A Few Thoughts on Green

 

Saint Patrick’s Day and the wearing of the green has gone by but green is still on my mind.

Little glimpses of jade and chartreuse are popping up in my neighborhood. And I’m reminded of everything that green promises and provides. “Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises,” says Pedro de la Barca, but not everyone agrees.

The first time I saw Vermont in the summer I was stunned by the green of those hills. It was beautiful, but overwhelming.

 

When Georgia O’Keeffe was first married to Alfred Steiglitz they spent summers at his family home in Lake George.  She did some great work there, but she wasn’t inspired. “It’s so green,” she said and it wasn’t a compliment.  It was the open expanses of the Texas plains and the earth tones of New Mexico that really excited her.  And I think it was something beyond color; it was seeing the earth’s bones.  Greenery covers everything. Remember what I said in my blog post, A Letter to my Hips. In drawing class you’re trying to see the bones under the skin and muscle.  I think O’Keeffe wanted to see the earth’s bones,  just as she painted the beautiful bones she found in the desert. She was looking to strip away everything that prevented her from seeing the very basic forms that inspired her. She found the place that nurtured her in New Mexico and I found mine in New York City.

 An image that tugs at my heart every time I see it is the green of the late afternoon sun shining through leaves of grass.  This is poignant to me; it heralds the end of the day, the end of summer and missed opportunities.   It also awakens an uneasy feeling that I’m not living my life as I was meant to.  

.  My brother once asked me, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

And I said, “Right here.”

“No, really.”

“Yes, really.  This is where I want to live.”

“If you could live anywhere in the world?”

“Yeah.”

Since moving to New York City I have never wanted to live anywhere else but I was raised in a leafy suburb and then we moved to Vermont.  Living surrounded by grass and greenery felt like the right way. Was I depriving my children?

For a while Arthur and I dutifully looked at houses in the suburbs but we soon realized that all we asked about each town was, “How fast can we get into the city?”  We gave up the search and settled in the Village.  But I still had the nagging feeling that glowing blade of grass gave me.

O’Keeffe live in New York City for a while, and did some wonderful paintings of the tall buildings and bright lights but she didn’t love it like I do.  We each have to find our own place.

The main source of my unease was my mother. She never gave up trying to get me into a house with a lawn.  She had a lot of creative energy and, like Aunt Connie, she poured it into her home.“You love to draw houses,”she said, “don’t  you want one of you own?”  

I love houses, I dream about houses but I don’t want to own one with all the plumbing, roofing and lawn care involved.  The little house in my calendars changes her shutters every month-imagine doing that for real. I love gardens too, but it’s enough for me just to draw them.

Mom didn’t get it, but I didn’t get how she would play golf everyday if she could. 

Now she’s gone but I still talk with her.  I imagine really listening to her, and speaking so she hears me.  Then I look around my apartment and see all the things she left me-not only her collection of cast-iron Boston Terriers and her good china.  She taught me to make a homey home, to throw a party and invite my friends in, to cook, to clean up as I go along, a sense of order and tidiness.

This is a lot to put on a blade of grass.  A color.  But that’s what comes up, when I see that  place of grass, illuminated by the afternoon sun..

Aunt Connie

 
I have a long and diverse list of artists who have inspired me, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Edgar Degas, Wayne Thibaud, Hans Holbein, Hillary Knight, Alexander Calder…and Aunt Connie. 

 Aunt Connie  was an artist whose canvas, her magnum opus, was her house.  

Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut once had a summer cottage by the sea in Westhampton Beach, Long Island.  The great hurricane of 1938 washed away that house and even the land it stood upon.  All that was left was a bucket and an old bookcase.

       They believed it was the Lord’s doing that they and their children were safe in New Jersey when the storm came, so when they found a house near us in Sag Harbor they named it “Grateful Haven” and took as their motto the Bible verse Matthew 7:25;  

“And the rains descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

    Durrell and Constance Tuttle, and their children, Bette and Porter, became our family’s closest neighbors and friends.   Aunt Connie was tall, Uncle Tut was short.  She said that when she announced her engagement and was asked to describe her fiance she said, “Well, he’s rather like Napoleon.”  He was Napoleonic in stature only; a mild mannered, soft spoken man who thought Aunt Connie could do no wrong. She called him Daddsy and he called her Dollin’.  She always looked cool and crisp in her summer dresses and spectator pumps.    

    Grateful Haven stood so close to the water that in some of its rooms you felt like you were in a ship at sea.  Nobody knew how it actually came to be–it might have been a warehouse for bootleggers during Prohibition days. 
     There were French doors across the whole front and two large unmatched windows above so that it looked a little like a smiling face winking at you. It had a jaunty tilt and very few straight lines or right angles.

    You entered a great room–so big that a ping pong table sat by the door without feeling obtrusive.  Over that was a wagon wheel chandelier.  

    Who said “Less is more?”  Aunt Connie’s  credo was “Less is a bore.” No wall or surface was left unadorned. The interior was unfinished and in each niche created by the vertical studs was a still life–a picture she had picked up at a junk shop, a piece of driftwood, a little vase with one flower.  She painted roses and ivy all over the old upright piano.  On the wall of her dining room she painted the map of Peconic Bay, with a star where Grateful Haven stood. 
     Painting on the walls?!  No one in my family would dream of such a thing.

     It was a magical house. In a game of hide and seek several years after they moved in, the children pulled up a rug they’d never noticed to find a trap door. 
     They pulled that open and found a room below with a tunnel running a hundred feet under the lawn all the way to a room under the gazebo with a still, proof of the house’s bootlegging days. That was quickly removed by the teetotaling Tuttles.                

   Upstairs was Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut’s bedroom, the same gigantic size as the living room except for a chunk taken out for the bathroom.  It was called Texas because Aunt Connie’s sister, having done a little housekeeping, came downstairs and said,
“Well, I’ve just finished sweeping the great state of Texas.”

 

    Not everyone was as enchanted as I was.  My grandfather said, “As many chairs as Connie’s got there’s not one you can sit in.” But I didn’t care about comfortable chairs.  While the grown ups talked I would look around and try to decide what I would save if I knew the flood was coming.  I usually chose a china chicken from her collection.

    My teacher, Robert Beverly Hale, said, “One’s work is nothing but the long journey through life to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three great and simple images that first gained access to one’s heart.” 

Look who now lives on top of my kitchen cabinets. 

 When I was grown up I took a friend who wrote about design for New York Magazine to see Aunt Connie’s house and she swooned, “This place is beyond charming!”  Thus confirming my childhood conviction.
 

Why was Aunt Connie my inspiration? She had qualities every artist needs:

    She was resiliant, After her first house was washed away she gave thanks that her family was safe and then she started over again at Grateful Haven. If you lose everything you have, start right over and know that whatever you’ve made before, there’s more where that came from.  I once left two finished drawings on the subway and I went right back to the studio to do them again while the image was fresh.

    She had discernment.  William Morris said, “If you want a golden rule, have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  As much stuff as Aunt Connie collected, there was nothing that was not either beautiful or useful, and everything was mostly both, and all arranged with order and a plan.  I hate clutter. Was that house cluttered?  NO. There’s clutter and then there’s abundance. 

She was resourceful. There was nothing that cost a lot of money–she had an eagle eye for wonderful things and if she saw something she liked she could usually figure out how to make one like it or better.  She saw some beach chairs on her travels and duplicated them for our beach.  They were funny looking but surprisingly comfortable and light enough to carry. Not really lounge chairs but Aunt Connie wan’t a lounging kind of person.

 

She was industrious; she always had a project.  My grandmother would say, “Connie’s always fussing with something.” As much as I loved my serene MomMom, I also admired Aunt Connie’s busy ways. I have learned that when my hand is working my mind is engaged and focused instead of running in all directions as it did in school.

    But industry without imagination can fall flat. I think Aunt Connie’s greatest gift to me was insouciance, defined by the dictionary as “casual lack of concern, indifference.”

I would add joy.  Her aesthetic was whimsical and offbeat and she stood by it proudly with an attitude of “whatever I like works.” She gave me the freedom in my drawings to say, “A pelican in the window? A rhino in the kitchen?  Why not!

    My grandparents’ house was beautiful; solid and austere, decorated with family pictures and Bible verses.  It’s my sturdy foundation.  But Aunt Connie’s house showed me how to let loose and have a little fun.  I’m grateful for both.

Who was your Aunt Connie?

It’s my Valentine’s Birthday

 Arthur and I met on May 11, 1973, the day after the New York Knicks won the NBA championship. Things haven’t gone well for the Knicks since then but Arthur and I are doing fine.

    I am often asked how I, coming from such a religious background, with a deep commitment to the Bible and Jesus, could marry a Jewish man?  Arthur doesn’t get it either.  When I tried to tell him about my relationship with Jesus he replied, 

    “I don’t know, Barbara,  I felt a lot better about you when you talked this way about Elvis.”  Irreverent, yes, but his skepticism made me look at my faith from a different angle and I came away with a stronger, clearer commitment.

    When it was time to introduce Arthur to the family I made a date to meet my father at a steak house near Madison Square Garden.  

    Arthur arrived first and called me.  Knowing Dad’s punctuality, I said, “My father’s there–go introduce yourself and I’ll get there soon.”

    “How will I know him?”

    “He looks like me and he wears glasses.”

     Mom later told me Dad’s account of that meeting;

    “I’m sitting at the bar thinking ‘I’ve gotta meet another artsy boyfriend, a theater directer, ah jeez.  Why couldn’t she pick someone like that young man over there–blue blazer, polo shirt, neatly trimmed mustache, looks like an athlete?’  And at that moment the athletic young man walks up to me and says, ‘Are you Barbara’s father?’ ”

    In the scramble to free their right hands for a shake red wine was spilled on Dad’s tie but that didn’t matter. By the time I got there they were deep in conversation about sports and the movies.

      

       I once said to my brother, Alan, “Don’t you think the secret of a long marriage is a high tolerance for irritation and  boredom?” and he said, 

    “Yes, and inertia.”

    I do have one tip.  Arthur and I have had terrible fights, and we’ve gone to bed angry plenty of times, but we never let a fight interfere with our social life.  If we had plans we’d  put on happy faces for our friends. Eventually he’d say something funny or interesting, I’d remember what it was I liked about him and the fight would be over.  

    He  has brought wonderful gifts to our marriage, like standing up for your friends, abhorring gossip, being true to your word, honoring your work.  These weren’t new concepts to me but Arthur brought them into a new light.  Possibly the most important thing he’s taught me is, “Let it go.”  Troubles just roll off him and they’re forgotten.  It’s hard for me to quit chewing over old resentments, but it’s helpful that Arthur never pours gasoline on fires and his humor never fails us.

    When my nephew was six he told me; “When I was little I saw Arthur in his bathing suit and I said, ‘Arthur, how come you have so much hair on your chest?’ and without looking up from his book he said, ‘Because, Danny, I used to be a bear.’ And for a long time I believed him.”


 I’m not the only one who finds Arthur irresistible,  Here he is with our nieces, Katie and Rachel.

 

Form Follows Function

Form Follows Function
     In church last week the lesson was the first Psalm: it says that the righteous are “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and its leaves do not wither.”  One of the hymns we sang had a line about a whale roaming the seas and an eagle soaring the skies. You know how something just grabs you? those two images reminded me of this quote:
“Whether it be the soaring eagle in his flight,
or the open apple blossom, the toiling work horse,
the blithe swan,
the branching oak,the winding stream at its base,
the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, 
Form ever follows function
and that is the law.
Where function does not change, form does not change.”
Who said that?   Louis Sullivan,1856-1924, called the father of modern architecture.  He believed, and acted upon that belief, that a building must be solid, useful and beautiful, and designed from the inside out, with its purpose in mind.
 
 
 
     You can see Sullivan’s only New York City work at 65 Bleecker Street, the Bayard, now Bayard-Condict building. Paul Goldberger called it “a delicate poem, yet a strong one.”and points to the structural expression evident in the graceful yet sturdy pillars. Sullivan found a beautiful balance between the structure and the embellishments.
Does form always follow function?  You might not think so to look at the French Poodle. I always thought this was a silly look with the chest all puffed out and the little pompoms around the ankles but then I learned that the look serves a purpose. The Poodle was bred as a hunting dog–to leap into cold water and retrieve dead ducks. The fluff around the chest protect and warm the lungs and heart, the hind legs are free for swimming, the pompoms warm the joints. Form Follows Function.
This guy’s groomer may have carried it too far, but the basic design is functional.
 
 
 
Here’s a blithe swan by my friend, Carol Way Wood,(https://carolwaywood.wordpress.com
 

       New York City’s beautiful firehouses, like the one at the top of this post, are perfect examples of form following function and they’re so appealing. I love their red doors, their orderly design and the polite way they nestle into a row of brownstones. Each one has a unique design and decoration. I find it deeply moving about my fellow humans that something so necessary and utilitarian is made to be so beautiful. 

    I was walking with Arthur past Engine Company 14, the one that starred in the movie, Ghostbusters, when a hook and ladder came home.  The firefighter at the wheel, who didn’t look old enough to drive, had to turn left but there was a car in his way.  He put his hand out the window with a lovely “after you” wave for the car to go ahead, then made his turn and easily pulled that huge truck into the narrow doorway.

    “That was so graceful,” I said to Arthur.  He agreed.
When something works well, whether it’s a building or a song or just a maneuver, it’s a lovely thing. I try to keep open to the tiny delights life offers up.

The Gates

This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of The Gates, Christo and Jean Claude’s monumental work which transformed Central Park for two weeks in February, 2005; 7,503 vinyl rectangles holding orange curtains, standing along 23 miles of pathways in the Park. 

Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are know for their site specific works of art, particularly wrapping large objects, like the Reichstag in Berlin.  They worked on this project for years,  and met with mighty resistance until our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said, “Sure, let’s do it.”  I love him for that. We were still recovering from the attacks of September 11, 2001. While there are things we never get over, we have to move on and doing something huge just for art, for fun, for the heck of it, had great appeal.

I was able, through the New York Artists Circle, to sign up to become a worker in a gray smock, carrying a long pole with a tennis ball at the tip.  Our job was to stand guard at our station, deter vandals and when the wind wound the curtains around their supports to unwind and set them free.

I found it enchanting.  There was a snow storm the night before my first day and the saffron curtains were even more brilliant against the white.  Here I am at my post, clearing the path and learning once again that shoveling snow is a great way to keep warm.  

Look at the way the puddles reflect the color of the curtains. And doesn’t my pink hat look nice against the orange? I wish I still had that hat in January of 2017.
I thank my friend, Carol Leibenson, for finding this shot in her files when I had lost it.

Here we are getting our smocks autographed by the artists.  I’m a New Yorker and I would die before asking a famous person for an autograph but this was different. I am in awe of these two and what they achieved.

Central Park, so often deserted in winter, came alive.  Every morning I walked past the statue of the King of Poland, looking over Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn.  Now there was a curtain in front of him and as the sun rose behind him in the east I thought, “Wow, he’s never seen his shadow before! I wonder how he likes it?”

The whole world came to celebrate, especially Christo and Jean-Claude’s biggest fans, the people of Germany.   I asked one visitor, “So who’s running Germany while all you guys are over here?”

There was the most lovely feeling of community under those arches. The whole project was completely open and democratic; it reached every square foot of the park and you couldn’t pay more to get a better seat.  It was for everyone.  A young man came up to me and asked, “How do I get to the Gates?” And I said, “You’re here!”

Dogs are allowed off the leash in the park before nine am, so they’d come out to play and their human companions would visit. 

My partner was a young woman who was also not tall so we couldn’t always reach high enough to unwind the curtains.  A tall man came along with his family and helped us; when he freed the cloth his children yelled, “Yay, Daddy!” 

 The hotdog venders, usually lucky to make a hundred dollars on a winter day, were raking in the money—as much as a thousand dollars a day.

My son, Sam, called me on my cell and said, “Mom, it’s really cold today.  Can I bring you some extra warm clothes?”

The  project was funded entirely by the sale of Christo’s artwork. There were no volunteers. Although many of us would have participated for nothing; everyone got paid. When I received a check for three hundred and fifty dollars Sam said, “Mom, you should buy yourself something nice with that money, because you worked hard for it…and…have you given away ten percent?”  So some of my lessons had taken root.  I asked him where I should direct my tithe and he suggested an organization working to legalize marijuana.
“Uh, anything else?”
He was working as a barista, so he suggested I increase my tips whenever I got coffee. “There’s nothing like finding a five in the tip jar!” So for the next month I was a big tipper.  It was a ripple effect of the Gates.

And then it was over; the gates were taken down and all materials were re-cycled.  Nobody could buy a gate and put it up in their yard.  That ephemeral nature added to the magic.

 I was so impressed–awed, really, that I asked myself what I had done to come anywhere close.  I remembered that when I stood and gazed up at Mount Rushmore I asked myself, “Should I be working bigger?”

I had always wanted to start an exhibition program at my church.  I served as co-chair of a capital campaign to restore the church’s south wing, an 1874 McKim Mead White Gothic Revival that had suffered some years of neglect. One of our dreams was to hang art in the beautiful Great Hall. But after raising more than a million dollars and overseeing design and construction and listening to the church members who hadn’t done the work but didn’t like the results, my co-chair and I took some time off from church work.

Then Christo and Jeanne-Claude inspired me.  If they could pull off the Gates, after twenty years of negotiating and planning, surely I could persuade the church to hang some pictures in the Great Hall.  I presented my idea to our pastor, Jon Walton, and he replied that a church in the Village should serve the artistic community.   The result was Art at First, a program of exhibiting art by emerging or unknown artists.  We’ve had some great shows.

 It’s much more fun to be in the game than to watch it, and if you think you can’t do something, just give it another go.  You might be surprised.

Addendum To Brown

In talking about things I love that are brown how could I have forgotten Lucy?
After Jessie and Sam left home I knew it was time for a dog.  Arthur kept saying all the mean dad things like, it’s too much work, you won’t take care of it, on and on.
But he was planning behind my back and on my birthday this little bundle of love flew in from Council Bluffs, Oklahoma.  Her kennel name was Stormy but thank Heaven we changed that.It was just like when I met Arthur–I knew at once that we were meant for each other.
I described Lucy as “the love of my life” in front of Sam, who reminded me that’s a term I should reserve for my husband.  Well, yes, Arthur’s very nice, but he doesn’t wiggle all over with joy every time he sees me.

This year for my birthday Molly made Lucy’s portrait.  It’s a great likeness, don’t you think?

 

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Song of the Bronx

  

This is one of my favorite drawings because it covers many of my obsessions; architecture, in particular Beaux Arts, New York City, baseball, the Yankees,(that’s Babe Ruth) animals, angels.  Well, those ladies cavorting on the roof don’t have wings, but they might be angels.  I put then there to fill an empty space then decided they were too prominent so I shaded them.  There are always decisions to be made and I never plan ahead beyond a vague pencil sketch.  I like to let a picture evolve; sometimes there are nice surprises and sometimes there are disasters.  I never know. Does my perspective look a little off?  My Dad once said to me, “I like how you get things a little wonky,”

The Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo stands at the head of Astor Court, a series of Beaux-Arts pavilions surrounding the sea lion pool.  The red brick buildings are adorned with sculpture to tell who lives inside.  This was the original zoo, opened in 1906.  It was progressive for its time but they’ve learned a lot since then about caring for wild creatures and the big animals have since moved to more commodious quarters. 

 I’ve spent some of my happiest hours here, starting with my fifth birthday party. That was back in the day when you just threw a gang of kids in the car and took off. Mom stowed the cake in the bottom of Alan’s stroller.

The years passed and Arthur and I took our own kids to the zoo. We always went early, arriving as the gates opened. We liked it best in winter, especially when it was really nasty out and nobody else came. The animals seemed glad to see us.  Once a sandhill crane came right up to us and rubbed his head on the bars as if he wanted a scratch.  And as we entered the Sea Bird Aviary this little penguin spotted us from across the pool, dived in, swam to us and popped up as if to say Hello. It was a lovely welcome. That’s my hand in the blue glove.  I was tempted to tuck him under my coat and take him home but I didn’t.

I was deep in my bird drawing period in those days and could have spent hours in the World of Birds but Sam, age three, walked out  saying,

“I seen enough birds.” 

 

Now my kids take their kids to the zoo and the Elephant House is the Zoo Center but sometimes you’ll find an animal there-like this White Rhino. Jessie took this shot and sent it to me–she knows about me and rhinos.

Here’s Teddy making friends with a baby Llama–is he an alpaca?

The zoo is now part of the Wildlife Conservation Society. —saving species all over the world. 

Here is their mission statement:

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: newsroom.wcs.org. Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: +1 (347) 840-1242.

It’s a wonderful place that’s brought me enormous happiness and  inspiration.

Trees

When I was little riding in the car at night I loved  seeing the trees when the headlights shone on them–I got the feeling that they had a life going on that I didn’t know about; as if I had surprised them in some secret tree community life.
Years later, when droving to Vermont I would look at the elm trees that grew along Route 22-their bare branches twisting against the sky–they were so elegant, they seemed to be dancing.
I thought, and this is always a good idea–I should draw that. I went home and began to draw those trees from memory. I’ve never stopped drawing trees.  I’ve had other obsessions–Baseball, the Rhino, but when I feel dried up and no ideas come, I turn to a tree, maybe an image that caught my eye in a magazine, and I get to work.  As my hand moves my mind starts to wander and the ideas start to flow. Thank you, Trees.
Then all those beautiful  elms began to die from Dutch elm disease.  That was devastating– was awful to see them lose their leaves in June and then have to be cut down, leaving only a stump to mark their place.
But there’s hope.  The elms of Central Park, in New York City, were not affected.  Perhaps the disease carrying beetle couldn’t[ make it in New York.  But botanists are developing a disease resistant strain of the elm.
Yay, science!  Yay, New York!  As Maira Kalman, an artist and writer I greatly admire, said, WE have trees, shat else do we need?”
Read about it here:http://www.centralparknyc.org/tree-guide/american-elm.html

I Have a Hawk on my Head

Yes, I have a hawk on my head.  I met this beautiful creature in Cuba.  I think her wings must have been clipped and that makes me sad, because she should fly, but I’m grateful to meet her face to face.  As she sat on my arm I marveled at her dainty talons.  Of course, if I were a mouse I might not find her so winsome.

I’ve been drawing birds for years, and I admire hawks especially. I made this drawing of two osprey as a gift for my grandmother. For years a mating pair made a home and raised their chicks in a tree at her home in Sag Harbor. They disappeared for a while, because of DDT. Then they came back. Thank you, Rachel Carson!
[As I wrote this, spell check changed “a mating” into “amazing”, and that works for me.]
 

This makes me think of my brother, Rob Swanson, a photographer and former hang glider–I think that’s as close to flying as a human can get.  He told me he once came up behind a hawk in flight and startled him badly.  

 Here’s Rob’s osprey.  I feel sorry for the poor fish, but that’s life; the osprey has to feed his family.  Rob said, “You know, in the moment before he died, that fish had a chance to view the world in a way he never had before.” I wonder what consolation that was?

For years Rob worked as a photographer for the Burlington Free Press.  During the 2016 presidential primaries his shot of a young Bernie Sanders celebrating his victory as mayor of Burlington was on every front page in the nation.  Now Rob’s concentrating on birds.

You can see more of Rob’s work at Rob Swanson Photography

When I’m with Rob I’m much more aware of the birds around us.  He especially loves to watch turkey vultures soar for hours on thermal air currents just like hang gliders. Or the other way around.
My grandson Teddy said, “I’ve heard bad things abut vultures.”  But does he know the vulture’s service to the earth?  Did you know that when cholera and other deadly diseases, often found in carrion, pass through the vulture’s body they disappear?  Let’s hear it for the Vulture–nature’s sanitation engineer!

I continue to find it amazing that every living thing has a place and a purpose. It takes me to the Bible verse my grandparents took as their motto; Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those that love the Lord, to those that are the called according to His purpose.”  

I’ll be writing about 8:28 in the future, about how it offers me great comfort and makes me scratch my head, perplexed, both in the same moment.  

Here’s another verse that has sustained me in times of despair; “They shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

Christmas Memories

I love these quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s a resting place to review the old year and get ready for the new; a time for reflection and remembrance.

I think of my grandfather, Robert Sinclair Swanson, who died on his sixty-eighth birthday, Christmas Day, 1958. I was ten, so I remember it all clearly.  We called him PopPop. He had had a heart attack years before and was forced to leave his business and “rest.”  Nowadays he’d be given a treadmill and a Fitbit and told to get moving.  The forced inactivity was hard on him and even harder on our grandmother. 
But that Christmas Day all was well. The whole family met at Uncle Jack’s. There were piles of presents; PopPop always insisted that he be given both a Christmas gift and a birthday gift, but since he was delighted with a ball of string or a new pencil his wishes didn’t strain our budgets. There was birthday cake and singing. He carved the turkey and after dinner plucked the carcass clean, ready for the soup pot, and made packets of white meat and dark for each family to take home for sandwiches.  When the day was over and we got in our car to leave, my mother said, “Oh, wait—I didn’t say good night to PopPop,” and she ran back for a quick hug and a thank you for the wonderful day.  When we got home the phone was ringing.  Mom picked it up and said, before even hanging up,“Bob, get back to Jack’s—your dad’s had a stroke.” 

And that was that.  He had been sitting with my cousin John on his lap. He made a funny noise that my grandmother at first thought was to amuse John, then he put his head back and was gone.  It was sad for us and shocking but a perfect end to a life well-lived.

This is a picture from the day after Christmas the year before that one.  Santa had brought my brother Alan a set of trains and PopPop declared himself conductor in chief.  You can see he’s in his element with two little boys, my brother Robby and cousin Danny, on his lap and several big boys ready to do his bidding.  That’s me in the gray sweater, the boys are Alan’s friends.  Where’s Alan?  He’s upstairs asking Mom, “When is PopPop going home?” 
I recently asked Alan what he remembers about that day.  He said, “PopPop was a very grandfatherly grandfather and he loved to do boy things.  It was great to watch how he did it all so carefully, putting the tracks together and connecting the engines to the cars. Then we’d start it up, and then we’d stop at the station..start and then stop. It was great.  But slow. Eventually you want… well…there are two engines and what if we make them crash?”

Mom was always thankful that she went back to say good-bye on that last night. I think she was also thankful that she never told PopPop about Alan’s question.  She just told Alan to be patient. When I look at this picture I see a man having a wonderful time and I’m glad he had those moments.  I think Alan’s glad, too.