My Uncle, the Priest

My favorite uncle passed away rather unexpectedly last night. He was my mom’s only brother, and a priest. I mention that only because  I think it was our claim to fame. Even after our immediate family ceased to worship in the Catholic tradition, everyone was still quick to note that he was a priest. I’m not sure if having a “man of the cloth” in the family gave us some distinction or something.

But he was so much more than just a priest. He was fluent in several languages, and had a deep appreciation for words and culture. He gave us fascinating gifts like illustrated dictionaries and, before they were popular, CDs. I remember, as a young girl, poring over the section of his textbooks and old school books that resided on my gram’s bookshelf. One that especially fascinated me was Word Origins and Their Romantic Histories by Wilfred Funk. I know I still have that book somewhere, which I read through many times, drawn to the strange histories of many common words. His Latin and French primers were also there and I fancied myself becoming a linguist of sorts at one point.

He could cook too. No surprise there, since my gram was a chef extraordinaire. But while she was like the faithfully burning candle, he was more like the occasional fireworks that lit up the night sky. It was a big deal when he came home and cooked! I especially remember when he’d take my gram down to the Strip District (a market district of sorts in Pittsburgh), and come home and cook all this fabulous food like lobster or filet mignon (or both). He loved food, I think, in a holistic sort of way. By that I mean, he appreciated the entire experience. The shopping. The cooking. The serving (if we were in a restaurant). The dining and sharing of laughter with people he loved.

He could sing as well. Seriously, think Topol from Fiddler on the Roof (a role I’m pretty sure he played once in college . . . unfortunately a movie/musical I cannot abide and therefore will not watch). When we were kids, my gram invested in an organ for herself (gotta love people who are never too old to learn new things!) My uncle would come home from St. Vincent’s and make up these grand soap opera stories, starring Madame X. Will Madame X live to see another day? Will Rupert tell the truth? I have no idea to this day who Madame X was, but we hung on every line and hated how he left us hanging until the next episode (which would be months usually, until his next visit).

Over the past ten years, I got to know even more of this fascinating man, as I sometimes drove up to see him at the monastery, or during the few times he spent the night at our house. (He loved that we had cable and would stay up all night hopping between his favorite shows, including Law and Order).  Once I spent a long weekend at the monastery on a retreat of sorts, and we enjoyed lots of walks and meals together.

And I learned that he was a deeply spiritual man. We shared a common love of Madeleine L’Engle and a few other authors. I loved picking out books to give him as gifts and later discussing them with him. And as I mourn his passing, I realize he is still with me in so many ways. In the memories we share. In our appreciation for words and their funky meanings. In our love of learning and books, and our passion for cooking. And in our love of truth and willingness to live in and not be afraid of the questions. And I think in years to come, I will still be getting to know this man I loved deeply, more deeply than I ever realized.

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What’s Your Story?

The power of story is often overlooked and underestimated, but really, isn’t that what links us all together, from generation to generation and across the aisle and down the street? It’s what connects us to one another and helps us find our place in life, our purpose. Otherwise we’re just walking around in a fog, completely oblivious to all that God is doing in and around us (or as my pastor would say, in us, with us and through us).

Even our local paper gets this idea of story . . . asking people to talk about what they’re not giving up right now during this recession. One might think they’re missing the point completely – and yet, maybe the point is just to get people talking. When we’re talking, we’re not internalizing, right? And when we’re not internalizing, we’re not making up stories in our head; rather we’re living in the stories that are our reality.

One question we can ask now in this time of recession is “what stories do I want to be telling months and years from now?” But I also think that telling and hearing stories from our past can help form our stories going forward. So that’s my question for you today. What stories can you share that speak courage to yourself and others in what are getting to be trying times for so many?

For me, it’s the time our house burned down in 1978. The house we were building as well as the house (trailer) we were living in. Four days before Christmas. It’s feeling for my gram who literally watched the house her husband was building for her daughter (we lived next door) burn to the ground, as the rural fire truck got stuck in the mud on its way across the field. It’s laughing at my sister who couldn’t understand how the Christmas tree could burn when the box clearly said “flameproof.” It’s remembering the generosity of our church family who showered us with every material blessing we needed to begin again . . . from pillowcases to measuring cups, some of which we still have today. It’s watching my mom and dad begin again and carry on and stick together through it all. It’s knowing that, in the end, you can never really have it all taken from you.

So that’s my story (one of them anyways). What’s yours? I’d really love to hear it and maybe you really need to tell it.

Love is . . .

loveis1When I was a teen, I was an avid fan of the Love Is comic strip. I still have a scrapbook full of them, cut from the comics page of the Observer-Reporter that I pored over most evenings, sprawled on the floor of my gram’s kitchen. Even though I wasn’t exactly boy crazy, my ideas of love and relationships were certainly in the formative stages at that point, and Love Is contributed to the reality that love is not about me.

Several weeks ago in a message, our pastor suggested that “love moves us away from ourselves and towards others.” I always appreciate images and pictures that help to make concepts like love liveable, tangible realities.

I think my verse for the year, the one God seems to keep pounding through my head and working into my heart, is that passage where Jesus boils down all the commands of God to just two: loving God and our neighbor. (Mark 12:29-31). A question I’m loving (excuse the pun) is “what would Love do?”

So with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I thought I’d pose a fill-in-the blank question, simply this: Love Is ______________. What does love look like for you? How do you express love? How do you receive love? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

P.S. The above graphic is a scan of one of about 20 some Love Is cartoons I still have. Clothing complements of my mom, who insisted that the little munchkins were not welcome in my scrapbook sans clothing (I did have fun coloring them in!)

P.P.S. The date this is posted has great significance for me, it being the date of my gram’s birth . . . certainly one of the greatest examples of love I have ever known.

Steeler Memories

steeler80sI am proud to say my Steeler loyalty dates back to the 70’s, when they were still champions in the making. I’m not sure how my dad endured an inquisitive little girl glued to his side during football season, but his patience earned him a loyal fan for a daughter. There was only one rule . . . questions must be reserved for commercial time. Of course, commercials were also time for snack and bathroom breaks but somehow I managed to learn the ins and outs of the sport over the years.

A few years ago, when the Steelers were on their way to Superbowl XXX in 1995 (in which they were deservedly defeated by the Cowboys), I came across this newspaper cutting in my scrapbook. If you look carefully, you’ll see the previous year’s ad hanging on the little boy’s wall.

It brought back memories that extended well beyond a football game. In the seventies, my dad had yet to come to know Christ. When the playoff season began and the Steelers appeared to be earnest contenders, he would ask us girls to pray for a victory. He promised to attend church with us for X number of games in return for a victory. I honestly don’t remember if he kept his part of the bargin, but I do remember the victories. But the greatest victory, coincidentally, took place in 1995, when my dad surrendered his heart and life to Christ. No Superbowl championship will ever compare to that day (it also happened to be the day my mom underwent successful surgery for cancer, and has been cancer free for over 13 years now).

25 Random Things

Someone tagged me elsewhere recently for this 25 Random Things meme. I don’t know how random these are as  you will notice, they tend to progress somewhat chronologically. Nevertheless I thought it would be fun to toss this out. I will not tag anyone but if you choose to participate on your blog, let me know.

1. My parents only had a boy name picked out for me when I was born. (David) Somehow the odds I would be a girl never occurred to them. I endured a lengthy hospital stay while they deliberated on a name.

2. I would have been named Kathleen (and called Kate, a name I love) but apparently my mom’s friend of the same name died before I was born and so I was named after another of my mom’s friends.My middle name is Christina. I hated my name as a kid. Dianne sounded too adult and Christina made it too many syllables, IMHO. I’m good with it now. I even like the way it is spelled!

3. I never eat the last bite of my sandwich, something that drives my mom crazy.

4. We moved next door to my gram out in the country when I was in 7th grade. My sister and I only had each other to play with and torment for the rest of our school years. We spent many hours over our gram’s though and developed a great bond we still enjoy today.

5. Our house burned down when I was in 8th grade, a few days before Christmas (the trailer we lived in as well as the house we were building). Thankfully none of us were there at the time.

6. I was a straight A student throughout my school years, except for Algebra II (long story!)

7. When I was in 7th grade, I decided I would be valedictorian when I graduated. And I was, which was no big deal as there were only 10 in our graduating class, but was still a challenge since I changed schools going into my junior year.

8. When I went to college, I decided I did not want to make being valedictorian a goal. That was an easy goal to not achieve! I still graduated with honors though.

9. I went out for cheerleading in high school because I was tired of being the boring book girl! I was not a natural but I survived because I was somewhat of a perfectionist and would practice in private for hours.

10. I have never been in the hospital except for a test or to visit someone.

11. I did not learn to drive until I was almost 20 years old. Mostly that was due to the fact that we lived over 40 miles away from the high school we attended, where my mom taught. She liked to drive. My cousin actually taught me and took me for my test.

12. I taught several other people to drive and took them to pass their driving test.

13. That reminds me of how much I enjoy teaching and helping others succeed at something, even if they end up being better at it than me!

14. I am very process-oriented. Results are only minimally important to me.

15. Over the years I have dabbled in several kinds of art, including calligraphy and painting. Good therapy for a process-oriented person!

16. In college I worked in the student activity department and was in charge of all the promotional materials for student productions and activities. So I got to do a lot of art that way. I like big art!

17. I am addicted to coffee but I can’t drink caffeine. So I can truly say I love the taste of the stuff!

18. I get nervous if I don’t have a book around. I am trying to curb my reading habits, without success.

19. I have no problem going to a restaurant by myself and reading for a few hours.

20. My husband and I met playing volleyball and started dating playing par-3 golf with friends (he carried my bag, what could I do!)

21. I went to Ireland in 1990 and visited the birthplace of my great-grandmother. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

22. I am fascinated by church history. I love visiting churches of various denominations from time to time, just to see what they’re all about.

23. I love word origins. When I was a kid, my uncle was studying to be a priest and therefore a student of Latin and Greek. He was always telling me where words came from.

24. My sister and I went to the same college, then taught at the same school (from which we graduated HS – she – 5th grade, me – jr. high), during which time we shared an apt. together. We both met our husbands in September, got engaged in February and married in October. And our initials went from DCK and DAK to DCP and DAP. And we’ve been known to purchase and wear the same clothes, often without prior consultation. I think we were twins, two years apart!

25. I’m a diehard Steeler fan but I have a hard time when we play Indianapolis, as I’m a long time Colts, Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy fan (so sad he’s retiring). I’m also a big Pitt b-ball fan as well as a FSU football follower. I love March Madness!

If You Send Me a Christmas Card . . .

I’ll open it and be glad. And I’ll put it with the others in the basket on top of my pantry cabinet until a few days after Christmas.

If you send me a Christmas card with a picture of your kids, I’ll open it and be glad. I’ll marvel at how the kids have grown. And I’ll put the picture on my fridge, for at least a few weeks after Christmas.

But if you’re my husband and you give me a Christmas card (and you always do), I’ll open it and be thrilled. I’ll read it carefully as you look on. And I’ll watch while you read the one I’ve chosen for you. Then we’ll flip them over and scan the back for silly little bonus messages and make sure the year is inscribed somewhere on it. Then I’ll tuck them away after Christmas with the other decorations, with every other Christmas card we’ve exchanged for eleven years of marriage. Then we’ll bring them out again next year, when it’s time to decorate. And we’ll sit and reminisce about Christmases past and be very, very glad.

The Fragrance of Her Life

(written in honor of my gram’s birthday, February 13th)

Recently I’ve become acutely aware of how closely my memories of my grandmother are tied to my sense of smell. Some of the memories are intentional; when I miss her most, all I have to do is start baking. The smell of chocolate chip cookies or bread baking conjures up pleasant memories of many days spent underfoot in the corner of Gram’s kitchen, where I hovered at her elbow, begging for my chance to stir the Thanksgiving gravy or beat the egg whites for her amazing Austrian dumplings.

The most pleasant memories, however, are the ones I bump into quite unexpectedly. Take, for instance, Irish Spring soap. Just a whiff takes me back to wash day at Gram’s house. My favorite part was helping run the fresh, clean, one-hundred percent cotton sheets through the mangle, an old-fashioned ironing contraption. The mangle squeaked and moaned as the sheets were pulled inch by inch over the hot steamy roller arm. Once the last bit of sheet had passed through, you quickly pulled the freshly pressed sheet out, folded it once more and repeated the process. Gram then carefully tucked the sheets away in a drawer amid a bar or two of Irish Spring soap. On a hot summer night, nothing brings on a restful sleep like a cool, crisply creased cotton sheet and the fresh smell of Irish Spring soap.

Then there’s furniture polish. Although it emerges less frequently at my house, when it does, it brings to mind many Saturday mornings spent cleaning Gram’s house. Dusting was my favorite chore. Each and every knick-knack had special meaning to me. As I fingered the old books on the shelves, my love of the classics grew. The model frigate inspired dreams of faraway places. The little china girl with the poodle dog set my heart on having my own dog someday. Even the fine china and crystal had an impact on me, as I began to dream about the day I would host family gatherings and cook the holiday dinners.

More memories come to mind as I pass through the cosmetics section of a department store. Usually a kiss and hug from Gram left a bit of Hollywood Extra cold cream on your cheek. It was her standard makeup and gave her warm Italian skin a bit of a shiny glow. But on special occasions, she donned her Estee Lauder Private Collection fragrance. I can still picture her, dressed to the nines and decked out in her fur coat, ready to take my mother, sister and me to the Nutcracker ballet one year. As we stood in line, the sweet fragrance of her perfume filled the air and my girlish heart swelled with pride to have such a classy lady for my gram.

So many wonderful scents – so many precious memories. I realize now my Gram’s entire life was a fragrance that delighted and refreshed all who knew her. Since her passing, I’ve become especially sensitive to scent. The slightest whiff of lilac blossoms in spring or a baby freshly powdered after its bath remind me to stop and enjoy all the loveliness around me, and remember a beautiful life whose fragrance still lingers with me.