remind me of David, are part of David.

The tears in the eyes of my friend Lois as she hugged me. The look in her husband Ron’s eyes. Ron had been David’s friend. They keenly felt his absence too.

My sister-in-law Cindy hugging me, and her whispered “I know,” because she did know, intimately knows what it is to face these kinds of milestones after a husband’s death.

The presence of my friend Mary, the friend who’d wisely advised me to live in the moment.

And a young boy, my nephew Andrew, who might never have hugged me before yesterday, hugging me and hanging on tight, with a tenderness I couldn’t comprehend at the time. How could he know? How could he possibly know? That hug meant the world to me.

My beautiful daughters and handsome sons. My siblings who came to share in our celebration.

The sister and brother-in-law, who invite me to share grilled hamburgers at their campsite tonight, knowing the day after might be difficult.

Today I see God, how he uses these people to grace me. His signs; the hug, the knowing look, the clasp of the hand from someone who has experienced this same thing, the heart-felt prayer of a father who loves his son and welcomes his new daughter, the love I felt in that room as two young people began a new life together.

In the book I picked up to read today, Love Lives On, by Louis LaGrand, PhD, the author writes about his study of “extraordinary encounters” that the bereaved experience. He mentions dreams, the sense that a deceased one is present, or unexplained happenings, the kind of thing I was searching for yesterday. He writes in his book how messages are received through touch, smell, a third party who is not a primary mourner, or with a variety of “informative symbolic signs.”
“The mourner has not actively sought these responses from the deceased. Furthermore, they are not products of magical thinking, nor do they involve the intercession of a psychic.”
“To the recipient of an Extraordinary Encounter, there is no doubt that it is the loved one or an Intelligent Power who had provided the riveting communication; the signs or visions emerge unbidden from an enormous reservoir of wisdom and insight far beyond our earthbound comprehension.” (page 5)
Intelligent Power. I call that God.