Pets on Parade

THIS BLOG HAS THREE PARTS. TOGETHER, THEY WILL TAKE ABOUT 20 MINUTES TO READ.

part iii.

It was 2013 when King Tut died. As you can imagine, by then I had a collection of pet ashes. We decided to have a Pet Funeral when the kids were with us for Thanksgiving.

I thought it would be nice to gather under the big mesquite tree under the dining room window and bury the ashes of Libby, Allie, and Tut there, and recognize Sunny, too, even though we had already buried her in the herb garden. Since Gene and I had taken care of stepdaughter Katie’s bunny, Miss Piggy, while Katie was a visiting nurse in California, we included Miss Piggy in the ceremony.

Katie and Miss Piggy

David suggested hanging pictures of all the pets from the tree branches, so I bought little black frames and ribbon, and the day after Thanksgiving we got everything ready.

My father, an Episcopal priest, had written a prayer for a friend’s dog in 1939, when Papá was in his 20s.

A Prayer for Taffy

O Lord, we pray thee to receive into thy

kind hands this, thy servant, a dog.  Look upon

him with the love thou showest all thy creatures;

and, as thou art the final judge of evil and

the eternal reward of good, take this clear heart,

faultless in our eyes, under thine own protection,

making such provision as thou hast ordained for

him in thy goodness.  For, as the temptation

toward evil and the opportunity for good were

both less freely offered to him than to us, thou

knowest, Lord, what little evil was in him and

what great good.  Finally, we are grateful that,

having lent him to our imperfect affection, thou

takest him back again to thee.  Amen.

A few days before the service, I asked Aidan, our oldest grandson, who was nine, if he would read the prayer for Tut. He said, “Well, Nonnie, Tut and I never really hit if off. But I’ll read the prayer for Allie!” Then I went to daughter Annie and asked her if she would like to read the prayer for Tut. She said, “Tut and I were never that close, Mom. Why don’t you ask Mamá?” So much for Tut being the favored pet.

The big kids hung the pictures, daughter-in-law Kim helped me bring out my clay garden animals and some flowering bougainvillea. We gathered around the tree, read the prayer for each pet, and shared memories of them. David dug the holes around the tree, and Gene poured the ashes into the tiny graves and covered them with dirt. Grandsons Caleb and Asher, ages six and four, collected rocks and decorated the little mounds. It was a sweet day.

And as I think about the animals that have been a part of my life, I am thankful for each one of them.

Whether it’s trust or responsibility or the importance of consistency and predictability or simple affection or biology, our pets are some of our best teachers. They are role models for unconditional love.  

But it hurts deeply when we lose them. And sometimes we wonder if we want to take that leap again because we know what’s going to happen: we’re going to lose our greeting committee, our biggest fans, our quiet companions, our exercise buddies, those who love us no matter what.

And we usually take the leap, figuring the many gifts they bring us far outweigh the pain we know will come when it’s time for them to leave.

Pets on Parade

this blog has three parts. together, they will take about 20 minutes to read.

Part II.

So, on to the pets our children had. We started with guinea pigs, then bunnies and hamsters and hermit crabs and turtles, and finally dogs. (Annie was allergic to cat hair, so we skipped cats.)

In the late-70s, Annie and Phoebe were small, and we had guinea pigs; they were a cute diversion. After we moved, Phoebe got a big, gray lop eared rabbit we named Cottontail. About that time, we also got our first dog, Chester, a Lhasa Apso mix. Annie adored Chester. He was just her size, with a cute little body and a face to match. Although he was small, Chester wasn’t a barker; he was a lover. And Cottontail was a sweetheart. Cottontail and Chester were great buddies, and used to chase each other around the back yard, going one direction and then the other, taking turns doing the chasing.

We moved to North Central Phoenix, and one day, Cottontail got out of the yard and was nowhere to be found. I heard the sheepdog next door barking loudly, and when I looked through the fence, I and saw that he had Cottontail up against the wall. The poor bunny had dug under the fence and gotten into the neighbor’s yard, gotten himself cornered and, not knowing what to do, sat in fear, shaking all over. I ran next door and got him, rounded up the kids, and we sat with him in a circle in the grass. I could feel his little heart pounding. I held him in my arms while the kids took turns petting him and after a few minutes, he stopped breathing. There were a lot of tears that day. I imagine Chester was sad, too

Phoebe had several Hermit crabs, which all died attempting to move to a larger shell. We had a red-eared slider turtle, who also died. That was probably my fault, as I didn’t really know what to do with him.

Eventually, we got a dear little Holland Lop bunny for Phoebe. His name was Charlie, and he was a character. Phoebe trained him to use the litter box in his cage, and he lived in her room, keeping her company and humping her stuffed rabbits. (Yes, really!) David loved taking him on a leash for walks in the neighborhood. Charlie lived to be about 10, when he succumbed to an infection.

We had two hamsters, Apply Dappley and Ralph. Ralph was given to us by my friend Nancy, whose boys had lost interest in him. He was a sweet guy, but like so many hamsters, did not want to stay in his cage. One day he escaped. Two days went by, and I woke up late one night and walked out to the kitchen. I could hear scratching under the oven. I pulled out a drawer and saw two beady eyes looking at me from behind the partition. He couldn’t climb out.

I went to my dresser and found a bandana. I twisted it, dropped it down to Ralph, and literally prayed to God to help him find his way up the bandana and out on the drawer guide. He slowly crawled up and barely onto the guide when he fell back down. I tried again, and this time, he made it. I can still see him carefully walking out on the guide and into my hands. I put him in his cage, locked it up tight, and watched him drink an entire bottle of water. I went back to bed relieved and happy.

Two days later, Ralph was gone! And we never heard from him again.  

When David was about 11, we got a black lab puppy, and named her Libby. She became David’s dog, and they were inseparable. Libby, like so many Labradors, was a destructive puppy. She ate through an entire Haitian cotton sectional while we were gone one day. I crate-trained her after that, and she was a changed girl.

When she got older, she slept with David. Even though she was a Labrador, the only way to get her to swim was for David to dive into the deep end of the pool and pretend to drown. He would call to her, and she would run to the pool, hesitate for a moment, jump in, and swim to him.

Libby and Chester were great pals, dashing out of the house if we didn’t pay attention and running around our cul-de-sac peeing on every bush they could find, having a great adventure. As Chester got older, he began to get grouchy, and I worried he might bite one of the children who liked to come over and play.

One day, the two dogs ran out the door, but only Libby returned. David and his dad went to find Chester, and they did, but he had been hit by a car and had died. They wrapped him in a towel and brought him home. When we buried Chester, he took a piece of our hearts with him. But he died having a great adventure.

About that time, David, knowing how much I loved birds, gave me a lutino cockatiel. It was too young to sex, so I named it Sunny. Sunny later produced two little eggs. So, then we knew. The other tip-off was that Sunny never spoke, which is typical of female cockatiels. She loved people, though, and sitting on my shoulder.

In the mid-90s, we decided to get another dog. After much research, I decided on a long-haired Dachshund. Shortly after I began looking for my dream dog, a friend at work brought in a homeless Golden Retriever mix puppy she and her husband had found tied to a tree downtown. All my research went out the window when I saw Allie, and I took her home. She was my dog and my faithful companion through my divorce in 1996 and living alone until I remarried in 2001. She helped me feel safe at night and took me for three walks a day.

And I mean it when I say that she took me for walks, stopping whenever she wanted to and pulling me this way and that. I found a trainer to help me, a Marine veteran. He was a no-nonsense guy, and he made it clear from the get-go that I was the one he was training, not Allie. And it worked. With the help of a choke collar, she became a dream dog, and our walks were fun!

One weekend when Phoebe was home, she, David, and I went to the Humane Society to pick out a cat. I had my heart set on a tuxedo, but an all-black kitty with gold eyes, the most relaxed kitty of any we met in the Get Acquainted Room, won us over. I named him King Tut, and he was my baby.

Libby lived with David and his dad after our divorce. She was the sweetest dog you could imagine, but as she got old, arthritis set in, and she wasn’t able to get up anymore. When it was time to say good-bye, I met David’s dad at the vet, and we patted her as she slowly let go and died. David was 17 and heartbroken. I gave him a big stuffed black lab for Christmas, and I think it helped a little, but nothing could take her place.  

I met Gene in 1997. We were married in 2001 and moved to Tucson in 2002 with a dog, a cat, and a bird. I had married a man who lived like a monk, with little furniture and no pets, and he had married an animal lover.

Sunny had trouble adjusting to our Tucson house. I tried putting familiar artwork near her cage, setting her cage near the deck so she could see out, changing her diet… But she began screeching incessantly. I took her to a bird specialist, who said it could be that being by the window seeing the hawks and other birds scared her. Or perhaps she missed her old surroundings. Or maybe she was needing more attention. I did my best by her, and she seemed to calm down once we moved her away from the window. She loved being held and talked to and lived to be 19.

Although he had sworn never to have another dog, Gene was incredibly good to Allie. She got Valley Fever in Tucson, and it weakened her terribly. Our house was a tri-level, with no doggie door (we didn’t want Tut to go out and be eaten by a bobcat or hawk or snake or great horned owl, all of which we had in abundance on our acre of desert). The only way for Allie to do her business was to walk down two flights of stairs to the ground level and wait for one of us to let her out and back in. She weighed 62 pounds, and when she got too weak to walk downstairs, Gene carried her down and back up, so she could be with us.

While I was visiting my mother in Seattle, Allie was bitten by a snake, and poor Gene had to be the one to put her down. He may not have wanted a dog, but he got attached to Allie.

Tut was the last of my pets to go. He and Allie had been great pals, sitting together at the screen door watching the birds, sleeping together, and simply being companions. I’m sure he missed his doggie friend. When he got to be 16, his kidneys began to fail. Gene, who adored Tut, set up a MASH unit in the laundry room for his IV’s. We gave them to him several times a week, and they did wonders initially. But after a few weeks, he finally began to fight the treatments, and Dr. Kaufman, our vet, said, “Sometimes they’ve just had enough,” and we let him go. He was 17 and my sweet little man.

 

Next Up: Part III.

Pets on Parade

This blog has three parts. Together, they will take about 20 minutes to read.

Part I.

I’m thinking today about the pets that have paraded through my life.

Yesterday we lost our beloved granddog, Bear, a big, sweet golden retriever who was only nine. Bear was struggling with lung cancer and could hardly breathe. He left a family of five in a state of heartbreak, but grateful nonetheless to have had this sweet boy in their lives.

We had a host of large dogs when I was growing up. My father wanted them, loved them, but neglected to train and discipline them. (My mother put up with a great deal, and never complained in my presence.) There was a standard black French Poodle, Antoine “Tony,” who jumped up on everyone; a Weimaraner, Gyp (because he was the color of gypsum), who could jump over the fence and did, regularly; a Dalmatian, Buttons, who liked to show up at our next door neighbors’ house before they even got up, and peel the caps off their milk bottles; and a French Briard, Cyrano, who wreaked havoc on our home, but was utterly loveable.

We had several cats. When I was eight, we moved from W. Roma to N. 16th Avenue. When the movers finished packing the van and it was time to get in the car to drive to our new house, we could not find Tigger. We looked everywhere and left in tears, doubting that we’d ever see him again. We arrived at the new house, and as the movers unrolled a mattress, there was Tigger, fast asleep!

We moved again when I was nine. Sirikit was a seal point Siamese, who was smart, typically talkative, and loved to jump up and grab my arms with her claws, leaving me with red scratches which I ignored in favor of the game. Sirikit produced a beautiful litter of kitties. I’ll never forget lying on my stomach, head in the closet, watching them being born. It was like a magic show!

When I was 12, my father gave me a beautiful Maltese Persian he had found at the Humane Society. We named her Mrs. Wiggs, even though she was at least five and must have had a name. Mrs. Wiggs turned out to be one of those cats who can’t decide where she wants to be at night; in other words, she was neurotic. And it was clear that her place of choice was not my bed. She went in and out the window with my help, waking me several times a night. I was okay with that because I loved this kitty. But while I was visiting my great aunt for two weeks in South Pasadena, Mrs. Wiggs transferred her night-time badgering to my parents. And when I returned from my trip, Mrs. Wiggs was gone.

At some point, my dad bought a beautiful gray and white cockatiel and named him Mr. Bird. He was adorable, and although he didn’t talk much, he could say Hello and sing the first few bars of “Yankee Doodle.”

Mr. Bird loved my sister Alice’s hair, which was thick and curly, and he liked to ride around the house on her head. One day, Alice forgot he was there and walked outside. Away flew Mr. Bird, never to be seen again. Until one day, about 10 years later, I found myself in the neighbors’ kitchen, where I spotted a cockatiel in a cage. I asked about the bird, and Mrs. Johnson said, “Yes, it’s quite a story. One day we were sitting outside, and he landed in the pool! We picked him up and got him a cage, and he’s been with us ever since.” Lucky Mr. Bird.

My father had a host of aquariums lining one wall of his study. I loved the clown loach, the plecostomus, the corydora catfish, the red tail shark, and the Bala shark. I became his assistant fish-keeper.

We had seahorses for a while, which are very delicate fish, and Papá grew brine shrimp in a special tank for them, hoping to see the mating ritual, with male and female holding tails and promenading around the tank, followed by the laying of her eggs in the male’s pouch (at which point he seals it until the babies are ready to come out). I don’t remember that ever happening. But it was fun hoping.

When I was about 11, Papá was given a baby alligator he named Albert. Each night he would make a little ground beef meat ball for Albert, roll it in fine breadcrumbs, and put it on the rock in Albert’s aquarium. Albert would climb up and grab the thing, devouring it happily. Albert finally got too big to keep, and Papa donated him to the Phoenix Zoo.

We also had bettas (Siamese fighting fish), and it was fascinating to watch them breed. We watched the male build a bubble nest at the top of the breeding tank. Then Papá removed the glass separating the pair, and the male wrapped himself around the female until her eggs came floating out. He scooped them up in his mouth and put them in the nest. The female was then put in a different tank, while the male watched the nest. As the babies hatched, they fell from the nest and unfolded like tiny leaves. The male put them back until they could swim. And then dad had to go back to his own home.

The point of all this is to say that pets teach us so much!

Up Next: Part II

Time for a Break?

CHANGES OF SCENE ARE A GOOD THING, and SO ARE FRIENDS

Gene and I just celebrated our 19th anniversary. Ironically, after 19 weeks of social distancing, I think we’re ready to socially distance from each other. (Don’t worry; that’s a joke.)

Like most of us, in all these months, we’ve seen very few of our friends “live and in person.” And we miss them! The last time we entertained was on May 6th. Our neighbors Lynne and Bob came over at 7:30 a.m. for coffee and Bloody Marys on the patio. (We needed to be outside to socially-distance, and since we live in Phoenix, early morning seemed like the best time.)

In fact, since the disappearance of life as we know it, our social life has been almost non-existent. We’ve been to our friend Gail’s house for the best take-out dinner ever, seated at opposite ends of her dining table, and we joined Tempe friends Pat and Steve here in San Diego for seafood and a long walk on the beach. That’s it.

We’ve been able to rendezvous with family in various parts of northern Arizona, and in their yards and ours. Those visits have been our saving grace. But still, we miss our friends.

Since March, we’ve camped in Page Springs, Cottonwood, Camp Verde, Payson, Show Low, and Greer.

Added to the social isolation has been the pressure of being in our trailer for weeks at a time. We feel lucky to have our little house on wheels because it has allowed us a change of scene. But we’re talking 120 square feet! Have you ever tried to remove roasted vegetables from an oven in a space about three feet wide? Or taken a shower in a bathroom where getting undressed requires the dexterity of a contortionist?

This month, thank God, we’ve been in a little bungalow in San Diego with our kitties. It feels spacious, compared to the trailer. But being in another town for a month, even one with the most heavenly weather possible, poses problems, too.

I have plenty to do: reading, writing, talking on the phone with my kids and sisters, emailing and texting friends, cleaning, laundry, Facebook, Words with Friends. We cook, go for walks, fish, picnic at the beach, talk, and talk some more. Gene reads, goes to the driving range and fishes alone occasionally. But there are no projects here, no “Honey Do’s.” And this is “Mr. Fix-it.” The poor guy is bored.

So, we’re starting to drive each other nuts. He’s noticing every annoying habit I have, and I’m noticing that he has a few himself. The differences between us are more obvious because we’re together so much.

It turns out I have gotten particular. About a lot of things.  I used to think when Gene asked me to go with him to the store, he just wanted help. It turns out he wants me there to be sure he doesn’t bring home the wrong items, e.g., salted butter instead of unsalted, plain olive oil instead of Extra Virgin First Cold Pressed, thin pork chops instead of thick ones, red delicious apples instead of honey crisp. Not only are my grocery lists missing detail; they’re impossible to read! So now I know.

I can fix the grocery list. But a tougher challenge is the way we make decisions. Have you ever taken the color test for personality traits? Well, I’m a blue; Gene’s a green. I’m quick and spontaneous, the “let’s get it done” type. Gene is slow and deliberate, the “let’s get it done right” type, He wants to gather every bit of information he can find before making a decision, and I’m talking small (to me) decisions like which beach today or which wine with dinner. I welcome his style if, to me, it’s a decision worthy of his level of scrutiny.  But sometimes, I just need to move in a direction, any direction, even the wrong direction. In my head I’m shouting, PLEASE, LET’S JUST MOVE!

So, we’re trying to find things to do alone, like more reading and fishing. And it’s no wonder he wants to go fishing at Blacks Beach, where clothing is optional. He can fish and watch pretty girls go by “optionally” clothed. Time is not of the essence. (The stickler is that it’s 1,000 steps from the top of the trail down to the beach, a truly death-defying walk for a guy in his 70s, even one in good shape. And he’s got to carry a rod, a tackle box, towel, phone, snacks, water, a colander to catch sand crabs, and an empty water bottle to keep them in. I’m not concerned that this will become a habit.)

And while he’s fishing, I’ll think about all the reasons I’m glad we’re married, and welcome him home with a big kiss.

Telling Secrets

DID YOU EVER NOTICE WHEN YOU SHARE A SECRET, OTHERS OPEN UP TO YOU?

Last year I reconnected through Facebook with a woman I haven’t seen in over 50 years. We recently found ourselves in the same town on vacation and got together for an outside lunch, where we could be socially distant. Lunch turned into a five-hour catch-up session.

She asked me all kinds of questions, based on my Facebook posts and blogs, and I tried to be truthful and open.

Then I asked her to take me through her life. It was riveting. Listening to her felt like being on a runaway roller coaster, and I thought I might throw up at one point. As she ended her story, I was teary, imagining how hard it must have been to endure her many disappointments. She said, “You know, I’ve shared all this with only two other people because you’re the only ones who’ve asked me.” And I now feel so close to this woman, even though we’re very different.

That was an aha moment for me. It helped me realize that a lot of people want to share their secrets, but no one asks them to. We don’t bother to pick up the phone or make a date to talk alone with people who are not comfortable sharing their secrets in a group setting. And why is it important to share secrets and listen to secrets? Because it helps us understand and develop compassion for others. And with that compassion comes an increased ability to love others, people of all kinds.

Facebook is a place where we highlight the fun times. It’s not necessarily that we’re hiding who we really are; perhaps we just don’t want to be depressing. Or maybe we’re very private. I have noticed, though, when people do share bad or disappointing news on Facebook, there is usually an outpouring of love and support.

But not everyone wants to take that chance, to be vulnerable. Sometimes we need to give them that chance.

I’ve found that sharing secrets is a bonding agent. I’m in a book club that was formed over 20 years ago. Every once in a while someone in the group shares a secret. The empathy in the room is palpable! And the group is tighter than ever.

My friend Catherine Penn Williams, a Jungian therapist, has introduced me to some marvelous people through quotes on her Facebook pages. One of these people is Frederick Buechner. In his 1991 memoir, Telling Secrets, Buechner, who is now 94 years old, says, What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own…”

I want to be the real thing. I don’t want to lose track of who I “truly and fully’ am. And if that means sharing secrets and making myself vulnerable, I’ll take the risk.

Mother Nature — Who Is She, Really?

I HAVE SPENT A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT MOTHER NATURE

I have spent a lot of time thinking about Mother Nature, especially lately, and wondering about the relationship between God and Nature. I’ve never blamed God for bad things, even when I had breast cancer. In fact, when I attended a support group and found out it was called Why Me? I thought, “Why not me?”

This COVID-19 pandemic gives one pause and makes me want to understand how the world works when one believes in a caring God.

Coronavirus Resource Center - Harvard Health
coronavirus

In his May 19th Opinion piece in The New York Times, Tom Friedman describes Mother Nature as “just chemistry, biology and physics… Mother Nature is not only all powerful, she’s also unfeeling. Unlike that merciful God that most humans worship, Mother Nature doesn’t keep score. She can inflict her virus on your grandmother on Monday and blow down your house with a tornado on Wednesday and come back on Friday and flood your basement. She can hit you in the spring, give you a warm hug in summer and hammer you in the fall.“As such, telling her that you’re fed up with being locked down — that it’s enough already! — doesn’t actually register with her.”

I recently listened to a sermon by an Episcopal priest in which the priest, in discussing the Trinity, compared God the Father to Mother Nature. Well, I can’t buy that. No, I believe in a God who created us and Mother Nature. I believe God cares, that telling God you’re fed up does register, and that helps me accept the current situation and turn to God for solace, even as the world is running amok.

C.S. Lewis, the British writer and lay theologian, in his 1948 essay entitled “On Living in an Atomic Age,” put it this way: “What, then, is Nature, and how do we come to be imprisoned in a system so alien to us? Oddly enough, the question becomes much less sinister the moment one realizes that Nature is not all. Mistaken for our mother, she is terrifying and even abominable. But if she is only our sister – if she and we have a common Creator – if she is our sparring partner – then the situation is quite tolerable.”

Of course, Lewis is talking hypothetically about the atomic bomb; we are living with a virus that is actually killing people all over the world by the thousands. So the situation is not “quite tolerable” for the many who are suffering and those who love them.

But still, if we listen to Lewis’s words and substitute COVID-19 for the atomic bomb, our situation can be seen in a new light: “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb (COVID-19) was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb (COVID-19), let that bomb (coronavirus) when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children… not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs (viruses). They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

C.S. Lewis on Pornography and Masturbation
C.S. Lewis

I am convinced that fear lowers your resistance. I’m also convinced that thinking and talking about bad things gives them power and contributes to that fear. I’m taking COVID-19 seriously. I’m wearing a face mask when it’s appropriate and I’m practicing social distancing. But I’m not going to let it dominate my mind. I’m going to continue to do “sensible and human things.”

And I hope and pray that you will, too.

A Different Kind of Dad

A tribute to my FATHER, a complex man

My father, Paul DeWitt Urbano, was born in 1917 in New York City to an Italian Episcopal priest and an upstate New York lady of Dutch heritage. He grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, went to Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and graduated from Williams College.

Upon graduation, much to my grandmother’s dismay, he got his hunting and trapping license in Juneau, Alaska, worked as a long-shoreman at the Yukon docks for $.99 an hour, went to Fairbanks, and then on to Lake Minchumina to trap for the winter.

The weather was treacherous, and he and his partner nearly died.  It was there, near Lake Minchumina, that my father discovered Jesus Christ and made Him a promise. He returned east to the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

My father, Paul Urbano, in 1941

He didn’t finish at that time because the day after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was trained for the Ski Troopers in Camp Hail, Colorado, in the 10th Mountain Division, 87th Regiment, and sent to the Aleutian Islands. He later became a Medic and served in Italy. He spoke very little of the War.

The 10th Mountain Division during WWII

While home on leave in 1943, my father met Mary-Louise Strong at a cocktail party in Manhattan. She was a Juilliard-educated concert pianist and a beauty. After a courtship-by-correspondence, they were married on December 31, 1943, at St. James Church in New York City, where Mary-Louise had grown up.

My Mother, Mary-Louise Strong circa 1943

My sister Marilou was born during the War, and my mother and Marilou stayed with Mamá’s parents in New York City until my father returned for good and graduated from seminary. He was then called to be a curate at St. James Church in South Pasadena, California, where I was born, and ordained a priest in May of 1948.

In 1952, after positions in San Gabriel, where my sister Alice was born, and Beaumont, we moved to Phoenix, where my father had accepted a position as curate and soon became the first rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

My father’s preaching was an amazing mix of scholarship, sound theology, and beautiful writing. He was tall, handsome, and had a deep voice. He would place his hands over the top of either side of the pulpit and wait patiently for people to settle down before speaking.

God help you if you had to blow your nose.

He would say a lot in 10 minutes — his self-imposed timeframe – make his point and end the thing. People loved that. And his reputation as a brilliant preacher quickly  spread, taking church services from a date barn to a parish hall to the large structure that stands today at 6300 N. Central Avenue.

The Rectory was built for us at the end of the property, and we moved in when I was in the fourth grade. By then we had two more kids in the family, Francesca and Paul. My mother was the busy mother of five and a piano teacher.

The parish had grown into the largest Episcopal church in Arizona, and my father began to plan a day school, which now sits next to the church and has spread out over the adjacent 10 acres.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Phoenix, AZ

In spite of the demands placed on him, my father made time for me and encouraged me. He took me out to the desert to practice target-shooting with a rife and a pistol, and taught me how to fly-cast and shoot a bow and arrow. When I got to high school and had learned to sew, he made a deal with me that he would pay for the clothes I made. So, I sewed up a storm.

One summer when I was about 12 and my siblings were off on junkets with my grandmother, my mom, and friends of the family, I stayed home to take care of Papá. I planted flowers so that I could put then in his study. I learned to cook. And I read voraciously. He loved horror movies, and we saw “Godzilla” and “King Kong” that summer.

Papá loved toys, and somehow managed to have them, despite his minister’s salary. He had a string of sports cars, beginning with a TR3. Next came an Alpha Romeo, and several Porsche 911s (which I was not above “borrowing” to go to orthodontic appointments, cruising Central Avenue on the way), and finally, a “Benz” convertible. He had a 16′ Glasspar boat, and he would occasionally let me skip school and go fishing with him on Canyon Lake. And when I was 17 or so, he was given a BMW 1200 motorcycle. I’ll never forget my dad riding around in his clerical collar, fringed leather cowboy jacket, and ropers.

During high school, I read lots of books my father was reading because I found them lying around, and they looked interesting. Some that stayed with me are The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant, Madame Bovary, Mere Christianity, and Sri Ramakrishna. The last one was fascinating, and an example of my father’s open mind and curiosity. He felt that there were many paths to the same God, and I do, too.

My father told me I was intelligent, wise, and beautiful, and made me believe it (even during my skinny, flat-chested girl-with-braces stage). His attention made me feel loved and confident. But much as he loved and appreciated women and said more than once that women are the superior sex, he could be sexist. For example, he did not like having females as acolytes; he felt they were a distraction at the altar. And he did not see the need for girls to go to college, although he helped me when I pushed back and began applying to small liberal arts schools.

My parents were beautiful dancers, and I learned to dance standing on my father’s feet. I remember with great pride the night he presented me at St. Luke’s Ball, and I curtsied and danced with him in each of the three ballrooms at the old Westward Ho Hotel.

Papá and I 1966

 I loved dancing with my dad, and as it happened, so did others. He and my mom were divorced during my freshman year of college. His was the first divorce in Arizona of an Episcopal priest. He and my mother had to ask Bishop Harte for special permission, and it took some time for the bishop to agree. 

Men loved my dad, too, because he was brilliant, original, and accomplished. He was an outdoorsman, having trapped fur in Alaska. He tied his own flies and made his own bullets. When he decided something was interesting, he threw himself into it, whether it was the Bible or fish. He had a bank of aquariums in his study filled with all manner of fish. He taught me a lot about them and raised Bettas and even sea horses and the brine shrimp to feed to them.

Papá’s study was a fascinating place. It was the room where he did his counselling of parishioners, where he wrote his sermons on Saturday mornings (using two fingers, smoking, and nursing a vodka), and where he entertained his friends. It had sliding wood doors along one end, which, when opened, revealed a wall of equipment for tying flies, reloading shotgun shells, and making bullets (which he did on the patio).

Papá spoke Spanish and French, played the banjo, and practiced the same piece on the clarinet – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major – over and over the whole time I was growing up. I never heard him finish it.  And I never tired of it.

Papá was a Barry Goldwater conservative. And his best friend was Paul Roca, a true liberal. The relationship worked because they shared the same values. They were both Episcopalians, they believed in the innate goodness in all people, and they were kind. The two men explored Sonora every springtime, Roca writing two books on the old Spanish missions and Papá collaborating and taking a lot of the pictures. In one of Roca’s books, The Paths of the Padres, they mapped out all the missions they had visited.

The adventures on these trips were numerous, from finding cave people to eating raw meat to sleeping in a rat-infested barn. Papá was bitten by rat fleas on that trip and came down with the first case of Typhus in Arizona in 20 years. He never recovered completely.

Papá had remarried in 1972 to a remarkable woman 20 years his junior, Carol Belcher. Carol got his finances in order and was content to live a quiet life with a man who had lived a life of adventure. 

In 1975, Papa was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He let Carol and my stepsister Teri take care of him. He stopped smoking. He drank all sorts of concoctions Carol and Teri made from the enzyme juicer. He ate tons of almonds. And when the cancer metastasized to his brain, I remember sitting in his study with Roca, his wife Lucy, and Carol, hearing him say, “I won’t live that way.” Four months later, at age 61, he was gone.

People still tell me how wonderful my father was, how much they loved him, and how he brought them to Christ. I believe he was a great teacher, and I know he was a great preacher. I adored him, warts and all. And I miss him every day.

Now’s a Good Time

it’s crazy, but it’s true

It’s crazy, but it’s true. Despite the hardships many are facing, others are finding they have more money than usual and more time.  

Twice this week I’ve heard from friends who recently have done something creative and generous.

My friend Julia discovered that she has extra money since she began staying home. She’s decided to buy a new bed she needs and give a nice gift each month to causes she cares about. She is filled with excitement by the prospect of being a donor, as she has been living very carefully for some time.

My friends Dave and Dancy have been cleaning out and remodeling their garage. Dave, a talented finish carpenter, has built a fantastic area for Dancy, who is a gardener and flower arranger extraordinaire. She now has shelves and drawers for gardening tools, vases, etc. And instead of putting the 14 vases she no longer needs in a Goodwill bin, Dancy  made 14 arrangements with flowers from her garden and put them on a community table for the neighbors, with a sign that said, “Please take an arrangement and enjoy!”

And here’s another example: Several of the women in my Dining for Women chapter received stimulus checks, which they felt were unnecessary. They’re donating the money to our local food bank.

These stories remind me of a book I read years ago by Lynne Twist, called The Soul of Money. In it, Twist describes a life-changing experience in Harlem, in the basement of an old church with a leaky roof. She was a new fundraiser for The Hunger Project and had been asked to speak at a fundraiser at the church. Twist, who is white, says, “I looked out at the audience, and I knew that the people sitting there did not have much money to give. I spoke to them about The Hunger Project’s commitment to Africa, as I thought it would be the most relevant to their own lives and their heritage. When it came time to ask for donations, my palms were sweating and I began to wonder if it was the right thing to do. I went ahead and made the request, and the room fell absolutely silent.

“After what seemed like a long silent pause, a woman stood up. She was sitting on the aisle in a row near the back. She was in her late sixties or early seventies, and she had gray hair parted down the middle and swept up into a tidy bun. When she stood up she was tall, slender, erect, and proud.

“’Girl,” she said, ‘My name is Gertrude and I like what you’ve said and I like you. Now, I ain’t got no checkbook and I ain’t got no credit cards. To me, money is a lot like water. For some folks it rushes through their life like a raging river. Money comes through my life like a little trickle. But I want to pass it on in a way that does the most good for the most folks. I see that as my right and as my responsibility. It’s also my joy. I have fifty dollars in my purse that I earned from doing a white woman’s wash and I want to give it to you.’”

Twist goes on to say, “It’s my experience that money is an inanimate object that we made up, and it has no power or authority other than what we assign to it. I see money as being a little bit like water. When water is moving and flowing, it cleanses, it purifies, it makes things green, it creates growth, it’s beautiful. But when it slows down, starts to sludge, and is still, it becomes toxic and stagnant.  One of my missions in this lifetime,” she says, “is to enable people to keep money flowing and to assign money to fulfill their highest commitments and to send it off into the world with love, with voice, with vision.”

Now is a great time, if you’re one of the lucky ones, to assign your money to fulfill your highest commitment, and to sent it off into this troubled world with love.

Let me know how it goes.

A Meaningful Coincidence

If you ask a scientist

If you ask a scientist about coincidences, chances are they’ll tell you that coincidences are the result of mathematical probability, i.e., “with a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” – Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller in Methods for Studying Coincidences (taken from an article by Julie Beck in “The Atlantic,” February 23, 2016)

I disagree. But then, I have faith – faith that all will be well, faith in my family and friends, faith in God. And faith isn’t measurable, at least not mathematically. I agree with Frederick Buechner, who said, “Coincidences are God’s way of getting our attention.”

In fact, sometimes they feel like little miracles.

I’ve been slowly working my way through poet and meditation teacher Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live: How to Live this Year as if It Were Your Last. It’s a powerful book that has changed my life.  But that’s another blog.

Levine worked for years with people in hospice care, helping them prepare to die. In his book, he shares a series of meditations and exercises that help us lose our fear of dying and feel prepared for the inevitable, whether we’re facing imminent death or just going about our lives, knowing that death comes to us all. He helps us understand and remember that death is just part of the cycle of life.

One of the things he learned from his patients is that they were greatly helped by making amends with those they had hurt along life’s journey. Forgiving ourselves is hard enough, but especially if we have unfinished business. He suggests we make a list of people we have wronged, and then approach them to see if they are willing to talk with us and let us apologize for our mistakes.

I started my list about a year ago. It was hard work. On it was a wonderful woman who was the unwitting victim of my petty jealousy some 40 years ago. Her name is Nancy, and she is one of the smartest, funniest, most open people you’ll ever be fortunate enough to know. I haven’t seen Nancy in at least 20 years.

I have been thinking about the need to get in touch with Nancy all this time. Months went by and it didn’t happen. I told myself that since Gene and I were back in Phoenix, I would run into her and could take it from there. One day I found her contact information but couldn’t bring myself to call her. What would I say? “Hi Nancy. It’s Pauline. I’m wondering if we could get together. I need to apologize to you.”

Then last night I was unable to sleep, and I happened onto Facebook. Who should be on the People You May Know list but Nancy. I immediately asked her to be my Friend, and she accepted. And now we are talking, catching up on each other’s lives and families. As soon as I can, I will apologize for my petty behavior.

And I will be one step closer to peace.

Backstories: I Make Them Up for Real People

I JUST READ “A MAN CALLED OVE,” BY FREDRIK BACKMAN.

I just read A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. It’s a wonderful novel about the grouchiest, rudest, most stubborn person you can imagine. His name is Ove (he’s Swedish), and as you follow him on his daily reconnaissance walks through the neighborhood, you learn things about him that help you understand his behavior. Turns out, Ove has had many disappointments in his life, starting with the death of his mother when he was seven years old. As his life unfolds in rhythm with the story, you begin to  understand his behavior and your heart goes out to him. You have compassion for Ove. You care about him.

One day, when I was reading Steven Covey’s leadership book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I had an epiphany. Covey tells the story of being on a New York City subway one Sunday morning, when a man and his children enter the car. The children are out of control, yelling, “throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers.” The man just sits there until Covey finally asks him politely if he could please control his children, as they are “really disturbing a lot of people.”

The man lifts his gaze and explains that they have just come from the hospital, where the children’s mother has died about an hour before. “I don’t know what to think,” the father says, “and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?” asks Covey. “My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.”

Compassion* is needed more than ever right now. The coronavirus has robbed people across the globe of their jobs, milestones, closeness with extended family, school, special trips, social time, sports and other activities, even basic things like food, water, and healthcare.

The kindest people, people who have all the basics, are being pushed by fear, frustration, and disappointment to the end of their proverbial ropes. And it’s hard to be patient with them when we’re the target of their anger

Ever since reading “7 Habits,” I have been making up backstories for people who lash out at me, whether it’s someone driving by me honking and giving me the finger or one of my kids snapping at me. Rather than taking their behavior personally, I make up a backstory for them. Maybe the guy who got exasperated following me as I went my usual five miles only over the speed limit was on his way to meet his pregnant wife at the hospital. Perhaps my daughter is having a hard time with her children, and is feeling overwhelmed. Maybe my husband is feeling out of control because there’s nothing he can do to fix this situation.

I think about the wisdom in the book, The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, and remember not to take anything personally, because “nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dreams.”

And that is how I’m getting through this challenging time: making up stories for other’s behavior, remembering it’s not about me, and giving people the benefit of the doubt, so that I can feel compassion for them.

Perhaps if those of us who are up to it can consciously practice compassion, the world will be a kinder place when this thing is over. And if it takes a long time, at least life will be more pleasant while we’re waiting.

* Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ― Frederick Buechner