This Season of Sorrow

4679197598_fcd65ae739_oLast night, I stopped by the post office to mail an anniversary card to Duane & Alpha, longtime family friends who celebrate 64 years of marriage this week. Seven hours later, in the wee hours of this morning, Alpha passed away.

I can picture that anniversary card today, wending its way through the arteries of the postal service, dutifully bound for its destination. A day too late.

How quickly celebration can turn to sorrow.

Two years ago, on this very same day, my family stood vigil around a hospital bed – my mother, aunts, uncles and cousins pressed shoulder to shoulder in silence – and we watched as my grandfather took his last breath and left this world.

Before my grandfather died, before we knew he wasn’t going to make it, before he went to the hospital and never came home, I sent him a get well card. A day too late again.  It sat in the mailbox, cheery and unopened, until we returned to his house after the funeral, to begin the hollow task of packing a lifetime of memories into cardboard boxes.

I’ve been to two funerals in the past month. Alpha makes three, and we only narrowly escaped adding my father-in-law to that list last month.

What strikes me most deeply about this season of sorrow is that there is so much more sorrow to come. As I count my blessings for each loved one still here on earth, I realize that love is always, always, shadowed by loss. The more we love, the more it hurts to lose. And yet, if we did not love, we would miss out on the very joy and beauty of life.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. (Eccl 3:10-13)

Our time on this earth is a gift, and what greater work can we do with the gifts we have received than to create something beautiful and something worth remembering for those we leave behind.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. A day late is better than not at all.

[ Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada ]

What We Talk About When We Talk About Knitting

My Grandma Dee was a knitter. Late in life, her specialty was washcloths. I doubt there is one person in my extended family without a stack of her knitted washcloths tucked away in a kitchen towel drawer. The colors might vary, but she always used Sugar ‘n Cream cotton yarn. Her favorite pattern had a pretty eyelet edge around the outside. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. A soothing rhythm in her effortless hands, she knew the movements by heart, her needles and right hand weaving air and yarn without even looking.

One Christmas, when I was thirteen, she tried to teach a few of us grandkids how to knit those washcloths. I stuck with mine for a few weeks and managed to finish it, though its oddly round shape and gaping holes looked nothing like Grandma’s perfectly uniform, knitted squares. I didn’t touch a pair of knitting needles again for almost twenty years.

We tend to avoid things we can’t do well. A perfectionist through and through, my memory bank is littered with failed attempts at artistic endeavor. Even here, in this safe little aerie, the writing’s gone silent. For weeks now, I have fled from the page, abandoned the keyboard. My pen is as dry as my mind.

Each time I tell myself to sit down and write, I hear a tiny voice inside me whisper that age-old question of doubt, “Why?”

Why write? What’s the point? There’s no purpose for these words. Useless, self-centered, navel-gazing words. What are you doing? Wasting your time. Chasing stories that don’t matter. No one cares what you have to say. Who do you think you are? You’re not a writer. Stop pretending. Can’t you do something worthwhile with your life?

I feel each question pulling loose a string in my heart, unraveling this lifeline that tethers me to the page.

Why write? All my life, I thought if I just tried long enough or found the right spark of inspiration, I could build something beautiful. A tower of words. A city of stories. I thought story mattered, and I thought I cared enough to keep trying. But these whispers of doubt won’t leave me alone.

What do you do with a dream when it’s dying? What do you say when your inner cynic tells you story doesn’t matter?

*  *  *

Every night after dinner, my grandparents walked down their creaky basement stairs to a cozy, wood-paneled family room with 70’s shag carpeting and brown plaid furniture. Grandma sat in a chair next to Grandpa’s recliner, and they watched TV. Iowa Hawkeye basketball…Johnny Carson…the good stuff. She knitted, and he snacked on peanuts from a little wooden bowl perched next to his weekly copy of TV Guide. He loved to tease her for knitting with her eyes closed. Her hands were never idle — even when she dozed off in front of the TV, she kept knitting, only to wake up and unravel the row she did wrong in her sleep and start again. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Unravel. Knit. Repeat.

Not everything that unravels is ruined.

Maybe I’ll never be a famous author, and that’s OK. I can still find stories to tell. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. It doesn’t need an audience to be meaningful. If I can bear witness to this one life and find moments of beauty worth remembering, for myself and for the people I love, I will not have written in vain.

Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Unravel. Knit. Repeat.

“My story is myself: and I am my story. This is all you will know of me; it is all I will know of you. This is all that will survive of us: the stories of who we are, the ways that people speak our names and remember something we did, an event we lived through, a clever story we were known for, or hopefully, some wisdom. They are mostly gone now — grandparents, aunts and uncles — and you and I will soon be gone, too. What is left of their lives, and what will be left of ours, is story.” — Christina Baldwin, Storycatcher

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

She came barreling down the aisle with her black woolen hat perched cockeyed on top of wiry, gray hair. “What time have you got?” she barked, her voice gravelly but Southern soft on the edges.

“I’m sorry,” I said, glancing down and miming at my wrist. “I don’t have a watch or a phone.”

With a huff, she rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and thrust her cart through the narrow opening beside me. I backed out of her way, knocking packages of mascara tubes to the floor with the hem of my winter coat.

Where was she going in such a hurry?

I returned to the shopping list in my hand and walked on, searching the next display rack for the right shade of concealer, which I can never find.

Five minutes later, I crossed the store looking for my husband, who had given up waiting on me and taken the cart in search of household cleaning supplies, which he can never find. And there she was again—I spotted her dark woolen hat bobbing along in front of me. She moved slowly now and weaved back and forth down the aisle, like a child learning to ride a bicycle. Straight lines grow crooked with age.

I veered off the main aisle to pass her, weaving my way through racks of toddler clothes, and wondered if she’d think I was following her. You can never be too wary, I remember my grandmother saying.

Later I stood waiting with my husband in the checkout line, laughing together at the results of our last-minute shopping attempt before the Super Bowl: all chips, no dip. I looked up to see if the other lines were moving faster, and there she was, standing alone and scowling at the cashier three aisles down.

When was the last time she smiled? When was the last time she laughed?

I lost sight of her as we paid for our items and carried our bags to the car, and I forgot about her as we rushed home through busy traffic and grand plans for the evening.

But today, I remember that little old lady in the bedraggled black hat, and I wonder if I was kind when she asked me for the time. Did I look her in the eyes, or was I distracted, lost in my own world of thought?

Everyone has a story to tell.

Where did she come from with that misplaced Southern drawl?

Where was she going? Did she make it on time?

And who was there to greet her when she got home?

I hope they made her smile.