One would think that almost twenty years after I saw you take your last breath,
I would be able to say more than these few words.
I hope you have found some peace.
I miss you.
I took the fuzzy picture above from a fair distance through our kitchen window. It’s a view I see at various times of the day as Fudge, the cat in the picture sits waiting for his owner to come home. John says he is only waiting for his next meal, but he is out there at the end of the drive twice a day, just as he always was before his owner died a week before Christmas.
Several neighbors have taken turns feeding him, but when I try to coax him over for a little snack, he runs away. The man’s daughter lives several hours from here and does not know what to do with Fudge. He won’t go with her and he won’t stay put. As far as we can see, he likes to roam. He keeps his distance from people … sometimes even those like me with hand out for comfort and a bit of food to nourish. I keep reaching out, but Fudge cannot bring himself to be comforted or even fed by someone he doesn’t recognize.
I on the other hand, wanted to say how much I appreciate the kindness of all of those who stopped by … even the new names that I do not recognize yet. Your messages of support and encouragement after reading this post were a great comfort to me as I am sure they will be to Ray when I am able to share them with him. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts.
As for Fudge, if you live in Cornwall or close by and would like to take in an independent outdoorsy cat, I can put you in touch with the right person.
“This’d be a great place to set up our lemonade stand.”
Madeline said, turning her head in the direction of the row of military trucks. “I just know my daddy’s here somewhere and we’re going to find him,” she said more to herself than the ratty old Pooh Bear she had wedged in her backpack. “Maddie my girl,” said Pooh, “if anyone can find him, I believe you can.” Pooh tended to call Madeline Maddie in same way her mother did and it wouldn’t be until she was much older that she would look back and think of all the advice she’d attributed to her bear when she was little and wonder if it had really been the voice of her mother all along. Leaving Mrs. Ulster behind in the house just before daylight, she’d packed up the things she remembered her mother used when making lemonade last summer. Mrs. Ulster was staying in the house with her until they could find what she had heard her say was, “Her next of kin.” She’d heard Mrs. Ulster say this while talking softly to someone on the kitchen phone unaware that Maddie could hear her while sitting in her secret spot in the hallway upstairs.
Maddie had discovered it a few years ago when she was five or six and it was the best place to hear what was going on downstairs in the kitchen especially on the nights when her Aunt Judy stayed over with her mom. Her mom would say they were staying up for some girl talk as she kissed Maddie goodnight and then go back to the kitchen where she could hear them talking and laughing long after she should have been asleep. Sometimes when she was feeling restless, Maddie would creep out to the landing and tuck herself on the far side of the hall table out of sight of the kitchen, but still within hearing range and it was on one of those nights she first heard her mother telling Aunt Judy about her daddy. Aunt Judy asked a lot of questions that night and her mother’s answers had left Maddie confused. She had not considered that a daddy was something everyone had before hearing her mom’s explanation. Maddie was still was young enough then to think that Mommy was a name like her name was Maddie and that the man living in her friend Lucy’s house across the street was named Daddy. She didn’t realize back then that everybody had a daddy because she didn’t seem to have one….at least not until she heard her mother telling tell Aunt Judy what happened to hers.
Maddie wished she could talk to Aunt Judy now because she was more like a second mommy than an aunt often staying with her when mom had to go away on business trips. This time though was different, Mommy and Aunt Judy had gone off together on a trip and Mrs. Ulster had come to watch over her. It was only now though that she was beginning to understand that they were not coming back, not next week like they’d planned, not ever. Mrs. Ulster had sort of fallen down on the old sofa when the policeman came in to talk to her a few days ago and even from upstairs, Maddie had heard the sound the cushions made when someone plopped, as her mommy would say, too hard when sitting down. Peeking over the railing she could see Mrs Ulster’s face and heard the policeman say, ” It looks as if they both went instantly.” Went instantly…Maddie had wondered what he meant then…”went where?” she thought to herself. It wasn’t until later that Mrs Ulster explained that they’d gone to heaven, snatched out of the car by the hand of God because he needed them with him more than they were needed on earth. Maddie had been confused by this as she remembered more than a time or two hearing her mom say that people blamed a great many things on God that had nothing to do with what she called, ” An act of God.” Besides, how could they be needed more in heaven when she needed them here.
All this talk about next of kin and what to do now with Maddie made her remember what she’d heard her mom tell Aunt Judy when they’d had what she thought of as the daddy talk. She heard her mother as she said, ” Maybe I should have told Jim about her…I don’t know, it’s just he didn’t seem ready for fatherhood and I sure didn’t want to be the wife of a soldier.” Sitting in the hall that night she’d listened as her mother talked about this daddy fellow whose name was really Jim. Aunt Judy had asked her mom if she knew what had happened to him and she’d told her that she saw in the newspaper where he’d been accused of something he hadn’t done and managed to prove it to the military police before being tossed out of the army. She heard her say that after all the drama, he’d landed on his feet receiving a promotion and a cushy job at the military post in Fairfield, the next town over where so many soldier’s families lived.
Laughing softly, she’d heard her mother say, ” That man always could turn life’s lemons into lemonade.” Maddie remembered this when she’d heard Mrs. Ulster on the phone talking with someone about not wanting to put her in the system just yet. She wasn’t sure what the system was, but it didn’t sound too good and Maddie decided she was going to have find this soldier Jim who her mom had said was her daddy. She wasn’t sure how to do it just like she wasn’t quite sure how to make lemonade, but she had the sugar and she had the lemons and maybe if she set up a little stand like she did last summer when her mom had helped her, she might be able to find her daddy and he could help her with the rest.
Remember it’s practice writing not perfect…still hoping someone will join me on a Tuesday with a story of their own posted on their blog. Go on over to Tell Me A Story Tuesdays to leave a topic sentence for next week or see what I’ve posted. Thanks this week to Karen for her opening sentence suggestion in bold at the top of this page and you can go here to check out her blog.
This is a difficult post to write. Michael Bench, John’s cousin died yesterday morning about 5:00 am. We had received word late in the afternoon on Wednesday that he was suddenly responding verbally to questions when asked by the medical staff. This was in direct conflict to what anyone had expected. We were quite excited to hear about this positive shift as he’d been totally unresponsive the morning before and had planned to be at the hospital at 10:00 the next morning to see him. Before we could get there, the hospital phoned at 5:20 am to tell us that he had died.
All of this has been terribly shocking to everyone. Last Saturday we’d shared a lovely meal with Michael and his sister Mary. John’s eldest daughter came down from London and his brother David was there too along his daughter and her boyfriend who came down from the north of England for the reunion. Michael and Mary had traveled to Polzeath for a holiday and were scheduled to go sailing with us all on Monday. The picture below shows us at a local pub in Cornwall on Saturday evening. The black and white photo above was taken at the same dinner. Michael and Mary had been out for a small bit of coast path walking earlier that day and both seemed fine with no health complaints.
I had the good fortune of being seated next to Michael during dinner and we talked about many things throughout evening. There were still many questions I wanted to ask him about and I said goodnight that evening thinking that we’d have plenty of time for that over the next few days.
After a late lunch on Sunday, Mary and Michael went to beach in front of their hotel and before long Michael decided he wanted to go down to the water and changed into his swim trunks. Leaving Mary high up on the hill watching his belongings, he walked down in the direction of the water and was gone so long that Mary began to wonder where he was …it was about the same time she noticed a commotion on the beach and a crowd gathering. As she approached, she realized that it was her brother Michael on the ground with someone administering CPR. It turned out to be a physician who happened to be at the beach with his wife. I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been for her to find Michael in such a state.
An air ambulance was called and Michael was airlifted to the hospital where his heart was restarted. At the time and for several days after, no one had any real hope of his survival much less recovery so it was a shock when he began to say a few words on Wednesday evening.
If I’d known Michael for more than the evening I spent with him last Saturday I might tell you more of the regular things you expect to hear when someone dies and people speak of who they were or what they did during their lifetime. I might tell you how he was a Senior Architect who spent his career with the National Health Service designing hospitals and other medical facilities. I might tell you how in 2003, his life partner Leo Breach had died on Christmas day after many years together and how at 83 he still lived on his own in London. Or I could tell you about all the ways he was important to his sister Mary, how at one point they’d shared living space for 18 years of their adult lives or about how they’d travel all over with Mary at the wheel of the car even though she was the elder of the two.
If I’d had more time with him I might have been able to share the stories he had from a childhood spent traveling with his family to various parts of Cornwall and how much he still loved to holiday in the southwest of England as an adult. I don’t know all the details of his life, but I do know that walking along the water’s edge that day was something he loved. John helped me to see it from that perspective as I wondered aloud to him …asking no one in particular…what in the world was Michael thinking when he put on his swimsuit and headed for the water.
I’d like to imagine him walking across the sand carried along by the excitement of a beach holiday and not think about how it would be the last time he would ever dip his toes into the coolness of the Cornish sea. I’d also like to think that he might have been looking back along the shoreline in the direction of where he’d left Mary when he felt the first pains in his chest and how perhaps in the moments just before he lost consciousness he might have seen his family sitting on the shore whether a fragmented memory remembered from a picture of his family like the one below or perhaps a gathering of those gone before waiting to lead him to the other side…I just hope he saw more than the sand of the beach as he slipped into it before closing his eyes.
“We are the boat, we are the sea, I sail in you, you sail in me”
Many thanks to all of you who’ve reached out to us during this time..we are very grateful for your good thoughts and prayers.
While June 6, 1944 is a day that many will gather to remember the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion and the wartime sacrifice of human life, in my family there is another date that we remember someone lost to us on French soil in 1944. Like many other families it’s more personal than just another breaking news story where they bring out the oldest surviving vets and listen as they recount the horrors of that horrible time.
Stories are powerful, they shape opinion and leave a lasting impression on how we view the world around us. I grew up hearing stories about my great-uncle, Hugh Lee Stephens. He was one of only two children born to my father’s maternal grandparents in a time when families were usually larger, when more children in families like ours meant more hands to work the farm and fields. On the day my family learned of Uncle Hugh’s death, his mother, my great-grandmother, had what I believe was first of several heart attacks she would have throughout her life. She was 53. She forever mourned her dead son acting in some ways as if her life ended with his. By the time I was born she almost seemed like a frail reflection of the sturdy woman I saw in family photographs before 1944.
My father was only a few days away from his 10th birthday when he heard the news and spoke often of how he’d looked up to his uncle who at 18 years his senior, was in many ways like a second father to him. My grandmother Clara Mae, his only sibling, told the kind of stories one might expect from a someone still clinging to the unfinished business of sibling rivalry … choosing to hold onto old hurts instead of feeling the pain and finality that comes with death. Each one had a different story … each one the truth for them. As for his father, my great-grandfather, I cannot ever remember him sharing any stories of his lost son … almost as if it was too much to remember what must have been to painful for him to recall.
Hugh Lee, as he was called by his mother and father also left behind a wife who loved him. When he died at 27, he was just a simple Georgia boy in a foreign country. He found himself in a country he never imagined he’d be growing up as he did on a rural farm in the south. A place across the ocean where he’d struggle to find his footing and fall dying as he did beside his fellow soldiers, the sons and fathers and husbands we still remember 65 years later.
Because I had served as a soldier in the U.S. Army, when it came time to pass Uncle Hugh’s flag to the next generation for safe keeping my father offered it to me, the eldest of his three daughters. I took this photograph in Georgia just before I passed it on to my daughter Miranda who while only 21, was appreciative and eager to accept it into her care. While packing up the small amount of things that I value most to send over to England, I made the decision to leave behind the flag that draped the casket at his military funeral not because I did not value its meaning or because there was no room, but because I believed my great-uncle Hugh’s American flag should stay in the country he called home.
The reflection of the empty chairs in this photograph of his flag reminds me of the family and life experiences he never got to have. Leaving no children of his own, his story exists now only in a few genealogy notes, this flag and the memories we share. I honor his service and sacrifice in the best way I know how by sharing his story with a group larger than the boundaries of our little family and hope that he like so many others who gave their lives on the battlefield, will never be forgotten.
If there are words, I don’t know what they are.