"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Essays

In Memory of My Mother

My cosmic good fortune was to be born into this world, loved, cared for, and given life-wisdom by my mother; an angelic spirit in human form. She died 10 years ago today, April 19, 2014. This post is a memorial to her life and to her presence that lives on in me and the many others whose lives she graced with her loving touch. This is the eulogy I gave at her memorial:

My mother was a “Jolly Swinger”. I bet you didn’t know that. In the 60’s, she, along with a small group of other housewives seeking afternoon pleasures, formed a group. The “Jolly Swingers” was what they called themselves—- it was the name of their bowling team. I’m not quite sure if she was naïve to all the associations with the name, or if it was a sly wink. Either could be true. She never said. And I couldn’t tell.

My mother possessed a deceiving innocence. She was small in stature, had snow-white hair with curls surrounding her head that, in the proper light, shone like a halo. Her voice had a lilting inflection of song, and her mouth, in resting state (which was rare) had a slight crease of a smile from years of laughter. She was gregarious, enjoyed the company of others, and left a trail of love and affection in her wake. Her spirit was uncontaminated by many of the usual human failings: She was without guile and ego; she harbored no malice and was incapable of intrigue. 

Most would not know, and few would suspect, that she had seen much hardship in her life. She was born and raised in Appalachia. Her father died in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, when she was 12, leaving her to be raised by her mother who had an 8th grade education and no means of support. She and her mother moved often; from Kentucky to West Virginia, then to Florida and on to Washington DC, where she met my father during the war. After the war, she moved to upstate New York to join my father’s family. Later in life she moved back to Florida, then to North Carolina, and moved 2 more times after she was here in this state.

She learned much from her moves, including sensitivity to those who do not fit in, those on the fringe, and resilience to cope with life’s vicissitudes with openness and acceptance. Joys and heartrending sorrows followed her. She was tough, very tough in ways that were largely invisible. In the face of much hardship, when she could have easily succumbed to despair, she instead chose hope; instead of bitterness, she chose forgiveness; instead of rancor, she chose love. What steeled her, anchored her, saved her, was her unwavering faith. She rarely talked of her faith—hers was the quiet variety that was articulated in her comportment, actions and deeds.

When my wife, Sharon, joined our family she would compliment my mother on things she admired: “What a beautiful lamp”, said Sharon.  “Oh, do you want it?”, replied my mother. Sharon stopped making such remarks as it became clear that my mother was prepared to give away her entire household, if asked. Things, possessions, held little sway for her—–people and their welfare were her currency.

Kindness was not an intentional act for my mother; it was who she was. Her days were punctuated with acts of kindness, large and small, and I give you several examples.  One of the residents at Jordan Oaks (which was the independent living facility where she resided for some time), was also named Pauline; she was Jewish and, for many reasons, felt like an outsider there. She played cards with my mother and confided in her. When Pauline was diagnosed with cancer, my mother gave her one of your church’s prayer shawls to take with her to chemotherapy. Pauline wept on receiving it. She did take it with her for her chemotherapy and after, when the treatment failed, was comforted with it as her death approached. Then there was the middle aged Black man who shared rehab for knee replacement surgery with my mother, who, after 4 or 5 sessions, began referring to her as “mom”. And the Hispanic cleaning staff at Jordan Oaks, who called her “pollito”, an affectionate diminutive in Spanish that sounds like “Polly” and means “little chicken”. She was not influenced by a person’s station or status in life; the outsiders, the marginalized, the disenfranchised these, especially, drew her attention and affection.

Here is what she taught me about humility: When she left Jordan Oaks, she received notes of gratitude from the cleaning staff, and from others, letters of appreciation for her wisdom and kindness. When I asked her about it, she was truly perplexed: “I don’t understand, I was just being me”, she said, and changed the subject. This was not a coy avoidance. Her humility did not involve restraint in publicly acknowledging attributes she secretly took pride in. Rather, what she did was so integral to who she was that it was invisible to her. She simply didn’t understand what the fuss was about.

She was kind, generous, and humble, but also was an astute judge of others. She had a keen and unerring eye for falsity, pomposity and cant, but kept her opinions private—unless she was violated. She may have appeared a naïve, easy mark to some, but she was not afraid, when pushed, to offer pointed, confronting observations that could freeze someone in mid-air. Coming from her, such remarks were especially powerful, for they were both so very rare and, when given, so very incisive.

This oft hidden aspect of her was tellingly revealed in a court case where she was the central witness. When she was in her early 80’s she was in a car accident and the driver of the other car sued my mother for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. The case dragged on for over 6 years before it came to trial. My mother was 88 at the time. The strategy of the opposing attorney was clear: To demonstrate that my mother was a confused, disoriented and uncertain old woman who should not have been driving and was obviously at fault.  When the questioning began, the attorney was quite confident and full of herself. My mother turned out to be a cool, savvy and unflappable witness—she calmly conceded nothing. As the interrogation progressed the attorney became more confused, disorganized and uncertain— it became obvious that the attorney was simply harassing this sweet, innocent elderly lady. The jury met for less than a half-hour and dismissed the case.

The last days of her life held true to her entire life, and I offer this final example that occurred moments after her last breath: My mother spent the last 2 weeks of her life at the Carolina House, a remarkable assisted living facility in Cary. These last days were marked by a precipitous decline in her functioning; helplessness, pain, confusion, weakness, and discomfort prompted fervent prayers by her that God take her from this world. My sister, Linda, her husband, Paul, and I were with her when she died. Two aids walked in seconds after, saw us, understood what had just happened; they began to cry, and hugged us. They talked of her gentle, endearing spirit and how they loved Miss Polly. She had been there only 2 weeks, in the most demeaning and debilitating of physical conditions, yet she had touched these 2 African American aids who had long tenures the Carolina House and had seen much dying— bringing them to tears and hugs at her passing.

She died the day before Easter.

There is, of course, always the danger of overstating or exaggerating in a eulogy, especially if the eulogy is for your mother. But I am confident that those here who knew my mother will know that the problem, in her case, is quite the opposite. Her example has taught me that words are mere shadows when trying to capture the fullness of such a life, lived.

And I am grateful beyond words to have had my life given and formed by this angelic spirit. There are deep responsibilities that accompany being the recipient of her grace. And I know that I fall woefully short. But I also know that she forgives me, as she always has. My hope is that whatever good flows from my life serves as a proper tribute to the debt I owe her.  

Amen.

Hidden Gems of New York City

The CITY

We begin with an admission of bias: We love New York City.1 Sharon was raised on Long Island, where most of her family still reside, and I was raised in upstate New York. Although upstate is closer, culturally, to Peoria IL than “The City,” I have been embraced by Sharon’s family and now am a naturalized citizen of the Big Apple.

This is brief overview of some of our favorite hidden gems of New York City; actually only Brooklyn, Manhattan and day trips. Obviously, this list is very limited, not only in its brevity, given the unlimited gems NYC has to offer, but by our interests, and also by our experience and exposure. For over 10 years, we spend a month in the summer and 2 weeks for Thanksgiving in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which gave us the opportunity to explore beyond the highlights mentioned in most tour guides.

We will start in Brooklyn, cross into Manhattan and board a ferry, then return to Manhattan and work our way up Manhattan Island. We will then leave Manhattan for day trips, which will be followed by “honorable mentions” that space constraints force to us to only briefly note.

Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery was established in 1836, at a time when it could only be reached by boat from Manhattan. It was a burial place for the well-to-do, and retreat from the smells, squalor, filth, and crowds of Manhattan. It inspired the subsequent development of Prospect Park, which is nearby, and Central Park in Manhattan. Its significance begins, however, in the Revolutionary War, where the largest battle of that war was fought—the Battle of Brooklyn. Washington’s army was surrounded by a much larger British force, but Washington escaped in the night, saving his army and the Revolution.

The torch of liberty on the Statue of Liberty points to this pivotal spot; the highest point in Brooklyn (Battle Hill). A stature of Minerva, the Roman god of crafts, arts, and also of war, was later erected facing Lady Liberty. The two women are waving to each other. Very moving.

Take a tour. There is much to learn and it can be fun, or at least ours was. We were regaled with stories and song by our tour guide, a Broadway singer, who honored Leonard Bernstein’s memory by standing on the bench at his grave and belting out a song from West Side Story.

There is much going on at this beloved and historic place—concerts, lectures, bird walks, guided nature walks, tours, art installations, and more. We attended a dance concert in the chapel commemorating Isadora Duncan that was a re-creation of a concert given by her.2

Brooklyn Heights/Brooklyn Bridge Park

Stroll along the promenade in Brooklyn Heights which connects with Brooklyn Bridge Park. The views of the Manhattan skyline are unparalleled. Relax on a bench, lay in the grass, there are things to do (i.e., roller skating, kayaking, pickle ball), food stands, picnic tables, and interesting people to watch.3

Leaving Brooklyn. . .

By Subway

We love the subway. It is an entire city, on the move, underground. It is the “Essence of New York”, the beating heart of the city, with its wild variety of people, languages, attire, behavior, entertainment, and filled with dizzying optical illusions in the train windows. We never have had any fear for our safety—indeed, have witnessed uplifting acts of kindness and generosity. Despite the reputation of New Yorkers as a rough and impatient breed, we are often reminded, above ground and below, of how quick they are to offer help.4

Governors Island

Governors Island, an idyll just off the coast of Manhattan, is a short ferry ride away. Catch the ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at the bottom of Manhattan, where you can also catch the (free) ferry to Staten Island (worth the trip for the views), and nearby you can catch the Statue of Liberty ferry. (Battery Park is itself a nice place to stroll and sometime has great street entertainment). We went to Governors Island just a few years after it opened (in 2001) on a summer afternoon and it was blessedly uncrowded.

Rent a bike, walk, picnic, loll about and enjoy great views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the New York harbor. Stay overnight glamping, which means “glamorous camping.” There are slides, mini mountain hikes, and an array of events, including public art exhibitions, bird walks, music concerts, workshops, and poetry festivals. A restaurant has been added since we have been there where you can relax, have a drink and a bite to eat.5

Manhattan

Union Square

Every time we go to New York, we go to Union Square. It is the third largest transportation hub in the city where 8 subway lines converge. It is a hive of activity, an oasis amidst the bustle and buildings, and a gathering spot for New Yorkers of all stripes. Music buskers, often of great talent and diversity, from classical to jazz, folk to blues, Peruvian to brass bands, perform. We did see someone playing a baby grand and giving piano lessons—how did he get the piano there?? Subway??

Even if you don’t know anything about chess, the unusual pairing of players offers a poignant, intimate, snapshot of the types of encounters and couplings that occur in this vibrant, diverse city. African American men typically hold the board and take on all comers, for cash. Bobby Fischer came here in his youth to play, as did his coach in his later years, so the hustlers must be very good to survive. And they are. I had lunch with one who said he quit his job because he could make more money playing chess. He was a prodigy, and began winning games in the park when he was nine years old.

For a brief video of the Legendary Cyphers, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMQTUGFbgOY

Every Friday night the Legendary Cyphers perform freestyle hip-hop. It is thrilling—a cousin to jazz improvisation; angry, funny, dazzling street poetry; an expression of communal solidarity; and joyous entertainment. I never cared much for this kind of music–the rhythm too monotonous, the words too fast. Hearing it, here, in Union Square, was a revolution. So too, the musical, Hamilton, which does much the same thing.

Union Square is transformed into a thriving “Holiday Market” when the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanza holiday season approaches. Booths offering a cornucopia of goods by independent artisans and local growers, often accompanied by music, create a festive atmosphere. It is worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything.6

NYC Public Library

This magnificent building opened in 1911, and at that time it was the largest marble structure in the United States. Its grandeur is a monument to the importance of learning, literacy, and commitment to providing free public access to books. Tours are offered—take one if you have the chance.7

Adjacent to the library is Bryant Park, which hosts concerts in the summer, a market in the holiday season, and a quiet, relaxing place to stretch, read, have a coffee, and people watch throughout the year.8

Q Train

This is our favorite train, and also for many New Yorkers as it is often voted the best train in yearly polls among riders. Here is one reason why we like it: When traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan, sit on the right side of the train near a window. As you go through the tunnel, if you look close, you will see this artwork, called Masstransiscope. Click here to view it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IwVD5efXz0 . Once you emerge from the tunnel, stand and go to the left side of the train for a view of Manhattan, New York harbor, and the Brooklyn Bridge as you cross above ground on the Manhattan Bridge.

This mural on the wall of the Q train station at 72nd Street, in New York, shows Thor Stockman, left, and his husband, Patrick Kellogg.

Continue on the Q train to the last 3 Manhattan stops, which are the most recent additions to the subway system: 72nd, 86th and 96th street stations. Each station is filled with mosaics and worthy of a prolonged visit.9

Bird Murals

The Audubon Bird Mural Project is dedicated to publicly, graphically bringing attention to climate change and its effects on birds. The Audubon Society has identified 314 birds who are at risk from the changing climate and is sponsoring murals depicting all 314. So far, 100 murals of 138 species have been completed. The mural “street art” is on storefront grates, sides of buildings, and other, sometimes partly hidden spots.

They are whimsical, visually stunning, playful, and an uplifting contrast to their urban surroundings—like the birds themselves.

Most of the murals are on Broadway between 137th and 177th street. Go on Sunday mornings when the businesses are closed and the storefront gratings are lowered.10

Day Trips

Kykuit

Kykuit is the John D. Rockefeller Sr. estate located in Pocantico Hills north of New York City. You must take a tour to visit and probably should make reservations ahead. It is an American Versailles, with a commanding view of the Hudson River, beautiful terraces and gardens, fountains with whimsical brass ornamental frogs and other creatures, and an array of stunning sculptures situated to highlight both the sculptures and the landscape.

Above are only a few of the many.

The interior of the house is an decorated with fine furnishings, Chinese and European ceramics, a vintage car museum/garage, a tack room with beautiful saddles and other horse equipment, and the lower floor is adorned with the only Picasso tapestries ever made, as well as work by a host of other famous modern artists.11

Union Church

Union Church, located close to Kykuik, was built by the Rockefellers in 1921, which they regularly attended. When John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, Abby, died he commissioned Matisse to design a stained glass window to commemorate her life. It was the last commissioned work by Matisse. The rest of the church windows, commission later by the family, are by Chagall. We have been to many of the great stained glass churches of France; this small, intimate house of worship illuminated by masters of stained glass, is the equal to the best of them. When we went, we were alone. This is truly a hidden gem. If you go to Kykuit, don’t miss it.12

West Point Academy

West Point is aptly named, situated in a strategic location on a point jutting into the Hudson River from the western shore. It was here that during the Revolutionary War the Colonists installed a Great Chain across the river to block the movement of British ships.

The Academy was established in 1802 and its long and heavy history of service, heroism, sacrifice, and loss is everywhere felt. We were surprised at how much we were moved by the tour, which inspired reverence and gratitude. Interesting statues commemorating famous soldiers, wars, and battles are scattered throughout the Academy grounds. What was most moving was the cemetery. The history of war and sacrifice etched in the stones, including those recently killed; men and women, with brief bios of their brief lives. Heartbreaking.

Honorable (Briefly) Mentioned

Manhattan

Museums:
Tenement Museum consists of a restored tenement dwelling with the story of family that lived there. Also guided tours of the neighborhood are very informative.13

Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum is a WWII aircraft carrier turned into a museum depicting the ship’s role in WWI. Also includes a guided missile submarine, a Concord jet, and a NASA Space Shuttle.14

Morgan Library and Museum is a book lovers destination, with rare books, engrossing exhibitions, and chamber music concerts.15

Cloisters is a satellite of the Met dedicated to medieval art and architecture, including a chapel and cloister.16

Trail, Tour, Tomb, and Church
The High Line Trail is a park built on an abandoned elevated freight line where you can stroll above the streets, look into windows of adjacent apartments, and enjoy the gardens, green spaces, and art works that adorn the trail.17

Circle Line Cruise Tours circle Manhattan Island offering unique views of New York.18

Grant’s Tomb is a magnificent and fitting monument and resting place for one of the most important people in American history.19 20

Riverside Church has a long history of social activism and is listed on the National register of Historic Places. The stained glass is magnificent, and a New World cousin in color, luminescence, and beauty to those in Chartres Cathedral in France. 21

The Oculus, in The One World Trade Center Plaza, is a magnificent architectural masterpiece. It is a major transportation hub, located in the One World Trade Center near 9/11 Ground Zero. It is meant to inspire. And it does.22

Brooklyn

Japanese Garden

The Brooklyn Japanese Garden is one of the oldest and most visited Japanese gardens outside Japan. It is located in Prospect Park, itself a worthy destination, and adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum, which is the second largest museum in New York City.23

Coney Island still carries a tawdry edge of its “Nickel Empire” heyday in the early 20th century, which drew throngs to its carnival midway, freak shows, beach peddlers, and thrill rides. The flagship for Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs is here, where the annual hotdog eating contest is held, as well as the home for the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.24 Great fun.25

Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM, is a performing arts venue for dance, theatre, music, and film that feature edgy, experimental works. We have seen some memorable performances here.26

Day Trips

Storm King Art Center

Storm King Arts Center is an outdoor 500 acre sculpture park with the largest collection of outdoor sculptures in North America. Located in the Hudson River valley, the large-scale sculptures, many by famous artists, are carefully situated in pristine hills, fields, and woodlands.27

FDR Home in New Hyde Park is the birthplace, home, and burial place of FDR, and the place where many monumental decisions were made during WWII. Looking in on his and Eleanor’s living quarters is an intimate experience, and the tour gives appreciation of the weight and scope of decisions made in these rooms that changed the world. 28

Train along the Hudson River offers a leisurely way to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river (including West Point) as it winds its way through the Catskill mountains. There are quaint towns along the way and stops where hikers exit to begin treks into the mountains.29

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