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

Slipstream

Digital illustration from a graphite drawing: SlipstreamPeople often speak of the person ‘behind the power,’ the right-hand associate who always plays a large role in making the boss look good or the spouse who remains relatively unseen in the shadows while his or her partner is the well-known face of the duo, but I rarely hear anyone mention the full benefits of this kind of relationship. There are, of course, plenty who abuse such an arrangement as purely a platform for self-aggrandizement and advancement and treat their faithful supporters as unseen and unacknowledged slaves. An image comes to mind of the great old Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête,’ wherein the prince’s entire household was condemned by the curse he’d earned and continued to serve him, but even more abjectly, as virtually invisible helping hands. Even in the case of spouses and assistants and supporters who are treated with fairness and generosity and given regular recognition, however, there remains the probability that in normal circumstances, one is more visible and probably more publicly compensated than the other.

There can be, though, a handful of fine, if unexpected, benefits to this arrangement for the person behind the scenes. I think I can speak with a certain amount of authority, having been in this position both by default and willingly in various ways all of my life. I have always traveled in the slipstream of the leader, the marquee character in the act; I fly somewhere behind the lead bird in the V formation, hunt behind the chief lioness, swim behind the flashing silver of the strongest swimmer in the school of fish. I live in the slipstream of those wiser, braver, and more skilled than I am. And I like that very much. It allows me to see at close range where I am headed, led by the example of someone better prepared, while maintaining a sense of safety in my innate introversion and fearfulness from having to set the example or blaze the trail myself It offers me opportunities to find ways to help showcase those I admire in what they are and do best. It puts me on the periphery of events I would never, on my own, have had access to and often gives me the awestruck feeling that my privilege extends, through those I love, respect and admire, beyond any level I could hope to achieve or acquire alone.

I started early: as the next sibling born to a first child who was, and is, extremely bright and wide-ranging in her interests and accomplishments and unabashedly her own opinionated, funny, clever and challenging self—and admired by a great many others for it—I could easily have been, or felt, eclipsed by her. Instead, I tended to feel shielded and guided from the start; others (along with me) generally found her a more interesting focus for their attentions, so she bore the brunt of any critical scrutiny before I would ever feel any, and if there was any entertaining to be done, she managed quite effectively to keep the occasion afloat intellectually and/or with her trademark smart-alec witticisms. That she did all of this shielding of me and leading the way without my hearing much complaint or entitlement either one from her remains a marvel.

On top of that fortuitous training of mine in playing a willing and contented behind-the-lead role, I had parents who were the leaders in their community, too, and in a particularly exemplary version of this star + supporting player arrangement. Dad, the natural extrovert, led active congregations in his primary work role as a pastor and later, bishop, but always had parallel roles as chairman of this, board president of that, and consultant or advisor to the other; Mom, as his one-woman entourage, managed the household so that he was both free to do all of this stuff and looked after enough to be healthy, fed, rested and prepared as well as possible to do so to the best of his abilities. She was also his sounding board at home for anything of import that was underway in his life away from home, helping him to find his way to tough choices and decisions and think through all of the permutations of those situations that anyone tends to carry outside of official work hours. She stood as his consort for official functions, his representative when serving on committees and boards and doing community work as well.

Besides that my father’s work and status allowed me, again, to be quietly in the shadows while attending and participating in all sorts of events and occasions I’d never otherwise have had opportunity or reason to do, my mother was equally quietly setting an example for how to take advantage of all of that in a way that was mutually beneficial. During and through all of those years, I saw Mom come into her own as an equally respected leader among their community, a person looked to for influence and inspiration and committed, intelligent work, but all in her modest and unfussy way. When I finished graduate school and started working at my undergraduate alma mater as a teacher, it was near enough my parents’ house that I simply moved back in with them and paid the cheap rent that put me close to work affordably and, it turned out, in a position to train as the next-level behind the scenes person. Living there, I could keep the household running when they were on the road for work, be assistant-to-the-assistant when they were home by helping to set up for a few of the social obligations or special events tied to their work, and even get assistance from them when I was beginning to have such obligations of my own. By the time that I first went out with the man whom I got to marry, I was remarkably well-versed in the ins and outs of this sort of partnership.

I did, of course, have to learn new variations and nuances to the operation when he and I got together. My spouse is a music conductor. He teaches classes, like I did, but beyond this similarity of standing in front of classes and the variety of preparatory work that gets teachers ready for the classroom time, he had, and has, a much more publicly visible leadership role when he is in conductor mode. I am very glad to stay out of the limelight at those times!

The administrative and preparatory work, the selection of literature, score study, negotiations with guest performers, board interactions, service in the community, publicity commitments, writing program notes, collaborations with commissioned composers—these and so many other aspects of backstage life remain hidden from the public yet can’t be accomplished without time and concentration that are harder to afford if I’m not there to keep him in clean clothes and check that he’s had a meal or two, to chauffeur him to and from places where there’s no parking close enough to get him to a rehearsal on time, and yes, to be a sounding board for him when tough choices or decisions loom. I’ve learned a few things about music along the way, but not so much that I fancy myself anything like a musician or music scholar. But it’s the other parts of his life that I consider the arena for my contributions and participation. It’s the stuff that gets him to the podium that I think I can do best.

When my husband is conducting singers and/or instrumentalists in a concert, my role is to happily sit in the audience and bask in the music along with everyone else. My vocation, my modest part in earning our living, is to slide along in his slipstream and do what I can to keep impediments from holding him back or dragging him down, and whether that happens because I stand near him and shake hands with his bosses and supporters after a concert or because I took the car in for service while he was in administrative meetings doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a small fish in the big pond as best I can.

Things to Remember

Apparently I am sucked into the Throwback Thursday vortex, for amid my housework wanderings I stumbled across some dish-drying towels that brought a flood of memories over me. The first thing that came to mind was curiosity about whether there are many others who grew up using tea-towels like these made of flour sacking material and hand-embroidered, often with a small posy or aphorism in the corner, and usually by Mom or some older relative, at least until we ourselves were conscripted for the task.

My mother enjoyed embroidery as a relaxation mode as well as art form, and the last batch of dish towels that I know of her having made were a series of line drawings of local native flora, based (with the author’s permission) on a book of lovely little watercolors of the same plants and flowers. I chose one representing a favorite alpine blossom, even though the creamy white blooms were guaranteed to fade quickly against the pale fabric, and the outline of them remains faintly visible even after many years of hard use. That’s a perfect representation, in its way, of how my memory works. I began to reminisce, seeing this embroidery, on the alpine plants that have always signaled peace and freedom to me as I day-hiked on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. So I meandered over to search online for native alpine plants of the northwest, and as soon as I began looking at the images I was struck with an infusion of the very scent of those hikes, a spicy, earthy, fresh and herbal blend of tree resins—cedar, pine, alpine fir—and sun-baked earth, lightly perfumed flowers, crushed needles and fallen leaves underfoot, the brisk dash of elevated air. What a lot of fine things to be contained, in addition to the treasury of love and family history, within my mama’s embroidered dish drying cloth.Photo: Mama's Embroidery

You might think I’d’ve inherited an embroidery gene, because in addition to my mom’s fine handiwork, I grew up seeing and using Grandma’s embroidered towels and pillowcases and enjoyed them, too. I did not, and since I had these two sources readily available, I didn’t mourn the gap in my skill set. I could always go to one or the other of them and find some new kitchen linens in a time of need.

My father’s mother never got so inventive as to design her own embroideries based on book illustrations like Mom’s were, but Grandma chose for her projects the resource of hand-me-down and found patterns, most of them quite out of date already (hence the ease of her collecting them), and almost all of them much quirkier and tackier than her normally refined taste would have allowed. These were, however, mainly destined to be given to charity or sold for the proceeds that would go to the charity in their stead, so she had no attachment or agenda for showing them at home. I, on the other hand, bought a few not only out of any little do-gooder intentions but because the sheer silliness of some of the designs so delighted me.

This one, for example, that was my inspiration for joining now in the Throwback Thursday brigade, was highly amusing to me in its ridiculously fantastic subject, its period style, and its girly goofiness. I couldn’t resist it. I found no other Days of the Week as companions, so I can only imagine what happened on those days, but it was enough to find this towel that could simultaneously remind me of my grandmother and my youth and make me laugh, all while getting my dishes dried.Photo: Throwback Thursday

Fashions change, and with them, the decor and even tools that fill our lives and homes. Yesterday’s dish towels are probably more often machine-made of some high-tech sort of microfiber or super-absorbent bamboo fiber blend with an artful printed-on design in the proper Pantone colors of the year. But do they do a more artful job, as well, of wiping dishes dry after washing? Can they strain soup broth into crystal clarity? Do they make perfect wraps for ice packs when a sore neck or bruised arm is in want of one? No better than the old standbys of my youth, I imagine. Old as I am, I come from good stock that valued something a bit quaint and very handmade, and if it managed to accomplish the task and carry memories for decades at the same time, why, I suspect I’ll do well to try to be a human imitation of it myself.

Foodie Tuesday: Having a Desperate Moment

Sometimes when I’m hungry for something particular, especially something I either don’t know how to make or simply don’t have the ingredients and/or time to make just then, I feel just a little bit panicked. Is it wrong to let someone else rescue me with food? When I was little, I envied the kids at school who had Store Bought stuff in their lunch boxes because I was one of those underprivileged children whose mother filled her kids with wholesome and delicious homemade stuff all the time. Poor, pitiful me!photoWhen I grew up and learned that it was I who had been the spoiled one, it seemed all wrong and backward to get store-bought foods, particularly ready-made things of the sort I actually knew how to make (often, thanks to Mom’s tutelage).

I’ve pretty much found my happy medium, thank goodness. I am pleased to be able–and willing–to make many things on my own, things Mom and other good cooks taught me how to make, things I figured out how to make through trial and error and weirdly wonderful experiments, and things that occasionally just happened on the way to an entirely different recipe or menu. But I have no compunction anymore about letting the experts hand me their delicious culinary artworks any old time, too. Most especially so, when I feel I’m in a little bit of a jam, a pickle or any other variety of a hungry fix.photoAm I hungry now, you ask? Am I ever not, I ask you? Perhaps it’s bed time at the moment, but surely by tomorrow I’ll be ready to get some cookery underway. Or stop by the nearest patisserie or butcher’s or greengrocer’s and do some foraging for what pleases.photo

Flowers for Mom

P&I drawingIt’s your birthday. You look in the mirror and you can’t imagine who that strange person looking back at you could possibly be–your grandmother, maybe? The family and your friends are all busy and far away and there’s a ton of work to be done, so the party on your big day this year will probably be a cookie or two after dinner while you read the couple of chapters you can fit in before unceremoniously dropping off to sleep in the chair. In the hours between that morning mirror check and dinner, you wonder where all the time went and what could possibly lie ahead.

And then you wonder what your mother experiences on her birthday.

It is my mother’s birthday today, and I am far away from her and have a ton of work to do, so any party she has will be without me, as it often is anymore. And having had a cascade of health challenges in the last decade or so, she will likely wonder at the speed of the passing years and the uncertainty of those approaching.

But I hope that, somewhere in the midst of all that, she still finds cause for celebration. My own collection of birthdays is growing, as are those of my sisters and families, and for all of these we owe a certain debt of gratitude to Mom for having had the perfect mixture of innocent foolhardiness and courage that it takes to become a mother, not just biologically but with the dedication of throwing umpteen birthday parties for us, coaxing us through the many of those days when there wasn’t time or space for the party, and giving us the love and support it took to each take off on our own and have our full lives. Small as it may be, the birthday gift that I think my mother might like the best is that she created a whole slew of birthday opportunities for us her family and for many others whom she annexed to the bloodline over the years.

We are an exponentially widening universe of what-ifs and why-nots ourselves, each of us growing up, growing older and asking our own questions of the unexpected people we’ve become, and finding and building lives and loves that, in turn, reach out further than any one of us could possibly do alone. That seems to me to be the closest thing to a purpose for existence that silly creatures like humans can have. A pretty grand one, at that.

Thank you, Mama, and may your birthday glow brightly with the expansiveness that you taught the rest of us, and may we pass it along to all the others we cherish too.digital illustration from a P&I drawing

How Quickly We Learn

Even when we’re young we pick up clues pretty swiftly regarding what sort of behavior and attitude is expected of us in our interactions with others. As a child, I learned ever so quickly that I am not the boss of anyone else and practically everyone else is the boss of me, and not much has ever changed in that department. Whether happily or unfortunately, depending entirely on your point of view, I also figured out as speedily as most kids do that as long as I behaved in the expected manner when anyone was watching I could get away with a fair amount of far more self-indulgent–if not subversive–ways. Sure does simplify my life!graphite drawingShow of Proper Respect

The Mistress in her jewelry and finery and furs

Thinks everyone should bow and kiss the ground—that’s also hers—

And genuflect before her grand tiara and her mace,

So that is what we tend to do—at least do to her face.digital illustration from a graphite drawingAll frivolous jocularity on the topic aside, however, getting trained by our elders and betters, in particular our mothers, is both more complicated and more happily meaningful for those of us who are blessed with great moms. Me, I’ve got two. The mother who gave birth to me and raised me from my days as an only mildly subversive little sprout into the silly but exceedingly happy big kid you see before you today is worthy of recognition as one of the great teachers not only for giving me a framework on which to hang my sense of right and wrong and general grasp of manners but also the education and freedom and knowledge of being unconditionally loved that enabled me to choose how to build on those foundations as I grew. My second Mom, brought to me courtesy of (her son) my beloved husband, gets credit for instilling the same curiosity and drive in her children and, in turn, for reinforcing in me through her example what it means to be a lively and lovely person who is good company, an active part of the household and community at every turn, and a tireless learner and adventurer who earns her place in those settings with remarkable grace. Whether I can live up to the standards set by either of my Moms remains to be seen, but they certainly give me the tools that should make it possible if anything can.

If it can’t, I guess I’ll have to fall back on my naturally ridiculous ways and just pretend to be better than I am for as long as I can keep up the front. Those of you who are looking for reliably good, sound company, go see Mom W and Mom S. And also my sisters and my sister-in-law, great mothers to their children, and all of those other mothers, who by birth, adoption, random acquisition and teaching, raise better people, who in turn make the world a better place altogether. All of whom I thank profusely not only on Mother’s Day but every day for being such great examples even for those of us who are a little too childish to be motherly examples ourselves. Go ahead, you can say it right in front of me. I’ve learned that much, at least!