The Man with the Stained Glass Voice

Photo: Stained Glass VoiceWhen my dad was a collegiate radio announcer, he was known to at least one of my mom’s admiring girlfriends as Heavenly Voice, and between his speech-major skills as an orator, his wacky sense of humor, and that mellifluous voice, it’s no wonder he was able to persuade the rest of the student body to elect him president, nor that later he became a successful preacher, board chair, bishop, and community advocate in various capacities over the years.

He did not, however, use his voice as a deliberate affectation like some people we have known do. There was one cleric in particular whom my family and friends knew to have a naturally light baritone voice but, whether he did it consciously or not in the beginning, he habitually intoned everything he said with what sounded to us like a very stagey, unnatural, and ultimately pompous and pontificating basso that we dubbed his Stained Glass Voice. Dad, thankfully, only ever did such a thing as a joke. His voice was, and is, naturally attractive and engaging enough, and I suppose more importantly, he wasn’t insecure enough to need to pretend he was anything other than his own fantastic self, so we found it highly amusing in our friend and a relief that Dad didn’t fall to such silliness himself. Heaven knows he has mastered numerous other forms of more palatable silliness over the years, so why waste the energy on cartoonish vocal contortions!

Dad is celebrating his 80th birthday today, and it’s every bit as good to hear his voice (his real one) now as it ever was. Maybe more so, given that I live farther away from my parents than I did for most of my life, and that we’re all getting older and a little more conscious of the aging process with each successive year. On the other hand, my father still has the same impish and impudent sense of humor that always made him slightly hard to control or predict but easy to love, so passing calendar years neither make him seem much more grownup nor much older, a few minor scuffles with his own Father Time notwithstanding (hello, knee replacement)!Photo: Heavenly Voice

Now, I can’t begin to imitate anything as impressive and imposing as a faux James Earl Jones voice in which to wish my dad a happy birthday, nor can I sing it to him like a choir of angels. But I do send my heartfelt birthday greetings and love to him, and no matter how scratchy or shallow, Spasmodic or silly I may sound, the sentiments are as real and as clear as any stained glass. I love you, Dad! May this birthday and the whole year that follows it be filled with delight and great adventures. And whatever your heart desires. [Within reason. Nothing that the Glen Brothers and I can’t provide between us, anyway.]

First Flower of the Season

Sister number three in our line is a winter baby, born on this date a few decades or so ago. But like the few blooms that brave the cold grip of the January earth in Washington state’s temperate climate, she is an early sign of the season of warmth and growth yet to come, a reminder that winter is finite and spring is ahead.Photo: First Crocus

Like the ethereally delicate crocus, whose pristine tenderness belies its vigor in breaking through the hard earth of the cold season, my sister brings a shining intensity to life that would be unexpected in someone so kindhearted and sympathetic and sensitive, at least to any who didn’t know better. But like the first flowers of the season, she is tougher than even she gives herself credit for being. She sustains an accomplished life that no shrinking violet could hope to do, raising with her marvelous husband two outstanding, smart, and exceedingly charming sons, and keeping her three sisters in line when our inappropriately youthful enthusiasm for life occasionally threatens to get in the way of getting any grownup sort of business done. She’s practical and clever enough to corral our tangents, but also creative enough to steer us toward worthwhile tangents of her own when it’ll help get our projects in hand. For decades, she’s also successfully applied these cat-wrangling skills to the demanding and volatile world of tech business, being the administrative linchpin of support for an array of engineers and executives and other fellow workers that surely must remind her at times of a class of unruly kindergartners destined to never graduate to the first grade. And yet I marvel that she rarely seems to lose her equilibrium over their, or our, antics for very long.
Photo: Thalia in Bloom

Like the Thalia narcissus, she instead continues to break through the tough old world as a spot of dazzling joy, her bold and decisive will to prevail against life’s trials and vicissitudes carried always in the fragrant flowering of early bloom highlighted by the solemn backdrop of the still-sleeping earth. May the year ahead hold bouquets of such lovely surprise for her, in turn, and her days be a garden of promise and delight. Happy Birthday, my sweet!

Eldest Child

It isn’t easy being the eldest child. You tend to be expected to carry the world on your shoulders for any kids that come after you. My older sister certainly had her hands (and shoulders) full when it came to the other three of us. Following her lead was the logical thing I expected to do from Day One, and she undoubtedly knew that her every word and act would be scrutinized and grasped as tightly as any life’s-mystery-solving clue could be.
Photo: The World on Her Shoulders

Unlike many, my elder sibling was neither empty-headed nor empty-handed when leading or hauling me through the years, however. I must assume that she was generally more conscious of what she led me toward or away from than I ever was, and whether there was a particular purpose regarding its effect on me or it was simply what she needed to do in her own life was as irrelevant as if I’d been a duckling following a duck, since after all, our parents didn’t go to school with me, play in the yard with me, or otherwise have anything like the minute-to-minute impact a sibling could have. I apologize, here and now, for whatever time and energy I stole away from my big sister that she ought to have been spending on herself alone! Strangely, she still likes me, though, so I take the liberty at the same time of assuming her forgiveness on that front.
Photo: Show Me the World

I certainly didn’t quit the hero-worshiping dependence when we were young, either. It was my sister who gave me the world. Our parents saw to it that we learned to read, and that is an enormous gift that can only be repaid in kind by handing it on to younger people as they come along, but it was and continues to be my older sister who blazes the path down every library aisle on earth (and a few in the ether, too) and inspired me to try to better my reading and writing. She always had astonishing verbal skills and a voracious appetite for all sorts of books, so she set the benchmark in reading and writing that I will always lag behind but continue to pursue.

If that cracking open of the world in the pages of books weren’t enough, there was always the lure of the tangible world as well. There, too, our parents paved the way for our ventures beyond home borders, both financially and with the encouragement to broaden our horizons beyond anything they were privileged to experience at our young ages. But again, it was at big sister’s beckoning that I took up the challenge given by Mom and Dad to take a semester off from my university studies, spending both the time and the money I’d have devoted to those on traveling Europe, instead, with my sibling. It was more education than I could possibly have crammed into the other three-and-a-half years of my undergraduate studies altogether, utterly worth all of the angst and expense it terrified my twenty-something soul to expend, and all happened under the tutelage of my sister, my intimidatingly fearless guide and hilarious friend.
Photo: I Wish You Ten Candy Stores

There’s nothing a sister can say or do to make up for all of the times I was a pain in the neck—or anatomical regions south thereof—to my older sister. Despite her admiration for all things chocolate, no amount of truffles and cakes and French Silk Pies will do. But I am grateful, and I do thank her, and I certainly wish her a wonderful birthday today and many more of them to come. I’ll just have to watch and see what she does in times ahead, so as to get inspired for how to handle the next such conundrum as they always do come along in life. That’s what elder siblings are for, it seems.

Aging Gracelessly

If I started out without being very lithe and blithe and graceful—just ask my dance teacher from when I was in second grade—there’s little hope I would suddenly have become any more so in the years since unless I had been working assiduously to defeat my cloddish nature. But I haven’t. Your first clue, of course, should be that word “working,” as you all know so perfectly well that I am opposed to, if not utterly incapable of, being a worker bee and exerting energy. That is neither new nor likely to change radically with the passage of further years, in which I will naturally become more ossified and less willing and able to assimilate new knowledge, less flexible and worlds slower in my reflexes.

What I do have in my favor as I age is an ever-growing ego and ever-shrinking ability to be embarrassed by my evident weakness and silliness and fallibility. So as I go skipping my way through yet another birthday, I am not much troubled by my actually achieving this advance in age by, you know, getting older. As it’s always been said, it sure beats the alternative. And there really are a lot of great things about aging and the passage of time that tend to offset the cost.

So don’t mind me if I stumble and fumble around, making quite the fool of myself as usual and hardly managing to avoid absolute implosion. The occasional face plant isn’t nearly so hard to take as not being alive enough to fall on my kisser once in a while. Making plenty of mistakes and missteps keeps me interested in not only how to avoid the same pratfalls the next time or two around but also in how to enjoy the goofy glories of just being an extra in life’s always grand action. And you never know when I might manage a real, if awkward, pirouette or plié before collapsing in creaking and squeaking and laughter. Keep your eyes peeled.Graphite drawing + text: Aging Gracelessly

To My Mother on Her Birthday

Photo: Under the Willow Tree 1Under the Willow Tree

Under the willow tree, her shade my calm,

I see so bent by storms her trunk, how far

The winds have twisted every limb, each scar

Where lightning struck; yet there’s a quiet psalm

Of gratitude that whispers in her leaves

Each time another rainfall comes to spend

Its quenching kindness on her and to send

New hope down deep—for anyone who grieves

Or wonders how to pass through life’s travail

Finds shelter in her shadow—knows the limbs

That seem to weep are only singing hymns,

Embracing in their gentle sway the frail.

                    So one fine sapling, tended with such care,

                    Becomes the home for all who shelter there.

And now her roots are deep, her branches wide

Enough to draw more birds to them to nest,

Assured, secure and loved, and full at rest,

No matter what the world is like outside—

Just as I am, beneath the willow’s arm

Of graceful comfort, grateful for her wise,

Kind lesson to look upward to the skies

For blessed rain, and sun to keep us warm,

For sweet reminders of the Gardener

Who made the willow grow, and gave her strength

To nurture others in her shade, at length,

Upon the graces planted there in her:

                    So one fine sapling, tended with such care,

                    Becomes the home for all who shelter there.

Photo: Under the Willow Tree 2Thank you, Mom, for the nurturing, the love, and the will to live as an example of bending but not breaking in the storms. Happy 80th Birthday!

Maybe They *Don’t* Make ‘Em Like They Used To…

Happy Birthday, Dad!Photo: Classic Models

Today is my father-in-law’s natal anniversary. Though I’ve no doubt he sometimes feels his age and then some, as all of us do, he remains marvelously youthful in his wit and charm in general, and like a certain favorite toy car of a somewhat similar production date (one passed around by kids in our family for many happy years), has all the more appeal, truth be told, because of all the stories behind the few dents and scratches.

Not only am I most fortunate among persons in having found life partnership with a best friend who suits me in ways I could never even have imagined, I got a fantastic package deal, his parents being from the beginning the best sort possible. I knew before I met them that they must be rather extraordinary to have produced such a dandy son who really liked, loved, and respected them, so I wasn’t all that nervous about the meeting, a fact all the more remarkable when you consider that I still struggled with a fairly extreme level of persistent anxiety at the time. I was more afraid of meeting my beloved’s then part-time housekeeper, an old-school German lady who clearly thought anyone hanging around with her adopted charge had better meet her rigorous standards. Maybe Irma paved the way to make Mom and Dad Sparks seem that much less intimidating. In any event, from that first time I met them I was quickly falling in love with them, too. In any case, it turned out that I had attached my heart not only to a great life partner but to a great life partner with great parents, who immediately became my parents along with the ones who gave me my birth.Photo: Elegance on Wheels

Our Dad S is a thoughtful, gentle, good-humored, positive person who served honorably in the Army, who with Mom S raised a pair of superb sons, who worked with computers from those early days when a single one still filled a massive, refrigerated room to when they became ever so much smaller yet far more powerful, and even trained for and had a post-“retirement” career as a Myotherapist. He continues to be curious and dedicated enough to keep taking classes, traveling, and beginning new adventures as a seasoned but lively octogenarian. He is indeed a man of a ‘certain vintage’ by now, having had many adventures and being the repository of myriad stories as a result, but never fails to have new tales to add to the inventory because his spirit is so lively.

Most of all, he has as loving and generous a heart as he always did, and makes me hope that he will have not only a lovely and fulfilling birthday celebration (or ten) for his birthday but as many more as possible. He is, after all, a classic.Photo: Classic Good Looks

My First Valentine

Long, long ago, in a state far away, there was a small, screaming infant being baptized by her father, a pastor, on the Sunday that fell on this very date, his birthday. I can only assume that my ornery howling was not the most perfect birthday present he’d ever had, but since Dad didn’t toss me in the dustbin either on the occasion or shortly thereafter is testament to a tiny fraction of the loving kindness he showed me then and continued to shower upon me, no matter how fractious I might have been at times, throughout the following years. That sort of tolerance alone is a good reason I’ve been very fond of the fella from the start. I’d say it’s also a good indicator that Dad always tended to have an excellent sense of humor about the silliness of real life.digital illustrationCommemorating that day is likely a good enough sampling all on its own of the man-of-many-parts that is my father, but it’s far from all. His long career as a Lutheran pastor and then bishop was complemented by plenty of stellar adventures as a leader, chairman and member of innumerable committees and boards from university to seminary to hospital and community. He traveled to and worked in dangerous and war-torn places like Honduras and El Salvador and early-1970s Chicago but still managed to come back regularly and be Dad at home to four daughters and help Mom keep the home fires burning while donning his ecumenical-superdude cape for quick service in his myriad day jobs.digital illustrationBetween his understandable popularity with many folk—even, I daresay, thanks to his unpopularity with a small contingent of people who didn’t approve of his frankness or his willingness to stand up for certain causes, a trait of courage and/or foolhardiness I would happily have had him pass to me genetically—and the careful scholarship that underpinned his good-humored to life, he’s always been a major influence on me. You can certainly see why I would consider Dad as fine a first Valentine as anyone could have. Happy Birthday, dear Dad!