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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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A Wonderful Life (or, When the Best Laid Plans Take a Detour)

Blog Post # 16

George Bailey (James Stewart) “It’s a Wonderful Life”


Sometimes, I feel a little like George Bailey, the main character in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. George had big dreams for his future, but a series of life events and personal choices thwarted his well-laid plans time after time. The comparison between George Bailey and my life ends there. I have never considered jumping off a bridge, nor have I had an angel step in to show me what life would be like without me. But I can relate to the detours he experienced.

When I was a little girl, I had a long list of professional aspirations that I rattled off mechanically when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up: ballerina, artist, pianist, singer, cartoonist, seamstress, interior decorator/home designer, and more. I had no qualms about pursuing all of these careers at the same time; wasn’t that normal?
“Harmony” by Bessie Pease Gutman
Somewhere, in the more secure alcoves of my heart, I also knew I would be a homemaker: a wife and mother. I never thought to include marriage in my perfunctory list. I took for granted the idea that home and family would always be a part of my life, so I thought about it as much as I thought about my heart beating. It never occurred to me that there might be detours.
“Love is Blind” by Bessie Pease Gutman

Years passed. School days flew by. One by one, I discarded some of my former career choices, relegating them to mere hobbies and interests—even disinterests. I zeroed in on an artistic target. This made sense, and felt right since almost every waking moment of my youth and young adulthood was spent with a pencil in hand. Drawing was akin to breathing—an almost involuntary reflex of life.


“A Girl Writing” by Henriette Brown

During elementary and junior high school, I loved  everything Charlie Brown and Peanuts. I even wrote a personal letter to Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz, feeling honored to receive a personal letter of encouragement in return. I narrowed my view to becoming a cartoonist, and set to work creating comic strips. At last, after acknowledging that I wasn’t the least bit funny, I discarded the idea of becoming the next Charles Schultz.

Growing into my high school years, my interest reached to include Walt Disney, a man I had always admired, and whose imagination and creativity I revered. Reading biographies of his life, studying books on The Art of Animation, and creating an animated film for a high school project, I settled on a career as an animator. When the time came, I was hard-pressed to find a college offering courses in animation. (Today, there are many schools well equipped to prepare future animators, but when I was college age, they were rare and expensive.) With youthful energy and optimism, I did the next best thing: I started working toward an art major, figuring I could work my way up from the bottom rungs of the professional animation ladder.
Again, plans changed when I met Mr. Right  (Brad), and married after completing my second year of college. Suddenly, the career that had always stood in the wings took front and center stage: I became a wife and after a year of work, a mother. (I worked that year in a hospital of all places! Off the charts when it came to where I wanted to be).
Over a period of ten years, we accumulated five little chicks in our brood. Mother Hen was now nestled into her coop and happy to be there. Difficult as it might be for a hen to hold a pencil in her feathers, hold a pencil I did! I kept drawing and imagining I might have a career as an illustrator on the side. Anyone who has been a full-time mother of five little ones knows it requires every minute of a 24-hour day.  I was content to draw pictures for my family and for church responsibilities. I made home school materials, games, toys, posters, flyers, programs, and a multitude of greeting cards and drawings that were routinely given away.


When my husband was recovering from a serious neck injury, I found part-time work from home illustrating a children’s phonetic reading series that included illustrations for over seventy-two individual books! At last, I thought, I am fulfilling my career goal as an illustrator. At first, the work was fun. The creative juices flowed freely and I spent the wee hours of the morning drawing and inking book after book while my children slept and my husband worked the night shift. It wasn’t long before the work became repetitious and tedious. The small paycheck I garnered did little to alleviate the monotony of the job. There was a sense of satisfaction in helping our little family financially, and I was doing what I thought I wanted to do—a combination of illustration and cartooning.
 

A few of the Phonetic Readers I illustrated in the early 1990s

Hindsight truly brings clarity, and with that illustration work, I realized how monotonous working as an animator—the Old-School kind, repeatedly drawing by hand the same images over and over with only small increments of change—would have been. I was grateful I had not become an animator, for I certainly would have been on the low rungs of perpetual boredom and the professional ladder.    
Teaching a cartooning class 

With some of my students

When our children grew older, I took a job at an elementary school working with special needs children. Bringing to the school setting the knowledge I had gleaned through homeschooling, and work as an associate of an educational consultant, I found multiple opportunities to use my pencil to create art. Part of my time at school was spent working one-on-one with students. The remainder was spent writing curriculum, visually modifying materials, turning our classroom into The Big Woods, or a time machine, making theme-related costumes for the kids in our class, creating large wall murals and props, teaching an extra-curricular cartooning art class, and making the library across the hall into a magical castle. It wasn’t exactly what I had dreamed of, but I did manage to serve as an artist, seamstress, interior decorator, and, oddly enough, even as a writer, all rolled into one.

My granddaughter visited our class as Laura Ingalls 

Wall in our classroom

Adjacent schoolroom wall
Education, curriculum development and writing had never once entered my mind when I was planning my list of careers as a child, yet they became the trifold center of my semi-professional life. Like George Bailey, a series of life events and personal choices dropped me into those waters, and I swam with the current.
George Bailey taking on his father’s Building and Loan Business


Sometimes, the things we think we want are completely inconsistent with our true inner compass. The choices we make, even when they appear to be thrust upon us, are still our own choices. As difficult as it was, George Bailey made the decision to take over his father’s position at the Building and Loan office. While I had touted becoming an animator for a decade, there was certainly no coercion involved when I chose to get married instead. I chose to have children, to home school, and to take a job at the elementary school. As I seized these new opportunities, I always found ways to assert my personal gifts, and develop my interests.  I didn’t abandon the things I loved and wanted to do, I just adjusted the hats I wore when doing them, and added new interests, new horizons, new understanding, and potential skills along the way.

Through these detours, I learned I was capable of new, enjoyable and interesting things; things that were true to my inner compass. Things I had never before considered. One of the things I discovered as a result was how much I loved to write.

Hindsight is a great crystal ball. Reflecting on my past, I have been astounded at all the overlooked, misunderstood indicators in my life that pointed to writing as something I would enjoy! As a child, I spent part of my summer writing a newspaper that included crossword puzzles, recipes and stories. Over the years, I wrote, illustrated and bound many small books with hand-stitched pages for fun, and as gifts for  family members. When ten years old or so, I wrote little chapter books we now drag out every decade or two for a good laugh. One was a Nancy Drew knock-off, the others original inventions. I took copious notes all through school, and enjoyed writing poetry, and creative writing assignments. I wielded my pencil without connecting the dots that writing was as enjoyable and important to me as drawing. Strange, how I could be so blind to my own preferences.  
 

A few childhood attempts at writing

And the point of writing all this is…..? The truth is, I didn’t set out to write any of this. I sat down in front of a blank page and gave my hands permission to start typing–just for fun. And they did. For me, writing presents those rare moments when I don’t feel I have to meticulously plan everything out. 



I seldom know exactly what I’m going to write about. It’s often a surprise–full of detours. Often, topics I’ve dutifully outlined in advance struggle for a permanent position on the page. Instead of flowing, they almost immediately clog in a P-trap of muddied, stale, over-ripe thoughts and ideas. But those times when words flow out like pure waters from a pristine spring—fresh, clear, and illuminating–make writing an adventure and a joy! I discover things about myself, and things about others. I discover things I know, and things I didn’t know I knew. I discover hidden things, too—metaphors and analogies about life that develop word by word, like Polaroid snapshots.  
 

Polaroid camera and undeveloped picture


It’s good to have a plan. It’s good to aspire to worthy goals.  I believe these principles and try to live by them. It can also be good to allow for a change of plans—to see opportunities, tendencies, and desires less rigidly. Sticking to Plan A may just turn out to be a dead end, where Plan B, or C may lead to multiple doors opening to broader growth, unforeseen talents, and increased joy. Sometimes those doors are thrust upon us, and sometimes we can’t see where the door will lead. Some doors we may bolt shut because we’re too proud to admit that a door that’s different from the one of our choosing might be better. There’s always a choice involved. That choice may be as small as opening the door and walking through it, which brings us back to George Bailey.
George Bailey’s plans


George Bailey had plans—big plans! He also had choices. Compassion drove his decisions, the consequences of which sometimes caused him frustration and even despair.  But the detours he encountered also further developed and refined the goodness of his character, leading to a bevy of faithful family and friends. An illuminating door was opened—to see life without him in it—and with that epiphany, every door that led to life–regardless of pitfalls and setbacks, no matter how far from his plans—looked good to him.
 

The angel Clarence gives George a chance to see life without him in it

Like George Bailey, I began early on making plans. Big plans. My life has been full of twists and turns, and like George Bailey, around every corner there have been choices—hard choices. I have to say that, although I’m not at all where I once thought I would be, I’m so glad I’m where I am. I suspect the plans I have—that we have (Brad and I)—may detour again—in fact, we’re riding a detour right now that has brought countless joys and blessings.
Thanks, George Bailey, for reminding us that though life may not turn out as we planned, it really is a wonderful life.
© August 16, 2014