Celebrating a Life

Today I’m remembering a solo journey I took back in 2009 to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My desire was to visit the place that had been significant for my mother. She and her  cousin, Yvonne traveled there by train when they were both nineteen to prepare for work in WWII as civil servants.

Throughout my childhood, Mama told stories of their adventures in Harrisburg. It was the first time those two farm girls had been outside of North Carolina. They returned to work at Pope Air Base, living on site and enjoying the lively community that included handsome soldiers. It was quite a change from rural Harnett County.

Before I left on my trip to Harrisburg, I took Mama to see Yvonne. At that time, they were both still living in their homes. We sat at Yvonne’s dining table and shared a meal of chicken and biscuits and I told them about my plan.

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Yvonne Gilchrist Casto (sitting) and Mama, Mary Smith Rosser

While Yvonne had more physical problems than Mama, Yvonne was mentally sharp. Mama was in the early phase of dementia and understood that I was going to Harrisburg, but had a hard time recalling the specifics of living there. I felt an urgency to go then because I wanted her to be able to enjoy some of what I discovered while she could still savor those memories with Yvonne.

“We lived on McClay street. I hope you can find the house where we rented a room from the Flutes,” Yvonne told me.

Later, she shared one of their familiar stories. She was a clever prankster and often seemed to be the ‘set-up’ person while Mama took the bait. They were a real duo.

When I arrived in Harrisburg, I took pictures along the path by the Susquehanna River, remembering what an impression it made on Mama that frigid January day when they arrived. Mama would often say, “That river was frozen solid.” It would have been a real contrast to their partially-frozen farm pond in central North Carolina, which she would have be warned to stay away from when she was a girl.

While I walked along the streets abutting McClay and visited the Capitol where they’d had their photo taken, I imagined Mama and Yvonne, nineteen years old, the young women in the photo coming to life.

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(L to R) Yvonne, their new friend, Mary Willis, and Mama, Mary Rosser at PA Capitol 1943

I tried but couldn’t find the training site. When I returned with my pictures, they listened in rapt attention as I told them what I saw and ways the city had changed since 1943.

Mama and Yvonne remained close over the years. We often said they were more like sisters and best friends than merely cousins.

How they loved each other’s company, able to finish each other’s stories from their time together as young women starting out in the world. After the war ended and they finished working at Pope Field, they went to Kansas City, Missouri to work for the airlines. While there, Yvonne met her husband, Bill and eventually moved with him to California.

Years later, we received the tragic news that Bill had been diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea/Huntington’s Disease, a fatal genetic disorder (https://hdsa.org/what-is-hd/). He lost his job as a NASA contractor due to the  changes in his functioning caused by the break down of nerve cells in his brain. Yvonne and Bill, along with their six-year-old daughter, Kim moved back to North Carolina. Mama was heartbroken for Yvonne and was supportive of her through the eighteen years of Bill’s decline and eventual long-term care and then death. During that time, Yvonne was there for Mama when Daddy died suddenly from a heart attack.

As widows, they’d often visit each other and take trips to see friends and family that lived both nearby and faraway. They enjoyed each other’s company, often telling their stories from Harrisburg and Pope Field like a well-rehearsed tag team. We enjoyed watching them.

Eventually Yvonne’s diabetes and other physical problems, and Mama’s dementia led to both of them going to live in nursing centers. As long as they were able, we still tried to take them to see one another. When they were no longer able to visit, Yvonne would ask Kim about Mama, and Mama would smile when we’d tell her news of Yvonne. They were separated but we felt their spirits remained together.

Today I remember Yvonne because tomorrow I will attend her memorial service. She passed away last week in her nursing home thirty miles from Mama’s. Yvonne had just turned 95 on November 1st, catching up with her cousin who’d turned 95 in July.

For Mama and Yvonne, their strong cousin bond, shared adventures as young women, and support for one another, lasted a lifetime.

What a testament of  kinship, friendship, and loyalty pursurvering through the good and difficult times of life. What a priviledge to have learned from watching them.

Tomorrow we will celebrate Yvonne. Mama doesn’t know that her cousin is no longer living. She is spared from that grief by her dementia, so we daughters will go in Mama’s stead, supporting Kim, our cousin, as we honor the life of her incredible mother.

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How About You?

Have you ever made a journey to discover more about a person you loved?

What did you learn about that person?  What did you learn about yourself?

Let It Go

I rushed through the Hemmingway salad at lunch in order to get to the reason I’d come to the restaurant. A friend from Michigan suggested I stop in at Jesperson’s for a slice of cherry berry pie while I was visiting Petoskey on my solo journey that year. I’d ridden my bike along the Little Traverse Wheelway by the edge of Lake Michigan for most of the morning. Surely, I had worked off some of the calories in the piece of pie a la mode.

Before I bit into my dessert, I took a picture. I’m not a Foodie and rarely get photos of what I’m about to eat. But that pie sitting next to that cup of dark roast coffee looked like a perfect still life that would remind me of a sweet moment in downtown Petoskey. Biting into the pastry, it had that tartness of small cherries mixed with raspberries that I’d hoped for, countered by the sweetness of the filling and ice cream.

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Slowly eating the warm, freshly baked confection, it was a contrast to the bitter taste left by an interaction with a staff member in the art gallery down the street. Before coming in for lunch, I was browsing, checking out the works of Michigan artisans including pottery dishes, watercolors of the lake, knitted items and the one that caught my eye– a fiber art piece. The woman behind the counter asked if she could help.

“I really like this,” I said, and pointed to the fiber art. “Is the artist from Petoskey?” I asked, hoping to find out more, trying to strike up a conversation since traveling alone made me eager to talk with people along the way.

She didn’t answer my question. Instead, she responded, “You’re a visitor. I hear a little twang.”

I felt irritated, like I’d been put down by her word ‘twang’ which wasn’t how I’d describe my Southern accent.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said and smiled, trying to ignore what felt like a slight, and keep the conversation going.

She answered my question, saying the artist lived in Grand Rapids, then wrapped the fiber art and rang up my purchase. Simply Business.

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Fiber Art by Karen Godfrey

I felt irritated, prickled by her comment that made me feel like she’d poked fun at me. Why did I have to let such a little thing bother me?

I had an idea about that. Several years before I was talking with an acquaintance and we discovered that we both had a hard time just ‘going with the flow’ because we were too affected by all that surrounded us. She said to me,”I think you’re like me. You’re a HSP.” Seeing my confusion, she clarified, “It’s a Highly Sensitive Person. We’re that group that take things too seriously and can’t ignore stuff.”

She loaned me her book, The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. Reading through it, taking the self-assessment test, I saw characteristics that were true of me: have a rich, complex inner life, easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input, other people’s moods affect me, as a child your parents or teachers saw you as sensitive or shy.

On my roadtrip to Michigan, I visited my cousin in Toledo for a couple of days. We had wonderful conversations, sitting on her screened porch in the early mornings, talking about Rosser family memories. She was ten years older than me and grew up in New Jersey. We laughed that both of us had been compared to our Aunt Polly who was ‘sensitive’ and like us, enjoyed art and were more fanciful than pragmatic.

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Shopping with my cousin Shirley

Now I took another forkful of pie, savoring the treat as long as possible. Maybe Shirley and Aunt Polly were HSPs, too, I thought. Since having my own two sons and seeing their unique traits, I believed that some things are nurtured and some things are provided by nature– how we’re uniquely made and family traits are handed down through our DNA.

Finishing with the final sip of coffee, I pulled the fiber art from the sack and examined my souvenir that I would hang above my writing desk. The serious girl, her photo transferred onto the fabric, reminded me of myself when I was young. Perhaps I was so accustomed to the regional ways of my Southern home that the comment by the Midwesterner in the gallery had made me bristle.

If part of my ‘true nature’ was being sensitive, then I needed to accept that and be grateful for the advantages and learn to live with the disadvantages– like we all do with our true natures.

Accepting all aspects of myself, I would appreciate the tart and the sweet, just like the piece of pie that I had polished off. When comments sounded abrasive to my sensitive ears, I could just tell myself, “Let It Go, Connie” and move on rather than allowing that slight to accumulate in my memory bank.

Now, the still life of the pie and coffee and the fiber art girl above my desk looking out at me, are reminders to “Let It Go,” a sweet memory from Michigan that I can carry along the way.

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Little Traverse Wheelway, Petoskey, Michigan

 

To Read More about HSPs:

Check out Elaine Aron’s work at Highly Sensitive Person.

How About You?

What are challenges you have with your temperment?

How can you accept all of yourself, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses that make up your true nature?

 

 

Second Chance to Know You

It was 1966 and he was home on leave for Thanksgiving.  My cousin, Danny and my Grandma Smith hold his fresh catch from her farm pond.  He’d just completed boot camp and was ready to serve on the USS Cacapon docked in Long Beach, California.  I was an eleven-year-old kid looking up to my twenty-two-year old cousin.  Now, fifty-one-years later, I have a second chance to know him.

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We meet every year on Veteran’s Day at Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County –within five miles of where our Grandma Smith had lived.  This tradition started years ago after we discovered our common interest in hiking.  Prior to that, I’d only spent time with him when he or his family would come by our home or we were at a gathering at Grandma Smith’s.  I liked his sense of humor and always found him easy to talk with– especially for a guy.  Must have been because he was a middle child, too, with an older and younger sister, like me.

Now we take the Campbell Loop trail that’ll be five miles into the hardwood forest.  The path follows a stream that flows into the Cape Fear River.  Over the years we’ve developed a familiar pattern of steady walking with stops to admire the natural wonder around us: light through the leaves, the way the water has carved the rock, fallen trees like sculpture over the stream.  Along the way, we talk everything from news of our families, to politics, to issues of faith.

Sometimes we go back to memories of our teenage years.  I love hearing his stories about a girl he liked, the male perspective I’d missed by not having brothers.  Danny listens to my account of boys I chased that lived just down the road from Raven Rock in the Boone Trail community.  I wish he’d been around then to give me advice.

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Danny’s turn to lead

We go at a comfortable pace, walking through our topics.  At the end of our hike, I’m rewarded by Danny cooking lunch for me over his hibachi.  He’d insisted on this and asked that I just bring carrots.  He’d brought fillet mignon, shrimp, tossed salad, and cold adult beverages.
We sit and wait for the coals to burn down.  I can see Grandma Smith in the way he listens, then thoughtfully responds.  Danny’s blue-gray eyes and profile remind me of her.  I’ve been fortunate to be able to get to know him in adulthood as I could not when I was a child.  It’s given me a deeper knowledge of my family and of myself.
I remember several years ago when I was planning my solo journey.  There was another cousin I wanted to know better.  I’d seen from spending time with Danny how it had enriched our lives.  I planned my trip to Michigan by way of Toledo and visited my cousin, Shirley.  (see post– Distant Cousins). Like my time with Danny, I made new discoveries that helped me to know her, and myself, better.
I’m hungry after our long walk and the grilled shrimp and steak are the perfect meal.  It’s nice to feel taken care of by my older cousin, like the big brother that I’d always wanted.
When we pack up to leave, the sun is slanting it’s golden afternoon light on the trees.  I have a feeling of fullness and satisfaction, not just from our delicious lunch but from the day that has been well- spent.  Once again we’ve deepened our bond that has carried us through the years and will into the future.  I’m grateful that I’ve had this second chance to know him.
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Me and Danny on Veteran’s Day Hike

See more photos at my Author Facebook page– Saved by Sedona
 
What about you?
Have you had someone that you’ve been able to get to know more fully at a later time in your life?
How has that experience changed you?