Memories Make the Heart Sing

Gramma Peggy reads to Johnny and Kristy at Devil's Lake
My Heart Sings

Today is Mother’s Day, a special day for hundreds of families, one that is marked by celebrations and memories. For almost five decades, Mother’s Day was a three-way celebration in our family because two of our children, Kristin and Johnny, had birthdays, May 11 and May 14, that, if they didn’t fall on Mother’s Day itself, came close to it.

three celebrations

So today, even more than most days, memories of Kristin and Johnny flood my consciousness and make my heart sing. Yes, as we attempted to provide the best life possible for those two extraordinary people, we encountered many struggles and challenges. However, their charm filled the struggle with joy and laughter. Today I’d like to share with you the funny and lovable facets of Kristin and Johnny’s personalities that are my most vivid memories of them.

heart filled with love

From infancy, Kristy was incredibly affectionate. There wasn’t anyone she wasn’t ready to love. No one was a stranger to her. So apt was she to cuddle up with any friendly human, so we had to guard her carefully. For her family, however, she had a deeper abiding love. She welcomed each new sibling into the family with great joy and extended that fondness to all babies. Her grandmothers were special favorites of hers. It was easy to motivate her into action by saying, “We’re going to see Gramma.”

an original flower child

Kristin was the original flower child. She loved every flower that ever grew, even those the rest of us might call weeds. Any walk with Kristy went at the pace of flower-picking-or smelling or picking up litter. It took patience to teach her to leave cigarette butts where they lay.

Kristy helps Mom write.
Kristy helps Mom write.
my good girl

She learned at a young age that other people’s gardens were not hers to plunder. And Kristy was not anything if not a good girl. In fact, she took pride in this. If scolded, she would give you a distressed look, saying, “I’m a good girl.” It distressed her to think she might have made you unhappy and immediately wanted to make it okay. Fortunately, she always had her stuffed, pink, wind-up lullaby doll. In any tough circumstance, “Lullaby,” as she called her, could always soothe Kristy.

purple, chocolate & crunchy

Passionate describes her best. Kristy never simply liked something. She LOVED it. She was so fond of purple that she preferred that every article of clothing in her wardrobe be some hue of that rich, deep color. To say that chocolate was her favorite flavor is a vast understatement. Kristy’s ideal world would comprise all foods being concocted from some form of chocolate. She did, however, make the exception for potato chips and pretzels. “Oh,” she would exclaim as she bit into one, “It’s crunchy!” as though crunch were the ultimate gourmet criterion.

a natural artist

Everyone who knew Kristy knew that her deepest passion of all was for art.Kristy is her Aunt Beth's flower girl. From the time she could first hold on to a crayon at age nine months until the debilitating course of her disorder took its full toll, she spent hours of everyday painting, coloring, or drawing. Hers were true abstracts, expressions of her thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the world untutored by art lessons. At one point, her paintings papered an entire three-story staircase in our home.

As her sister Betsy said at Kristy’s memorial, what Kristy would wish for the rest of us is that we would see the world as the beautiful place it was for her.

laughing at nightmares

Memories of Johnny have an equally gleeful, but utterly different, tone to them. For one thing, Johnny had no interest what so ever in being a “good boy.” He simply wanted to go on whatever adventure come into his mind at a given moment, even if it meant totally abandoning what you expected of him. If scolded, he laughed. It had been a great joke for him. He also regularly laughed out loud in his sleep. I always speculated that he was having nightmares, but they didn’t frighten him. Rather, he found hilarious whatever monsters peopled Johnny climbs constructionthose dreams.

no, you, broph!

Johnny also like to pretend he was some other being like one of those monsters. And if he was Grover for an hour, he only responded to “Grover” not to his own name, although sometimes he’d help you out by saying, “Not Johnny-Grover.” He had lots of fun with the name game. His middle name was Brophy after a paternal great-grandfather, so his Uncle Mike often called him by his middle name. Johnny would turn on him and say, “Me not Broph, you Broph.,” and then the two of them collapsed into laughter. It went on for years. One time I visited his kindergarten class with him, and a janitor walked through the class. The man resembled Mike and Johnny called out, “Hey, Broph!”

Maria! Maria! Maria!

Johnny was a preschooler when I cared for a little girl after school named Maria. When Johnny’s dad came home, Jay would sing from the front door, “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria, and suddenly it’s the most beautiful sound in the world.” Then Johnny would take up the chant, “Maria, Maria, Maria.” In fact, it is how he always greeted that little girl (now an actress on Broadway in her own right.)

their private world

I never knew the origin of another name game he had going with a young woman who lived with us while she attended De Paul University. But Johnny would come home from school and call her “You goose,” and she giggled and retorted, “No, you’re the goose,” and he’d come right back at her. They created their own private world. He had a way of doing that because his smile, along with the twinkle in his eyes, lit up a relationship.

no ketchup!

Johnny loved to eat and ate just about everything. I didn’t even know that he liked fish because I never cooked it at home. Then at a restaurant one evening, I ordered a shrimp cocktail, and he got a gleam in his eyes and said, “Fish!” He ate the whole thing. And he’ll be forever famous for eating the entire platter of taramosalata at his friend Sean’s thirtieth birthday party. What he didn’t like was ketchup. He wouldn’t even start the meal if it was on the table. His disdain for ketchup stretched to all red sauces so that, as much as he loved salads, he

Johnny with his banks
Johnny loved piggy banks.

wouldn’t eat one if it had French dressing.

pizza pie

He loved pizza, which he called “pie.” And here again his natural charm stood him in good stead. He had once gone with us to Due’s Pizzeria and shown such utter delight in his meal that from then on whenever Jay and I ate there if we didn’t have Johnny with us, our favorite waitstaff, Mickey, sent home a free pizza for Johnny. Like I said, he had a way with people.

let him eat cake!

A culminating example happened when I wasn’t home. Normally, Johnny didn’t like sweets and never ate dessert. Yet, one afternoon, out of the clear blue, he sat himself down at the breakfast room table and declared, “Chocolate cake.” His sister Carrie and her friend Loren were the only ones home.

They couldn’t find cake or the makings for one in the house. So Loren entertained Johnny while Carrie went to the store. When she returned, the two of them baked and frosted a chocolate cake. Johnny remained patiently at the breakfast room table the whole time. Finally, they put an enormous piece in front of him. He gobbled it down, asked for milk, and went off to play. He may have had another piece. I don’t know. You’ll have to check with Carrie on that.

With these vignettes, I gift you, dear readers, and wish you a

Very Happy Mother’s Day.

Baby Johnny at the beach
Always that sunshine smile
Kristy in a bubble bath
Don’t drink the soap.

Giving Thanks for Work and Its Lessons

wishing can be tricky

A new board game, bought by my family, challenges players to answer random questions picked from a stack quickly. If they cannot answer, they lose their card. Sounds simple, right? Still, some questions left us stumped, including for my granddaughter, “A genie has appeared and will grant you three wishes. What do you choose?”

The first thing that makes that difficult to answer is most of us have over three wishes. Then, the query trips us by making us hover between sheerly personal wishes and hopes for all humanity. Finally, of course, the player is on the spot with people who know them eager for answers. The proper point of the game is not winning but getting to know one another more deeply.

Despite some hesitation, my granddaughter provided a balanced list of three things. Her wishes were an end to poverty and hunger, a billion dollars for her parents, and never having to work.

never working! Good or bad?

The last one threw me for a loop. It isn’t anything I would have ever thought to wish for. Nor, as I ponder the prospect, does it seem appealing.

Just the opposite. As Thanksgiving Day approaches and we all reflect upon those gifts for which we are most thankful for, at the top of my list is WORK.

thanks for work

From my first job to my retirement, work provided personal growth and a sense of identity. Throughout high school, I babysit our neighbors, four children, 3 little girls and an infant son. I gained valuable insight into the psyche of small children that would serve me well throughout my life. I learned as well that we fail children all the time, but if we have forgiven their small foibles, they will forgive us our major ones. They taught me to say with honesty, “I’m sorry” and “It’s okay.”

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” – Helen Keller

scrubbing thankfully

Also in high school, I took a job covering a local doctor’s office on weekday evenings when the staff had left for the day. The tasks included cleaning blood off the surgery floor and accepting money for doctor bills after hours. Switching from “cleaner” to “receptionist” defined multi-tasking for me long before I heard that term.

Visualize wringing a smelly rag, washing your hands, and cheerfully calculating a client’s bill, despite their questioning. It was nitty-gritty work for which no one ever thanked me. I left when my shift finished and received the check for $5/week in the mail. I found, however, that I could be my own cheering squad and take pride in minor tasks accomplished well. Praise, I discovered, however gratifying, isn’t necessary. You can develop your own sense of self-worth.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

unnoticed, unthanked

This awareness came to my rescue through several other work situations. Throughout college, I served in the college dorm to earn tuition, room, and board. No tips, of course, I had to be my best judge of how well a mealtime went and not depend on the generosity or the stinginess of those I served. Wait staff bears the complaints of diners for mishaps, real or imaginary, of other members of a dining room staff. Being gracious enough to accept the slurs with an apology and without pointing fingers is as much a part of being “good” as being adept at balancing plates.

thanking appraisal

That same principle worked for me in other positions. In my roles as a caseworker, teacher, and professor, I was regularly evaluated. Others judged my work by systematic standards or personal reactions. I didn’t ignore these assessments, but I took them with “a grain of salt,” i.e. I improved their flavor with reminders of how hard I had worked and what I knew had gone well.

defining work

Work has been a Ying/yang experience–without defining me, it has helped me define myself. I am who I am for many reasons, but my working for a living has been a major contribution to the ultimate definition.

For that reason, this year I choose to be thankful for WORK.

Of course I also say “I am a woman; I am a wife; I am a mother.” Those roles are the heart of my being. But I am better at all of them because I am also a WORKER. Thus, although the paychecks stopped a decade ago, I still “work.” I write and I need all the confidence I gained in those other roles to keep my writer self going.

“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.” – John Ruskin

John Ruskin was a Victorian writer, philosopher, and art critic. 

Gratitude Quotes for Workers

person typing on laptop
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Memoir as Smorgasbord

Newborn immediately after birth
beginnings and endings

I announced in this space on August 30, that before the year is over I will complete my memoir.  It’s an ambitious task because, in that narrative, I attempt to cover all the years I shared with my two extraordinary children, Kristin Margaret and John Brophy. That journey began on May 14, 1969, the day my Kristin was born, and ended on February 3, 2015, the day she died. Forty-five years.

Birth and death do not necessarily make satisfying beginnings or endings for a story. Life’s meaning is not in the coming and the going, but in what happened in between. Yet, there is so much! It all feels terribly important, but an impactful memoir needs to be succinct. A long, rambling narrative loses readers long before they learn the important things you need them to know.

looking for a life raft

By the time I had written halfway through the fifth version of my memoir, I knew I required serious help. I signed up for a writing class. Rather than a course on how to write a memoir, author/mentor Ellen Blum Barrish offered a “smorgasbord” of topics. Each was designed to help potential memoirists dig deep into their own inner experience. I wasn’t entirely certain that the class was what I needed, but I trusted Ellen and I couldn’t go it alone any longer.

What a good decision that was!

defining truth

The very first week, we dug into the conundrum of truth in memory. We dissected Amye Archer’s searing essay, “Writing Truth in Memoir,” in which she adjures writers to give up hidden agendas they uncover as they write. “It is more important to be honest than vengeful,” she warns us. We are not writing to make the reader “be on our side.” For our story to be visible to our readers, we have to pull the lens farther back than that.

Amye made me realize I had to watch out for my own hidden agendas. I wasn’t after revenge, but I did tend to “protect” my characters.

what is a family?

Week two’s topic really excited me. “Writing Family” was exactly what I was trying to do. I looked forward to hearing about the other writers’ struggles and triumphs with this topic. At first, the evening’s reading disappointed me.  It wasn’t about “real” families. The essay poignantly recalled the writer’s early days in the funeral industry and how the personnel at the funeral home formed a close-knit and caring “family” so that they could better support the grieving families whom they served.

No, that wasn’t exactly what I hoped for. Yet, when we talked about all the different ways people form “family,” I began to see our story, mine, Kristy’s and Johnny’s, against a backdrop of a family that extended beyond biological connection.

No, not that funny

Our focus for the third week, “Writing Humor,” had me cringing. I have no idea how to be funny. When I was a professor I would hear students in other classes laughing uproariously and a sharp, green slice of envy stabbed me in the heart.  My studies never laughed in my classroom.  Maybe I should have been grateful, but I wasn’t. I took heart, therefore, that as our group discussed Amy Poehler’s “Take Your Licks,” a humor piece about a job she had as a teen, I found out I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find it funny.

I felt kind of sorry for Amy. After all, she is a comedian. She has to be funny to earn a living.  I don’t. I gave up worrying up hope to entertain readers by showing them the funny side of my story – there wasn’t one.

writing loss

“Writing the Lost Loved One,” the theme of week four most likely was the one that made me sign up for the course. My memoir focused not on me, but on two beloved lost children. They say be careful what you wish for.  The reading that Ellen chose for that week ripped my soul apart. I could hear Jaqueline Doyle’s voice cry out from her essay, “Dear Maddy,” “Talk to me, Maddy. Tell me what it was like. Rise up from the depths of twenty years in all your shadowy splendor. Tell me.”

We do that, those of us who have lost a loved one. We don’t want to let go, especially of someone yanked away from this world “before their time,” whatever that is. Doyle’s abrasive honesty made me question myself.  Did I dare put the searing blaze of my own emotions into black and white and offer them as a sacrifice? Was, perhaps, my whole project a mistaken quest?

perspective can be everything

We examined writing about trauma in the fifth week of class. We read both a touching testament to the moment a woman realizes her marriage is over and a horrifying witness to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. The latter, Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” might appear to be the more “traumatic.” After all, it depicts people jumping from window and hitting the pavement transformed into a “pink mist.” That is only one of many tragic images Brian presents.

Yet, we found ourselves equally engrossed in the pain of the woman in the first piece. Our assessment of the two different pieces reinforced my conviction that how well a writer crafts their tale can determine how well the story will grip their readers.

always more to learn

Every week of the class continued to build my understanding of what it means to write from the very core of one’s being.  It was my one-on-one session with Ellen, however, that answered many of my most troubling questions about my memoir. She also gave me a whole new perspective from which to view my life. That tete a tete will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate constructionWilliam Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

Cemetery angel
Photo by Tim Mossholder