Both Sides of the Tracks

“My grandmother’s family was from Bohemia” Dan begins, “Czechoslovakia, gypsy blood…Catholic.” He continues, “she had jet black hair and striking features. She was beautiful.” Dan’s grandfather, at least by appearance, was quite the opposite. “He was Norwegian and looked it.“

“She was oldest of 10 kids,” Dan describes, “There was one of the boys, one of the youngest, who she doted on like he was her own. “ Dan begins reliving the story. “He’s playing on the tracks, just up the street here,” Dan points, “he and some other kids are darting under the train between the wheels.” Dan’s face is impassive, “He doesn’t make it. The train slices him right in half.”

The story slows. There would have been a grimace, a pause, but Dan continues. He has told this story before. It is a memory of a memory. “My grandmother couldn’t take it, she wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.” The story regains momentum, “Her dad takes her to Union Station to put her on a train going west. He’s got a Ford, a model T. They race to the station but just miss the train. Her dad, my great- grandfather has the station master call to the next station and tell them to hold the train. They jump back in that car, drive at top speed and catch up to the train that keeps going west; this time with my grandmother on it.”

Dan is smiling now, “In the meantime, my grandfather is on the same train heading out to the new hotel that James J Hill built in Glacier, the Sperry Chalet, right by the Great Northern Railway. He’s a musician, part of a quartet; he and his buddies are planning on making some money up at the Chalet.” Dan prepares carefully to weave the threads of his tale together, “The train’s been waiting at the station for a while. The guys in the quartet find out that they’re waiting for a young lady. They begin egging each other on to find her and find out her story. My grandfather volunteers.” Dan holds the one thread carefully and picks up the other, “Now my grandmother is headed for the same place. She’s going to Glacier too, to the Chalet to work as a maid — or something.” The threads are tied together quickly, but delicately, as if a curtain is drawn on the scene, “So that’s how they met,” Dan finishes.

“Well you can imagine,” Dan starts up again, pulling back to survey this tender image from a distance, “this match was not popular; a Catholic and a Lutheran. That just didn’t happen.” It was too late for objections though, the two were already married. They had chased up some local pastor or chaplain and children came soon after.

“It was a long time later, just 15 years ago at a family reunion, that my cousin was looking at the family tree and started doing the math. ‘Oh’ he said, ‘so I guess my mom was at her parents’ wedding!’ I looked at him and just said, ‘I guess so’— in the moment I didn’t think much of it.”

Dan pauses dramatically, “But my mother was mortified. The news went through the crowd like an electric charge; everyone felt it before they knew it.” Dan pauses again and shakes his head, “Now this was 2004, you would think that it wouldn’t be such a big deal, I mean, people are having kids before they get married all the time…” His voice trails off.

This was a new ending to the story it seems. The memories are laid out like photos in an album. We are at the last page and it is as if someone has gone in and changed the order. In Dan’s telling, the story becomes richer, the pictures gain color. But for others, grandmothers and mothers, aunts and uncles; it would have been better had the old familiar photographs remained as they were: black and white.

We’re Going to Pray for Gary

Donna  had been trying to get my attention for a few moments: tap-tap-tapping on my shoulder, pausing for 30 seconds, then tap-tap-tapping again.  When I finally turned away from my conversation with Jeanine on the other side and faced Donna, she said with some urgency, “We’re going to pray for Gary.”

There were at least fifty of us in the church hall. Conversation was lively. Several booming male voices rose above the others: men  whose conversations rallied back and forth across the large space. Pastor John stood with me for a moment before making his decision about which of the large round tables would be best. As we approached one, ten friendly faces looked up and I was well into a conversation even before sitting down. At our table,  conversations were more intimate; we all leaned in and listened closely. And when the call to pray came, it took no time for everyone to be holding hands and listening closely,

“Dear God, we’re praying for Gary…we don’t know where he is…” Laurie was leading the prayer. Rumor had it that Laurie had been ordained as a minister in the Methodist church, though this wasn’t her job now. She paused for a moment before adding, with a bit of a quaver in her voice, “we hope he’s ok…” There was a brief silence and then everyone in the circle squeezed hands and let go.  Some “amens” were said.

Conversation continued in the line going up to get food, though to be clear, not everyone was talkative. “What kind of meat is it?” I asked, pointing to the patties. “Beef” one of the kitchen workers responded quickly, “Yeah, it’s not pork,” another added. Beef patties with onions, bowtie pasta salad and a mixture of corn and kidney beans. For desert: apple pie with a dairy topping, cheese cake, and danish.

Donna had brought her own lunch, turkey on whole wheat. She held it up for others at the table to see. “I got it at Cub foods for $2.00” she said, “they put it on a special table for same day sale”. Those within earshot nodded approvingly. “Which Cub?” someone asked. “At the Har Mar Mall,” Donna responded. “That’s what I thought,” another chimed in, giving a knowing nod, “not the one in Midway”.

“So, what does he look like?” I asked, keeping my eyes peeled for Gary. “Not very tall,” Donna said, “white hair…” she paused, “…well that’s not saying much…” she laughed and several others at the table joined in. “He has a beard; kinda looks like Santa Claus–except now, he doesn’t have a beard during the summer,”” Donna continued. Laurie added, smiling, “You’ll know when you see him…he’s kind of in charge here.” Others at the table nodded.

I realized that I hadn’t seen Pastor John for a while when I looked up and saw that he was at the front of the hall again. “Hello everyone,” he said and paused as the hall gradually became quiet. “I’ve just been on the phone with Gary’s family,” there was a catch in John’s voice when he continued, “Gary died yesterday. He was out biking in Stillwater and got hit by a truck.” There were quiet gasps, I heard someone say, “Oh no…” Someone else said, “What was he doing in Stillwater?” At our table, Donna said, “He was trying to lose weight…he had high blood pressure.”  People had finished eating by this time and at our table at least there was a kind of tenderness and even intimacy that had come from this sudden experience of shared loss. We helped each other pile empty plates onto a tray, squeezing crumpled napkins and other trash along the sides. Soft “thank you’s” were exchanged.

I found John in the church sanctuary where he was talking with his wife Andrea on the phone. He looked up when I opened the door, put the phone down and shook his head. Gary Bernard Michel was dead at the age of 67. He had been out on a long bike ride and was in Pine Springs near Stillwater when he was struck by a pick-up truck. “I’m so sorry, John,” I said.  John was caught in the moment, he rested the cell phone in his lap, “He was such a character,” he began, “very private…wouldn’t even tell me his last name at first.” Then remembering his wife, John lifted the cell phone to his cheek, “I’ll call you back later, Andrea,” he said.

I came in, gave John a long hug, and felt, what could have been a sob, but ended up being more of a hiccup, pass through his body.  “He was a medic in the army during the Vietnam war,” John said. “Volunteered to go to Vietnam, but ended up at an evacuation hospital in Germany. Worked as a nurse when he got out.” John paused, “His friend was a medic in Vietnam and came back just shattered…” John gestured with one arm toward the church hall below us, “He’d been doing this for a while. Nobody asked him to…he was here every Thursday.”

Pastor John and I talked for a while about the people who came for the community meal on Thursdays. There were some who were members of the church—but mostly not. Gary had become a member—but hadn’t started out as one. The people who came were all kinds of Christians: Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Lutherans. And there were Muslims who came. Usually the same people each week—sometimes there were newcomers. “It’s not just about the food,” Pastor John said, “it’s a community.”

This day, the community had lost one of its own. There was some confusion when at the end of the meal, shopping bags filled with food for the week were distributed. “This was Gary’s job,” Donna explained. Gary would take the list of everyone who had signed in for the meal and read off the names one by one, making sure that everyone went home with a bag of food.  The confusion came when a different voice began reading the names. No one listened. Names had to be repeated, shouted through the hall, before people began coming forward to get their bags.

Today something big had changed. I could tell, though I had never been to the community meal before and had never met Gary.  Donna could tell, Laurie could tell. Even before the news of Gary’s death was shared, the two of them–and everyone at our table–was ready with a prayer.

A Graduate of MSU

‘I’m a graduate of MSU,” Richard said, and paused. I was curious. Richard had never mentioned attending Michigan State University before.

Our conversation had started on what would have been a sleepy summer afternoon in 2009 — except that no afternoons were sleepy with Richard Andersen. He and I were beginning to plot out the work we would do together at Lutheran Social Service (LSS). Richard had brought me on as an assistant to help him do outreach to Lutheran congregations across Minnesota on behalf of LSS. I was his assistant, I was in many ways, his apprentice–except that he insisted that we work as equals and partners. During nearly two years, Richard, Patrick Burns and I crisscrossed the state, organizing events, speaking in churches and engaging volunteers. We spent hours together in his Honda CRV, talking, as one does on car trips, about everything.

I learned a lot about Richard. He was open, honest and unsentimental about his life. He spoke with pride about his successes at Thrivent Financial, his adventures as manager of The Original Pancake House, and his work helping to build the Arc Retreat Center in Stanchfield, MN during the late 1970s.  And yet, I don’t remember Richard mentioning Michigan State.

I do recall Richard talking about his college years–I think it was Augsburg? “Patrick and a friend had gotten a hold of a locker,” Richard remembered, describing an early encounter with his husband, “they put the locker on a dolly and wheeled it right up to my door.” Richard smiled. “Patrick got inside the locker–I think he was wearing a little cap or something, like a lift operator–and then knocked on my door. When I opened, he looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Going down?'” Richard sighed, “That was nearly fifty years ago. That man has been keeping me laughing ever since.”

After Richard graduated from Seminary, he served in a small rural congregation. He loved the work. He talked about the old ladies in the congregation who baked him cookies and worried that he wasn’t getting enough to eat. Then there was a conversation with the then bishop of the Southeastern Synod of Minnesota. Richard was gay. The Bishop knew. Perhaps there was a suggestion of something along the lines of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”.  But Richard wasn’t buying. And so Richard was not ordained for the Southeastern Synod and did not continue to serve. Instead, he worked for Thrivent Financial and The Original Pancake House.

Then thirty-two years after he graduated Seminary,Richard was finally ordained. His desire to be a pastor had never waned, nor had his love for Patrick; but the Church had changed. Richard could openly be Patrick’s partner, and officially be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  After the ordination service, Richard was at the reception, positively giddy with excitement, using his aebleskiver iron to fill platters with the traditional Danish apple desert for his guests.  For all the times that Richard and I had spoken in churches or met with clergy, never once did I sense a tinge of disappointment, bitterness or anger. It was important for Richard that he be ordained, he was thrilled when it happened and that it could happen. It would be another seven years before he and his lifelong partner Patrick could be married.

“I’m a graduate of MSU,” Richard said, and then explained the acronym, “Make Stuff Up.” I laughed.  Richard didn’t crack a smile.

Richard was a person with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. He was a seventy year-old who could say “awesome” and sound like a teenager–because at that moment he actually was. He was someone who loved to smile: a smile full and heavy with love and life. And though he loved to laugh, Richard was not a jokester. Rather, there seemed to be a reservoir of seriousness and sadness that lay beneath his smile. For someone to be as compassionate and loving as Richard was, there would almost need to be a resonance of personal hardship. Maybe some of that resonance is what his “MSU” degree was about.

I never heard Richard use the expression “School of Hard Knocks,” though I suppose that he could well have.  The “Make Stuff Up” quip had a similar kind of seriousness. When the church door closed on both his ordination and his relationship, Richard had to make stuff up. He had to find another way to be in service, another way to live out his faith, another way to love and live in his relationship. I suppose making stuff up is what most who paddle outside the mainstream become very good at.

Richard and I parted company when my temporary position at Lutheran Social Service ended up being just that. He had called me into his office, told me that he wasn’t going to be able to keep me on staff,  and then immediately begun to cry. He said, between tears, “I feel like my right arm has been torn off.” It was, all things considered, perhaps a little melodramatic. I got another job. Richard got another job. And yet, in the moment, that we both had a good cry helped us move on.

And now we have parted company again. This past weekend, Richard Andersen died after suffering a massive heart attack. Writing this remembrance has brought back all the love and appreciation that I feel for him, and with these feelings, many tears.

And yet, memory too is life-giving. I never did share with Richard his faith in heaven or an afterlife. As a Jew, it is memory that is life giving and so in giving thanks for Richard, I say זכרונו לברכה, “May his memory be a blessing”. I know that I am one of many for whom Richard’s life has been a blessing and so it is my wish that it continue to be so also in memory.

My dear Richard, your memory will always for me be a blessing. May it be so for others…and may you rest in peace.

“A Gentle Lion”

Maya Missaghi is an attorney practicing in the area of what often is called, “Elder Law’.  She helps people write their health care directives and wills; she helps set up powers of attorney and assists in negotiating the transition from independent living to assisted living. Maya is passionate about what she does, grounding it in a deep conviction that, as she writes, ‘…elders deserve care and respect, so that is what the Twin Cities should provide for EVERY elder, regardless of background, language or circumstance.”

Maya Missaghi is an advocate in the classic (Roman) sense: one called (ad-vocare) to represent the interest and perspective of another. From its Latin origins, “advocate’ becomes in 14th century French “avocat” a purely legal term equivalent to “barrister”, then in Middle English, used with religious and political overtones to mean “protector”, “patron” and “intercessor”.

I can imagine Maya protesting here that I’m laying things on a little thick. At the same time, it seems clear in seeing the work she does, that she has a level of personal investment that comes from a lifetime of living with-, listening to-, caring for-, and loving the elders in her family and in her community. Paraphrasing her loosely: Every grandma is somebody’s Grandma.

What touches me about Maya’s work is how she ties personal experience and motivation to professional achievement.  In writing about her grandfather’s last years in life, she notes, “It was quite nice..for all of us to see the lion-like patriarch diminished to such a gentle soul–who, of course had been there all along.” She reflects, “I hope to preserve and pass on his strength of character…and that I too become a gentle lion in my old age.”

I write this blogpost not just as a referral, but as a reflection. To advocate for someone means to ensure that their story is told well, their perspective portrayed accurately and their interests represented adequately…Maya and I do this each in our own way. What underlies advocacy, what is required to speak for another, is first to listen carefully, and second to be boundlessly curious, asking, “Is this what you said?” “Is this what you meant?” “Is this what you want others to understand?”

If you would like to learn more about Maya Missaghi’s law practice, click here. You can contact Maya at [email protected] or by calling 952-237-9602

Overwhelmed with Happiness

“Thank you once again for everything. I’m so glad you came today. My dad told me as he was leaving that he was overwhelmed with happiness!” 

Earlier that rainy, chilly Saturday, May 18, we had celebrated Jerry Sherman’s 80th birthday. “We” was Jerry’s two daughters and their families, Jerry’s five siblings and their families, a couple of family friends, Peggy’s dog, Tali, and me, the biographer. “Overwhelmed with happiness” was not something that Jerry would say as a matter of course. “That was pretty nice.” was a phrase that would be more natural for him.  Clearly, the birthday party meant a great deal to him and with it, the book I had written based on his memories, titled, There’s Always Something New. 

“I picked up the books, and I’m just thrilled!  I’m enjoying the stories, and I know my dad is going to love it! Thank you so much!”

Peggy had written earlier during the week. It had been a rush to make sure that everything would be done in time. After some 20 hours of interviews, processing recordings and photographs, then combining all of this in an engaging narrative that would reflect the personality of Peggy’s remarkable father; Peggy was holding the published product in her hands.

At the birthday party, it was if the characters of a book had come to life. That at least was my impression as the biographer. Of course, the reverse was true. Here at the party were the real people who populated Jerry’s stories. Through Jerry’s and my work together,  they had become characters in a book.

There’s Always Something New is a collection of stories that reflects a lifetime of experience as well as the voices and perspectives of some of the most important people in Jerry Sherman’s life. The book’s title is one of many characteristic quotes; something that Jerry would say frequently when describing both his work and his life more broadly. “There’s always something new,” he would say, and so reveal his almost instinctive attitude of curiosity, openness and generosity.

A “Hochstappler”?

After seeing the performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, it is a long cab ride home to 19th Street on Manhattan. As the cab bumps along, Leonard suddenly breaks through the rattling din, “When my mother was 90 years-old, she came up with this story,” Leonard begins, “she had never talked about it before.” He settles himself back in his seat, ready now to let the story take over.

“This is the story,” he begins, “the word got around that the Cossacks were coming. They actually came and were threatening to make all the Jews leave. My mother was a young girl then, 14 years old or something. She went to the commander of the Cossacks and begged him to let her people stay there.” Leonard interrupts himself, and with emphasis repeats, “This is the story.” He resumes, “The commander was so impressed with her courage that he agreed, and they stayed…and they weren’t harmed.” Leonard pauses for a moment and shifts his perspective from storyteller to audience, “We, in the younger generation, found this very dubious…” he smiled before continuing “…because among other things, my mother was, what the Germans call, a ‘Hochstappler,’ you know what that is?” Noting some hesitation, he fills in quickly, “a braggard.” Leonard continues, “We found it dubious because if it were true, then she would have told the story much earlier.” That he twice repeats “This is the story,” makes sense now. Leonard is swearing off any responsibility for the veracity of his mother’s account.

****

After his family fled Germany in 1938, Leonard mostly grew up in Chicago and has lived a life that is worlds apart from his mother’s Shtetl upbringing.  As children, he and his siblings grew used to treating their mother’s stories with healthy skepticism.

Yet now, Leonard is just a few years away from the age his mother had been when she first told the story. Now, he is willing to entertain alternatives to the origin of the story. “Maybe it was someone else who went to the commander. Or maybe…” Leonard shrugs his shoulders, indicating that he cannot find evidence to the contrary, “maybe she actually did it.”

The bumping from the cab takes over again before Leonard starts on a new tack, “My mother had a persona that she would talk about.” Again, Leonard interjects his reservation, “I don’t know how much of this is real—my sister passed this along. She was something of an accomplice to my mother.” Leonard continues, “Apparently my mother spent some time in Vienna. She had an office job. She had a lover from Vienna who was drafted during the First World War. She used to play chess by correspondence—you know sending letters with your chess moves…” Here Leonard lifts one finger and proclaims, “This I know is true. She taught me how to play chess. She was very good.” Leonard continues briefly, “And then she played the mandolin,” another reservation, “I don’t know if this is true.” Leonard is silent again for a few moments before concluding, “How she got to Vienna? I don’t know.”

Earlier in life, there would be a tone of resentment when Leonard described his mother’s efforts to guide—or more accurately—restrict his choices in life. Predictably, this was one among many factors that made Leonard fiercely independent and driven to succeed on his selected path.

But now Leonard speaks with a conciliatory tone, more willing to recognize that his mother possessed a strength and determination that is like his own. While Leonard’s drive had lifted him from the Jewish neighborhoods of Chicago to the heights of academic success, his mother’s drive had carried her from the Polish Shtetl, to Vienna (perhaps), to Germany, and finally in 1938, to Chicago. Given these efforts on behalf of her family, perhaps it isn’t so crazy to believe that she had, in fact, boldly persuaded the Cossacks to leave her people alone. Was it age that had brought about Leonard’s rapprochement with his mother? More than likely. But then too, it was surely “Fiddler on the Roof” – in Yiddish.

 

“She falls… and just laughs!”

Bea’s first child Mark was born on St. Patrick’s Day, a Tuesday, in 1964.  The family was living on Minneapolis’ North Side where until WWII some 60% of the Twin Cities Jewish population lived. By the time the Cohens had moved to the area, however, many Jews had left Minneapolis and moved to Saint Louis Park and beyond. The Jewish families still remaining were now part of a diverse community. Mark remembers that the family who lived in the house behind theirs on Upton Avenue was Mexican and that he played with them as he did with all of the varied group of neighborhood friends and classmates.

In 1966, Mark’s sister Jenny was born, then in 1969, when Mark was five and Jenny, just three, the family moved to a new home that the children’s father Seymour had built in New Hope, northwest of Minneapolis.  Despite its encouraging name, New Hope ended up not being such a happy place for Mark and his little sister. Within a couple of months of their having moved in, the Cohens’ new home burned down.

Mark still remembers how he was woken in the middle of the night and rushed out of the house. The only treasure he was able to rescue was a small pillow, a souvenir from an airplane trip.

After the fire there was a time of uncertainty and living in temporary accommodations. “Mom and Dad had to hold things together,” Mark says, “it was traumatic”. What Paul probably didn’t know was just how busy his father had been. While the family was in transition, Seymour had been building a new home in Golden Valley. After two years, the family could move in.

This early experience for the family may have uncovered a difference in how Seymour and Bea approached life that likely became more pronounced over the years. “Dad was risk averse,” Mark says with certain emphasis. Mark describes how his father took it upon himself to ensure stability — not in the least financial stability — for the family.

Moms in Golden Valley were often stay-at-home moms, focused on their children and their children’s schooling and activities. Even though Bea was for a time also a stay-at-home mom, “She was pretty different from other moms,” Mark says, “she was always thinking about the bigger picture…as a kid, I thought it was pretty cool.”

Mark brings to mind his mother’s interest in politics and world affairs. What other stay-at-home mom was involved in the World Federalist Movement (WFM)?  Founded during the waning years of WWII, WFM advocated for the establishment of democratic global institutions that could prevent a future world war. The movement counted among its members and supporters Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and…Bea Cohen.

Of the two, Seymour was certainly the more conventional. He was always active and “in the community” Mark says. Bea on the other hand, was not. As an example, Seymour brought his kids to Beth El synagogue, a Conservative congregation which fifty years after its founding on the North Side moved 1970 to a brand-new facility in St. Louis Park. It is an impressive building with soaring architecture; the place to be for a young family in society. Here Mark and Jenny became B’nai Mitzvah, Seymour and Bea were both solidly behind their kids’ religious training at Beth El and the Jewish school, Talmud Torah.

Then Bea “elected not to be a part of Beth El anymore,” Mark puts it diplomatically, and follows up with, “it was really rough.” Bea’s move to Or Emet, the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, seems to have been another point of contention. And yet, Bea was in this, as in many things, bound to follow her own way. “At a high level, Dad respected her,” Mark affirms, then continues, “but they had a stormy relationship”.

Mark says, perhaps with some regret, that he is becoming like his father. While Jenny would eventually leave Beth El too, Mark has remained. Both of his kids have been B’nai Mitzvah there. And though he admits that his father “would drag us to Beth El,” Mark has discovered that his connection to Beth El is important to him.

And perhaps also like his father, Mark has deep admiration for his mother, in spite of their differences.  Sure, Mark does not share his mother’s enthusiasm for gardening and he admits, “Science bored me silly”. But these differences do not diminish his admiration of his mother’s spirit and convictions. “She has a steely determination,” he says, “she is always looking forward and always thinking positive.” Then he reflects, “She is not like me: I would see how I am aging, becoming more feeble, not remembering things — and be bummed.” He pauses, “But she…she falls and just laughs!” Mark concludes, “In that way, she’s a role model.”

“On my 10th birthday, he taught me how to make gunpowder”

“I never realized they were that close,” Jeanine said. Her grandson Jim had called in from the military base in Virginia to talk about his Grandpa Rick. Jim had the steady voice and clarity of a military man, though with uncharacteristic emotional openness.

“He’s solid as a rock,” Jim says of his grandpa, “he’s definitely been a model for me, of what a man should be.” He continues,”He’s not the cool guy, but a really good man: honest, hard working; someone who stands by what he believes.”

Jim remembers his grandpa’s visits, “He always brought fireworks,”he says,“then on my tenth birthday, he taught me how to make gunpowder.” Jim rattled off with pride, “KNO3 , C,  S,” then he  explains, “Potassium Nitrate, Charcoal and Sulphur…there I still know it!” 

Rick would have been touched that his grandson recalls not only the event, but even the chemical formula. Through Jim, Rick was reliving his childhood. For in his childhood, Rick went to the library to look up in the encyclopedia how to make “black powder.” Recipe in hand, Rick got hold of the chemicals he needed (he was a little vague on just how) and then went about mixing and testing until he got just the right amounts to make a big “Boom,” as he put it.

Rick is the proud father of two daughters; one of them is Jim’s mother Jeanette. A single dad, he raised his daughters as best he could, encouraging them in their interests and sharing with them some of his. When his grandson was born, Rick passed along the one interest that he had never shared with his daughters, gunpowder.

For Jim’s 10th birthday, Grandpa Rick brought a large mortar and pestle and a bunch of chemicals. “He forced me to follow the scientific method,” Jim said, “it didn’t work at first, it just fizzled and popped.” He continued, “Grandpa never told what to do, though he’d give suggestions, ‘Have you tried adding a little more of this or that…’” Jim pauses, “It lit a spark in me. I started pursuing chemistry and science. It made me curious about what our universe is made up of; it launched me on my career path in the military.” Jim continues eagerly, realizing what had come of making gunpowder nearly 20 years ago.  “Then there’s blacksmithing, I do blacksmithing. A lot of that is about  knowing the chemical makeup of the materials.” Jim follows another memory. “ For Christmas, Grandpa gave me a stellar map, we looked at the stars through telescopes. Now I’m so interested in space. Space travel, colonizing space; it’s going to be the industries of the future,” he says excitedly.

Jim remembers vividly the Rick of nearly 20 years ago. He remembers Rick with his ten year-old mind, and sees him with his ten year-old eyes. And so Rick becomes a giant, a hero and wizard all at the same time. Even though she didn’t know it, Jim’s mother Jeanine was the link between two men whose connection was deeper than she could imagine.

Telling Rick’s story is also telling Jeanine’s and Jim’s. And so it is with any life story; it is best told by many,  across  generations, across geographic distances, even across centuries. Because for every life, there are many voices.

“I had a dress just like that”

Ruth was standing in front of a large display case with several short, beaded dresses in different colors arrayed on mannequins. In the background, Coon-Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra was playing ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”.  Her face was shining, sixty years had melted away from her slender, octogenarian frame.  Anyone could see that she had always and did still possess the  soul of a flapper.

“I had a dress just like that” she said, pointing at one of the mannequins.  “Dress” was a generous term for the garment in the display at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s exhibition . Long strings of beads were draped over the length of the mannequin’s body, clinging to  every curve. How this effect was achieved was a mystery since there was nothing between the beads and the body underneath. I imagined for a moment Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston , bending her legs back at the knees and swinging her arms forward and back. At each jaunty movement, the strings of beads would swing revealing a thrilling glimpse of a curve, a shape, a shadow.

Perhaps more surprising than the thought of Ruth in such a revealing dress was that there was not the slightest note of embarrassment or regret in identifying something so emblematic of her adventurous youth. In fact, there was more a tone of pride at her independence and strength.  Born in 1901, Ruth remained unattached throughout most of the jazz age, enjoying the freedom that unmarried life allowed her. She was the youngest of her siblings, and her father, a politician and businessman, was perhaps too busy to monitor all of her activities. When she got in trouble, which, by her own admission, happened with some frequency, her father Henry would say with a sigh, “Well Ruthy, now you’ve done that!”

When her father moved to Washington DC for a position in the new president’s cabinet, he took Ruth with him. With new responsibilities and a visibility that brought an end to her flapper life, Ruth was now ready for marriage and building a family. It didn’t take long before she met her Scandinavian  husband, Nils. His propriety might have chased away her flapper soul, but it was still there, more visible to her grandchildren than her children. Her face drawn in a wry smile, often with one eyebrow cocked, she would tell stories from her childhood and recite playful verses, sometimes with the Scottish brogue of her great grandparents.

It was one of Ruth’s grandchildren who reported this episode from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum and his unexpected encounter with her flapper soul.  Ruth’s years of dance and jazz and mischief long submerged, came rushing up to the surface, and he was there to see and hear it all.

Our youth is never as far away as we imagine. Sometimes it dwells just beneath the surface, simply waiting for an invitation. Sometimes circumstances,  sensory cues,  or nothing at all brings the energy of youth flooding back. If we are lucky, we find the words and images to capture an experience or emotion we thought was lost. If we are even luckier, we find an inquisitive reporter and able writer who can ask the questions that will bring us further and deeper into our past, gently gather our memories and bring them into the light with words that make the past, present again.

“…you’re going to your universal foreverness.”

Doris was seated across from me at the table in her small apartment. Her eyes sparkled, her words were soft and slow, chosen carefully and full of conviction. This was our first conversation together about her life, and yet somehow we had skipped childhood, adolescence, professional life, married life, and motherhood. We would return to all of these topics later, but now we were talking about the end of life. “You can’t be selfish at this point,” she said, “you’re going to your universal foreverness.” Her voice was inflected with a grin that could be heard more than seen. “Universal foreverness,” was an awkward phrase, but expressed exactly what Doris intended.

It all began as she described her recent recovery from a severe illness. “When I was that sick and was told that this may be the whole game, they asked me if I wanted a chaplain, I said, ‘yes—and Jewish,’” she continued, “but I was so willful, I said, ‘It should only be the right thing, no Jesus stuff, no anything, anything like that. It has to be fundamentally correct.’”

Doris is Jewish, though perhaps somewhat unconventionally so. The chaplain’s Jewish prayer had “pleased her,” she said, but it seemed clear that being “pleased” wasn’t enough. So I pressed her on this point, wondering what she was thinking when death seemed so close, “Well, I had this feeling,” she said, “that feeling doesn’t come often, but it came suddenly, that…that was it.” She paused and smiled. We were quiet for a while. “It sounds as if you have a feeling of resolution” I said. Doris, straightened up and smiled, “Well this isn’t the time to lean on angels, or anything like that. You have to lean on things that are real.” She paused, “If we pray as if we are enlisting the help of the forces that hold the earth together,  it seems to me the most wonderful thing… that we can have help from the powers of…” she searched for a moment, “gravity, or lightning or anything we can see. And we can pray, ‘may the powers’—and may they, because they might!—‘may they give me the strength to overcome this illness.’”

I had been waiting with one question; it’s the question that I usually wait to ask until the last interview. But here we were already talking about the end of life. And so I asked, “Is there anything, a saying or story that you want to make sure that your children know—something that they will remember you by, that will help them in their lives?” “Well,” she said, “lean on the actual powers…gravity, light and—who knows what else—that they will come to my aid…” then interrupting herself she said, “of course gravity isn’t going to walk around…But to be assured,”she resumed, “that the powers that are there…that they will continue to be there.” She was silent again, we had been talking for an hour and I could tell she was tired. “And I think that, that is what I want my children to remember about me.”

“You can’t be selfish at this point…” What Doris had said earlier was making more sense to me. Approaching the end of her life her hope was that the powers over everything that she could see ”would continue to be there,” not for her, but for her children.

It can be the most poignant part of the life story we tell this consideration of what remains of us when we die.  For Doris, her skepticism of the supernatural, and reliance on powers that can be seen was not just the foundation of her approach to life, but the foundation also of her approach to death and to the legacy she would leave her children.

In life journaling, this question of enduring values, principles of life, and ultimately of legacy is one we revisit over and over, it grows out of the life we live and is the way we give life to others.