Katy McKenna Raymond  
Personal blog of christian writer Katy McKenna Raymond in Kansas City, Missouri

Personal blog of christian
writer & fallible mom
Katy McKenna Raymond
in Kansas City, Missouri

Katy is represented by
Greg Johnson at
WordServe Literary

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fallible attitude

The Next Best Thing To Robert Redford (#1650)

Today, my friends, Robert Redford turns 75 years old. To celebrate, I’m breaking out a recipe that is at least 35 years old, if not 40. My mom made this a million times and we never tired of it. I’ll give you the recipe exactly as she’s written it. It does not get better!

          The Next Best Thing To Robert Redford

1 cup flour
1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup finely chopped nuts
8 oz cream cheese
8 oz Cool Whip
1 cup powdered sugar
1 box instant chocolate pudding
1 box instant vanilla pudding
3 cups milk
grated chocolate for garnish

Cut flour into butter with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Mix in nuts. Press into the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Bake in a 350 oven for 30 minutes. Cool. Mix together cream cheese, 1 cup of the Cool Whip, and powdered sugar. Spread over cooled crust. In a large bowl, combine choc pudd mix, van pudd mix, and milk. Stir until thickened. When thick, pour over first 2 layers. Cover with remaining Cool Whip and garnish with chocolate. This will keep, covered, for up to 2 weeks in refrigerator, or may be frozen.

Trust me, this WILL NOT keep up to 2 weeks in refrigerator!! Enjoy!

Posted by Katy on 08/18/11

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (#1649)

Patrick, Katy, Liz McKenna

I wrote this essay when my mother was still alive, when she’d already verbally passed the “Matriarch of the Family” torch to me, when I’d begun to feel the full weight—and privilege—of preserving the memory of her losses. My brother, Patrick Joseph McKenna, would be sixty years old today, if only he’d somehow lived past the age of four. It’s in his honor I wrote this, and in my mother’s and father’s and grandparents’, too. For the longer I live, the more I think that remembrance may itself be the greater part of honor.

I worry sometimes that when I’m dead, no one will remember my brother.

It’s a quiet worry, not one that I’ve ever expressed in words until now. But I guess I’ve carried it in my heart all my life.

Dad, Patrick, Katy, Mom

Do you feel surprised when you open your containers of Christmas ornaments each year? I’m always shocked at the gasps of joy and stray tears of nostalgia that escape me when I see the treasures my children made for me during their school years. They are my most precious decorations.

But there, among these keepsakes, is one I weep over season after season. It’s a tiny red and ivory knit stocking, no bigger than a baby’s sock, with a printed Santa and the words “Baby’s First Christmas.”

Mom, Patrick

I can’t help how I feel when I hang it on my tree. I can’t help thinking of my parents celebrating Christmas 1951 with their three-month-old firstborn child, unaware that he’d only ever spend three more Christmases on this earth. I can’t help it that I’ve already asked my sweet daughter to become the caretaker for Patrick’s stocking someday.

I’ve already asked my daughter to not forget.

Patrick, Katy, Papoo

Because, you see, my mother now remembers less about her little boy than I do. I repeat back to her the stories she’s told me about his short life, and she shakes her head. “Did I tell you that, really? It was so long ago, like another lifetime…”

It didn’t used to be like this. In one way, my mother’s whole life has revolved around the loss of this one dear son. But now, so much has faded in focus for her, and so I have become, of my own volition, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.

I know that Patrick’s name will someday—perhaps with the passage of only one more generation—be little more than a brief line in a family tree. A line with no branches descending beneath it. Someday, perhaps one of my own grandchildren will take up an interest in family history and ask about the little boy without a story.

Patrick, Katy

Will the Baby’s First Christmas stocking hang on a tree somewhere for generations to come? Or will the threads finally disintegrate like a mother’s fragile mind? I think I know the truth, but it’s hard to face it.

There are some things I’ll take with me to the grave, but I can still hope my brother’s memory isn’t one of them.

Posted by Katy on 08/09/11

Where Have All The Years Gone (#1648)

Mom died 5 months ago today, and while I don’t typically navigate the 7th of the month without unbridled emotion, today I’ve skated through. In fact, I decided to pay my respects to Mom by posting a love poem Dad wrote for her on the occasion of their 28th wedding anniversary, in 1978. They only had 33 years together before his far-too-early death, and among my most favorite possessions are the letters and poems he dedicated to her.

“Where have all the years gone, have they merely flown away,
But oh what joy they’ve left behind to fill each passing day.
Where have all the tears gone, for oft-times they were shed,
Some in sorrow, most in joy, like on the day we wed.
Where has all our love gone, sure it’s very plain to see
That I love you more than ever and I know that you love me.

Where have all the years gone, each one of twenty-eight,
Each a priceless cultured pearl on that elusive string of fate.
Where has all our trust gone, from the housetops you can shout
My trust has grown still greater, of that there is no doubt.
For some the past is all but forgotten but love’s a wonderful thing,
It makes those years fond memories, and for us the angels sing.”

I know, Mom and Dad, that the songs of the angels must sound even sweeter when you’re in God’s eternal presence. All my love to both of you, forever.

Posted by Katy on 08/06/11

Fun With Kiki Cullen (#1647)

I decided, just for fun, to post the opening scene of a novel I wrote. I used to post excerpts from works-in-progress, but those bits never resulted in a completed manuscript. This one did. I still get a kick out of my main character, Kiki Cullen:

My car hydroplaned through the radio station’s parking lot thanks to a hyperactive sprinkler system, skidding to a halt a fraction of an inch from the Employee of the Month sign. I gasped at the near miss and then beamed at the shiny pole, which bore a rectangle’s worth of affirmation.

It would be a shame to dent the back of a sign I desperately hoped to be parked in front of someday.

No time to wax wistful now, though. The manufactured rain created an arc like a crystal rainbow over the front end of my car, where I sat just long enough to gather my computer bag, my purse, and the umbrella that was wedged under the passenger seat.

Why was I late again? Oh, yeah. Copious numbers of cratered orange barrels and so many tipped construction cones that it looked like scores of drivers had bowled perfect strikes with their SUVs.

And now? A show to host with no prep time at all.

Worse, I’d missed Sweet Talk, the semi-regular pastry-laden meeting during which any broadcasting career might be shaped, sliced, filled, or even turned into a burnt offering.

I shoved the car door open, snapped the umbrella up like a parachute, and splattered my way onto the puddled concrete. I ran around to the other side of the Employee of the Month sign for another look at that name.

No mistake.

The seams of my umbrella nearly split with pride and I allowed myself a moment’s sopping satisfaction, but I couldn’t very well stand there and gloat. I sprinted for the building, regretting my choice of stilettos more with every triangle-toed slosh. When I finally threw open the station’s side door, my show’s call screener greeted me—a girl I must say seemed a tad testy even though she was perfectly dry.

She bit her lip and glanced down to observe her old-fashioned watch’s sweep second hand do its sweeping thing. “Four minutes, thirty-seven seconds.”

“Plenty of time,” I said, impersonating an optimist.

We set off walking.

I gulped stale smoke in the narrow hallway leading to the studio, struggling to keep up with her. A long line of former bigwigs crowded the walls, framed and hung, suspended on black velvet cords—almost by their necks, if you asked me. They alternately scowled and glared, and I could have sworn one winked as I skittered through the mostly-dead-executive gauntlet.
We stopped in the coatroom just long enough for me to ditch my umbrella and the raincoat I made a habit of toting—but never wearing—in October. Autumn’s melancholy outbursts of precipitation mirrored my mood in a soothing way.

Like a friend who empathizes with your blue funk by sharing her own tale of woe.
“You weren’t at the meeting.” She looked me up and down with a stricter appraisal than usual, and a hint of disappointment. “What happened?”

I shrugged and huffed, the huffing being not so much with exasperation as with inhalation deprivation. Short legs are so overrated. “Doesn’t matter now. Catch me up on today.”

“It matters. Gillespie’s watching you.” A timer went off in her pocket. A back-up system for her never-fails second hand. “Four mins, five secs.”

“Watching? I thought we were still doing radio.” I shouldn’t tease her, but sometimes I couldn’t resist.

She made a face, not an amused one. “Watching from the control room. That’s what this morning’s Sweet Talk was about.”

“What exactly will he be watching for?”

While we jogged the final few yards of marble-floored hallway, she held out a document and pointed to a paragraph midway down the page. “It says here, ‘The host’s no-holds-barred attitude during Your Marriage Matters will ultimately make or break the show.’”


“Yeah, and it gets worse.” She pointed even more pointedly, flipping the page my direction. “Market studies show improved ratings on days following one of your…um…rants. Three minutes straight up.”

“The document from corporate used the word rants?” I knew I’d gone mildly hormonal with a few callers in recent weeks, but three days ago the doctor adjusted my meds. Besides, at no time did I think my on-air behavior constituted a bona fide rant.

We skidded around the corner and into the studio. She handed over the sheet. Green highlighter blended with a fleck of icing on the page like food coloring on a St. Patrick’s Day cake.

“Read it and don’t weep,” she said. “This could go either way.”

Gillespie planned to choose one program for much wider distribution across his expanding network of stations. Either Your Marriage Matters would break out, or the following hour’s show would prevail: a knockdown, drag-out, he-said, she-said, liberal-conservative shout-fest.

Like that’s what the world needs now.

“So what happens to the other show?”

“Didn’t say.” Fiona glanced over my shoulder into the control room.  “But you’d better put on your headphones. Gillespie wants to talk.”

I shivered, though my blouse had completely shed the sprinkles. “You mean, before I go on?”

She gave me one of those looks and nodded.

Two minutes and small change. Good thing I could skip out on wardrobe check, hair, and make-up. Radio does have its plusses, but having a pre-show conversation with Gillespie?

So not one of them.

“By the way,” I said, meeting her eyes. “I missed it, didn’t I?”

Her lips curved into the most modest of smiles. “Yeah, Kiki. I really wanted you there.”

My heart melted. What would I do without this girl? “You’re the best Employee of the Month ever, Fiona Carmichael.”

And then she grinned outright and I hugged her with all my might.

Posted by Katy on 07/20/11

Stuck On Mom (#1646)

At Mom’s house, family photographs are prominently displayed in one of three places. The refrigerator is the logical landing spot, but the fridge is now 18 years old, and some of the photos have hung there that long. Once a picture has secured a position on the fridge, it’s for life. Even if the subject of the photo is now hanging in the post office, he knows he’ll be wanted on the fridge, too.

These snapshots are lovingly interspersed with such treasures as her copy of “When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple” and a twelve-year-old announcement promising, “MRS. McKENNA, you may have already won!” Magnets bearing advertising slogans are the cohesive elements of her refrigerator-door art. “Pizza Hut” delivers the connection between the grocery list and the picture of my dad in a two-year-old’s party hat. “The Channel 41 News Team” provides a smooth segue between the “Better Than Barry Manilow Muffin” recipe and a running tally of her bingo winnings since 1973.

The glass front of the china cabinet, its wooden lattice providing a natural framework, has accumulated dozens of pictures over the years. If she took down the photos, guests could admire her Waterford crystal, but she’s unpretentious.

“Oh, the kids have new school pictures?” she exclaims. “Let’s make room on the china cabinet!” No gilded frame could make a grandchild feel more special.

Finally, Mom creates elaborate montages by fastening pictures to the inside of closet doors. These are private collections, not to be shared outside the immediate family. Represented here are kids in their underwear, kids sitting on potty chairs, and anyone having a bad hair day. Every shot of someone with a full mouth is in one of these discreet groupings. Come to think of it, most pictures here are of my brother, John.

As essential as this photographic timeline is to our family’s history, the even greater importance of newspaper clippings cannot be overlooked. Clipping is where Mom’s true passion lies, where her artistic sensibilities blossom.

When my sister won a trip to Hawaii through a Kansas City Star contest, Mom carefully clipped articles for the sake of posterity. When my son became a National Merit semi-finalist, she scavenged 17 copies. I think she treasures the newsprint wedding pictures of her children as much as the professional portraits gracing the grand piano.

Once in a while, one of us actually does something mildly newsworthy, or is accidentally standing near someone who does, and a picture with accompanying caption makes the front page (even if it is just the local shopper). The unexpected thrill is almost more than she can take.

Her most treasured clippings have one unifying characteristic, one value-added element that sets them apart from the typical snippets found in kitchen junk drawers everywhere. Each has been bestowed with the highest honor my mom can imagine, one that earns it a certifiable space in the family annals.

Mom isn’t sentimental in a showy way. But what could be better than having her lead me to the bathroom mirror, point to the clipping of me with a kraut dog at the Price Chopper Grand Opening, and say, with admiration in her voice, “See, honey? You’re laminated!”

At Mom’s house, the pride of accomplishment is never more than a plastic coating away.

Posted by Katy on 07/14/11

Ten Years Later, Our Girls From Northern Ireland Remembered (#1645)

“Doug, can we honestly provide a ‘religiously neutral’ home environment?”

I sat filling out an application to become a host family to a pair of teenagers—one Catholic and one Protestant—from Northern Ireland. Until coming across this particular requirement, which the literature repeated several times for emphasis, I imagined we’d be perfect sponsors. My husband and I had grown up Catholic, but we’d raised our own family in a non-denominational Christian church.
We empathized with both sides in the Irish “troubles,” but did that make us religiously neutral? I wanted to make sure that, according to the guidelines provided by the Children’s Friendship Project for Northern Ireland, we fulfilled the letter of the law.

My husband’s answer caught me off guard. “Religious neutrality’s easy. We’ll just avoid favoring either kid’s denomination. It’s not like the organization’s asking us to be spiritually complacent…”

I winced. If we hadn’t exactly grown spiritually complacent, we were certainly comfortable. Our family’s spiritual comfort had been the precise reason I felt we could risk inviting strangers into our home. Our own kids (then 22-year-old Scott, 19-year-old Carrie, and 16-year-old Kevin) enjoyed growing relationships with the Lord, great friends, and positive outlooks. Even if we ended up hosting two Irish kids with serious attitudes, we would still emerge, I hoped, comfortable.

Was that such a bad thing?

I put the signed application in the envelope, sealed it, and prayed for the teens God would send us, all the while feeling more uncomfortable than I had in a long time.

Out of Ireland

“Are you out of yer cotton-pickin’ minds?”

Our entire family—each of us holding cheesy signs bearing the girls’ names—burst out laughing as Sheryl Heaney and Chloe Faulkner, their fresh-off-the-plane faces beaming, delivered their well-rehearsed line in unison. Never had we been victimized by such a horrible rendition of a Southern drawl!

Once again, I was caught off-guard. I’d expected all of us to go through a period of shyness, but awkwardness in the presence of these girls couldn’t achieve even a toehold. We were out of our cotton-pickin’ minds, all right, but in very good company.

In County Tyrone, the girls’ religions dictated where they shopped, the sports they played, the schools they attended, and even whether they entertained a belief in leprechauns. In day-to-day life, their paths weren’t likely to cross. We determined that while in our country, they’d spend every waking moment together—and every sleeping moment, too. If by some miracle they succeeded in becoming true friends, who knew how big an impact they might have on their communities back in Northern Ireland?

For now, though, Northern Ireland would have to wait. For the month of July, 2001, Sheryl and Chloe belonged to Kansas City, and the whole city belonged to them.

To get things rolling, we threw a huge Fourth of July party with friends, family, and fireworks. The organization warned us that fireworks might frighten the teens, but instead they were thrilled. Within days, the group’s thoughtful warnings fell by the wayside, as Sheryl and Chloe embraced regulated sunbathing, strange foods, and distinctly American entertainments.
More than anything, they desperately longed to see cowboys in ten-gallon hats and pointy-toed boots, riding vicious livestock in a good old-fashioned rodeo. Before the opening act started, though, the Irish girls and our kids headed off to buy soft drinks.

Had they lost interest already? “Hurry back. You don’t want to miss the bulls.”

I should have known their innocent smiles meant trouble. By the time we realized they’d been gone too long, they returned with sheepish grins—and Sheryl sporting a limp. If only someone had warned us about the mechanical bull!

Spreading the Word

As the weeks went on, Sheryl and Chloe accumulated so many shared experiences and touched so many lives—whether hammering with Habitat for Humanity or cruising in a police car with my brother-in-law cop—that the Kansas City Star decided to print a front-page story about them. The reporter and photographer shadowed the girls, along with our kids, for a couple of days, following them into shops on the Plaza, treating them to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, and even accompanying them to church.

Rather than attend their separate denominations on Sundays, the girls insisted on experiencing our church, Great Plains Community, together. They found Pastor Tom Blasco’s messages entertaining and meaningful, the music energetic and engaging, and the youth group welcoming.

In other words, even at church, they found common ground.

Once back on Northern Ireland’s soil, the girls remained close. They continued posting entries to the online journal Doug helped them set up, and looked forward to attending university in Belfast in the fall of 2002.

Imagine our shock when Sheryl once again made the newspapers—this time for her death. Just one year after we fell in love with her, she and her sister Tara lost their lives in a car accident on a treacherous piece of road in County Louth.

As horrible as we felt, we couldn’t deny God’s grace in the midst of tragedy. Sheryl, a Catholic, had engendered such respect among Catholics and Protestants alike in County Tyrone that a local Protestant parade—a recurring thorn in the side for Catholics—was canceled in her honor. Not only that, but her parents, Michael and Gwen Heaney, invited a Protestant minister to join the Catholic priest in presiding over the funeral of their daughters, setting an unheard-of precedent.

Against all odds, people from both sides of the conflict came together in genuine sorrow to mourn the community’s loss in a way rarely witnessed in Northern Ireland.

Sheryl and Chloe made a difference not only in their world, but in our world, too. In the end, Doug was right. Whether or not we were religiously neutral didn’t seem to matter much to our girls. But it would have been sad indeed if—given such a wonderful opportunity to touch a pair of lives—we’d been spiritually complacent.

In the end, two young women became unlikely friends, lured us out of our risk-free existence, and ultimately caused us to lean, once again, on the God of all comfort.

Posted by Katy on 07/13/11

The Thrift of Grief (#1644)

Of all the ways I’ve meandered my way through grief since Mom died four months ago, none has proven more surprising than the new joy I’ve found among the dusty treasures in thrift stores.

In a thrift store, you’ve got everything that good old-fashioned grief requires.

First of all, no matter which way you turn you encounter items—-whether pieces of apparel from the ‘80s, salt and pepper shakers, or bronzed baby shoes—-that remind you of the dearly departed. So you shed a tear and no one in the shop is any the wiser. They all imagine, if they notice you at all, that you’re rabidly allergic to mold and mildew, commodities in ample supply in most thrifts.

You let the tears roll down your face and don’t even bother to wipe them away, because to do so would leave huge streaks of dirt in their stead. Dirt acquired from touching stuff, the kind of stuff people donate to thrift stores, stuff that’s been in basements and attics and garages for years, maybe decades. Dirty stuff.

Second, once you get past the fact that it seems you just donated half this junk when you cleared out your mom’s possessions and now you’re facing the temptation to buy it all back for sentiment’s sake, you’ll take a closer look at your fellow customers. One young mom has your mother’s same high cheekbones and lightly freckled nose, her dishwater blonde hair pulled back with a nape-of-the-neck barrette. Her clear blue eyes are made even brighter by the (obviously) thrifted clip-on sapphire rhinestone earrings that are exact replicas of ones Mom wore in the ‘50s. Rhinestones in the light of day! With shorts and a halter top and espadrilles!

This long-legged gal could be your mom some fifty years ago, and you the little girl holding her hand, clutching in the crook of your other elbow a Bobsey Twins hardback.

Next, you spot the old woman, the one wearing scuff house slippers, whose feet are so swollen she’ll never find a pair of second-hand shoes—-even among the men’s selection—-to fit her. She smiles a waif-like smile, considering her overall girth, and gives you almost an apologetic look, as if she owes you an explanation for her disability, for the untold effort it takes her to shuffle to the side so you can pass. You smile back and greet her with a kind word because of course, she owes you nothing. And neither, neither does your own dear mother.

Finally, you make a few choices among the peasant blouses and the jeans with the brand-new tags still on them and then study the prices. Suddenly, it’s 1958, and your mom has taken you on a thrilling shopping trip to the Jay Kay Shop in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City. Mrs. Jay Kay is showing you her latest merchandise, an outfit that will become your favorite of the season. Your mother is not a bargain shopper. She pulls out her billfold and counts out the dollars to Mrs. Jay Kay. Counting is your strong suit, and you carefully consider the price your mom is paying, as she places into the shop owner’s hand the exact amount you’ll be paying today.

Grief can be the greatest extravagance you’ll ever know, and on many days, it is. On some days, you have no choice about the emotional toll you’ll pay merely to get from morning until evening, like the charge to cross a bridge in questionable repair.

But on other days, grief is thrifty. It doles itself out bit by bit, 25 cents’ worth at a time, and you end up with a greater number of treasures than you started with, and for a price you can actually afford.

Posted by Katy on 07/08/11

Job Security (#1643)

You started out a two-bit thief,
Sleeping through the sun-drenched days, lazy and unmotivated.
You only came out at night, back then, sneaking around
Gaining entrance through carelessly unlocked windows, helping Yourself
To the old woman’s unimportant memorabilia.

Then you stepped it up a notch,
Breaking and entering through bolted and chained doors,
You disabled her alarm system over and over again.
Stealing more valuable possessions every time you cased her joint,
Terrorizing her with anger, confusion, fear,
Taking everything, except the knowledge that you’d return.

Now she hears the final frightening footfall,
Your brazen steps storming through what’s left of her mind.
She can no longer name another living soul,
Only you.
Dementia, what a Master Thief you’ve at last become.

Posted by Katy on 05/18/11

The Party’s Over (#1642)

image“Look what I got for you, Mom,” I say, not knowing if she’ll like the flimsy plastic Happy Birthday banner, replete with pink and purple butterflies, that I hope to hang like a wallpaper border at ceiling level in her nursing home room.

It’s just a little girl’s decoration, after all. It came from a dollar store, along with the other trinkets and favors we’ve purchased to do her 80th birthday in style. I have no idea whether my sisters and brother and I will be able to give Mom a wonderful celebration or not. So much depends on her, and the truth is that for the past few years, she often doesn’t want to be the main character in her own story.

But this is her life, the only story she will have to tell. The only memories she gets to make with the people she loves. The only memories we have a chance, at this late date, to make with her. Happy or not, it’s time to party.

“I love the banner,” she says, and I am more than surprised. I climb up on her desk, then step even higher onto her dresser, and finally onto the headrest of her recliner, to thumbtack the Easter-egg colored banner across the top of her wall. She smiles with delight and I think maybe this day could actually turn out to be a lot of fun. But then…

“I hate this blouse the nurse put on me,” she says. “Who gave this to me? It’s too bright. These aren’t my colors.”

“I think you look great,” I say, “but not as gorgeous as you’ll look after we curl your hair and put your make-up on you.”

“What? I don’t care about any of that. I’m just in this for the guacamole and the Margarita….”

imageWe plan to scoot Mom in her wheelchair across the busy road from the nursing home to the Mexican restaurant. She knows that part, and has been obsessing about the guac and the drink for weeks. What she doesn’t know is that we’re going to make a bona fide parade out of it. We’re going to stop traffic if it’s the last thing we do, and she is going to be the center of attention, the starring attraction in her own life.

“No make-up, no Margarita,” I say, with enough of a threatening tone that she takes me seriously. I wheel her into the bathroom, where the mirror is set low enough for her to see. I hand over her face powder with an old-fashioned powder puff, and she pats it on like foundation, spreading it evenly with the puff. Then I pass the lipstick.

She applies it to her cheeks first. “Your sister Liz taught me this. You never have to worry about your rouge and lipstick matching if you just dot lipstick onto your face and rub it in.” Then she smoothes a bit onto her lips and she is done. In the meantime, I’ve heated up the curling iron and take some quick swipes through her still ungreyed hair, marveling that someone so sick and broken can look so young.

Finally, we’re ready to head out to the lobby, where my siblings and their spouses will be meeting us. I spin Mom around the corner and there they are, bearing the rest of the party paraphernalia, cameras, cake, and huge grins.

Bridget places a child’s dress-up pendant (which perfectly matches the shirt she didn’t think she liked) around Mom’s neck, a gaudy piece of bling on her finger, and an enormous, glitzy tiara on her head. Mom beams! Mary ties helium balloons to Mom’s wheelchair, John passes out the horns and gives Mom a big kiss, and Liz makes sure everyone has a bottle of bubbles.

“What on earth is happening?” Mom asks.

“A parade,” we say. “And it’s all about you.”

imageFor once, she does not object. She does not tell us it’s too much for her to be the heroine, for us to make over her and act goofy and pretend together that we’re a bunch of little kids at the best party ever. We open the door of the facility and are greeted by the bright sunshine of a fantastic April day.

Before we’re even out of the parking lot, and increasingly as we near the intersection, we start waving our bubble wands and blowing our horns and shouting, “Happy Birthday, Mom!” Dozens of cars slow down, pull over, open their windows, and call out their own birthday wishes for our mother. They honk their horns, give thumbs up, and blow kisses as they pass by, all to Mom’s delight.

Mom has the lunch she’s been waiting for. The guacamole, made at the table while she watches, is—she says—the best she’s ever had. The generous meal that follows is delicious, too, but she’ll be talking about the Margarita (yes, in a salt-rimmed glass) for weeks to come. By the time lunch ends and her presents are opened, she is very tired, but not so much that she doesn’t get a huge kick out of it when a young mom (followed by her husband and awe-struck children) stops to say, “We didn’t know we’d be in the presence of royalty!”

We her family wheel her back across the road, still blowing bubbles and tooting our horns, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than we had on the way there. Because yes, stories end, and this one was reaching its curtain call.

imageOne year ago, at this very hour, Mom’s 80th birthday party ended. Six weeks ago, at this very hour, my mother breathed her last. In that moment, as I hovered over her soul-forsaken body and stroked her arm, I heard my long-dead father’s voice singing, for old times’ sake, a 1950s-era Nat King Cole song. One he’d sung hundreds of times when he and Mom were young and I was younger still, one that always seemed so sad to me, because even a child knows what’s eventually coming.

Even a child knows that every song—like every story—has an ending. Sometimes it’s the final tragic line that tempts us to stop listening to the music. But we don’t stop listening, do we? Because the music, like the story, is what we’re left with when this life’s party is said and done. It’s who we are.

The party’s over
It’s time to call it a day.
They’ve burst your pretty balloon
And taken the moon away…

“Do you want me to take your Happy Birthday banner down now, Mom? Because your party’s technically over…” “No! I love it. I don’t want you to take it down, ever.”

The party’s over
The candles flicker and dim…
Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.

“The birthday flowers John sent you have seen better days. Shall I throw them away?” “Not yet. Just add some water, maybe set them in the window. Give them another chance.”

The party’s over
It’s time to call it a day.
They’ve burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.

“Do you want to change your clothes, into something more comfortable?” “Did I mention I love this shirt?” “What about your make-up? Are you done with it?”

Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.
Take off your makeup, the party’s over
It’s all over, my friend.

Posted by Katy on 04/18/11

Wind (#1641)

The wind is fierce.
Racing through my grief,
No gentle breeze, this—
A terror, a portent, an omen,
Pulling limb from limbs.
Branches shorn:
Rip root from ground.

The winds, they pierce.
Devastating leaf,
Flowers and grass kiss—
Bent, bowed, then broken,
Light through storm cloud dims.
The veil is torn:
Sweet Spirit’s sound.

Posted by Katy on 04/14/11

Ephemera, Part Two (#1640)

Fifteen or twenty years ago, Mom hand-wrote all of Dad’s poetry (but WHERE are the originals, hmmm?) and had them printed and bound into simple books at Kinko’s. I think she said it cost her $1 per copy, and there were only enough copies for her and each of us five kids.

I’ll never forget that Christmas, for I could not have received a gift I loved more. I may share more of my father’s poems as time goes by, but here is the letter to Hallmark Cards (a Kansas City-based company, of course) that Mom wrote when she and Dad were engaged, in 1950. Mom was only twenty years old at the time.

I love it because it so clearly demonstrates the confidence she felt in this scrappy immigrant’s talents, in his future, in his potential. By the way, for those wannabe-published readers who wonder how long it takes to hear back on your writing submissions? Judging by the date on this letter, um, 61 years and counting!

                                Highland View Farm
                                Grandview, Missouri
                                June 19, 1950

Hall Bros., Inc.
2505 Grand
Kansas City, Missouri


    In answer to your ad in Sunday’s paper for a verse writer, I would like to submit the enclosed poems written by a friend of mine. As you will see, these poems are written for special days such as birthdays, valentine day and Mother’s Day—-themes which are suitable for greeting cards.

    My friend is a young Scotsman 28 years of age. He has a good character and education and studied poetry for recreation while in the Scotch regiment of the British army. He is very interested in getting a connection for selling his poems and has a real talent for writing for any occasion, both humorous and sentimental. He can write a poem quickly after getting an inspiration for a certain occasion.

    I have great faith in his talent and would consider it a great favor if you would interview him concerning this. May I hear from you soon?

                              Yours truly,

                              (Miss) Mary Pattengale
                                      Highland View Farm
                                      Grandview, Missouri

Posted by Katy on 03/30/11

Ephemera (#1639)

When Mom needed to move into an assisted living facility nearly ten years ago, we closed down the family home where she had lived for forty years. Every effort was made at that time to get rid of the junk, give away the good stuff (because she had too much of it….), and take care of the important documents, photos, and other ephemera.

But we ran out of time. Mom’s hope chest, for instance, was not gone through. Instead, we packed up the contents in a Rubbermaid bin, moved it with her into her tiny apartment, and promised that one day soon, she and her five kids would sit down together and sort it out.

All these years later, and with Mom no longer a part of our Party of Six, we still haven’t gotten around to it. We plan to soon, though, perhaps when we siblings gather to celebrate Mom’s birthday in a couple of weeks from now. In the meantime, my brother has emptied the contents of a locked metal box and found a gem or two.

Here is the poem (or, I think I can more accurately say, drinking song….) my father and his immigrant shipmates wrote and performed aboard the M.S. John Ericsson, on their way from Scotland to New York City, in December of 1946. I’m typing it out exactly as it appears on this 65-year-old piece of paper.

Finding this puts the capstone on how it is to be a first-generation American, the daughter of a Scot. I hope you get a kick out it, too.

        “John Ericsson Sailing Song”
(Sung to the tune of Glory, Glory Halleluya)

The bunch of us are sailing on the Johnny Ericsson
(Repeat two times)
And there isn’t a drink on the ship

Lordy Lordy what a helluva helluva ship
(Repeat two times)
Is the Johnny Ericsson

We wanted first class cabins but they put us in a bunk
People seasick right and left and lordy how it stunk
We’d rather be ashore and feeling very very drunk
Than sailing on the Johnny Ericsson


They had a dancing party and we thought it would be fun
But the ship was tossing madly and the phono wouldn’t run
The needle wasn’t sharp enough, the records they were bum
On the Johnny Ericsson


They organized the races and we all began to bet
The odds were pretty awful, and now we’re all in debt
The horses did the running, and the steward he did sweat
On the Johnny Ericsson


We sit around all evening and we try to pass the time
The U.S. gives us coke, but what we really want is wine
When they bring out the brandy then we’ll all be feeling fine
On the Johnny Ericsson


But in spite of all our grumbling we are here to sing tonight
And in the Christmas spirit it isn’t right to fight
So we’ll try to love the U.S. Lines with all our heart and might
On the Johnny Ericsson

LAST CHORUS (slowly with much feeling)
Glory, Glory what a lovely lovely ship
(Repeat two times)
Is the Johnny Ericsson

We’d like to thank the Captain and the Officers and Crew
They are good sports and what is more we know they’ll bring us to
America where most of us will start our lives anew
Cause we’re sailing on the Johnny Ericsson


Words by the John Ericsson passengers Glee Club. Song first introduced at M.S. “John Ericsson” Christmas party at Sea Dec 25, 1946

Posted by Katy on 03/29/11

And You Think To Yourself (#1638)

There are things you can block out and things you can’t.

There are times when God allows you, at least for a season, the grace of forgetfulness, the mercy of somnolence, the peace of oblivion—and times when He withholds these gifts. You may have no choice in this matter.

Sometimes, you don’t notice the nursing home smells (if you walk quickly by the room in question), the sounds of anguish (unless they are originating in the throat of your own mother), and the cries for help—-unless they arise from your very soul.

Sometimes, you overlook the way caregivers can manage (through some great feat of either ignorance or over-training in the fine art of selective seeing) to state over and over again, when you ask about your loved one’s obvious-to-you declining status: “No change.”

But then there are days—-those days when the long walk through the valley of the shadow of death seems even darker and deeper than before—-when you no longer have the luxury of numbness. Your senses are hyper-alert, if only because no one else’s are.

It may be on one of these days, oddly, that you hear the music. The pianist in the facility’s front lobby, whom you’ve managed to ignore for months on his Saturday visits because your own mother had no interest in such things, attracts you now that your mother-in-law has moved into the same building. You sit in a comfortable chair, just for a moment and without even meaning to, and soak up the strains of heaven snaking their insidious way through the hollowed-out valley of your spirit.

The gentleman plays “You Are So Beautiful To Me.” And you weep, remembering how your beautiful husband—-the man you rarely see because your mothers have become the focus of your lives—-played this song and sang it at a friend’s wedding decades ago, when you were young and the shadow had not yet fallen.

From that sweet song, the piano man transitions into crooning “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” Just two short, eternal weeks ago, at your mother’s funeral, the video of her last big birthday party shone on the screen, this song the background music for the story of her life.

The old people gathered around today’s piano roll their wheelchairs forward and backward with the music and hum along, not recalling the words with anything approaching accuracy, but smiling with a joy at which you can only marvel.

And you can’t help but applaud, because you’re there and alive and there is music and it touches your soul like only a grace gift can.

You are seeing people now you never saw in the fourteen months your mother lived here. You are witnessing some vibrant old people, who still try their best to pick up on lyrics and rock themselves into a soothed lull while the music plays on, hearts steadfastly refusing to stop their arhythmic beating.

The piano player educates his few interested listeners by telling them the little story behind the writing of “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.” He cannot sing well but it doesn’t matter, as they cannot hear well. But it’s a kind of music appreciation class and they pay rapt attention.

There is a community here, one your mother refused to join, and one your mother-in-law will not be able to appreciate now that her end, too, seems near.

You remember the sampler you cross-stitched for your mother-in-law the year you were married. “To Love And Be Loved Is The Greatest Joy On Earth.” How can it be that she’s now forgotten her own husband, dead these thirty-four years? And imagines that your husband—-her only son—-is “her guy”? The years have disappeared into a murky mist and cognition has grown wings, but she is still loved. And she still loves. It is indeed a many splendored thing.

“Isn’t there something else they could do for me to make me better?” she asks, during her only salient moment of the day. How do you answer that question, you who just watched your own mother die and could not stop or even slow the end of her unraveling life?

“They’re giving you good medicine,” you say, but you have lost your faith in medicine. You hope she doesn’t see the doubt that must be clouding your eyes.

Finally comes Danny Boy on the ivories, bringing with it the remembrance of every Irish wake you’ve ever attended, and by this time and at your age, they are legion.

“And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.”
You’ll leave here soon, stop by the cemetery where your mother now lies with your father and brother, and kneel upon the freshly turned earth. You’ll say an Ave there, and cross yourself with the holy water of your own falling tears. You’ll sing a verse of Danny Boy before turning away.

And then, in spite of everything you know about raw death and ragged-edged life, you’ll think to yourself, what a wonderful world.

Posted by Katy on 03/28/11

And Wisdom To Know The Difference (#1637)

I think it’s safe to say that since February 24, when Doug and I flew out of Kansas City to see our kids and grandkids, I’ve had toothbrush issues.

It was supposed to be a six-day trip—-very simple, very easy. Doug’s toothbrush is green and mine is purple. Knowing how things can get twisted and mixed in hotel rooms and even in the guest bathrooms of your own children, I tried to tell myself (and oh, how sexist this is of me!) that purple is a slightly more feminine color than green and so yes, my toothbrush was definitely the purple one.

God grand me the serenity….

But then I started, in the middle of vacation and my mother’s overlapping hospitalization and even while mind-wandering during her funeral (dreaming fondly of Spring and St. Patrick’s Day) lapsing into wondering if perhaps my toothbrush wasn’t the green one, after all. I am the more Irish of the two of us, and wouldn’t it make perfect sense for me to have risen up in the Toothbrush Wars for once and declared myself the possessor of the brush most representative of my proud ancestry?

I also noted that while Doug has never worn purple, it was darned possible that for his initial foray into the world of lilac and lavender and periwinkle, he actually picked the violet toothbrush of his own volition.

The last thing I remember, as far as my teeth go, is that yesterday morning I got up from pretending to sleep on a horrible couch in my mother-in-law’s hospital room (she entered the hospital with pneumonia on Monday after we buried my mother on Saturday….) and slouched down the hall to a public bathroom for a spit bath. I used the soap that is supposed to squirt out automatically when you hold your hand under the dispenser. and the paper towel that is supposed to emerge automatically when you wave your hand in front of the light, to automatically scrub the sticking points.

Then I pulled a comb through my scary hair, which did look good at Mom’s funeral but has not recovered its senses since, and applied deoderant with the name Speed Stick slapped on the front. It did occur to me that this is Doug’s deoderant, and that he was sleeping down the hall even then smelling sweetly of some concoction with the word “Soft” in it. Did I care? I did not.

To accept the things I cannot change…

What I cared about was my toothbrush. All I asked was to locate it in my go-bag, the bag I’ve been using for many weeks now to cart around the remaining scrappy vestiges of my life, and that when I located it, it would be dry.

Sure enough, I pulled the purple toothbrush from my bag, with the tube of paste I actually remembered subbing out for the one I emptied at last week’s hospital, and did my thing. Then I wrapped the wet toothbrush in another length of paper towel acquired from a final successful waving of my hand in front of the light and placed it back in my bag, ready for whatever life threw at my teeth next.

This morning, preparing to leave for my mother-in-law’s hospital to interview a hospice organization on her behalf, I knew it was time to locate my purple toothbrush once again. And I knew I had not removed it from my bag last night. But as I passed through the bathroom on my way to the bag, my glance fell on our ceramic toothbrush holder, with its two slots for only two toothbrushes.

Staring back at me was Doug’s green toothbrush, in its correct slot, and in my spot a purple toothbrush that looked like it had been through hell and back. I reached out and touched it and bristled. It was WET!

“Did you use my toothbrush?” I asked, in a rare conversation that didn’t include the words “power-of-attorney,” “funeral arrangements,” or “end-stage dementia.”

He gave me an innocent look, the type of look a man gives when he’s just had the luxury of using a toothbrush that started out dry. “I couldn’t remember if mine was purple or green.”

“Yours is green,” I said, with more confidence than I felt, since St. Patrick’s Day is tomorrow and my Irish is definitely up. “And it’s sitting right there in its correct slot, dry.”

“Yeah, about that,” he said. “I found my green one in your bag after I used the purple one.”

My blood boiled right about then. You should know, for future reference, that Toothbrush Angst is one of the least often mentioned but most often experienced Stages of Grief. When you are suffering a great loss, you want something—-anything, really—-you can call your own. Something you can fall back on, depend upon, rely on. For me, the comfort of my own toothbrush can get me through almost anything, and that small comfort was being torn from me with a force I could not comprehend.

“But that purple one doesn’t even look like my brush. The wet one you just used looks squashed and ancient and all used up, like I feel.”

“It’s brand new,” he said. “I just found it in the linen closet, still in its wrapper. It’s only been used once.”

OK, this I can at least wrap my brain around. I buy tons of cheapie toothbrushes because often, when my kids spend the night, they claim to have forgotten theirs. I hand them one of these disposables that I pick up for 20 cents and expect them to do just that when they’re done—-dispose of it.

“But where’s MY purple toothbrush?” I ask. And then it hits me that I must have left it, wrapped in its white paper-towel shroud, in yesterday’s public bathroom. Along with the Speed Stick man’s deoderent.

Courage to change the things I can…

Today is a new day, with new mercies and—-of all things—-a brand new toothbrush. This time, for safety’s sake, I’ve chosen a pink one. Purple is just too risky, too potentially uni-sexy, and I’ve got to control something in my life. At this point, anything would be fine.

Besides, Doug wouldn’t be caught dead in pink, not even a stripe’s worth in a necktie. Sure, he smells like a girl, but If it was the last toothbrush on earth, I don’t think he’d ever use my pink one.

I don’t ask for too much these days, but when it comes to toothbrushes, I still beg God, with every iota of serenity within me, for the wisdom to know the difference.

Posted by Katy on 03/16/11

Seeing Things (#1636)

imageThis morning’s snow is heavy, the weight of it breaking and bending strong limbs in a resigned bow to Mother Earth. The flakes are wet with too much moisture as they fall upon a narrow branch, overshadowing its color and texture until it appears a mere fragment of its vibrant self.

I gasp for breath as my mother’s airway constricts again before my eyes, the fragile passage filling with the ravages of suffocation, the cold tubing inserted into her throat now a snow-curved twig. She gags in her coma, and flinches, until I finally have no choice but to beg for the blizzard of medical intervention to forever stop.

Days later, the next snowfall is unfurled upon the fallow soil of our souls. In the church, my siblings and I spread a snowy blanket upon the frigid ground of her closed casket, and I place a crucifix atop the whitened surface. Jesus in His agony seems to sink through snow, as we are all buried with Him, rebaptized with Him into His death.

More snows may come, I know. But they will melt faster now, and I will not hold my breath for nearly as long in the days ahead. Even now, as I gaze out my window on the wonders beyond, snow slides from a languishing limb.

With something like a sigh of relief, it recovers from its near collapse and reaches once more for the grey, leaden sky, with its unspoken promise of Spring.

Posted by Katy on 03/14/11

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