An Unexpected Hero

Heroes come in all different shapes and sizes. The one I remember every November 11 is my Great Grandma Elsie.

I had the privilege to grow up knowing this remarkable lady. She lived in a tiny house (way before tiny houses were cool) in my Grandparent’s back yard. Elsie loved birds and always had a budgie for company. Her birds changed every few years, but were always named Joey. Elsie was quiet and kind and every once in a while could be coaxed into tell us stories of her youth. Orphaned at 11 years old, Elsie was shipped to Canada to live with distant cousins in a small town in Saskatchewan. She grew up quickly and when she was 16 years old, two local lads had a horse and buggy race to determine which one would get to propose to her. After great grandpa won the race, they married in a small church and headed out West to begin a family.

Great Grandma Elsie is an unlikely hero. If she were here today she would be the first to pish-posh such an idea. She would claim she didn’t do much at all.  She didn’t serve in the armed forces. She didn’t work as a WAC or in a factory like Rosie the Riveter. She just stayed home and sent her men off to war. Not much heroic about that on the surface.

But every Remembrance Day Elsie would sit in front of her 10 inch black and white TV with the tinfoil on the antennas and watch the Service at the Cenotaph in Ottawa. And she would cry. Not a misty kind of stoic British, stiff upper lip kind of cry either. Elsie would weep openly, clutching her handkerchief in her small trembling fist, as the leaders of the day would pay tribute to the brave men and women who gave of themselves for this country of ours.

You see, Elsie stayed home, kept the home fires burning, hung the laundry on the line and rationed sugar and gasoline. Elsie waved goodbye to her sons as they pulled away from the train station heading to faraway places to fight for our freedom. And Elsie waited. For years she kept watch, praying and hoping her sons would come home safe and whole. And one by one they did.

Except her youngest. Her baby. He served as a tail gunner in a plane that was shot out of the sky. The section of plane he was in was blown separate from the rest, ending up scattered miles away. Listed as Missing In Action, Elsie’s baby boy never came home.

Decades later, Elsie still grieved the loss of her son. As a young girl I didn’t quite understand why Great Grandma was so sad, but now that I am a mother I cannot begin to comprehend the courage it took for her to carry on. When did she stop waiting for word that he had been found? When did she give up hope? And every year as she watched the wreath being placed on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, did she wonder if that was the final resting place of her youngest son?

Elsie’s grief was a lifelong battle. She fought with courage and survived. Grandma Elsie left us just after her 96th birthday. During those many decades she lived after losing her boy, she bore a burden of grief and loss that most of us will thankfully, never have to fathom.

So I remember Elsie and her amazing courage.

And I remember my lost Uncle, whom I never had a chance to meet, and the other brave souls who have fought and died to protect our way of life. Because of them we enjoy the freedom to think, speak, worship, and live as we choose. These men and women of the Armed Forces continue to fight for us, and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our peace.

This Remembrance Day citizens will gather to salute these men and women, some of whom paid the ultimate price. I will join them, giving thanks to the soldiers for their bravery, and to the families they left behind, for their sacrifice.

Lest We Forget.

The Ode of Remembrance

by Laurence Binyon

They went with songs to the battle, they were young. Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, They fell with their faces to the foe. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them

 

My grandfather walking with my mom, circa WWII
My grandfather walking with my mom, circa WWII

 Originally published in e-Know

 

Past Life Tourist: Remembering Love

waiting

I coax no fish today. There will be a hollow in my stomach as I have run out of brown food and the winter months continue long past the time that spring is meant to appear. It is chance and good favor that I still have the keg of strong rice wine half full. The comforting haze helps to hide the pain of hunger and it takes me far away from this barren waste of my life. No wife to warm my ger, no daughter to cook and sing for me. Both gone, one in death, one to warm the furs of her husband’s ger.  She is Least wife of five but still sheltered by the wealth of the warrior husband who chose her. Who took her from me.

She will eat well tonight, and each night. She will never know the pain of being alone, for she is now part of a clan that is full of women who call her sister, and their children who set upon her lap and play with her hair. Her brown eyes are soft and there is no crease upon her brow. At night as I collapse in my stupor beside the dying embers I sometimes hear her voice among the others as it is carried by the wind to my ears. Happy. She is happy.

Nohai came to my dream world again last night. Dancing for me by the light of a fire, she enticed me with her nearness, and left me gutted as she abandoned me once more. How many times has she taken me as I sleep, only to discard me at the light of day?  My body longs to join her in the spirit world, but each day I awake alone, again to face a cruel day.

Cold breath clouds around me.  I feel the stiff frozen hair on my face and wipe it clear with my bare hand.  Taking my stick I break the thin skiff of ice that has formed over my fishing hole.  I see others standing on the field of ice, watching holes, some with tell tale splashes of red in the snow.  They will eat tonight.  As I stare into the blackness of the water I see no fish, no movement.  I will not.

My body craves the burn of wine and I decide to give this day to the fish.  I stretch my eyes across the frozen sea and watch as the sun wanes low in the sky.  Far in the distance there is movement, as if a person walks from the open sea toward me.  My eyes squint and I try to focus.   It is impossible.  Yet she is there.

She walks toward me, the colorful embroidery of her boqtaq unmistakable.  It is Nohai! I begin to walk to her, arms outstretched.  She smiles and I see the familiar red glow of her cheeks, looking so vibrant and alive, not the grey sunken woman I laid in the ground.  The ice thins beneath my feet but I am without fear.  I reach to her and begin to shuffle faster.  Ice crackles and moans and water begins to rise into my steps.

“Batu-dai!  Batu-dai!” My name circles my ears like a black fly.  I swat it away, running toward Nohai.

“Stop Batu-dai!” Many shouts slow my feet and I finally turn toward the sound.  They have gathered at the shore, men and women of the village and they all call to me.  I see Nokaijin, my daughter among them.  She waves her arms at me.

I turn back to Nohai.

She is gone.

I slow my feet to a stop.  I sink within the ice and feel the frigid waters seep.  There is a moan and crack.  The sea intends to claim me.  I turn and slowly walk through the crumbling ice, sinking and soaking so that my skin is numbed with the cold.  I walk faster as the cold brings the return of my senses and begin to stumble and run, ice smashing open behind me to the blackness of the winter sea.

I fall and slip into the sea.  My body sinks below the surface.  I am swallowed by the depths.

I do not rage and fight but simply allow  the weight of my wet furs to pull me downward.  I look above me, following the last bubbles as they escape my nose and mouth and see the far distant light of the sinking winter sun.  I expel my air and wait for Nohai.

Fierce hands grab me and I am dragged up and out of the water.  I am pulled to shore and surrounded by villagers, all speaking at once, shouting orders and instructions.  My son in law carries me to Nokaijin’s ger and my wet clothes are stripped.  Wrapped in fresh furs and set by a warm fire I am joined by the elders who sit with me and smoke.  They do not speak of what has happened.  They speak of great hunts we have led, great battles we have won.  Wisps of smoke curl to the ceiling and escape to the dark night that has fallen.  Warmth returns.   Rich salmon is placed before me and I eat.

Many springs come to follow many winters.  I am beloved Ovog: Grandfather and have a place of honor at my son in law’s fire.  Many fat sons have been delivered of Nokaijin and I teach them the ways of the hunter, of the fisherman. I wait now, on the ice for Tabudai and Jirghadai to join me.  The sun is warm today and already the fish are coaxed to my hole.  I see their shining silver sparkle and dance as they rise to the light.  We will eat well tonight.

My eye is caught by a flash of movement out across the open sea.  I shade against the low winter sun and my eyes find her at long last.  The red of her boqtaq bobs up and down with her steps.  Waiting always, within the happy years I have spent in my daughter’s ger.   Waiting always for her to find me once more.   She has alluded me since that fateful day in the sea, but here she is at last.  She walks to me over open water and waves.  I smile, enchanted to see the rosy fat curve of her smiling cheeks once more.  My breath is filled with light.  Nohai.

My heart shudders once, a thick thud within my chest.   I drop to my knees, reaching toward Nohai.  She is at last in front of me.  Our hands clasp, eyes lock and we are joined , warm and bright as the winter sun.

I quickly shed the tattered coat of this life and rise with Nohai.

Beautiful, Wretched Longing

By Banksy
By Banksy

“Unrequited love’s a bore and I’ve got it pretty bad. But for someone you adore it’s a pleasure to be sad.” Rodgers & Hart

I had a crush on a boy when I was 14 years old.  He was older, a high school senior and I worshipped him from afar.  Every day at lunchtime he would cut through the playground at the middle school I attended on his way back to the big kid school down the hill.  And every lunchtime I would hang out in the field with my best friends and we would pretend not to watch him walk by.  As soon as he was out of earshot we would scream and swoon and die, a mess of teenage girls tangled together in a pile of beautiful, wretched longing.

And then I grew up. The drama and callowness of youth was replaced with the steadfast contentment of experience. The lure of unrequited love with all of its giddy highs and tumultuous lows lost its appeal and I settled down to a wonderful life, rich with family and friends. Requited love, that’s where it’s at.

But then came Death. I was skipping along, happy as can be, not a care in the world when that rat bastard Death came to call. In a sneak attack and over the course of a few years Death came and took a great big bite out of my world.  My realization dawned that the hardest type of unrequited love we experience as humans is Grief.  We “lose” someone we love.  They are “departed”.  Passed “away”. Dead.  Grief consumes us and because we can no longer see them or touch them or talk to them we believe they are actually gone.

If we aren’t careful, we will really start believing Grief.

In reality it is that feeling of separation that is the great illusion, the man behind the curtain.  It is only when we look deeper that we will realize the pain we feel is a creation of our own false perception. Because nobody really dies. The fact that we no longer perceive them with our 5 senses is just another trick of the veil, keeping us in the shroud of amnesia for this walk through life. Once we begin to realize this and feel our grief release its vise grips on our thoughts, hearts and minds we will start to see the signs all around. Visions, messages, gifts, birds, ladybugs, feathers, pennies, song lyrics, all manner of crazy electrical horse play and so much more, our departed loved ones are reaching toward us as much as we reach toward them. Trust the signs. Trust the visions.

If you have ever been homesick for Heaven (as I have) you know that unrequited love is probably the closest thing there is in our human experience to our longing for the Divine.  When our love for someone (or something) is not realized, we feel the separation keenly.  If we can rise above the singular longing of unrequited love we can begin to know that this is merely a call to action to love enough for both. If we can love on our own we can begin to trust that the love we feel is echoing back to us from beyond the veil.

When we believe in love, the illusion of separation will finally be shattered. It is then that we will finally understand the truth:  Love. It is never unrequited.

“Can miles truly separate you from friends… If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there?” – Richard Bach

The Empty Chair

800px-Charles_Green01

The table is set with the finest china and crystal.  My Izzy has outdone herself.  She works diligently to keep our family happy during this holiday season, though in the moments she allows herself to be still she suffers the pain of her broken heart.  She cloaks herself in noise and chaos to keep such moments at bay.

It has been a day of delightful surprises.  Shiny coins hidden away for the children to happen upon.   A lovely red cardinal for Izzy and the girls singing through the kitchen window, bright red against the bleak winter.  And now a fresh blanket of snow to brighten the dark night.

The family sits.   William, my son,  looks diminished somehow, as if the past year has taken some of the air out of him.  His wife, Clara fusses over their daughters, tying bibs and settling them in.   Faith and  Temperance pass bowls of steaming vegetables and soft white buns.  Hudson and Hinton argue with good nature over who shall carve.  Hinton, the eldest, prevails.  The older grandchildren giggle at their tiny table, set beside the fireplace while the younger babes are tended next to their parents.   All have gathered for the feast.  It is a typical scene, one we’ve acted out so many times before, but this time there is a great difference.  This time the room is filled with the presence of the empty chair.  Nobody speaks of it but its presence will not be denied.  They carve, and serve and pour and cut and sip and laugh and talk, comforting sights and sounds.  Their faces glow in the shimmering candle light, tentative joy, tentative sorrow.

I wonder if they know how happy I am to have them all here.

Hinton, my son, finally raises his glass.  His face freezes as he fights emotion.   After a moment he smiles, and toasts the empty chair.  The others join him.   Family.  We come together in good times and in bad.  We share the love and laughter and we hold each other tightly through the tears.

“To our lovely Mother, may her spirit rest.  There is surely a feast in Heaven tonight!”  They smile.   They tap their glasses and wipe their tears.  And soon the memories start and there is laughter.

I sit here in this empty chair, abiding love.  Yes … there truly is a feast in Heaven tonight.

 

Far Better Things

Photo by: Walter Babinski, My American Husband
Photo by: Walter Babinski, My American Husband

Sorrow prepares you for joy.

It violently sweeps everything out of your house

So that new joy can find space to enter.

It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart

So that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place.

It pulls up the rotten roots

So that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow.

Whatever sorrow shakes your heart,

Far better things will take their place.

Rumi

The Light Enters

Photo by Walter Babinski, My American Husband
Photo by Walter Babinski, My American Husband

“The wound is the place where the Light enters”  Rumi

There comes a time in most every life when our apple cart is upset, dumped over, or even smashed to smithereens.  Seems we are just rolling along minding our own business when out of nowhere something HUGE and HORRIBLE comes along and scatters us all over the place.  Could be a relationship falls apart, or a job is lost, or somebody dies, and we are forced to go through something that was not in our plans, at all.  Our quiet little life is shaken to its core and we are broken open.

Why do these bad things happen to good people?  Can’t we just live our quiet little lives without this drama and mayhem?

It seems that we have come to this earth school to learn certain lessons and when we get ourselves trapped into the rut of a mundane existence, sleepwalking through life, the Universe tends to give us a kick in the pants and help us to get back on the right track.  The only constant in life is change.  Nothing stays the same.  We grow and move along and learn and when things stagnate, we get a shove to help us get moving again.

Change cracks us open.  We judge changes, especially the dramatic ones, as traumatic or hard or bad, but in reality they are the challenges we need to shake us from our stupor and help us to expand our souls.  To truly live we must experience all of the emotions, not just the ones that feel “good”.

There is a Japanese practice called Kintsugi that when a piece of pottery has been broken,  instead of discarding it the cracks are filled with gold.  The resulting designs are considered to hold much greater beauty than the original pieces.  By highlighting the cracks that life brings us we honor our journey.  The HUGE and HORRIBLE things that life sends are the challenges that make us expand and as such can be viewed as beautiful and worth cherishing.  To be able to feel truly thankful for all of it, good, bad and ugly, we fill in our own cracks with gold and become the living beauty that is our journey.

In my life I have been broken open and had long stretches where all I would see were the jagged cracks.  But eventually I would begin to see the light streaming in.  Once I focused on the beauty of the newly crafted me I have even been able to fill some of those cracks with gratitude, which is pure gold.  Some of my cracks are not visible and some show up in the silver threading my hair, the lines etching my skin, but in the best light, they too can look like gold.  I am a product of all that I have been through, good, bad and ugly.  I know there are lessons to learn each day and I turn my intentions to learning through joyful whispers instead of angry shouts.

When I find that I have lost my mindfulness, I say a prayer I heard Oprah once say:  “Please don’t teach me nothing new today”.  And then I listen for the whispers.  Hey, I’m not crazy.   I would much rather polish the gold than endure new cracks.

Lavender

‘As Rosemary is to the Spirit, so Lavender is to the Soul.‘
–  Anonymous

Gnarled and spotted thumb draws circles upon the worn linen sachet.  Careful, careful, I remind myself.  The yellowed fabric now so thin the contents easily bleeds through.  Thin and yellowed, like my skin.  And yet I still live.  Wretched.

I sit on the straight back chair, watching death as it hovers ever near.  This time my husband, Gaspard, breath ragged and strained, lost already in the deep sleep of death but with a body that, ever so stubborn, continues its functions.  How many hours have I sat waiting for death to come and take somebody I love?  I absently stroke the sachet as my mind counts Maman, Papa, young Pierrette, Grandmere finally at 102, and now Gaspard.  All these years I sit and wait for death to come, jealous each time that I am not the quarry.  What cruel God keeps me healthy and breathing?  What cruel God gives me nearly half a century of living after my soul has died?

I brush a bit of lavender dust from the fragile fabric of the sachet, thin as moth wings, powdery.  I lift my hand and breath in, hoping the scent will come, but that scent was rend many years back.  Another time of grief.

There was a dream.  He had been steps away from me in a fog and I chased after him, calling his given name, a name I never dared to have uttered in my waking moments.  I called and called in my dream but he remained just out of sight.  When I awoke I tried to bring his image to my mind but found it had gone.  I panicked then, trying to remember the turn of his jaw, the shape of his brow, the shine in his brown eyes, but he was not to be found.   He was ten years in the earth by then, but I grieved again as if it were a day.  His image, the face I fell in love with, gone forever.  That was another bad year.  The scent of the lavender survived a bit longer, but it too has faded from the world.

My other memories remain viciously clear.  I remember the moment he placed three sprigs, freshly stolen from the botanist below deck into my bare hand.  He was full of mischief, laughing about his crime.  Our fingers brushed and we both held our breath.  My face was reddened and I hid my fluster behind my fan when Gaspard joined us at the rail.  Gaspard did not come above deck often, finding his sea legs were far too uncertain, but on this day he had managed.

“A few days to port.  I am very eager to see land once more,” Gaspard spoke cordially to M. du Pre.  The gentlemen settled in to talk with cigars at the rail and I made my way to the state room to attend the children.  We embarked from home five years hence with three children in tow and since that time three more have joined our family.  The seventh was waiting for home soil.  Swollen with child I berated myself once more.  How could I be tempted so when I was matron, wife, mother, dutiful member of polite society?  And M. du Pre and his beautiful, childless, yellow haired bride, with a waist easily spanned by his long tapered fingers, how could I be so foolish as to believe he would even glance my way?

And yet.

We could not stop our eyes from finding each other and once found, to linger, seeking depths never before known.  I feared that others around us must be aware of our racing hearts for the beating was profound.  Oh I had noticed him looking, searching the dining room, the deck, and then setting eyes upon me, his seeking would end.  And my eyes drawn to him as if I had sight unseen, knowing when he was near, yet uncertain how I knew.  Two flames drawn together, but belonging to separate chandelabre.  We could not seem to resist, though we both knew that the fire would destroy us.

I hid the lavender in my sleeve, and later dried it carefully on the windowsill.

Moments, so few, I replayed them over and over through the years until they became dust.  What words did he not speak?  Handing me down the gangway, his kerchief over his hand lest our skin touch, he looked into my eyes for the last time.  Loosening his grip on the cloth he released it to my care,  a secret gift.  His monogram, AdP stitched into the corner was tucked carefully inside the sachet so that only I can tell that this, and I, once belonged to him.

These two gifts, the lavender and the cloth, sewn together and tucked next to my heart now for forty eight years, are all that I have left of him.  He and I never spoke of love.  We never even spoke our given names.  Propriety won out.  But we did love, of that I am most certain, though that has not always been the case.  I had many moments through the years when I would doubt his feelings, and convince myself that I had imagined the whole thing, read nuance where there was none, or brought my own feelings to bear where his were devoid.  Perhaps he was just polite, being attentive to the matronly passenger who sought the fresh sea air as he did.  Those were some of my worst moments, so much worse than the silent screaming grief that I carried with me.  Did he love me as I loved him?

When we parted, he spoke of reuniting upon his return from Polynesia.  He spoke of a time when we would drink cognac in a parlor and he could tell of his great adventure.  He held my hand a moment longer than necessary and I saw his mouth move, a silent word unspoken.  Olivia.

I smiled politely, waiting until the children and I were in the carriage and had moved beyond his sight before I shrugged behind my veil and allowed tears.

The first parting, ever bittersweet with longing and hope.

The second parting was much worse.  He lived within my heart those next few months, alive in my thoughts every moment of the day.  He was with me when I gave birth to my son, and in all of the moments I sat in a sunny window alone with my memories.  Sewing him in every stitch of the sachet, I could feel him warm against my beating heart, a tender secret.  A whispered maybe.

News of his death was a black feather, stark and surprising, landing softly at my feet.  A parlor filled with smoke and laughter.  Talk of news and gossip interwoven with the steady hum of nonsensical chatter.  Smile affixed I feigned interest in something, my thoughts at the rail, a hint of lavender rising from my bosom.  A word across the room caught my attention.  Polynesia.  I tilted my head toward the speaker, a man addressing a group of others.

“… findings that the expedition made luckily were salvaged.  At the very least he kept good notes.  Terrible shame.  Young widow.”

Voices like ice pellets. Scattered words.

“du Pre leaves a great legacy”…”death on foreign soil”…”young man with great potential”…”dead”.

I rushed across the room, my skirts waves upon the stillness.  “Tell me.  What is this you are saying?” Men staring at me with surprise, but answering my question despite my impropriety.

Anton du Pre was dead, they said.  As was my soul, perished that very day.

Several hands caught me as I swooned and I was removed hastily to the confines of my bed, where I stayed for many days and nights.  When I finally arose it was to begin life as one already dead.  Years passed and no day was spent without thought of him.  I played and replayed our moments together, imagining what I could have said, should have said, and wondering what he wanted to say but didn’t.

A widow with no weeds. A grief with no voice.  A silence so loud and hot and full of tears that some days I could not rouse myself to leave my bed.

I persisted in my duties, smiling at the successes, romances, weddings and lives of my children and cooing at the births of theirs.  I craved the sleep of dreams to once again be with him, for his visits were infrequent, but offered vivid color against the spectrum of gray and brown that was the waking world.  Years of living but not.  Years spent sitting the death watch for so many, but never for the one who mattered.

Gaspard releases a rattling breath and I wake from my reverie.  His face has turned gray, lips parted and purple.  It will not be long now.  Soon he will win the death that I covet.

My hand squeezed the sachet involuntarily and I feel it disintegrate in my hand.  I cry out in despair as I see the fine dust escape the shattered linen and fall to the floor.  A fine whiff of scent, a death knell.  Lavender at last.  I inhale with a shudder.

My gnarled hand releases the fabric. As it floats to the ground I finally see his face, clear as the day I last saw him standing on the pier.  He is staring into my eyes and trying to convey a thousand words with one look.  I reach to touch his face and see that my hand is no longer the hand of an old woman but is once again young and soft.  At last.  At long last.  Years of aching sadness release on a breath and I ride the beating of my heart to the next world.

 

The Empty Chair

The table is set with the finest china and crystal.  My Izzy has outdone herself.  She works diligently to keep our family happy during this holiday season, though in the moments she allows herself to be still she suffers the pain of her broken heart.  She cloaks herself in noise and chaos to keep such moments at bay.

It has been a day of delightful surprises.  Shiny coins hidden away for the children to happen upon.   A lovely red cardinal for Izzy and the girls singing through the kitchen window, bright red against the bleak winter.  And now a fresh blanket of snow to brighten the dark night.

The family sits.   William, my son,  looks diminished somehow, as if the past year has taken some of the air out of him.  His wife, Clara fusses over their daughters, tying bibs and settling them in.   Faith and  Temperance pass bowls of steaming vegetables and soft white buns.  Hudson and Hinton argue with good nature over who shall carve.  Hinton, the eldest, prevails.  The older grandchildren giggle at their tiny table, set beside the fireplace while the younger babes are tended next to their parents.   All have gathered for the feast.  It is a typical scene, one we’ve acted out so many times before, but this time there is a great difference.  This time the room is filled with the presence of the empty chair.  Nobody speaks of it but its presence will not be denied.  They carve, and serve and pour and cut and sip and laugh and talk, comforting sights and sounds.  Their faces glow in the shimmering candle light, tentative joy, tentative sorrow.

I wonder if they know how happy I am to have them all here.

Hinton, my son, finally raises his glass.  His face freezes as he fights emotion.   After a moment he smiles, and toasts the empty chair.  The others join him.   Family.  We come together in good times and in bad.  We share the love and laughter and we hold each other tightly through the tears.

“To our lovely Mother, may her spirit rest.  There is surely a feast in Heaven tonight!”  They smile.   They tap their glasses and wipe their tears.  And soon the memories start and there is laughter.

I sit here in this empty chair, abiding love.  Yes … there truly is a feast in Heaven tonight.

800px-Charles_Green01