Friday, April 22, 2011

The Long & Winding Road

I was driving over to visit the parents a few days after coming home from Be's funeral. Be's death was so difficult, we haven't really had time to process it in the past three weeks; except for a few key moments, I haven't cried. Now I know why the bereaved look so shell-shocked. Death is so complicated, family members are too busy to do much more than get through the myriad details, and decompress later.

Anyway, I'm driving through the old neighborhood, when I see it. Turning onto the final stretch of the road on the street mom and dad have lived for 50 years, men in yellow hard-hats were clustered around a huge machine that was demolishing the Roark house. I slowed and rolled down the window. The high-pitched whine of buzz-saws cut through the thick afternoon air as trees were being felled in the front yard. The beautiful wooded lawn was disappearing along with the house.

My heart sank as I pulled over, the better to access the destruction before me. Tears welled in my eyes.

The Roark house was the first one built at the top of River Ridge and River Valley Rd. We first drove over to look at the wooded lot where we would eventually build when I was age two, though of course I don't remember much of that. We moved in when I was three, and over the years growing up, the neighborhood grew up with me. River Valley was a dirt and gravel road for a long time, and ours was the first house on that stretch of the road. I jokingly referred to it as 'architect's row,' when older, since every house was designed by an architect, and several, like Price Roark, George Wittenburg, and dad, designed them for their families.

The Roark house was grey wood with touches of stonework, and had a flat roof. Every Christmas a 5-foot-tall, lighted Santa Claus would perch next to the chimney. I told Mr Roark it never seemed like Christmas to me until I saw Santa on the roof.

By the time I was six, the neighborhood was filling up with a huge gang of kids, but only a few girls. Consequently, I was a tough tomboy. But Sally Roark (a year younger), and I did put down the sticks and balls long enough to play with her extensive collection of Barbies.

I loved going to their house. It was always restful and dark and quiet, and they had the first screened-in porch I had been on, that soared over huge old trees, with a wicker hanging chair that cradled you as you swung over the treetops. I realized later one of the reasons the house was always so still was Sally's mom was very ill and eventually died after a long illness. But the house never felt sad or oppressive. Too young to fully articulate anything but concern and compassion for my friend--I couldn't imagine losing my mother--we didn't speak of it later. Eventually, different grades and schools and activities wedged us apart and we didn't see one another until we were grown many years later.

I jolted from my revere and drove down my parent's steep driveway. Glancing at their elegant '60s-style house that dad designed in his 30s while a newly established architect, I couldn't help thinking about the 'improvements' made to so many of the other houses on the block over the years that have been sold by their original owners, and what would happen to our old house when mom and dad moved out. But so far, none had been torn down. That had, so far, been the MO for the quaint bungalows and pre-WWII houses in the Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods to make room for the McMansions of today, that lumber right up to the edge of their properties, dwarfing their more modest neighbors.

It was a shock to have that happen here -- to a thoughtfully designed house. Destroying it and a 5-acre lot of trees seemed sacrilege. It truly is, now, the end of an era.

Another house was torn down several years ago that felt as shocking. My best male friend--my boyfriend in high school--had an architect-dad as well, and their beautiful house fell into ruin when it was sold. In our lifetime the road the house was on went from being surrounded by bucolic countryside to bustling strip centers and a main street.

This house I'll remember for many special memories. In my mind it will be 'forever young,' as we were then. When walking inside you couldn't tell from the front it was actually a large split-level that hugged the hillside, and the horizontal windows overlooked the wooded lot. It felt like a posh tree-house.

Though prime real estate by the time the family was grown and gone, it was hard to see it fall into decay to make room for more silly little stores in the future. It was painful to see it look so overgrown and ruined after the second owner allowed it to go to seed, but it was still an affront to drive by one day and see it was no more...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Snapshots of a Life Well Lived

We got home last Wednesday and are slowly getting back into the swing of things. Lots of missed appointments, over-due chores, boxes to unload, photos to copy and send to relatives...a WOW this Friday I need to make dessert for, and Easter brunch here to plan and prepare....until I can sit down and string a sentence together, here are a few photos of Be that we used at the reception...

The Johnston family. Be is the small boy to the right. Next to him is his sister Caroline "Carrie," the only one of the siblings left.

Another family portrait, this time with the brother's wives and a few of their kids. This would be in the early '40s. Be is standing tall in the middle.

Be left Trinity College in 1941 to volunteer with the American Field Service, since his eyesight was so poor he wasn't accepted into the US Marines. He drove ambulances across Africa for a year. After that experience the Marines took him, and he served until 1943 when he was honorably discharged. He was in the rear unit that landed at Iwo Jimo, which probably saved his life. He seldom discussed the war but for a few fun stories, and I don't think he ever rode another motorcycle.

Marrying Rozenia in 1946, on the steps at Burnside. Excy's mom died in 1973.

When Excy was seven the family moved from Burnside outside of Baltimore to Florida near Key West but his mom's allergies resulted in another move to Prescott, Arizona within a year and a half.

Be and his third wife Jean. She is the only mother-in-law I knew. They were together 20+ years. His turquoise bolo tie, his pride, is now Excy's.

On our wedding day, reception on the terrace of Burnside (where Be was born and where we lived for two years when we married). Be is kissing me and his nephew Chaloner (Chal) is kissing the other cheek. How lucky am I?!

Be with his 'minis' -- he used to race chariots until he got too old to handle large horses. With the minis he just bent over them and saddled them up! He was in parades and he always took them into nursing homes.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What the World (Doesn't) Need Now

Do we really need another book out on JFK, Jr? Or any of the Kennedys, for that matter?

Jr's girlfriend of four years from Brown University days (that's before Darryl Hannah and wife Carolyn Bessette, for anyone keeping it straight), said she sent a note to his sister Caroline warning of the impending memoir and said 'she would've said something if she had a problem with it.' Really? Did the silence from the non-response not send a message? Maybe Caroline's mom, 'Jackie O,' said, like mine, if you didn't have anything nice to say, it's better to say nothing at all? What would she have done if the family had said no -- table the book? Something tells me not...I think it was a done deal. Frankly, I think JFK Jr would've been appalled.

It feels a bit like vultures picking at carrion. Enough, already.

Though I know that as long as somebody has something to tell, stories will continue to pop up and sell. This doomed family is American Royalty and the public can't get enough. I wonder if the mini-series just out is any good?

Anyone know where JFK Jr's flight instructor is? I'm surprised there hasn't been a tell-all book out from him, about how Jr wasn't quite equipped to handle navigating a plane, especially with a hurt foot.

Enough, already...

We leave Wednesday at the crack of dawn to drive back to Santa Fe for Be's funeral. We are planning it--it's been difficult long distance. We'll be glad when it's all over. Not that we don't want to honor Be, just that it's been a long slog...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Oh, Lighten Up

"When it comes to our health, there are four things essentially under our control: the decision not to smoke, a commitment to exercise, the quality of our diet, and our level of optimism. And optimism is at least as beneficial as the others." -- Martin Seligman, PhD, author of Flourish, and expert in the field of positive psychology.

Most people who meet me and find out about my chronic illness and surgeries remark on how calm and happy I seem and are rather astonished at my history. I don't have a neon sign flashing about my head that advertises 'hardship case' and never will. I do find it irritating, however, when every once in awhile someone nods sagely and suggests I am too 'Pollyannish' and not in touch with my feelings to truly 'process' my situation.


Believe me, I've processed it.

Happiness is a choice.

It resides within. Negativity is stressful, sucks one dry, and the worry spikes the cortisol hormone, which can suppress the immune system. So not only is negativity a downer, it can make you ill.

The people I know who are happy, have just as much unhappiness in their life as anybody--they just make the choice to remain positive during difficult times. Knowing you can choose is a powerful tool to have in your arsenal. There will always be hardship and pain and nothing is ever perfect (that's why LIFE is a four-letter word), but if you choose to accept that and live in the moment and with the mindset that you will ultimately prevail, trust me, things will lighten up. Or you will.

You can train yourself to focus on the sunnier side of life if, when your mind veers off to dark projections, you relax and loosen up, express yourself, reach out to others, try meditation and exercise, seek help when you feel you need it, and choose to look at the bright side of things.

Like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, 'don't go looking for happiness because it's in your own back yard.' (paraphrasing here).

I was reminded of this last Sunday at a support meeting that got hijacked by a woman who was bemoaning the same things she has whined about since October: lack of a job. Parents and siblings who didn't understand her plight (she's 54).
While these things were problems and real to her, I looked around at the group she was talking to: A widow. Someone whose husband has ALS who has called in hospice care for him. Another who has lost a child. One who cannot conceive. Someone living with cancer the past 25 years and had that week lost a family member. Another whose adult child lives at home and is a constant source of worry.
Yes, Eyeore's problems are real, but in the scheme of things?? Not so much. She went on far too long. (And she used 'you know' far more than an adult should). I found myself thinking if I were a potential employer, I'd never hire a sad-sack like her. Finally, after wishing I had a peen-ball hammer in my bag, I got up and excused myself from the group. Because of her we all decided we'd better limit the amount of time people could hold the floor.

I am a super-optimist, and that can come with its own bag of tricks, but internal happiness is far more powerful to me than the fleeting external happiness so many others focus on. And I think it's kept me alive all this long.