Notebook: Opal’s Madonna

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art Hewitt Fund, 1911.

Another Friday morning. Mim showers in Opal’s salmon-pink bathroom. The smell of Cameo brand soap, wet in her hand, reminds her of kissing her mother-in-law’s fragrant cheek.

Already, though Opal has only been gone for a week, Mim craves her sturdy kindness, her laugh billowing out over the dining table like oceans of acceptance. When Opal opens her side door — nobody but the mail carrier uses her front door — she greets you with the heedless energy of a rough-coated dog who has waited all afternoon for your return. A short, wide woman, her hands wet or floured, a drift of her gray hair falling out of its bun, her sensible shoes polished black and sprinkled with flour. She waves you into her kitchen and bends down to open the oven, where baked cinnamon apples burst out of their skins.

How could a woman like this have died? How could she have faded away? Opal, a woman as lavish in her affection as anyone you’ve met. Shrewd, mind you: an eye for a sound bargain. Mim can see where her husband, Opal’s son, got his head for business.

Mim shuts off the water. She steps out of the shower onto Opal’s plush bath mat. She dries her sad self with a striped beach towel, blows her nose, and shimmies into a set of underwear. Black pants, black top; salmon-pink socks, in honor of Opal, the lover of all warm colors: orange, marigold, cerise.

Then, at the breakfast table: “Sweetheart,” Mim says to Arnold, “shouldn’t I bring the Madonna to the funeral home? I want your mother to feel comforted. Those parlors at McMurphy’s are so impersonal.”

Opal had brought the Madonna home from Austria after the war, along with other treasures she’d found in antique shops in Salzburg. Her husband, Arnold’s father, was stationed there with the U.S. Army of Occupation after the German Reich surrendered. In the chaos of war, so many families had sold their treasures. The Madonna and Child, a devotional figure twelve inches high, was probably German, the antique dealer said, perhaps 18th century, polychrome on walnut.

“I’ll find you a box to put her in, Mim,” Arnold says, shoving his chair back from the table. His mother’s cardboard box collection, like other repositories of useful items, is in the basement.

As Mim lifts the Madonna down from the bureau in Opal’s bedroom, she sees that the Virgin Mary could be any young mother. Her watchful gaze; the mild gesture of her baby’s hand reaching out toward the visitor.

Underneath the statue Mim sees a deep gouge in the base that shows charred wood inside. Has the Madonna come through fire, or been treated roughly for an invasion of wood-boring insects? The unpainted surface on the bottom has darkened, over the centuries, to the color of roasted chestnuts. On the Virgin’s neck, where paint has flaked off more recently, the raw wood glows a soft umber.

Who else, Mim wonders, has prayed before this figure of the Virgin and her son? Who else, praying or reminiscing, has wept for kinfolk lost to old age, war, or execution in the street?

“I am not myself a believer,” Mim says now to the Madonna, “but Opal believed. She loved you; she loved your son. Give her peace.”

Spoken out loud in the quiet room, the words bring Mim a sense of relief so vivid as to be almost tangible. It’s as though nothing else matters. Only this moment. Only one woman, breathing and remembering love.

— Mary Ann Barton

 

 

Notebook: Angels

Editor’s note: “Angels” is an excerpt from a short story about family caregiving that I’m writing for my book, Rest. I began it this fall in Eson Kim‘s Fiction I class at GrubStreet Creative Writing Center in Boston. In this excerpt, we meet Arnold Davies, who is just waking up from surgery, and his wife Mim. — MAB

Chanson de la plus haute tour (II) by Airair, 2007.

EYES FLUTTERING OPEN, ARNOLD IS ON THE DIM EDGE OF FREAKING OUT.

On a Friday afternoon just before Christmas, Arnold wakes up from cardiac bypass surgery, gasping, in one of those high-tech hospital cribs with pushbutton-this and bellringing-that.

Eyes fluttering open, he’s on the dim edge of freaking out, which God knows is a perfectly reasonable response to waking up on a ventilator with a massive bandage on his chest, a tube down his nose, an IV in his hand, and a raging thirst. The first thing Arnold tries to do is swallow – a gulp of panic – but he can’t do it because of the ventilator tube in his throat.

Aagh, he thinks. Aagh! His mind generates the kind of dazed roar that precedes distinct thought. He’s in pain and he can’t swallow, can’t call out for help, and can’t even turn his head. There’s a whole lot of beeping going on. In his head he thinks something, perhaps Oh God, or Mim? Mim?

“Mr. Davies, I see you’re awake.” A woman with an angelic cloud of hair has appeared at his bedside. “You’re in cardiac surgery intensive care and you are doing just fine,” the angel says. “Your surgery is over.” Arnold blinks. The angel smiles a practiced smile.

“Mr. Davies, can you squeeze my hand?” asks the angel. “Good. Wiggle your toes? Terrific. Ok now, I want you to follow my finger with your eyes. Follow it back again. Good. Now, are you in pain? Nod if you’re in pain.”

Arnold nods. His left hand quivers and tries to raise itself, but it’s tied down. Tears escape Arnold’s eyes and slide down his cheeks; he’s mortified. His nose drips.

 Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right by Leonardo da Vinci

“WE’RE GOING TO GIVE YOU SOMETHING FOR PAIN.”

“We’re going to give you something for pain,” the angel announces. There’s an indeterminate flurry of activity. Someone wipes his cheeks and blots the drips coming out of his nose. “You’re on a ventilator,” the angel says, “so you won’t be able to talk. You’re doing just fine.” Seconds later, he feels blessed relief steal past his ribs into the core of his being. He slips back into the deep.

In the ICU, time passes. Techs, nurses, docs, visitors, kitchen staff swirl down the hall past Arnold’s room. From time to time, someone disturbs his sleep.

Then: “Arnold, honey, it’s Mim.” Arnold stares up at her face, feels his wife’s hand stroking his hand. Briefly, her hair touches his neck.

Mim, he thinks. Tears slide out of his lids. Mim, I need a drink, he thinks. Her fingers wipe the tears down over the pale surface of his face. Her hand strokes the hair on his head, slides around to touch his cheek.

“Wounds heal from the inside out,” Dr. Binh said to Mim in the waiting room after surgery. “Absolutely at this moment, and at every moment since I made the first incision, your husband’s brain and tissues have been directing billions of cellular procedures aimed at stopping the bleeding and repairing the damage. These cellular repair procedures are programmed in us by DNA. All we need to do is breathe and wait, or, in Arnold’s case, allow the ventilator to breathe. Just be in the moment.”

In this moment, Arnold weighs the pressure of his body on the bed; Mim’s hand on his; electronic sounds; the wedged feeling in his throat. A slow-moving awareness begins to reduce the roar in his head.

Head of a Negro by Peter Paul Rubens

“BREATHE DEEPLY, ARNOLD,” THE NURSE SAYS.

New angel: a man with dark hands and fingers, a Caribbean voice.

“Arnold,” the nurse tells him, “we’re going to remove your ventilator tube and give you a try at breathing on your own.” It feels like somebody’s pulling a hose out of his throat, fast.

“Breathe deeply, Arnold,” the nurse says. “That’s right, breathe in and then breathe out again.” The machines change their pattern of beeps. Arnold breathes. His throat burns when he swallows but it feels so good to be able to swallow, even though the thirst consumes him. Someone feeds him ice chips; a blessing.

Now that the breathing tube is out, Mim has been allowed back into Arnold’s room. She sets her carryall bag on the floor and sighs down into the chair, twitching her thin yellow infection control gown over her clothes. Her hands smell of disinfectant gel.

Woman Embroidering by August Macke, German, 1909.

DEAR ARNOLD, MIM THINKS, DO YOU REMEMBER THAT SONG ON THE RADIO WHEN WE MET?

Dear Arnold, Mim thinks, Do you remember that song on the radio when we met? She remembers their wedding ceremony at her grandmother’s church in Chicago, her triumphant smile as she processed down the aisle towards Arnold on a gust of bridal pride.

“Can I have some water?” Arnold has wakened.

“Let’s sit you up,” says the nurse. “Hold this to your chest.” He hands Arnold a heart-shaped cough pillow and presses buttons. The head of the bed raises a tad. Oh, God! Something clotted surges downward in Arnold’s chest.

“You’re ok, Arnold,” the nurse tells him. “It’s ok, your chest tube will get rid of the fluids. You’re safe.” He turns to Mim: “You can give him ice chips, but just a couple at a time.”

“Of course,” says Mim. She finds herself breathing in unison with Arnold, as if they’re engaged in some joint venture that requires the highest levels of corporeal coordination. Hearts and lungs have never felt more precious, nor angels’ voices nearer.

— Mary Ann Barton

Image credits (from the top): Chanson de la plus haute tour (II) by Airair, 2007, via Wikimedia. * Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right by Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1508-1512, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1951 (51.90). Head of a Negro by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, ca. 1620, via Wikimedia. * Woman Embroidering by August Macke, German, 1909, via Wikimedia.

Parachute Riggers by Paraskeva Clark

Elinor Florence on the “Chute Girls” of World War II

Author Elinor Florence

Canadian author Elinor Florence shares wartime stories.

Editor’s note: Canadian author Elinor Florence shares stories and pictures of life in World War II in her blog Wartime Wednesdays. Here is her fascinating photo story of Canada’s female parachute packers, reblogged by permission. I wonder how changing attitudes toward women’s roles in the 70 years since the war have affected the way we remember those who served. Have you talked about working women in wartime with your family? — MAB 

Featured image (top): Parachute Riggers by Paraskeva Clark, Russian-born Canadian, 1947, via Canadian War Museum. 

Cheers to the Chute Girls!

Of all the work performed by women in uniform, packing parachutes — those complicated contraptions of silk and leather — meant the difference between life and death for a man plunging from the sky.
.

Canadian airwomen check the folds in a parachute during World War II. Photo credit: Canadian War Museum.

Here’s a photo of some very smart-looking Canadian women carefully laying out a parachute on a long table, checking that every fold is in place.

There was a tremendous need for parachutes in World War II.

Fliers not only needed them during training (especially then) but every time they went out on operational flights. During the six-year conflict, hundreds of thousands of parachutes were sewn, packed and distributed. Twenty thousand parachutes were opened in a single mission, dropping paratroopers into France on D-Day.

And for the most part, parachute packing was women’s work.

In the book We Serve That Men May Fly, the story of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, author Mary Ziegler quotes one officer, explaining why women were particularly suited to the job.

“Take parachute packing. To a man it’s a dull, routine job. He doesn’t want to pack parachutes. He wants to be up there with one strapped to his back. But to a woman it’s an exciting job. She can imagine that someday a flier’s life will be saved because she packed that parachute well. Maybe it will be her own husband’s life or her boyfriend’s. That makes parachute packing pretty exciting for her, and she does a much more efficient and speedy job than an unhappy airman would.”

Perhaps there was even some truth to this outdated attitude!

Foothill Fliers was the station newsletter of No. 3 Service Flight Training School in Calgary, and in the October 1943 issue, it published an article titled: “Temptations of a ‘Chute Girl.”

Foothill Fliers was the station newsletter of No. 3 Service Flight Training School in Calgary, Alberta, during World War II.

“Temptations of a ‘Chute Girl” by Corporal Muriel Ellis. No. 3 Service Flight Training School, Calgary, Alberta, 1943.

Although the article was written by a woman, Corporal Muriel Ellis, she kept the tone light. Here’s an excerpt:

“Ever miss those nice sheer pre-war silk stockings, girls? When you work all day with enough silk to make stockings aplenty for the next eight years, wearing cotton stockings, it’s a great temptation to whip out the scissors. Particularly now, when real $1.50 chiffons are as scarce as beefsteak in Berlin.

“That’s what the girls in the parachute section, packing six to eight chutes a day, and thinking of the dear, dead days of silk-legged delight, are up against. The silk from one chute would make no less than 160 pairs of stockings, and if you like Nylons, there’s 200 pairs of them in one of the big umbrellas.

“Chute rigging has been on of the chief activities of the Women’s Division since Ottawa decided that there were hundreds of jobs in the air force that could be done by the ladies. And, as you can see, one of the most ironical jobs.”

The photo below shows AW1 A.S. Olive packing a parachute at Wolseley, Saskatchewan. Behind her you can see the individual cubbyholes, where each parachute was kept until checked out before a flight.

AW1 A.S. Olive packs a parachute at Wolseley, Saskatchewan.

In spite of this humorous approach, packing a parachute was far from simple. Here’s one description of how it was done:

“The main canopy is 56 square yards of silk and is 24 feet in diameter. Fastened to the pack are two rings known as the D rings. From the right ring run 12 rigging lines up the right side of the canopy and down the left side and then fasten on the left ring. These lines measure 52 feet apiece and total 700 feet. The canopy and lines are stowed in a small pack 11 inches by 16 inches in concertina fashion. The placing of such a large quantity of silk and lines in such a small space is a very intricate operation and well worth witnessing. The weight of the parachute complete with harness is 25 pounds.”

Sounds pretty complicated, doesn’t it?

Before the parachute was packed, it had to be minutely examined for flaws. Here’s a group of civilian women inspecting a parachute.

 

Civilian women inspect a parachute. Photo Credit: Bettmann and Corbis.

It was also examined in a hanging position. According to the article in Foothills Fliers:

“Each fold must be exact, all rigging or shroud lines must be in the pockets straight and true. The metal fittings have to be kept free from rust, and a dozen other things checked to insure the fast opening of a parachute. For a chute must not only open, it must open fast!”

Each parachute is also examined in a hanging position.

Then came the tricky business of folding it correctly, so the delicate lines wouldn’t get tangled and caught up when the silk unfurled. Once again, the racks containing the packed parachutes are visible in the background.

Then comes the tricky business of folding the parachute correctly.

The below photograph of Beatrice Jennox was copied from the book We Serve That Men May Fly, the story of the RCAF Women’s Division, by Mary Ziegler.

Women of all nationalities and branches of the armed forces performed this vital task. Here an American WAVE (short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) demonstrates parachute packing techniques. Later this branch became known as the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), but the nickname WAVE stuck.

The lettering on the parachute bag indicates that the location is Naval Air Station, New York. Note her Parachute Rigger rating badge, and framed prints of Navy life on the wall behind her.

 

An American WAVE (short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) demonstrates parachute packing techniques. Photo credit: U.S. Navy, now in the collection of the National Archives.

The care of the parachute was also of great importance. Records were kept to ensure parachutes were tested regularly.

The chute was opened and hung up for 48 hours to enable it to air; weather permitting, the parachute was taken outside and aired by nature, ballooning with the wind. It was then well shaken to get rid of any insects.

At periodic intervals, the women also went up in an aircraft and “drop-tested” the chutes, attached to 180-pound dummies. According to the Foothill Fliers: “The girls feel like bombardiers as they circle the drome at 100 miles per hour, hefting the dummies out!”

Here’s a group of WRENS (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) checking to see that a parachute is filling correctly, by opening it in the wind.

A group of WRENS (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) checks to see that a parachute is filling correctly.

If a tiny hole or weak spot was noted, the parachutes had to be carefully mended. This painting by Paraskeva Clark, who was appointed by the National Gallery of Canada to record the activities of the women’s branches of the armed forces during wartime, shows the process of sewing the parachutes.

Parachute Riggers, 1947, by artist Paraskeva Clark. She was appointed by the National Gallery of Canada to record the activities of the women’s branches of the armed forces during wartime. Image credit: Canadian War Museum.

The intense expression on three of the women’s faces draws attention to their tasks of cutting, folding, and securing the lines of the parachutes. This 1947 oil painting is part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum.

Here’s a photo of women mending chutes at No. 38 Wing RAF & Airborne Division Headquarters. You can see by the volume of fabric and the number of lines that this was a fairly cumbersome job.

Women mend chutes at No. 38 Wing RAF & Airborne Division Headquarters.

Mary Purdue, whoever she was, was named in this advertisement for an American brand of cereal as a Champion Parachute Maker.

Editor’s note: A 1940s U.S. cereal ad paid tribute to a Champion Parachute Maker. To see the whole ad, visit http://bit.ly/1Mj2Ee3.

The parachute-packing women were intensely aware that their activities were of the utmost importance.

A sign on the wall behind these members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force reads: “REMEMBER, A MAN’S LIFE DEPENDS ON EVERY PARACHUTE YOU PACK!” I doubt very much if the sign was necessary.

Parachute records noted when it was packed, and by whom, so every parachute could be traced back to its packer.

A sign on the wall behind these members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force reads: “REMEMBER, A MAN’S LIFE DEPENDS ON EVERY PARACHUTE YOU PACK!”

Many men died no matter how well their parachutes were packed. And in each fatality investigation, the parachute had to be inspected to see whether it was a factor.

Anna Dundas (née Mayer) of Winnipeg enlisted in the RCAF Women’s Division in January 1942 and served at No. 10 Service Flight Training School in Dauphin, Manitoba. You can read her whole story by clicking here: The Memory Project.

Anna Dundas of Winnipeg remembers inspecting the parachutes of airmen who had crashed.

Here she describes one sad but memorable incident :

“There were three of us in that section. We had to inspect parachutes for rips or tears and hang them in a well to air them for 48 hours, and then repack them.

“The only time I was nervous inspecting a parachute was where they brought it in after a crash and it had burned. And we had to go through it. We, when I say we, I had to. I was the only one that worked on it, to make sure there were no body parts in it. And the smell of that burnt silk was very, very strong, it was nauseating. And it was kind of a daunting job. But we had to do it, that was part of the ritual, before they could throw it out.”

* * * * *

Another woman named G.D. Martineau wrote an eloquent poem about her feelings, describing her anxiety at the importance of her work.

The Parachute Packer’s Prayer

 G.D. Martineau

When they posted me here to the section,

I was free as the pitiless air,

Unashamed of confessed imperfection,

Having no sort of burden to bear.

I was not an incurable slacker;

Neat, not fussy – I fancied of old,

But today I’m a Parachute Packer,

And my heart takes a turn with each fold.

When I think how I snugly resided

In the lap of this land we could lose,

I believe if I left one cord twisted,

I would place my own neck in a noose.

So I lay the fine silk on the table

And I lift each pale panel in turn.

They have said that my folding is able

But it took me a long time to learn.

For the cords must come free for smooth flowing

And the webbing attachment be stout,

For the brute of a breeze will be blowing

If the aircrew have to bale out.

‘Cos the flyer must float unencumbered,

Come to earth to complete the design,

See, the ‘chute has been carefully numbered,

And the name in the log book is mine.

So is conscience awakened and care born

In the heart of a negligent maid.

Fickle Aeolus, fight for the airborne,

Whom I strive with frail fingers to aid.

Give my heroes kind wind and fair weather,

Let no parachute sidle or slump,

For today we go warring together

And my soul will be there at the jump.

I found the last two lines very moving: “Today we go warring together, and my heart will be there at the jump.”

* * * * *

Here is the best story of all, and one that I located after much diligent searching of the Internet. It comes from a small town newspaper in Watkins Glen, New York called The Watkins Express, dated July 7, 1943.

This man, RCAF Flying Officer J.R. Delaney, had managed to bail out of his burning plane and was saved. In gratitude, he sought out the parachute packer, a young woman named L.A.C. Irene Camken, who worked in a parachute packing station in Rockcliffe, near Ottawa. Flying Officer Delaney was from Mount Vernon, New York.

A grateful airman visits Leading Airwoman Irene Camken at her RCAF station to thank her for packing the parachute that saved him. Credit: The Watkins Glen (NY) Express, July 7, 1943.

And because the old clipping is a little blurry, here is a transcript:

BRINGS HIM BACK ALIVE

When a flier has to bail out of his aircraft, he not only appreciates the parachute that does the trick of saving him, but looks on its packer as the person who threw a life preserver when he started to sink.

Flying Office T.R. Delaney of Mount Vernon, New York, who recently jumped from a flaming aircraft, landed safely and went to the parachute section of the Royal Canadian Air Force Station at Rockcliffe to thank the airwoman who “brought him back alive.”

She is Leading Airwoman Irene Camken, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Camken of Belleville. Formerly a fabric worker at the Cooey Metal Works, Brighton, Ont., LAW Camken enlisted in the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force fourteen months ago, and has been packing parachutes ever since. In her estimation, that is a real war job.

“You can never let yourself forget how important your work is when you’re packing ‘chutes,” she said. “It isn’t your life that depends on them. It’s somebody else’s, and your best is the only job that’s good enough.”

Now transferred to another station of the RCAF, LAW Camken took along evidence of how good her “best job” can be. It is a new identification bracelet, one shining side bearing the RCAF crest, her name and Women’s Division number. The other is the side she prefers. That reads: “With sincere thanks, T.R. Delaney.”

On behalf of all those men who fell safely from the sky — not to mention their mothers, sisters, and wives — I want to send a big Cheers to the Chute Girls, wherever they are now. Happy Landings!

Bird's Eye View by Elinor FlorenceAuthor Elinor Florence grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm that was the site of a wartime training airfield.  Her historical novel, Bird’s Eye View, tells the story of a female Canadian intelligence officer who works as an aerial photographic interpreter in World War II Britain.

 

Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-Lengths

Dear Emma: Snappy Letters to My Alter Ego

Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-LengthsEditor’s note: From time to time I share my writing process with readers of the Joyous Paradox blog. Today’s post is about my literary character Emma Davies, who began showing up in my notebook when my son Edward was in elementary school. (He’s now 35.)

“Who are you, Emma Davies?” I asked her, when her name first slipped into my consciousness all those years ago. “Why do you feel so familiar?”

Back then, all I could see of Emma’s life was the title of a story, “Emma Visits the Wise Woman.” It’s a story I hope to write one day. In the meantime, I often write to Emma in my notebook. Here’s a recent sample, edited and extended for clarity. Hope you like it. — Mary Ann Barton

Girl Writing by Franz NölkenSunday, June 7, 2015

Dear Emma,

It’s crowded and noisy here in the First Parish parlor. Small boys bounce up and down on the antique sofa. They hop off and drop to the oriental rug on the floor.

“Let’s say goodbye to Nana,” says a mother to her son.

“Bye, Nana,” the little boy mumbles.

“Nana can’t hear you,” his mother says. “It’s very loud in here.”

“Nana!” he yells, tugging his grandmother’s sleeve. “Goodbye, Nana!”

I’m writing this letter to you while I wait for Steve to finish chatting with the ministerial intern. I’d like to go somewhere quiet and write my author bio to share with Susan and Stephanie when we meet at Dumpling Daughter tomorrow to talk about book marketing.

Essayist Mary Ann Barton has taken full advantage of the opportunities life offers for failure and rebirth. Working as a rare coin dealer, arts agency desk-jockey, lobbyist, textbook proofreader, and library fundraiser, she found her niche in her fifties as a certified nursing assistant and companion to elders. Her work in progress, a trilogy of self-help books called Rest, Renewal, and Repose, will help family caregivers of all ages get back to sleep when worrying about a loved one who is very old, very young, or facing serious illness. She blogs about caring for ourselves as we care for others at JoyousParadox.com.

Portrait of Lola Braz by Zinaida SerebriakovaHere’s what I write about, Emma: How we live with others. How we live with ourselves. I’m writing a peach of a book for family caregivers. I want you to pick up Rest in the middle of the night when your old dad or your tiny child is safe in bed. Find tips and techniques for caring for your body, mind, and soul. Read a poem about a garden, a grocery list, or a grandmother who plays the cello. Love a painting by Philippe Mercier. Write in your journal. Dance as you cook dinner. Stretch your arms wide with an Octaband.

Really, Emma, caring for a loved one can be full of surprises. As Facebook would say, it’s complicated.

For some of us, there’s so much accumulated hurt and resentment that the free flow of love and concern is jammed up behind a Hoover Dam of bad memories.

For some of us, love flows so freely that we can’t let ourselves even dip a toe in the reality that we might lose our dearest on earth.

Writing a Letter by Kusakabe KimbeiFor all of us, there are images, real or imagined. I look at the shifting family groups in the church parlor — women and men and grandparents and babies and five-year-olds and young girls who might be anything from ten to 17 — and see them as photographs in an album.

Maybe the photos have a matte finish like the slightly pebbled surface of an oldfashioned school portrait. Mrs. Ansell’s Second Grade. That First Vacation at Lake Sunapee.  The Balloon Flight in Southern France. Our Last Visit with Grandma Hyde.

Maybe one day I’ll see a photo or a painting, Emma, and know that this is your likeness. I can’t wait.

Love no matter what,

Mary Ann

Copy this text to tweet: Caring for a loved one can be full of surprises. As Facebook would say, it’s complicated.  #caregivers

Image credits: Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Netherlands (fl. circa 1500–1530), via Wikimedia Commons. Girl Writing by Franz Nölken, German, 1916, via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Lola Braz by Zinaida Serebriakova, Russian, 1910, via Wikimedia Commons. Writing Letter by Kusakabe Kimbei, Japanese, before 1933, via Wikimedia Commons.

How To Grieve With Challah Bread by Ellabell Risbridger

“How to Grieve with Challah Bread” struck me as a perfect expression of the complexities of family life. Grief and loss. Rituals and remembrances. New loaves braided and baked and broken at the table. All these are emblems and occasions of belonging to the tribes of our birth. — MAB

Eating With My Fingers

My grandfather is dead: I do not know how to grieve. So I make bread.

In the Bible they call bread the staff of life (my grandfather might have liked this: he liked religion), but really it’s the staff of grief. And rage, and guilt. I do not know how to grieve. I am twenty-two: my grandparents had children young, and I thought they would all die old. Older. I do not know how to grieve. I do not know how to grieve my grandfather’s passing, because I barely knew my grandfather. I tried to tell someone “he was like this-” and I came up short: who was my grandfather?

dough challah

He let me eat apple pie for breakfast. He was my father’s father. He was bald. He liked to garden. He was a teacher, and some kind of occasional preacher. He came from a village called something like Jacksondale, which…

View original post 1,738 more words

Jesse and the Typewriter Shop

Editor’s note: I took typing one summer at Schurz High School in Chicago and still remember the class fondly. Mary Maldonado and I used to walk home from class together in the suffocating heat of a Midwestern city. Sometimes I’d walk her all the way to her house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her older brother, Paul, who played bassoon in my high school band. I still have my mother’s pale green Olivetti typewriter that she lugged around in her post-retirement travels from Chicago to Kentucky to Montana to New Jersey to New Hampshire to Massachusetts.  Here, reblogged from The Casual Optimist, is a touching film about father-and-son typewriter repairmen in Los Angeles. Do you have an old typewriter somewhere in the house? Do you still use it? — MAB

Related to yesterday’s post on Gramercy Typewriter Co. in New York, here’s a short film about U.S. Office Machines, one of the last remaining typewriter repair shops in Los Angeles:

(Thanks Sam!)

Dr. Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, a Frontline documentary on PBS

“Being Mortal” Airs Tonight

“The two big unfixables are aging and dying…you can’t fix those.” — Atul Gawande

Editor’s note: PBS airs a documentary tonight based on Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It promises to be a candid and intimate look at doctors and families coming to terms with the end of life. This article by Stephanie E. Rogers, MD, appears in the blog Geripal. — MAB, 2/10/2015

The True Art of Medicine: Atul Gawande and The Being Mortal Documentary

by Stephanie E. Rogers, MD @SERogersMD

“The two big unfixables are aging and dying…you can’t fix those,” notes physician-writer Dr. Atul Gawande, in a new documentary based on his recent book Being Mortal. The Frontline documentary airs Tuesday, February 10 on PBS, and explores Gawande’s frustration of not being able to “fix” all of his patients.

The Being Mortal documentary examines how Gawande and other physicians struggle to talk with patients and families about death and dying. He explores his own humble journey with the realization that “medicine fails the people it’s supposed to help” at the end of life. It also provides a powerful, intimate look at families struggling with conversations about the realities of aging and death, and the uncomfortable and difficult time even well-trained physicians have at leading these discussions.

One of the most startling aspects of the documentary is watching physicians participate in these conversations with patients and the behind the scenes look at what their thoughts are regarding these discussions. Even with cancer physicians who have these conversations all the time, it is apparent that they too are struggling to be forthright and eloquent. In fact, this is what makes Gawande a skillful storyteller — he exposes his own vulnerabilities both as a physician trying not to be the bearer of bad news and as a patient’s family member during his father’s inevitable death from a spinal cord tumor.

“Hope is not a plan,” Dr. Gawande argues. “We find from our trials that we are literally inflicting therapies on people that shorten their lives and increase their suffering, due to an inability to come to good decisions.” He notes that people may have other priorities besides living longer and that we should not be waiting until the last week of life to have these discussions with our patients.

As a Geriatrics fellow, I have learned that speaking to patients frankly about aging, dying, and their priorities for the time they have left has been the toughest challenge I’ve encountered yet in my decade of medical training. We physicians tend to be overly optimistic and timid about the truth, partly because it is difficult to tell a patient something they don’t want to hear. We want to instill confidence in our patients and hope with them for a cure or more time.

I now realize that the most worthy challenge– one likely to last my entire career – is to improve my ability to have these conversations. Our decisive goal as physicians is not only to know the most up-to-date scientific studies or treatments, but to be comfortable and capable of communicating truthfully and empathetically to our patients about the realities of life — that we will all age and we will all die. The true challenge is combining all our medical knowledge and skills with the art of communication, to allow our patients to choose how they want to live—all the way to the end. Being Mortal, the Frontline documentary from writer/producer/director Tom Jennings, airs Tuesday, February 10 on PBS and will stream in full online at pbs.org/frontlinehttp://pbs.org/frontline.

Source: Stephanie E. Rogers, MD, “The True Art of Medicine: Atul Gawande and The Being Mortal Documentary,” GeriPal: A  Geriatrics and Palliative Care Blog (blog), February 9, 2015, http://www.geripal.org/2015/02/atul-gawande-being-mortal-documentary.html.