Friday, February 27, 2009

Hope for Change in Us All

This is a rather personal journal entry, but I wanted to share it to show (a) my mother's self-awareness, and (b) her ability to pivot from a negative to a positive--her desire to see the good in herself and others and to make the best of the situation. Several of the references here may be unfamiliar to readers who are not members of the LDS/Mormon Church. "Relief Society" is a women's meeting taught by lay members (one of several meetings held each Sunday). The "Gospel" is a generic term for that faith/belief system, which places a strong emphasis on appreciating and learning about one's ancestors. In that faith, we often refer to fellow members as "brother" or "sister." The "pioneers" were early Mormon settlers who fled persecution in Illinois and Missouri to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in the mid-1800s. That migration remains a great source of pride to many Mormons, and my mother's point was to emphasize that--regardless of our blood lineage--we all have "pioneer" ancestors who paved the way for the blessings and opportunities we currently enjoy.

Sunday, August 1, 1993

Last Sunday I gave a Relief Society lesson on our "pioneer heritage" and made sure each sister recognized that she had a pioneer heritage of her own in those ancestors who have made their present blessings possible. During the lesson, I gave examples of my own pioneer ancestors and, in an effort to make them more human, I referred flippantly to their weaknesses--temper, theft, etc. I then said how thankful I was to them for their sacrifices that have benefited me so much, making it all right that I had mentioned their faults.

During the week following I have been overshadowed with the conviction that I have wronged people I love, people who are just as real now as they ever were. Grantma Groen's love of beauty in all her surroundings and her insistence on quality in work and workmanship lives with me. Every time I see a beautiful farm and wonderful animals I think of her. Treelined streets and landscaped shopping areas would have delighted her. Benches in beautiful places would have been a joy. She would have loved our shopping mall and would have been overjoyed at some of the fine European breads available here in the East.

As for Grandma Davidson, I am just like her. I have the same feelings for the Gospel that she had. I want to be faithful as she was. I don't want to be remembered as bad-tempered any more than she would want to be. It is not fair for me to label my grandmothers as "dishonest" or "hot tempered" because of a few instances in their lives. Labeling is hard to overcome, especially when it hounds us even beyond the grave. Does their death give me license to label them for their faults? My mouth has done a terrible thing.

I realized I am guilty of even more offense. Somehow I have felt free to point out the faults of all those I am closest to, especially those who live in the same house. I am kinder to the neighbor next door in my judgment. How different it would be in our family if I changed and could put a bridle on my tongue! I want to change. I really want to do it. With God's help it must be possible. (And yet, during this writing when I left to go upstairs and found my picture knocked from the wall, I immediately railed on Ben for being so rough in the hall.)

Today, I feel that our brotherhood is limitless--that there are no bounds between dead and living, between races, between countries--and in the other direction, no open license to condemn father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter, or husband just because they are family and are somehow part of me. I guess I have no right to condemn myself for a fault. There has to be hope and real possibility for change in us all.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

To Dance and Dream

July 19, 1993

Today is a beautiful summer day, warm and humid. I have just baked some cookie bars, whole wheat and raisin, brown sugar and almonds, and the house is filled with the aroma. Katie and her friend Sherrie are upstairs trying on my make up and perfume and having a wonderful time. Peter, Josh and a boy from France are playing on the trampoline and squirting each other with a hose, Paddy running around their feet hopefully, begging them to throw the ball. I have been listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, a brazen, irreverent, wonderful, inspiring musical account of the story of Joseph sold into Egypt. I feel it would offend my mother, but it makes me laugh and cry and want to dance and dream of the coming of Zion.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sharing Sarah

My mother published the following article in the June 1981 edition of the Ensign magazine, when she was roughly my age, and already the mother of six. Despite its length, I thought it worth sharing. The original title was "Sharing Sarah: Our Down's Syndrome Baby."

Once the possibility had been suggested, our doctor left me alone with my new daughter to see for myself. He had mentioned a few of the signs: low placement of ears; flat nose; short, stubby hands and fingers; large cleft between big toe and little toes; umbilical hernia; simian crease in hands; mongolian fold in eyes. She was so tiny and new—not beautiful, really, but cute, adorable.

It was late evening, and no one bothered me. No nurses came. I examined her from head to toe and found some of the signs to be possible. She was so little it was hard to tell. But even then, without clinical verification, I sensed it was true. Our little girl was mongoloid: born, as I was later to know, with Down’s Syndrome.

Cuddled there together in a darkened hospital room, I felt we faced a menacing world. I carried the memory of a shallow conclusion formed years earlier that the greatest gift a man could possess was a brilliant mind, the greatest curse, a dull one. I had actually expressed it: “Give me a child with physical handicap, never a mental.” From my elementary school days, I remembered two small brothers who said very little and clung to each other on the playground. None of us played with them, and none of us seemed to know where they had gone. There was a foster child placed with a family in our neighborhood, a little girl who watched us enter the chapel each Sunday with slow gaze and heavy tongue. I winced as I applied these memories to our tiny daughter. Of my little Sarah I asked overwhelming questions, “What kind of person will you be?” “What will people do to you?” “What will your dreams and heartaches be?” “Will we be able to teach you?” My husband and I together asked the age-old question: “Why was little Sarah born this way?” “What did we do wrong?” (We remembered the ancient question, “Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”—John 9:2.) Now, as we look back on Sarah Jane’s short four and a half years of life, we have found at least partial answers to these questions.

In answer to the first question, “What kind of person will you be?” our doctor assured us that she would be lovable. The best possible thing, he said, would be to take her home and love her. That was a good beginning.

The other questions were not so easily answered. But since most of my husband’s university experience had been in child development and psychology, he knew where to begin. We read books and visited a center for developmental disabilities. They gave us instructional material and moral support. We received regular visits from our county health nurses. But our most comforting resources were other parents of handicapped children. We traveled with our two-week-old infant to a “Parent-to-Parent” group in Salt Lake City. A woman there touched me. “My little daughter,” she said, “was born following three healthy boys. She is the light of my life.” I clung to that.

As we learned, we taught others. We decided to share Sarah with all who were interested. The Sunday Sarah received her name and blessing, Glenn announced to the congregation that she had a unique mission in life and that we were not sure yet what it would be. Everyone was warm and interested. Some families in the neighborhood made a special project of Sarah. They visited and brought little gifts. They always spoke to her. Certain she was among friends, she developed a bright response and a ready smile.

I had feared most the answer to my second question: “What will people do to you?” From the beginning, we discovered that this depended largely on us. Sharing Sarah openly helped a great deal. I dreaded the natural, open questions of children, not knowing in advance what I should say. Simple answers proved the solution to simple problems.

Each week as my piano students came for lessons, they greeted Sarah and sometimes played with her as she sat near the piano in her little rocker. When doctors discovered a massive heart defect and recommended surgery, these children and other children in the neighborhood and family gave us great strength through their fasting and prayers.

Once, after Sarah had finally learned to walk in spite of great obstacles (bone infection, heart surgery, paralytic stroke, shortened leg, and a broken leg), a little boy laughed and said, “She walks like a gorilla.” Swallowing my instant hurt, I explained that Sarah had one leg shorter than the other, so it was hard for her to walk straight. The little boy was satisfied.

Many little ones asked, “Why doesn’t Sarah talk?” I always explained that it was harder for Sarah to learn words than it was for them, but added that she could learn if we were careful to teach her. They remained Sarah’s friends.

What people did to Sarah was to care for her, to learn from her, and to love her.

The answer to my question, “What will your dreams and heartaches be?” is only a guess. Sarah was just beginning to want to do more than we were ready to allow her when she passed away a few months before her fifth birthday. She evidenced talents and capabilities full to overflowing that wanted expression.

From infancy she was responsive to music. She loved it. When my students played, however badly, she quieted and listened or bounced her rocker rhythmically. When my trio sang, she clapped and shouted, “Wow!” When the stereo played especially stirring music, she danced, changing her body movements to harmonize with mood and tempo. She had favorites among my piano pieces. Whenever I played a particularly lively Schubert piece, she would come running, climb onto the piano bench, and beat time with me on the high keys. It became a kind of ritual with us, our duet.

We sensed in her celebrations a beautiful spirit. Whenever anything delighted her, she used all her resources to express her feelings. When grandma and grandpa came or the home teachers stood at the door, she greeted them with a big “hiya!” She danced and laughed and hugged and kissed. When we had spaghetti for dinner, she clapped and hollered, stamped her feet, and passed her dish for more. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, and bumpy roads made her lift her arms and squeal and laugh. If she had found any more means for expression, we feel she would have used them.

Sarah had a special sensitivity to peace and happiness. Discord distressed her. If baby Ben cried, she said, “Oh, Bee,” and pulled me to him, or pushed his head toward me, knowing I could quiet him. If the boys were fighting, she’d bang me on the arm and take me to them, jabbering the story on the way. If a visiting cousin were minus a toy and crying, she would snatch one from her brother and offer it as a solution.

Quite by accident we discovered her fierce desire to accomplish household tasks. Her fussing with the dishwasher turned out to be a desire to help load and unload dishes. Similarly, she demanded to be included in diaper-folding, bed-making, and putting away clothes and toys. Her interference at the dinner table turned out to be a desire to help with the passing. Once we gave her the opportunity, however, she passed food with such gusto we had to stay alert. As she grew older, these desires to help began to expand.

Though it was not always apparent, Sarah helped to keep us all tidy. Thoroughly smeared with spaghetti, she often demanded that we attend to the escaped pea or the spilled milk before she would continue eating. When she and her younger brother Ben were seated at their own small table, she assumed responsibility for him, mopping his face, the table, the floor, running for napkins and tissues, and pronouncing it finished with a big “There!”

Decidedly unlike her five brothers, Sarah expressed a deep femininity. Any hat, shoes, or dress sent her trotting to the mirror, where she cocked her head and turned slowly, acting pretty. Her favorite decoration was a large, lacy doily, my treasure, made by my deceased grandmother. Sarah discovered it no matter where it was. With the doily on her head, she walked a little straighter, regally, peering up through the lace to see for herself just how pretty she looked. She loved to comb her daddy’s hair carefully all around, even sideburns, cranking his head this way and that by the chin and standing back to admire, as though she had a particular design in mind. Like any little girl, she loved to mother. Her little brother Ben was the victim of most of this. She dressed him in his coat, often upside down, and helped him escape from the house to play. Three weeks after Sarah was gone, Ben was still searching the house for “Tah-tah,” his once constant companion.

Somewhat like her father, Sarah enjoyed ritual. She was upset if not always allowed to zip up her sleeper. No matter how prolonged her bedtime antics, she settled to sleep in the same position, placing her two little hands in her daddy’s big one.

Some of her rituals demanded all her strength at times, but Sarah evidenced a Spartan power to endure. With breath and energy failing, Sarah often woke suddenly in the night. Religiously, she would cross the room, turn off her humidifier, and then turn on the light before stumbling to her daddy’s bedside. Occasionally, these duties accomplished, she would collapse on the floor and whimper before she could reach him, but she refused to take shortcuts. Once, following six days of intravenous treatment and liquid diet in the hospital, she was placed on a total fast for tests but allowed to go home. She woke in the morning and, as usual, stumbled to the cupboard for dishes, then stumbled on to set the table before requesting the breakfast we couldn’t give. Just three days before her heart stopped for the last time, we watched her pull herself up the ladder at the park to go down the slippery slide five times.

The answer to our question, “Will we be able to teach you?” is simple. Yes. Sarah learned everything we consciously tried to teach and much that we didn’t. Our big problem was assuming she could not learn. Teachers outside our home accomplished things with her we would not have tried. With her own stubborn insistence, she often taught us she could do more. She learned several words on her own, but we did teach her the word drink. Often Sarah would resort to banging daddy on the arm, pointing to the pitcher and jabbering, but as we worked with her, more and more she remembered the word. She would stop in the middle of the action, duck her head and say deliberately, “dri,” then give a big cheese grin and celebration while dad poured her drink. “Dri” was the last word she ever said. With her mouth full of tubes keeping her alive, we are sure she attempted the “dri” and the grin. Yes, we could teach her.

Sarah’s short life broadened our understanding, increased our compassion. Her life was of value, all of it. To us she was not a partial person, but so whole we were constantly aware of spirit. She reminded us of the frailty of this life and of her need and ours for fulfillment in the eternities. During her time with us, we found ourselves thinking and speaking of her as “our bright spot,” “our little sunshine,” the “light of our lives.” So at last, to the age-old question in its ancient phrasing, “Who did sin, this man, or his parents?” (“Why was Sarah born this way?” “What did we do wrong?”) the answer is the Master’s:

Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (John 9:3.)

The works of God have been manifest in Sarah Jane. In her innocent suffering, she has made us again aware of the sacrifice of “the just for the unjust.” And through her sweet influence, she has caused a great longing in us to be reunited with her. If we accomplish this, she will have helped us gain eternal life. Then “the works of God” will finally be manifest when both she and we come forth in glory, in the morning of the resurrection of the just.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Half Bushel of Beets

I am back [from Pennsylvania Dutch Country] with 1/2 bushel of red beets. A young Amish farmer had his “red beet” sign out, and when I perceived his hardship, his youth, etc., I felt I couldn’t buy less than $5. I tried to talk him into giving me less for the same money, but he was determined to give me full measure. I hadn’t realized he didn’t have the beets harvested and would have to pull them as we watched.

He is having a difficult time as a dairy farmer. No matter what price the grocer puts on it in the store, he always gets the same paltry amount for his milk. He had a full dark beard, rosy cheeks, and a constant full smile. His clothesline was filled with baby clothes--at least three toddlers and an infant, judging from the sizes. Karen [Athay] was laughing at me all the way home for my half bushel of beets, even though she was ready to hand him $20 herself.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rain and Wind

I went to graduate school in New York City, and my mother used to come and visit us there, in our one-bedroom apartment on Tiemann Place just off of Riverside Drive, a block from the Cotton Club and 125th Street in Harlem. When we first told her we'd found a place, she had visions of a tiny, dirty apartment in a dingy building, and we did nothing to disabuse that notion. She arrived in due time, armed with mops and scrub brushes and ready to do battle with filth and vermin, only to discover she'd be had: our apartment there was clean and spacious, with plenty of light through large windows facing south and west.

I share the following brief excerpt because it demonstrates her gift for words. Notice her attention to the sounds of a place. In just a few lines, she takes me right back to New York City, years ago, on a night of wind and rain ...

Dec. 2, 1996

Dear Peter,

It poured rain all Saturday night and into Sunday. Rain and wind. New York City is quiet in bad weather. Few sirens and car alarms. Only the subway train whooshing by in the night and the sound of the rain beating against the windows.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Moved to Mars

My mother taught me a love of new places and new experiences. But that doesn't mean transitions were always easy for her. She wrote the following shortly after a move to Ellicott City, Maryland, from Highland, Utah, where we'd lived for many years. What I see in it is her determination to find what is good and beautiful and interesting in this new place, far from friends and family. Before the move, I remember her reading maps, articles, and everything else about Maryland she could get her hands on. I think she was determined to try and get us excited about this big--and potentially disruptive--move, and even to persuade herself. In the end, Maryland became very much home for her, in so many ways, and she deeply loved the house and yard there on Wild Filly Court and so many new friends who came into our lives.

June 1, 1987

Dear Ones,

In some ways I feel we’ve moved to Mars. We are so far from anyone familiar, and the world around us is so different. We remember you all in our prayers, and that is our tie to home.

* * * *

We took a walk after Church along the Patapsco River. We walked through a tunnel of huge, green trees, and the undergrowth was filled with wild roses, blackberries, ferns, wild rhododendron (that’s what it looked like to me), and even some grapes. Tangles of vines and some honeysuckle climb the trees and bushes. All the growth kills noise—except for the bird songs. It was like the Pagsanhan River in the Phillipines, except the trees and plants weren’t tropical. They were just as green. There were lots of irridescent bugs around—greens and blues. The trail we walked on used to be brick or cobblestoned, but it was crumbling and covered with years of dirt. We saw an old, moss-covered chimney and wondered how old it was. It appeared that in the very old days some homes were built along the river. I’m sure it was used for transportation. It must have been difficult to cut roads through these forests. If all the people here now were to leave, it wouldn’t be long until all trace of us would disappear too.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thunderstorm Days

In the early 1960s, my mother served a full-time volunteer mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon Church), in what was then called the Greater Far East Mission. She served for roughly six months in Hong Kong, and then spent the remaining eighteen months of her mission in of the Phillipines. Her voice was younger then, but unmistakable.

July 19, 1964

How I’ve loved the rides along Highway 54—especially on the thunderstorm days of July! The skies, the countryside—everything—seems to feed my imagination with all sorts of beauty, rest, or excitement, depending on my mood and theirs. These days, the sky to the South is exciting, piled high with thunderstorms or black, with white, whispy clouds swirling along close to the ground. The flat land above the highway reminds me of what I would imagine a misty England scene to be on a rainy day—all lush green under a dripping sky with patches of darker green where thickets of bamboo or pampas grass have sprung up. A few thin Brahma cattle generally graze there alongside a caribou or two. It’s strange to see such bony cattle in the midst of what looks like abundance. (Reminds me of the 7 lean cattle in Pharoah’s dream.) I used to wonder if they all had worms, but, apparently, it’s just a matter of the wrong kind of grass.

Rain means suffocation in the back of the bus. All the wooden windows bang up, and the breezes stop, but the smoking goes on, regardless. No more thoughts of a misty English countryside. Mid-bus is a fair place to be this time of year. There’s but a sparking rain curtain over the door that waves in the wind and occasionally draws aside to give us a few of the floods outside or splash us all—love it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Singing in a Dark World

From a letter to my brother Peter, who at the time was serving a Mormon mission in eastern Germany.

February 4, 1999

I have just been listening to Katie's high school choir concert on tape. She would love to send you a copy. Here are the words to one of their songs (written by a Jewish prisoner in Germany in World War II):

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
And I believe in Love, even when there's no one there.
And I believe in God, even when He is silent.
I believe through any trial, there is always a way.

But sometimes in this suffering and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter to know someone's there.
But a voice rises within me saying, "Hold on, my child.
I'll give you strength; I'll give you hope.
Just stay a little while."

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
And I believe in love, even when there's no one there.
And I believe in God, even when He is silent!
I believe through any trial, there is always a way.

May there someday be sunshine.
May there someday be happiness.
May there someday be love.
May there someday be peace.

The music for these words is magnificent. The kids raised the roof with it. They also sang, "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? Yes he did! Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? Yes he did! Then why not every man?!" Many of their songs had religious substance to them. These youth are singing their hearts out in a pretty dark world.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

More Work Than Miracle

[During a church service in Manhattan,] the bishop announced that we would be treated to Polonaise in A Flat Major by Chopin. Unusual for sacrament meeting, unheard of for testimony meeting. Then a tiny blonde girl 8 years old stood up to play it. She disappeared onto the piano bench. They lifted the lid on the beautiful Manhattan Ward grand piano and then--wow!--we heard Chopin. Katie and I wondered if some adult with large shoulders and big hands had crawled back there to trick us. She was wonderful--beautiful phrases, sparkling music. We thought she was some NYC protege but learned afterward that she is from Salt Lake City, taught by her mother, had gone to a piano competition in Texas and won the opportunity to go to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall. Her 10 year old sister had done the same thing two years before. She gets up at 5:30 to practice and averages 4 hours per day when preparing for competition. The mother has no degree in music but played from the time she was 5. She studied music after she was married for two years at the University of Utah. Beautiful young mother. Every phrase of that music had been carefully and beautifully practiced. More work than miracle, as always.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Garden Notes ...

Nearing the end of her life, my Mom's garden and compost pile were something to behold. She took such good care of the soil that it felt like damp sponge when we walked on it. In the Spring, the flowers and vegetables would rocket skyward.

July 21, 1995

Ben and I planted bare-root tomatoes at the side of the house, and even though we’ve planted tomatoes on the same spot for nearly eight years, they look pretty good. I think it’s time to rotate, though. I planted two fig trees there this year. Four little figs are forming. I had a beautiful clump of squash growing on the corner of that garden until some wild animal came in the night and nibbled away all the youngest and greenest leaves and quite a few of the blossoms. I think it was a wood chuck. It also ate most of the pole beans that had begun to climb in the other garden. This morning, I bought 4 lbs of dried blood and scattered it around all the plants in hopes that all the wild rabbits would have nightmares when they smelled it and leave our plants alone.

I am in my blue phase. I love blue and white dishes, blue clothes, blue and purple flowers. The dark blue lobelia in front is a perfect color. I am also in a garden phase. I keep thinking of Grantma Groen and wishing I could walk around her garden again. I would learn something. I am remembering many of the plants she had there and wanting to duplicate them in my own yard. I am haunting the garden section of Borders book store and would like to buy three $30 books and one $50 book. So far, I’ve resisted. Perennials are so expensive in the nurseries here that I am in complete sympathy with Grantma’s theft. I would love to dig them in the wild but conservationists have made even that a guilt trip for me. I want to learn more about propagating plants and building soil. My compost pile is almost as interesting as the wildflower garden. I look at it every morning and imagine the wonders it will produce in the garden next year.