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Tribute – For Karen

This post is in memory of my dear sister, Karen, who passed away on November 25, 2015. Today would have been her 64th birthday.

Blog Post #44

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My beautiful sister, Karen

I wanted so badly to write a special, light, uplifting, and even humorous post for what would be my sister Karen’s birthday, but my brain appears to be in a creative vacuum. Nothing’s coming. One of the last times I saw Karen, she said, “Cynthy, why don’t you write about the funny things that have happened to us…” I have touched lightly on them – albeit indirectly – as part of other blog posts (see “The Day Off,” and “Home School Daze”) but I haven’t devoted an entire post to our silly exploits, and for good reason. How do you squeeze sixty years of tender, laughable, serious, yet ridiculously splendid fun into one blog post? How do you condense gallons of life’s shared experiences and communal thought into a pint-sized tub of impressions and words? How do you turn an epic novel into a pamphlet? Each time I try to write something, I find myself trying to sort a plethora of emotions and events into categories that overlap and snag like woolen sweaters with Velcro. It isn’t a nice clean process. It is fraught with every imaginable detour.

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Karen sent this picture to me a year ago. The statue is of Princesses Luise and Friederike of Prussia by Johann Gottfried Schadow…Sisters.

I need to do a little backtracking now, so the rest of what I write will make some kind of sense.

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Karen and me. I’m the baby. See how happy I am? I had a sister who loved me – and liked me!

On a particular day, a long time ago, my mother insisted it was time for me to clean my closet. I remember sitting on the floor by the open closet, surveying the enormous landfill of an obstacle before me. My mother came in, and sat down beside me on the floor. (My mother rarely sat on the floor.) My courage bolstered by my mother’s presence, we faced the formidable confusion and jam-packed neglect that was my closet together. We opened boxes and scrapbooks, discovering mementos that tugged on our heartstrings. We sat at the closet’s threshold for the better part of the day, reminiscing about each item, each moment, each memory—and cleaning the closet. The closet was an all-day job—not because there was so much to fold, sort, organize and get rid of, but because it took all day to relive each memory to the fullest. At the end of the process, I had a tidy, organized closet.  I still had a box or two filled with wonderful mementos that we’d placed back on the top shelf—pushed to the back—to visit again during the next cleaning, but more importantly, every time I opened the closet after that, I was reminded of my dear mother—the time she spent with me that day, creating memories. I loved cleaning my closet…when my mother helped me, that is. It isn’t as much fun to sort through one’s past alone. But sometimes, it’s not only necessary, it’s the only option.

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Karen and me in 1955–I was one, and Karen, three.

I have, lately, been spending a good deal of time in my former bedroom—the one of my youth,—which was converted into an office for my father decades ago, after I had married and moved away. Just last week, I opened that same closet with the intent of going through things and cleaning it out. In my mind’s eye, I felt myself sitting on the floor with my mother as we had over fifty years ago. Perhaps she was there in spirit with me. I’d like to think so. But whether or not she was, this time, I had to face the closet alone.

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Christmas 1957. Our mother is holding our brother, Craig. 

Karen passed away this past November, and my father followed her home to God on August 1st. The house feels strangely quiet and vacant. My husband and I still live in it, but it seems like an eternity since Daddy was here. Everywhere I look, I am reminded of my past, of my family, of a joyful childhood, and of loved ones now departed. Oddly enough, I am also reminded that we have a future before us, and I wonder what it will hold.

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I had always imagined going through the house with Karen when my father returned Home. I imagined us reminiscing about things, cherishing the memories, and just being together—much like going through the closet with my mother. My brother, Craig, spent a wonderful two weeks with me after Daddy died, initiating the process of going through stuff, but it flew by all too quickly. His present circumstances won’t allow him to return for a long time. So the bulk of the burden has fallen – like a heavy brick – on me. Thankfully, my wonderful, forbearing husband, Brad, is anxious and willing to help, but as amazing as he is, he can’t do what Karen would have done. Although he listens benevolently, he can’t bring to mind, or reminisce, about my early childhood, nor is he in a position to comprehend the deeply ingrained meaning of apparently meaningless things. He does well at sympathizing with the tender emotion surrounding these virtually indescribable treasures of memory discovered in an old button, or a stained handkerchief, but only Karen was in a position to fully understand their significance, and the enigmatic layers of meaning and memory embedded within. Even Craig, though only three years younger than I, and often a part of both of his sister’s schemes and amusements, was never quite as entrenched in many of our guarded sisterly mysteries.

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Karen and me. Playing dress-ups. 1957. 

It is a well-known fact that the best-laid plans don’t turn out as you expect. And that’s partly why it’s so hard, today, to write about Karen.

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“Sisters in the Vineyard” by Kirk Richards (Karen also shared this picture with me because it reminded her of us.)

Karen was my only sister by birth. We were alike in so many ways—including our looks—people often mistook us for twins. Indeed, we felt we knew what it was to be twins. For the longest time, I saw myself as an appendage of Karen—right down to choosing the same silverware pattern when I got married (even though I didn’t particularly like it!). Both of us could finish the other’s sentences. We had like interests, tastes, and opinions on many things. For the better part of our lives, we were not only sisters, but closest, dearest confidantes and friends in the truest sense.

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On the boat to Catalina with Craig, our mother, Karen and me (I was about 15 – 1969)

After living in close proximity to each other for many years, and sharing family life so intimately that our children felt like siblings, LIFE took our family a great distance away in pursuit of better employment. During that separation of fourteen years—though we did our best to see each other as often as time and circumstance would permit—it seemed we went a great deal of time with less contact than was normal for us. LIFE changes altered Karen’s circumstances and thinking on certain matters during those years, as well. We were both busy with families of teenagers that made traveling for visits more difficult than when our children were young, but we remained decidedly close in those essential things of the heart.

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Karen’s birthday, 1973.

The fourteen-year mark of living so far away brought significant changes to Brad and me—an empty nest, and an aging father.  We rented our home, stored our belongings, quit our jobs, and determined to move home for Daddy. Not only would we be with Daddy in the childhood watering hole where the entire family habitually liked to herd, but we would be in close proximity to Karen again. I was thrilled! But as with most thrills, it was short-lived.

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Karen and me (left) giving our dog a bath. About 1973.

Wouldn’t you know…just after we moved in with Daddy, Karen remarried and moved out-of-state. Her life became a whirlwind of accumulated frequent flyer miles. She and her new husband, Steve, (a pilot) were always on the go. Sometimes, Daddy’s home was on the list of destinations, but much of the time, it wasn’t possible. Karen had a large and newly blended family to nurture and visit. On those rare occasions that we were together, we crammed in our hurried visits between her endless computer work, and visits with Daddy, then off they’d zoom to see other family and friends. The travels Brad and I made were limited due to our situation with Daddy, so I relied heavily on those visits Karen made to satisfy my longings. Dreams of talking and laughing into the wee hours, musical jam sessions, wandering botanical gardens and Disneyland together, and a wide berth of creative pursuits were mostly shoved into a dusty old box and pushed back onto the top shelf of the overstuffed closet of my heart until the time would arrive when we could retrieve it and savor each cherished moment together. I envisioned dusting it off in the future, and pulling it out—like a wonderful Christmas gift filled with endless pleasure and insurmountable joy.

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Karen and me during our home schooling days. About 1992.

As years passed, and visits proved too infrequent for my hungry heart, I revised my plan. As soon as Brad and I had seen Daddy safely return to his heavenly home—I would be in a position to spend more time with Karen, to make trips to her house for more lengthy visits, and to do all the things I had longed to do with her for years (that I had thought we’d be able to do while I was living with Daddy). We would have time to pick up where we had left off so many years earlier. We were still both fairly young. Things would work out.

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Craig, our mother, me, and Karen. 1990s.

Ha! But LIFE doesn’t consult the poor future-planner, even when her plans are worthy and good. No, LIFE likes to throw curve balls that are impossible to see coming, and that are even harder to hit…and that’s just what happened.

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Me (left) and Karen. August 2006. 

Karen became ill, and retired to her home three states away where few saw her, including family. During the two years of her illness, we enjoyed only a couple short visits together in her home (when I had stolen away small parcels of time from brief trips to visit our children living in the same state as Karen). By the time Karen became completely home bound, Daddy’s needs had also escalated, requiring twenty-four hour care, which left no room for Brad and me to both travel together. Stalemate.

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Me, Craig and Karen. 2007.

Thus, the last time I saw Karen was the result of heaven-sent (and truly the tenderest of) “tender mercies.” Brad took off work, and stayed with Daddy while I drove across state lines to witness a grandson receive a special ordination, as well as to pay a little visit to my sister, whom, I discovered while there, had been given an unexpected and staggering prognosis of only two to three weeks to live! (She was gone a little over two weeks later.)

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Karen with her husband, Steve, Brad and me, and Daddy. 2009

I guess you could say that I was in a stupor for quite some time afterward—and maybe I still am. I walked out of the hospital that trip knowing it would be the last time I would see my dear soul mate of a sister in this life. (You may wonder how I walked out of the hospital at all? It was one of those miraculous moments when heaven supported me on wings of faith, and a spirit of peace and calm surrounded me.) I knew we would be together again someday, when I, too, pass through the veil that separates mortality from the spirit world. But even the strongest faith doesn’t take away the sting of missing someone in the meantime. I miss her now! I miss her being here. I miss all the things we might have done together. I just plain miss her. Daily, I am reminded of some little thing I want to share with her. I see things I want to laugh with her about – things only she would know and understand.

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Steve and Karen, Brad and me. 2009

Today, I was emptying the dishwasher, putting a cup away in the kitchen cupboard. Standing with the cupboard open—the same cupboard I had taken dishes in and out of since I was a child, I imagined I was holding one of two small vintage drinking glasses with little brown deer printed on the glass that I had found at an antique store in Colorado at least ten years earlier. They were identical to juice glasses we had used as children—now long broken and gone. (Back in the late 1950s, the milkman brought them, filled with cream cheese. After the cheese was consumed, a cute little drinking glass remained. I don’t know why I remember this…I just do.) An overwhelmingly pleasant feeling of nostalgia swept over me when I saw those same inexpensive little glasses in the antique store, so I bought both of the ones they had for sale, thinking how Karen would love seeing them again, too. Years rolled by during which I secretly planned to surprise her by serving her with the little glasses during one of our visits—if only to see the look of happy recognition on her face. I knew they would bring her as much simple pleasure as they had me. All these years they have waited in storage for that ideal moment when I would, once again, be in possession of my own things, and could surprise Karen on one of our future visits.

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This is a picture I found on the internet of the same little cream cheese juice glass we had as children. (I bought two of them at an antique store.) Circa 1950s

It’s a little thing—a teeny thing. But I was so looking forward to sharing them with Karen. Today, as I thought of those silly little glasses, I knew it would never happen, and that there was no one else in the world with whom I could share that simple pleasure and have it mean as much as it would have meant to her. As small and silly as it was, it left a huge hole of loss in my heart, and I wept.

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With Daddy on his 90th birthday. Karen is on the right. 2013

I miss those simple kinds of things the most, I think. Those little, tender, sweet moments that are so ordinary, but that we shared with delight. And there were millions of them. They are doomed to remain boxed up on that closet shelf until I step into the realm of eternity where she now is.

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Ah! How this reminds me of our time together, and our time now gone–music and books and being together. How I miss my dear sister. “When Apples were Golden and Songs were Sweet but Summer had Passed Away” by John Melhuish Studwick

This is not what I wanted or intended to write in memory of Karen’s birthday. But I wanted to write something as a tribute to her, and I do remember her—every single day. For now, this is the best I can do. I’m sure that sometime in the future I’ll feel inspired to share lighthearted funny stories that will flit from my heart and onto the page with carefree abandon just as they were once lived. For now, on the first birthday in which I cannot mail her a card, make a phone call that she would be able to receive, or take her out to lunch, I will tell everyone with my pen, that I love my sister, Karen! Words are cheap, thin and wholly inadequate. They can never convey the extravagantly rich depth of feeling behind them. When I left Karen’s bedside for the last time, I left a significant part of myself there with her—burrowed deep within the innermost pockets of her heart—and that is where she always was, and will always be in mine.

Happy 64th Birthday, Karen. I love you forever.

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End Piece

© September 30, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear friends, for reading.

 

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Planned Serendipity?

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of my wonderful father, Joseph Culotta, who passed away on August 1, 2016.

Blog Post #43

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ser·en·dip·i·ty

ˌserənˈdipədē/

noun

 1. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

 My First Blog Post EVER!

There are certain serendipitous scenarios that you just can’t set up in advance, no matter how much scheming you do, nor how badly you want things to turn out exactly as you imagine them. In fact, to “set up,” scheme, or plan anything is the antithesis of serendipity, because serendipity, by definition, involves chance.

 

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My father, Joseph Culotta, Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class, United States Naval Air,           1942-1946

My father, the late Joseph Culotta, served as a naval photographer in World War II. He attended the Naval Training School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida where he labored to memorize all that was required for his area of expertise.  He developed a strong habit of memorization starting at an early age. (See blog post #2 “The True Measure of a Man.”) While stationed at the Naval Air Station in Bermuda, he spent much of his free time in the library memorizing poetry.

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After the war ended, my father (“Daddy”) went on a road trip with friends. Evening approached, and one of the other passengers—looking for an opportunity to show-off—pointed out the setting sun off in the western sky and asked if any of the other fellows in the car (including my father) knew what “refraction” was. At first, Daddy acted as if he didn’t know anything about it (his photography training eagerly churning in the back of his mind). Just as the other guy opened his mouth to enlighten everyone about refraction as it related to the setting sun, word-for-word Daddy interjected the following. “Oh.…you mean ‘the deflection of a ray of light upon entering a transparent medium at an oblique angle, or bending of light when passing from one medium to another of different density?’” He recited this (as he later did countless times throughout his lifetime) with the same uninterrupted, rote speed and tonal quality characteristic of something entirely ingrained in one’s memory.

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Daddy’s notes on Refraction from his photo school journal .

The man was so surprised by Daddy’s impromptu recitation he begged to know how my father did that! When Daddy explained he had memorized that definition while in Naval Photography School, the man decided he wanted to choose the definition of a word to memorize so he could pull that on someone else. The man chose “viscosity” as his word. My father told us later that he thought the circumstances were too unusual for a similar opportunity to arise like that again. He felt that his traveling companion would be disappointed in his scheme, because you couldn’t hope to plan for that kind of serendipitous stunt. Happily, for my father the stars had aligned and he had taken advantage of that unique set of circumstances.

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Daddy in his convertible after the war

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It is this unique set of circumstances to which I refer when I said that you cannot set-up in advance certain scenarios—no matter how much scheming you do. I believe there’s truth in the phrase, “The best laid plans … often go awry!” (Robert Burns)

Many years ago, my family of seven (my husband, Brad, our five children, and I) were on a road trip together with my sister, Karen, and her six children.  We drove two vehicles, one of which was a truck pulling a fifth wheel trailer, and the other, a large van with three rows of benches and two front seats. The eleven children took turns riding in the cab of the truck with Brad, but mostly the two eldest children (my daughter, Thalia, and my sister’s daughter, Bridey) claimed that privilege. The rest of us were crammed in Karen’s big blue van, appropriately named “Big Uggs.”

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A small portion of the family piling into “Big Uggs”

One of the stops on our trip was the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. My sister had been there before, and had a vivid memory of rounding a bend and seeing those magnificent mountains suddenly appear before her eyes. Completely moved by that experience, she wanted to recreate the same inspirational effect for the children (and for me). To add to the effect, we chose to play music that would build and climax at the precise moment when the mountains appeared like a vision before our eyes. (Just the way it always happens in the movies.) The main theme in the soundtrack to the movie, “The Man from Snowy River,” was our music of choice. (I should probably add that this was during the days prior to compact discs, MP3 players, or Bluetooth connections. Cassette tapes had to be re-wound or fast-forwarded—like a video tape—to find the desired location. Unless you had a counter on your machine, you had no idea where to stop the tape to find the song you wanted.)

 

There we were, driving along, following a map, (no GPS in those days, either), and as we approached a bend in the road at the approximate location we thought the mountain range would appear, we’d call out to the children to “Look!” Quickly we rewound the tape,—the  violins building in crescendo to a fever pitch, the French horns ready to signal,—and as we rounded the bend…..nothing. No mountains. Just more road and more of the same scenery on both sides of the road. “Quick! Stop the tape!” one of us would call out. We rewound again, preparing for the next bend in the road —the correct bend.

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This is what we expected to see around the bend: The Snake River with the Grand Tetons in the background.

And another bend soon came! Again, we called to the children, the tape went on—violins building toward the magnificent view. And….nothing. We repeated this scenario perhaps a half-dozen times or more. We heard those violins brace themselves for the climax over and over again (we became quite intuitive as to when to stop rewinding the tape at the perfect place).

Finally, after rounding every bend, the Tetons appeared way off in the distance, like piles of small, jagged rocks, gradually growing larger as we bridged the miles that spanned the distance between us. It was as opposite an experience from that imagined as possible. We let the rest of the tape play out. After the second or third “Look!” the children had tuned us out anyway.

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Although I can’t remember now, this is probably more like what we saw (which, granted, is still absolutely MAGNIFICENT!)

At last, Karen concluded that her initial introduction to the Tetons must have come from a different direction or perhaps from a different road (possibly because she had flown into the area and had arrived in a shuttle). We had to resign ourselves to having made a valiant attempt on behalf of our children—all of whom sat obliviously happy in the back seats (drawing, laughing, talking, singing, and playing together) totally unaware of our desire for them  to regard, with breathless anticipation, the experience we had attempted to orchestrate…that never happened.

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What we envisioned seeing (even though it was long before sunset).

 

Countless are the times I’ve tried to rehearse exactly the right thing to say or do only to have it completely backfire on me. I might lay the blame on my inability to predict the reactions of others, my ignorance of human nature, or my failure to be poised for action at the moment when the stars align.  As I ponder this enigma, I think it all boils down to the idea that you simply can’t plan for unique events that appear like bursts of serendipity sent down from above.

However, I do believe it is completely possible for one to plan and create moments that are special—that are beautiful, touching, emotionally charged (in a good way), and that may be remembered for a lifetime. It takes thought, planning, effort, presence, and a smattering of joy to create an enchanting moment, be it a dinner with friends, a wedding or birthday celebration, a community event, or even more beautiful–a special moment with a child.

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Still, I think you cannot re-create, or manufacture, unique moments that first occur as serendipitous, once-in-a-lifetime occasions. When the stars align, when the heavens open, and when your life preparation unites with the moment, that’s the time to be grateful you were at the right place at the right time.

One more thought….which may shoot down the entire premise of this post.  As I think about that little scheme we set-up during our trip to the Tetons, it was, in its own way, a serendipitous event. We didn’t achieve the desired result, but our bumbling attempt to create a stirring, unforgettable moment was, in many respects, achieved.  The outcome was, in its own right, something we’ve remembered and laughed about for years on end. And isn’t that, in itself a unique little bit of serendipity?

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This photo shows a few members of our family rafting on the Snake River together. The others are in the part of the raft you can’t see.  (That’s me in the back on the left.) You can see the Tetons in the background. 

I’ll leave you to sort this all out. Obviously, I haven’t succeeded.

I sincerely hope you are able to find serendipitous joy when your schemes to create or recreate some wonderful event turn out differently than you had, at first, hoped. If you were chasing rainbows, and found one that was upside down …. well, what could be more serendipitous than discovering a giant smile in the sky?

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An upside-down rainbow (circumzenithal arc)

My First Blog Post EVER!

End Piece

© September 6, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.