Lucky Strike

Lucky Strike

I bowled today for the first time in twenty-some years. It seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon with three young boys, my grandsons, who were on spring break. My motive—I wanted to expose them to a sport that I loved as a child.

The dimly lit bowling alley, located up a flight of stairs, seemed more like a hip bar with its giant muted flat-screen TV’s displaying sports news, hockey and basketball games on the far side of each lane.

My grandchildren had never bowled before and knew very little about how the game was played. Since the boys were learning math, I felt that an understanding of how to keep score might assist their number skills. My enthusiasm for a lesson in arithmetic combined with a fun time became squashed by the early awakening of ‘modern bowling alleys.’ Now days, it’s all computerized. No need to understand basic addition or any other scoring rules.

BowlingMontage

When I approached the lane, with a 10-pound bowling ball in hand, I tried not to breathe or think about anything else, except bowling. I wanted my body to perform a series of complex movements that my muscles had memorized years ago. In short, I become a robot, pulling my ball into my chest, performing a quick shimmy with my hips before swinging the ball first backward, then forward. My arm, a pendulum of kinetic energy, as I walked the five measured steps toward the foul line. I released the ball and watched it glide across the oiled wooden planks as if it was floating, hydroplaning, spinning counterclockwise along a trajectory route which took it straight to the left-hand gutter. Oh well, I still have a few frames left.

I tell the kids, “Timing is everything. When your timing is right, when your arms, legs, and torso all move in rhythm toward the lane, you have better balance. When you’re balanced, you’re more accurate. And that’s when the magic begins.”

Three serious young faces looked up at me and one by one they take their turn. The boys did well, considering it was their first try at the game. Of course, they had rubber bumpers on either side to prohibit gutter balls. Why didn’t they have that when I was young?

My final score, a number I frequently ended up with as a 12-year old girl, reflected my ‘out of practice’ status—74. My grandchildren beat me with an 83, 77, and an 89.

I did however have a strike on the sixth frame. The ball neared the edge of the lane, then veered back toward the center, as if guided by remote control. The planned hook carried the ball back just in time. In a heartbeat, what was a wide, sneering mouth of pins was soon nothing.

I have to admit I felt proud in front of the boys. After a bit of pre-game bragging, this strike seemed to make my ‘love of bowling believable.’ I walked back to the table listening to squeals of ‘wow, that was great.’ But instead of feeling good, I was displeased. My one strike wasn’t good enough. With a pencil, I jotted down notes on a folded piece of blue paper and told the kids exactly what I thought I did wrong.

On my last roll something happened. I could tell by the sound of the pins. As the clutter cleared, I saw the nine pin, (the second from the right on the last row) still standing. I watched the chaos of the flying pins, each rotating right past the upright nine. I craned my neck, watched and hoped. But the nine pin never dropped.

I blamed it on the distraction, the music, sport TV’s, and lighting. The kids tried to cheer me up, “At least you got the kingpin.”

The best part of this field trip didn’t involve the score, but the fun I had exposing my grandchildren to a sport I loved and teaching them correct form, sportsmanship, rules of etiquette and scoring, even if they won’t need to put the math to work. They loved outperforming their grandmother and can’t wait to try again. Next time we’ll find an old-fashion bowling alley. Not the kind with teenage ‘pin setters’ in the background that I once swooned over, but a bowling alley that allows you to score and bowl without postmodern technology. A place that serves hot dogs, French fries with ketchup, and delivers it to your lane. The kind that offers a rosin bag to dry your hands to allow for that perfect roll. Just give me a pencil and score sheet and let me keep track of the numbers. It isn’t difficult—even a child can do it.

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Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories

I’ve always dreaded sleep. As a child, I’d read with a flashlight under my blanket convinced that turning in meant missing out on fun. I tried to train myself to sleep with my forearm upright, my head propped on my palm, so that if my parents walked by my room, they’d see that I never slept and therefore didn’t need a bedtime. FYI: My favorite TV show, was ‘The Late, Late, Late, Late Show.”

My obsession with sleep began when I became a nurse and started working the night shift—7A to 7P. I had to learn how to trick myself into sleeping during the day. My bedroom had blackout shades, white noise, electrical tape covering LED’s, and two noisy fans. I’d stuff small pieces of a cotton ball into each ear, looking like the Bug Out Bob toy. These tricks never left me—even after I switched to dayshift.

Nowadays, I request my significant other to sing me to sleep with ‘Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur. Happy kitty, sleepy kitty. Purr, purr, purr.’

I know all the modern remedies for sleepless nights beginning with setting your thermostat at sixty-eight, placing magnets under the pillow, to waking up your partner (jealousy when you hear them snoring and you’re wide awake).

I recently read an article about ancient Romans smearing mouse fat onto the soles of their feet and Dickens’ belief to position oneself in the precise center of a bed that faced north. A Canadian medical journal recommended hemlock–something you’d only try once.

A bedtime-challenged friend used a ‘Glo to Sleep’ mask for a week but confessed that her experiments might be flawed since she also dipped into her calcium, mag, and zinc pills, magnolia bark, chamomile tea, a squirt of extra-strength Benadryl, and Dr. Teal’s Epsom Salts soaking solution which makes me wonder if her problem with sleep was that she had no time for it.

Last year I invested in a ComforPedic mattress, and bought four down pillows, placing them strategically under and around my head. Add to that high thread-count cotton sheets and a mattress protector made from ‘climate-control fabric.’

But before you go out and spend huge sums of money trying to get your eight to ten hours of sleep a night, think about this. Although too little sleep can be deadly, too much of it can be equally dangerous. A recent study suggests that someone who sleeps more than eight or nine hours has a thirty per cent higher mortality rate than the person who sleeps seven hours. You don’t know what to believe these days.

I know you readers are thinking about your own sleep deprivation. Although it’s not my place to call anyone a liar, I have to ask, “Are you sure you were awake all night?” There’s data to show that self-professed poor sleepers often overestimate the extent of nighttime wakefulness. But never fear, there’s a way around that. You can now wear your wrist Sleep Tracker, a chunky gizmo that cost a couple hundred bucks and looks like something Dick Tracy might wear. It calculates calories burned, sweat levels, and restlessness (including bathroom visits). I don’t know about you, but for me, just having a clunky object on my wrist would keep me up all night.

I’d like to close with my latest working solution for a peaceful sleep and the best thing about it is it’s free. Roll over on your side (make sure your back is facing your bedmate) and ask your partner to take his or her forefinger and gently move it vertically up and down the length of your neck. It’s a type of pain free acupressure that works. The only problem is, he or she, has to stay awake to perform this maneuver. My cure for that is each time he begins to fall asleep and his finger quits moving, I jerk my neck just enough to wake him out of his stupor so that he can continue for a full five minutes. It might keep your partner awake, but it’s worth it. I guarantee you’ll sleep like a rock.

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Resurrection

Pasternack

My mother and her two best friends, Evelyn and Bubbles, were inseparable. They knew each other as young wives in Chicago, having been introduced by their husbands who went to high school together. In the photo, Leonard is leaning in toward Evelyn, his wife. He’s smoking a Lucky Strike and smiling for the photographer.

A number ‘2’ sits on their table, perhaps signifying their turn to be photographed. It’s a fancy restaurant and I strain my eyes to find a hint that might lead me to it’s name or location, but all I notice is part of an ‘S’ on the wall behind Leonard, which doesn’t answer my questions.

They were still carefree. Only Teddy, Leonard’s oldest son had been born when the photo was taken.

I remember coming home from grammar school and finding the ladies, my mother, Evelyn, Bubbles, and Ruthie (another friend introduced to the suburban mahjongg clique). They sat around our game table in the den, each with a card of various numbers in front of them and colors arranged like a secret code. They had Bakelite burgundy-brown and cream racks filled with ivory tiles. The click of red dice and tossed tiles filled the room as they shouted out mysterious names like “Four Crak! Three Bam! Eight Dot!” The game lasted until a winner shouted, ‘Mahjongg’

I’d walk into the room and let the women hug me while they complimented me on my ponytail, school outfit, and how much I’d grown. I’d pick at the cashews and eat all the toffee and chocolate-covered turtles sitting in porcelain candy dishes while listening to their gossip about people I didn’t know. They had a sense of familiarity with each other, like an inside joke that only they were privy to.

What they didn’t know that night at the restaurant is that Evelyn would have two more sons, Gerry, who played the drums, and Joel, the youngest and most mischievous. That Bubbles would have a daughter, Lori, and a son, Fred, who would later care for their ailing parents. That my mother’s dear friend, Evelyn, at age 42 would be diagnosed and die from stomach cancer while her children were still young. That Lorraine, my mother, at age 73 would celebrate Passover with friends and on her way back to the car be struck down by an erratic driver as her husband of 52 years looked on in shock.

They didn’t know then that I would become a nurse and a writer who wrote about old photographs. They never knew my hidden talent for sleuthing beginning in my thirties—a proclivity for bringing ghosts back to life with a clearer understanding of who they were and what influences they left behind. If only I appreciated their presence as a young child. If only I had talked with them about their lives. Maybe then I wouldn’t miss them so much.

From the time I became a teenager, I couldn’t wait to escape my home and be on my own. I wanted to be born again. I wanted to be new—have a fresh start. I felt stuck, trapped, had to get out. I wanted my own life, without everyone’s stories in it. One that gave me a clean break from where I came from.

Now I crave for a glimpse of my earlier existence with the people who I ran away from.

I study the photo once more. I look at Gerald sitting next to Bubbles, looking like a hero in his army jacket. Bubbles, with her jet black hair and tanned face and slender legs, always dressed exotically, always in the latest fashions looking like a movie star.

My eyes focus on Evelyn and I wonder why she never let on that she was ill. If I close my eyes, I can hear her voice asking me, “How was school today? Come over and give me a big hug.” Then she’d cup my face with her delicate hands, pinch my cheek and say, “You’re getting cuter everyday.”

As much as the couples were different, they were also similar.

Both Leonard and my father were devastated after their wives died. Their wives had always waited on them—they were homemakers and cooked all their meals. They were lonely widows and married their secretaries within a year who were young enough to be daughters. Both of their second wives were alcoholics who distanced them from their children.

They have all passed away—only the children are left. We get together for dinners, sharing appetizers and talking about our parents, their friendships, quirks, and secrets like the collection of fortunes from Chinese cookies stashed in a kitchen drawer. Or a needlepoint my mother gave Ruthie and after her death, her son found with my mom’s obituary taped to the back of the frame. Or the fact that Leonard was a great photographer later in life, and that my mother and Ruthie’s friendship broke up in later years later because of a rift between the husbands.

We sit around a large game table examining photos we have sorted through—studying them with the same concentration one has before taking an exam. Snacking on chocolates and cashews, we laugh, wanting to uncover, remember, and resurrect our loved ones.

 

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SELFIES

SELFIES

What do you really look like? Aren’t you the world’s leading authority on the subject? After all, we’ve looked at ourselves and studied our faces for years, not to mention with a life-or-death intensity, in all magnifications—lighted car visors and rearview mirrors, unrippled ponds, and old photos. I’ve even glanced at my face through an oven’s mirrored trim, the rim of my washing machine, and once I turned on my iPhone camera to take a peek after applying a new shade of hair color.

We are the keen observers of our looks, familiar with our individual faces with the exception of recent rhinoplasties, facelifts, injections, or just plain aging. That’s when the familiar becomes something of a surprise each time we glance at our reflection. Think of it as this: We’re all scientists interested in the laws of motion, particularly of gravity.

You are also the least qualified person to know what you look like—you’re too close to the subject, too prejudiced about the possible outcome; a new blemish, a rash on your forehead, or pink hive surfacing on your left cheek.

The amazing part is this: you have no idea as to how you look from the outside, the way others see you because you have to use your face to view you—a non-negotiable quirk of the human anatomy. You are both the observer and the observed.

Everywhere you look, people are whipping out their phones and snapping ‘selfies.’ Girls gathered at the edge of the ocean turn to each other and begin organizing the best shot of the group, oblivious to the beauty of the waves crashing on shore, or the changing of the ocean’s color from deep gray to neon blue. They’re focused in a different direction—on themselves.

Selfies

 

Go to an exotic place of your choice and observe what is being recorded for the sake of history. It isn’t the Japanese gardens in Portland, or the beauty of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, nor the uniqueness of D.H. Lawrence’s home in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire England—it’s the face or faces of individuals gathered there.

Why are we so fixated on our faces, together or alone? What are we recording? Are photos from our phones some sort of proof that we are capable of relationships with friends and family even if we aren’t able to communicate with one another? Or is it just another diversion from one-on-one interplay, intimacy, or connection?

We can easily switch from one photo to another whenever we feel the need. We bond with our selfies like they were people flying in for a visit, stopping by for tea; folks we haven’t seen or heard from in a while. Do we really believe our Facebook friends posting photos, happy birthday messages, or short anecdotes are actually our friends? If you’re lucky, a small percentage might qualify as bona fide friends. Do we think we can send a selfie to someone and connect with them in a meaningful way? Perhaps it’s considered a prelude to actual bonding and allows us to continue to ignore opportunities to grow closer—in a way that may take time, thought, effort, and energy. It’s easier to Instagram, text, tweet, or Facebook for hours at a time, never thinking about the recipient with any degree of understanding.

When we look at received photos, it’s as if we’re gazing at an exhibition at a gallery; a place where we can only guess at the artist’s motives for taking the photo, similar to what we do when we view paintings. But there is still that profound distance, disconnect, loneliness that lurks between us and the photo; a space in time, a longing to know more, to listen in, to stand closer, to hear a distinct voice with all its inflections, feel a gentle touch, lean over to kiss them, or reach out to someone human with our phones tucked away in a purse or a pocket, ringer off.

Those of us who are unhappy with selfies, myself included, distain them not for the reasons they say they do—the vanity, narcissism, primping necessary for perfection, but more because they isolate this basic discomfort at the center of human life. We not only present ourselves, but we think about the presentation.

Now when I’m tempted to post a selfie on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I refuse to pose and instead unleash myself (unselfies) to the world with a face obscured, by a mask, a mist, unexpected motion, or a blurred vision of myself forcing the observer to look a little harder.

 

UnselfieMontage

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My Addiction

My Addiction

I’m addicted to ancestry.com. It started innocently with a free two-week membership and an occasional quick search every couple of days. But then an hour or two of researching turned into five, six, or seven. It became a compulsion—my fix for the day. That was nine months ago.

This obsession began after my father died. I wanted to fill in the blanks concerning his life. I had heard stories about his childhood, but wasn’t privy to any details. I never thought about probing into ‘the rest of the story’ while we lived under one roof and when I left home at an early age, I was too angry to care. His childhood circumstances were deferred by my own perceived injustices while growing up.

I had the basic facts: Before his first birthday, he became an orphan. His father left his mother shortly after he was born and she was unable to care for him. As a small boy in Chicago, he lived in a variety of foster homes. “Couples would take me in for the money, but I felt only one couple, the Wagoner’s, really loved me.” He only mentioned this once to me, but I never forgot it.

Why aren’t we more curious at a young age? Why don’t we ask pressing questions when family members are still alive? Are we, as children and young adults, so consumed with living that we have no interest in those who came before us, or is it self-absorption that consumes our daily life and prevents us from exploring family secrets?

My first search in ancestry began with my paternal grandmother Elizabeth Samuelson. I quickly learned her real name, Louisa, from an online birth certificate and that she had a twin sister, Margareta, whom I never met. They were born on June 18, 1897. My grandmother Elizabeth died on my thirteenth birthday. That fact connected us through the years even though I hardly knew her.

 

AddictionMontageOctober28

I found a marriage certificate for Margareta to a man named Jack James, from Missouri. They were both 23-years old. From his death certificate, I learned he was a bartender in San Francisco who died years later from tuberculosis. No trace of Margareta until I open up a 1940 census showing her current residence in a boarding house in L.A., and listing her work as ‘hotel maid.’ The same year census trace of Louisa (alias Grandma Elizabeth) placed her in Chicago living with my father, who was 25-years old at the time. Next to my father’s name under ‘occupation’ was the word ‘Lawyer’ printed in black bold letters. I gathered from that information he was supporting his mother.

My searches often followed trails not planned and received answers that were never expected.  One clue led to another and more twists and turns followed. My grandmother had four sisters and three brothers from her mother’s first marriage. It turned out that my great grandmother married twice and had an additional four children with her second husband. And all along I thought I had come from a small family!

I’ve met a few of my new cousins who are amazed at my findings. I took the time to compose a family tree for my new relatives. They were astonished by my discoveries—family history and faded photos. My favorite find: a photo of my great grandmother Rose as a young girl, with mischief in her eyes. And yes, there is a definite resemblance.

I remembered the early clue about the Wagoner’s and decided to search them out. I confess to looking them up while on a roll. After a few hours of searching, I found Percy Evan Wagner’s obituary and verified dates and names. From his wife’s obit, I found a nephew, Chip, who lived in the Midwest and I emailed him my story. He quickly responded and asked for details about my father: date of birth and where he lived in Chicago. Chip told me, “Yes, my aunt and uncle had a foster child when they were first married. I’ll look through some of their photos and get back to you.”

Ancestry, with the help of Google, created a detective who cannot be stopped. I do this for my father and for my own piece of mind. I want to create a real family for him and an extended family for me and whoever else needs one.

My addiction never leaves me, although it can stay dormant for weeks at a time. Now is not one of those times. My sister-in-law recently asked me to find her biological parents. Turns out her father was in the Detroit Giacalone family running the gambling operations out of the Anchor Bar during the 50s and 60s. Her biological mother was a dancer and bartender who had an affair with ‘Good Looking Solly’ before he was murdered in 1971. I felt as if I struck gold, I found the missing jewel, I pieced the puzzle together.

I wonder what I’ll uncover next.

 

 

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HOMAGE TO MY FATHER

HOMAGE TO MY FATHER

The last time I wished my father dead, I meant it. I was on a plane home to Phoenix after visiting him in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where he was in his final stage of life.

As a nurse, I knew when I first saw him and noticed his left facial droop and partially closed eye that he had suffered several minor strokes. I tended to be kept out of the loop, as far as getting information about his medical needs. His wife Sue, 35 years his junior who he married shortly after my mother’s death, didn’t like to share him with his children.

Father sat on a couch staring into space while Sue watched a golf tournament on a large screen TV, using terms like ‘backspin and banana-ball,’ cheering for the golfers as if she knew each one personally. I sat uneasy next to Father, touching him gently, wondering if this might be the last time I’d ever see him. His eyes looked empty as though he was looking through me. His behavior wasn’t entirely new, since he had treated me in a distant manner for years. But this separation between us was no longer intentional—it was due to aging. Father had just turned 98.

I asked Sue, “What’s the update on Father’s health?”

“Just fine,” she said.

“Has he recently seen a doctor?”

“Yes,” she answered without looking my way.

In less than two years, Father had gone from being a tall and lanky self-made man, who in his prime resembled Richard Deacon (Lumpy’s dad on Leave it to Beaver), and an entertainer with the dry humor of Bob Hope, to a shut-eyed, unresponsive, forgetful man with fingers now balled in arthritic pain.

Terry&Dad

He knew who I was, but couldn’t carry on a discussion without long silences between words and then giving up before he finished a thought. There wasn’t much dialogue during my visit, except for the sports announcer on TV and Sue interjecting ‘good shot’ now and then.

This wasn’t surprising since I had talked with him weekly, sometimes twice a week. The one positive to surface during his decline lay in our closing conversations—words I seldom heard from him. “I love you.”

Father used to be a man of energy. He practiced law for 54 years, stayed in the military reserves for 40 years, until he became a Lieutenant Colonel. He played golf on weekends, bridge on Tuesdays, poker on Thursdays, and read two newspapers on Sunday.

His intense love for me as a young child was like a wool blanket in July; he wanted me to be his little brown pig-tailed girl forever.

“If only I could keep you at age four or five.” He’d been saying that since I was six.

I never lived up to his high expectations. I felt he set me up for failure with his demanding perfection. But when I didn’t act like his idealized image of me, the eruption of his wrath could cause after-shocks in an otherwise peaceful home. So over the years I tried to shove those other versions of me—creative writer, dreamer, poet, democrat, free spirit—out of sight to make sure I’d never lose his love, which was my first addiction. My second was writing.

After graduate school, Father asked me in his usual teasing manner, “Just what is creative nonfiction? Is it made-up, a kind of fiction, or the real thing?” I tried to explain it on many occasions, but he’d just laugh and say, “I don’t get it.

It wasn’t until I hugged him goodbye after my last visit and he clamped my forearm in a vise grip, that I realized how much he loved me and how he didn’t want me to leave him. I think he knew it might be the last time we’d see each other.

Father died on Christmas day, ‘peacefully in his sleep,’ is the way Sue announced it two days later on December 27. Father’s military funeral was set for January 15. I wondered why it wasn’t immediate, but I never found out the reason.

I was wrong about his death. It didn’t set me free of his love. I’ll never be, nor do I want to be. But his death liberated me—it gave me license to write about our bittersweet relationship, to examine it, gain new perspectives, and understand and accept it for all it represents.

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Sliver of Sky

Sliver of Sky

by Terry Ratner, RN, MFA

Send comments to info@terryratner.com

I knew ahead of time the exact route I’d take that evening. I needed no GPS or verbal directions to the restaurant where a group of writers were meeting to critique each other’s work. In fact, it was as if my vehicle knew exactly what road to take, intersections to turn at, and which side of the street I’d find the eatery. When I spotted it, my car kept going, as if programed for a certain destination I needed to revisit—a place I hadn’t seen for twelve years. A part of my earlier life crowded with memories obscured by choice.

Rush hour traffic gave me time to examine the landscape along Thunderbird. I noted the Fry’s supermarket I used to shop at had become a Super Fry’s.  A group of condos, Valle Venato, still looked the same. I remember going door-to-door on a Saturday morning with my son, Sky, to pass out flyers advertising my new business: Cinderella Cleaning Service, Clean in a Day, Queen for a Day. After we distributed the ads, we stopped at a pond to catch frogs that had surfaced after a night’s rain.

Turning north on 31st avenue, I noticed rundown homes, dying desert landscapes and dehydrated lawns that could be mistaken for dirt lots. No children played outside, perhaps because it’s chilly, or maybe they were eating dinner with their parents, talking about their day.

I pass Acacia grade school on my right. The grass field, swing-sets and chain-link fence look the same. I remember taking Sky on his first day of kindergarten, watching him dart into the classroom with a quick wave goodbye and none of that crying that some kids exhibit. I flashback Halloween parades around the school parking lot where I’d try to identify children under their costumes, waving to mine as they pass by. My thoughts turn to Marty, the custodian, his smile, and how much the kids loved him. I wonder if he’s still alive.

Turning down Banff, I spot a basketball court housed inside a park. A teenager climbs up an elaborate colorful slide and sits under a blue awning talking on his cell hoping not to be seen. This is where my children and I played. It’s where I’d roller skate when they were in school and play basketball with my son or daughters on weekends. We often packed a picnic lunch and sunbathed while watching Sky play soccer. His team nicknamed him ‘lead foot.’ The park appears empty except for a mother and her young son playing catch and smiling at one another.

 

Park

As I turn right on my street, Mauna Loa Lane, I think about the name. It stands for one of five volcanoes that form the Island of Hawaii. Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in both mass and volume, and has historically been considered the largest volcano on earth. It’s a name I never thought about when we first bought the house—a name that didn’t mean much until my life erupted years later. It wasn’t until my son died at the age of 25 that I disconnected myself with our home and all it represented.

This is the house my children and I grew up in. It’s where memories of youth and young mothering are imbedded. There’s the Eucalyptus in the front yard that my son planted when he was ten and the yellow rusted awnings I installed to shade the house from a western exposure. A cactus sits surrounded by desert landscape with sprouting weeds that peek through black plastic sheeting. My eyes focus on the imprint of children’s shoes leaving their mark on the gravel.  A garbage bag blows into the yard and sticks to the front stucco wall like a ghost. I don’t hear the sound of children anywhere.

 

House

I peer into what used to be my son’s window through the gap of the Eucalyptus tree that was hit by lightning a year after we moved. I imagine his small face peeking out the blue and red race car print curtains.

No one comes to the window. No one notices me taking photographs. No one sees my tears.

The visit is like coming back to an old friend, something familiar. My faith in the firmness of time seems to be slipping away. Memories flash by like clips of film from unrelated movies. Somewhere in the nooks and crannies of memories, there are clues. As I chase them down, a kind of understanding and hope comes with it.

 

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