Dear Ol’ Dad

Twenty-two years ago today, on April 11, 1999, we had Sunday brunch with my Dad at the Denny’s in Vernon Hills. We drove up there after church and met him outside.

It was a long walk from the parking lot into the restaurant and we walked very slowly because Dad had an unspecified neurological disorder that left one side of his body almost as if it had been paralyzed. He had consulted with doctors from the University of Chicago, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. No one was able to figure what the problem was – except that there was a problem. He walked with a cane and should have used a walker, but he was NOT a fan of that idea.

When we finally walked through the doors at Denny’s, Dad was greeted like royalty. He was a regular. He chatted with all the waitresses and busboys as the hostess led us to Dad’s favorite table in the back. He was happy showing off his three little grandchildren to the Denny’s folks. We had a lovely visit over brunch. Dad had his usual – Egg Beaters with sausage and a side of steamed broccoli.

Afterwards, we made the agonizingly slow walk back out to the parking lot. We kissed and hugged Dad good-bye and he settled into his car and then with a toot of the horn and a wave out the window, he sailed out of the parking lot as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

The next evening, Monday, April 12th, my brother called me at home from Seattle. We had been out at some activity for one of the kids and had just arrived back home. This was before cellphones and we had been out of touch for a few hours. Don asked if I had talked to our sister Susie. I said, “No, why?” He muttered, “Oh boy,” and then told me that Dad had died.

Dad had a heart attack and died while eating dinner at Baker’s Square in Libertyville.

In the days that followed, we planned Dad’s wake and funeral. Dad was nominally Methodist and my sister Susie and her husband Pat belonged to the local Methodist church at the time so that’s where the funeral was held. Dad greatly admired our priest, Jack Wall, so we asked him to preside at the service. Ecumenism at its finest.

We created photo collages for display at the wake and we gathered some mementos from Dad’s life including the two Purple Heart medals he was awarded during World War II. As we were setting up everything at the funeral home, floral arrangements arrived including one from the staff at Denny’s.

Relatives from New York, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia came. Dad’s friends from the neighborhood and retired colleagues came. Our family and friends came. The Denny’s folks came.

We were incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness of the folks from Denny’s. They sent flowers, they came to the wake, they came to the funeral. Dad obviously made an impression on them.

I imagine that impression came from Dad’s interactions with them. As I was beginning my work career, Dad made it clear that I should treat everyone with respect. He felt that you could learn more about a workplace from secretaries and custodians than you could from middle management and corporate bigwigs. He did not put on airs.

We all were grateful that Dad died at Baker’s Square and not at Denny’s. We felt that the Denny’s folks would have been beyond heartbroken if Dad had died on their watch.

None of the people Dad had worked with for decades knew that he had a Purple Heart – let alone two. They told us time and again at the wake how surprised they were to learn of his wartime experience.

I guess you could say that even though Dad tooted his horn as he drove out of the parking lot on that Sunday before he died, he didn’t generally toot his own horn. He was a humble guy. But I’ll toot the horn for him.

After Dad retired, he began going to army reunions. One of those reunions took place near my sister Marianne’s house in Maryland. She invited several of Dad’s reunion buddies and their wives to a meal at her home. During that gathering Marianne and her husband David learned more about Dad’s wartime experience than they ever did directly from Dad.

Willis Farley, one of the reunion guests, told Marianne that he had been Dad’s driver in France. Dad was a forward observer and during one mission, Dad and Willis were hit by German artillery. Willis was badly injured. Dad carried him to an abandoned building where they sheltered until help arrived. Willis credited Dad with saving his life.

We had dinner at Dad’s house after the funeral. We sat around the dining room table my parents bought when they were first married. We told old stories and shared stories from the wake and funeral. We laughed and shed a few more tears. We remembered then, as we remember now, our dear ol’ Dad (which is how he often referred to himself). He was a devoted Dad, an honorable man, and a humble hero.

We will raise a glass in his memory tonight – and tomorrow too.

This photo was taken at Dad’s 75th birthday celebration at Marianne and David’s home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. June 8, 1996.

An April 3rd Reflection

This blogpost is in response to today’s Lenten photo challenge: REFLECT.

Every April 3rd I think about the tornado that demolished our house in Cincinnati on this date in 1974. I was in 7th grade.

That funnel cloud stormed overhead while the five of us huddled together with out two big dogs in the crawl space. It destroyed our home in a matter of mere moments but left a lasting impact.

First, I take tornado watches and warnings very seriously.

Second, our house was gone. Our cars were gone. Our things were gone. Furniture, clothes, photos, treasured mementos – all gone. In a few seconds, we went from a family hanging around watching TV on a Wednesday evening to a homeless family.

Now we were very fortunate. We had home and auto insurance and my Dad had a job and the folks there were incredibly helpful over those first several weeks. We lived in a close community and they rallied around the many who were affected by the tornado.

That first night, we stayed at the Stolls’ house. They were friends and neighbors who lived at the end of our street. Their family of six took in our family of five plus two crazy Dalmatians.

Picture this. There were no phones. This happened in the time before cellphones. The landlines were down. The power was out. My Mom had been talking on the phone to my older sister who was living and working in Dayton then. She told Marianne that she had to hang up because the storm was getting worse. That’s the last my sister heard from us for awhile. Can you imagine?

We learned the next day, that one house in the area had a working phone – the Jacobs on South Road. Folks were lining up there to use the phone. My mom and dad walked there to make a couple of calls. Mom called her sister Nancy in New York who then passed the word to the rest of the clan. Dad called his office and the insurance guy.

Our church, Our Lady of Visitation, became the command center for neighborhood relief. Donations poured into the parish. Church members fed the suddenly homeless and the many many volunteers in the school multipurpose room. Classrooms were full of donated clothing. I picked up a whole wardrobe there one afternoon. (Side note: our living room carpet – or pieces of it anyway – ended up in the branches of a tree in front of OLV.)

After several days with the Stoll family, we moved into a rented house on Mountville Drive. It was not in our neighborhood. It only had two bedrooms. Only one bedroom had air-conditioning. On really hot summer nights, all five of us and Pepper and Salty piled into that small bedroom to sleep.

(A side note about the Mountville house not being in our neighborhood: I googled it. Back then I felt that Mountville was soooo far away from our home. In reality, it was only a 10 minute drive away. But we were used to walking to school and playing with the dozens of other kids on our street. It felt like we were in a different state.)

In the midst of all this upheaval, my parents were going about the business of life. They hired an architect and designed their dream house. Modern. Laundry on the bedroom level was a big thing. Clerestory windows in the living room and bedroom hallway. Everything was perfect.

Maybe six months or so later, we moved into another rental house. This one was only a block or so away from the property where our home was being rebuilt. We were back in our neighborhood.

Then Dad was told by his company that he was being transferred to head up one of its subsidiaries in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Mom and Dad flew up there, bought a house and enrolled us in schools.

Before that move could happen though, the Chairman and CEO of the company asked Dad to head up the corporate offices in Evanston, Illinois. So once again, my folks flew to a new place, bought a house and enrolled us in new schools.

So we never got to move into our dream house.

We had to move away from our friends, our church, our community, our neighborhood.

I think the move was much more difficult for all of us than the tornado had been. It was especially difficult for Mom. Her health had not been good especially after a recurrence of tuberculosis in 1973 – you can read about that here: https://heartbreathingsweb.wordpress.com/2020/05/09/mother-in-quarantine/

Mom died a little more than two years after we moved to Illinois. The lung damage she had suffered from for over 20 years caused her heart to fail on October 22, 1977.

As I reflect back on those years, we were living in Good Friday time with some Holy Saturday time thrown in there every now and again.

We picked up the broken pieces of our hearts and patched them back together. We followed the example of Dad who just kept moving forward.

The loss of all of our earthly possessions, the move, and then the loss of Mom shaped my life – of course. How could it not?

Staying put in Illinois. Going to the same church for 35 years. Raising our family in one house near to our families. I took those deliberate steps to ground myself, to be connected. Sense of place is important to me.

Many years later in 1989, on another April 3rd, John and I went on our first date. After a whirlwind courtship, we were married about seven months later.

So like everything else in life, joy and sorrow are all part of the story.

Remembrance

Every Easter season, we almost always have roast lamb – either on Holy Thursday or Easter Sunday. It’s the Last Supper meal so we remember not only that sacred sharing, but we also remember our family. My folks and John’s folks – especially his mom – loved leg of lamb. And so when we prepare the meal, I think of all of them and all of the meals we shared together.

I also think of the early days of the rebirth of Old St. Patrick’s Church and the lamb meals we would cook and serve to hundreds of people during the Holy Thursday Masses which were held at table in the church hall and later the school gym and cafeteria too. I remember the first time John and I prepped a lamb dinner together on Holy Thursday – way back in 1989 in the old kitchen in the church basement. Terry Tuohy, who was in charge of the whole shebang, cut her finger so badly in the midst of all of the kitchen chaos that John had to take her to the ER for stitches.

I remember the Holy Thursday Mass and Dinner in 2005. John and I took Danny. We shared a table with Dan Martin and his son Danny. Dan’s wife and Danny’s mother – my dear friend Colleen Burns – was battling breast cancer and would die just twelve days later. It was important to Colleen for her Danny to experience that celebration that year. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knew Dan Martin that they were late in arriving. Meanwhile Jack Wall had determined that our Danny was the youngest person in the room (which was the school gym) so he asked Danny H. to answer the traditional Seder questions. That added an extra dimension to the evening.

This year, we’ll prepare lamb tonight for Holy Thursday (a link to the recipe we’ll use is below) and we’ll watch Jack Wall commemorate the Last Supper on the Old St. Pat’s livestream since in-person big gatherings are still not happening at OSP because of the pandemic. It’ll just be John and Danny and me at our table. We won’t have the traditional mint jelly because no one ever really used it except for John’s mom. Instead in a new twist, we’ll sprinkle fresh mint atop our roasted lamb and potatoes and asparagus. We’ll break bread and share this meal of thanksgiving.

Give thanks and remember. Those were the two things Jesus asked us to do in that Passover moment. So as we remember Him, we also remember all our loved ones who have gone before us and we give thanks for their presence in our lives.

The recipe: https://damndelicious.net/2019/04/06/roasted-leg-of-lamb/

If my sister Marianne was joining us for dinner, we’d eliminate the Dijon since she is NOT a fan of mustard. Another recipe note: rosemary is an herb often used in lamb dishes including this one – it is a universal symbol of remembrance.

Reflecting on Light

“It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

LIGHT was the prompt for today’s Lenten photo challenge so I’ve been thinking about the word. I love the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. Instead of complaining about the darkness, do something about it. Be love in action, be a problem solver, be the light.

Last week, Fr. Tom Hurley started off his homily at Old St. Patrick’s by saying he wasn’t sure that prayers were answered. At least not the kind of prayers that petition God for things. (If you want, you can watch his homily here.) While he was preaching, I noticed that lots of folks were typing in the livestream chat asking for prayers for sick relatives and friends. Each request was responded to with care and concern by Bernadette Gibson, director of OSP’s pastoral care ministry. Each prayer was being “answered” in real time. And people were clearly grateful for being heard. I imagine their worries were lightened by the sharing of their concerns. I told John that it was ironic that all this petitioning was happening during Hurley’s homily.

John compared that litany of livestream prayers to the lighting of candles for personal intentions that used to be commonplace in sacred spaces. We were of course reminded of Father Tom McDonough then pastor of St. Giles in Oak Park who, back in the day in a cost-saving and safety measure, removed the votive candles from the church and replaced them with little electric candles which you could light by flipping a switch. He famously told John, “Whose to say, John, whether God is more pleased by the flame on a candle or the flow of electrons.”

It’s apparent that the faithful feel compelled to offer their intentions and petitions by lighting a candle or flipping a switch or chatting online. There is hope in the action. I imagine that all of these methods are pleasing to God.

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of sheltering in place here in Illinois because of the coronavirus. I’ve heard time and again recently that people can see “the light at the end of the tunnel”. The number of people getting vaccinated is outpacing expectations. Folks are hopeful for a return to some kind of normalcy. They are anticipating putting this disease of darkness behind them.

Daylight savings time either began or ended early this morning. 🤷🏼‍♀️ We sprung ahead an hour. The days are getting longer and now the light will extend into the evening. Right now, it’s 6:30pm and it is still quite light outside. Just the idea of more light brightens my mood and lifts my spirit.

I recently finished reading Desert Fathers and Mothers – Early Christian Wisdom Sayings by Christine Valters Paintner. The early monks call us to shine the light of truth on the dark places in our hearts so that we can be fully aware of our ego-centered habits and our patterns of responding and relating. Then we can use this self-awareness to let go of habits that harden our hearts and we can commit to an ongoing inner transformation.

Light is a powerful image. It’s transformative. It’s positive. In every one of my ponderings about light today, there is a hopeful vibe. May we continue to light candles in an effort to dispel the darkness.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.

Desmond Tutu

Savoring Sunsets

“Put yourself in the way of beauty.” ~Cheryl Strayed

We put ourselves in the way of beauty this past Saturday when we drove up to the Skokie Lagoons to watch the sunset. We figured it would be lovely because it had been clear and sunny on what was a very mild day following several long snowy frigid weeks. We were right. As the sun lowered, the sky turned a beautiful corally pink with touches of lavender off to the left side and two wisps of clouds glowing brightly high on the right side.

Several other folks had stopped along Forest Preserve Way to admire the sunset over the Lagoons too. Everyone watched quietly as the sun set and some snapped a few photos of the celestial display.

This Skokie Lagoons sunset reminded me of other sunsets I have known: on a road trip heading west on I-80; in Denver looking towards the Rockies; in Saugatuk along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan; in Lima, Peru overlooking the Pacific Ocean; from the top floor of the Aon Building in Chicago; on the beach in front of the Mucky Duck on Captiva Island (a sunset which deserves its own blogpost); and at Sunset Beach in Door County.

During each of these sunsets, we intentionally (my word for 2021!) paused to witness the beauty and savor the moment.

In Mary Oliver’s poem THE SUN, she first describes the beauty of the sunset and the sunrise and then invites the reader to savor the wild love that fills us as we gaze upon this wonder of nature. But then she closes with an admonition in the final lines: don’t turn away from the beauty of the world.

The Sun ~ by Mary Oliver

Have you ever seen 
anything 
in your life 
more wonderful 

than the way the sun, 
every evening, 
relaxed and easy, 
floats toward the horizon 

and into the clouds or the hills, 
or the rumpled sea, 
and is gone– 
and how it slides again 

out of the blackness, 
every morning, 
on the other side of the world, 
like a red flower 

streaming upward on its heavenly oils, 
say, on a morning in early summer, 
at its perfect imperial distance– 
and have you ever felt for anything 
such wild love– 
do you think there is anywhere, in any language, 
a word billowing enough 
for the pleasure 

that fills you, 
as the sun 
reaches out, 
as it warms you 

as you stand there, 
empty-handed– 
or have you too 
turned from this world– 

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

I think Mary Oliver would be pleased with the evening tradition at Sunset Beach on the shores of Green Bay near Fish Creek, Wisconsin. This beach is probably the place where I’ve most often admired sunsets. During the summer season, folks flock to the beach as the sunset hour approaches. They bring along their own beach chairs or blankets, they perch along a stone wall that’s at the bottom of the stairs leading down to the water, kids investigate the shoreline and skip rocks along the surface of the bay. There’s a sort of quiet reverence as we all wait for the setting of the sun.

This photo was taken about twenty years ago as our three little ones played at Sunset Beach while we waited for the sun to dip below the horizon. (I used this image for today’s Instalent 2021 photo challenge. The prompt was SUNSET.)

When the sun finally sets at this little rocky beach on the bay side of the Door County peninsula, the gathered crowd applauds in appreciation. It’s a heartwarming experience – a communal shared admiration for nature’s beauty.

Book Wisdom

“What else is a library, but a temple of truth? What other function do books have, the great ones, but to change the reader? Books to comfort. But most of all books to disturb you forward.” ~from HARRY’S TREES by Jon Cohen

The #bhlent21 Instagram photo challenge prompt for today is BOOK. The image I used is a book I’m reading for Lent. It’s entitled SACRED TIME – EMBRACING AN INTENTIONAL WAY OF LIFE. “Intentional” is my word for the year (read more about that here) so this book is a perfect fit for me.

One of the practices that Christine Valters Painter suggests in her book is to pause four times a day “to bring a more conscious awareness to what you are experiencing.” She uses the moments of Dawn, Day, Dusk, and Dark as the touchstones to enter into these meditations. She offers four psalms to pray during each of these holy pauses, but encourages the reader to use a favorite piece of poetry or some other words of wisdom instead.

I decided to use some lines from the poetry of Mary Oliver for Dawn and Day and to use the psalms she suggested for Dusk and Dark. So my intention is to follow this practice of pausing during the day at specific moments (waking, lunch, teatime, and bedtime) to pray with these words of wisdom.

DAWN:

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.

~from WHY I WAKE EARLY by Mary Oliver

DAY:

There are things you can’t reach. But

You can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you busy as anything else, and happier.

~from WHERE DOES THE TEMPLE BEGIN? WHERE DOES IT END? by Mary Oliver

DUSK:

From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.

Psalm 113:3

DARK:

Be still, and know that I am God.

Psalm 46:10

Christine’s book is disturbing me forward. Here’s hoping I’m up to the task of making these moments of mindfulness a reality.

Blanket

Over the last several years, one of the Lenten reflections I’ve practiced is an Instagram photo challenge developed by Busted Halo, an online outreach of the Paulist Fathers.

Some of the challenges are more thought provoking than others. I think I’ve always managed to come up with an image for a word. Sometimes I’ve struggled to find the right photo, but I have always enjoyed the process and learned from it.

The prompt for today is BLANKET.

When my kids were little, they all had a special blanket that they carried around with them and snuggled up with at nap time and bedtime. Back then, our eldest called her beloved blanket “Ping” — I think because she needed it for napPING and sleePING. Our youngest still has the remnants of her Ping and it travels with her wherever she goes.

Ultimately though, I didn’t choose one of my not-so-little-ones’ Pings for the challenge. Instead I chose this blanket which John and I have in our bedroom. Originally we bought the blanket as a gift for my father-in-law. After my in-laws’ passing, we brought the blanket back to our house.

The blanket – really a throw – shows Mount Carmel High School and two of its mottos. The first is a quote from way back when John’s Dad (class of 1931) was a student there: “You came to Carmel as a boy. If you care to struggle and work at it, you will leave as a man.”

The other motto was created by John during his more than 30 years at Mount Carmel as a teacher and administrator: “Building character for a lifetime.”

Our family’s MC legacy continued when our son Dan went to Mount Carmel as a student (class of 2011) and returned as an English teacher and football coach. The school is part of who we are. It lives in our hearts. It travels with us wherever we go.

Opening the Door to Lent

Today on Ash Wednesday, the threshold to Lent, I’m revving up my Word for the Year which is INTENTIONAL. I’m putting a prayer regimen into practice which involves books, music and silence. I’m fasting from Facebook which I spend way too much time mindlessly scrolling through. In addition, I’m getting the second dose of the Covid vaccine later this morning.

The two books that will accompany me during these 40 days of Lent are written by Christine Valters Paintner, a Benedictine oblate who currently lives on the west coast of Ireland. The first book is DESERT FATHERS AND MOTHERS – EARLY CHRISTIAN WISDOM SAYINGS – ANNOTATED & EXPLAINED. The other book is SACRED TIME – EMBRACING AN INTENTIONAL WAY OF LIFE. I’ve read the introductions to both books. They’ve captured my attention and will give me a framework to support my Lenten prayer.

In DESERT FATHERS AND MOTHERS, Paintner writes that our spiritual journey is “a movement toward cultivating an intentional awareness of God’s presence.” I look forward to studying and reflecting on the wisdom offered by these ancient Christian mystics during my Lenten journey.

As I was reading the introduction to SACRED TIME, I was aware of how often the author uses doorways, thresholds, portals and gateways as images to describe the movement into a new way of being. These words brought to mind a favorite photo of mine. I snapped it when we were in Ireland in 2010. It was taken from inside a ruin atop the Rock of Cashel.

As I enter into this annual holy season, I’m mindful that last year we were in the midst of Lent 2020 when we began sheltering in place because of the pandemic. It’s as if we’ve been in a year-long Lenten experience.

I’m fortunate to live in a village that has its own health department which is exceedingly competent and very well organized. I work at a school in the village so I was able to get vaccinated at a health department clinic for Skokie school staff. The timing of the doses — the first on the day of the Covid-19 Memorial which Joe Biden held on the eve of his Inauguration as a way to remember the 400,000+ people who perished in the pandemic and the second on Ash Wednesday when we are traditionally told to remember that we are dust and unto dust we shall return — seems incredibly synchronous to me. I read somewhere years ago that remembering is holy work and these synchronicities speak to me of the holy work that needs to be done to heal body and soul.

Paintner asserts that “one of the functions of religious tradition and practice” is “to give us tools that help us cross the threshold” into sacred time. On this day of beginning, I look forward to crossing the threshold into Lent and using the tools of prayer and fasting to deepen my connection to the divine within. I also look forward to crossing the threshold into Covid immunity and using the tools of vaccination and masking to lessen the spread of the virus among our human family.

This is my prayer today: May we use all the tools at our disposal to open the door to God’s grace and humanity’s healing.

Spring is Coming…Really

Today is February 1st. It’s not only the feast day of Saint Brigid, one of Ireland’s most beloved saints, but it’s also Imbolc, the Gaelic seasonal festival of the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The Irish consider it to be the first day of Spring.

Here in Chicagoland, we are digging out from a second big snowstorm in a week. There’s not much of a sense of approaching springtime here especially with subzero temperatures in the weather forecast.

This evening, as we were moving the cars to the even side of the street (This is a link to the village’s explanation of alternate side parking done in an automated voice.), I noticed that it was still light out. Still light out. The light is returning. Hallelujah!

Even though it certainly doesn’t feel like spring is in the air, we can sense it coming in the ever increasing amount of sunshine brightening our days – even on snowy frigid days.

“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my head.” ~Victor Hugo

Intentional #2

This post is another in my series on my word for the year – INTENTIONAL – and how I am aware of its appearance in my day to day experience.

The high school football season in Illinois is starting on March 3rd this school year, about seven months later than normal because of the pandemic. I know a lot about it because my son Danny is the head coach for the freshman football team at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago which has a powerhouse football program – the varsity team won the state championship last season and the freshman team won the conference championship.

Danny is gearing up for getting his players into shape and then ready for practices and the six game schedule in this year’s abbreviated season. He told me today that because of the limited time they have to prepare, he and his coaches are going to be very intentional about their plans for the team. They’re going to focus on one or two things so that the team can execute them flawlessly.

That’s what intentionality is all about, isn’t it? Stay focused on what’s important and don’t let yourself be distracted by trivial matters.