Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas 2009

Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings during this season of hope and celebration.

Last December 23rd, upon leaving my favorite Italian grocery in San Francisco’s Mission District, I looked across the street and saw a Social Security Office. A sign on the door said, open until 4 p.m. Closed December 24 and 25. It was 3:45. Through the window I saw an empty waiting room. I opened the door, and the guard said, “Come in.” At that moment I decided to retire at the end of the 2008-2009 school year, and within fifteen minutes was signed up to begin receiving Social Security in January.

During the previous year, with my broken wrist and subsequent back pain, I realized my body was not going to last forever, and that if I wanted to travel around the world with a backpack, I’d better start soon. In January, the opportunity arose for a trek in Morocco. As I debated with myself about going, lured by the luscious descriptions and colorful photos on the website of Adventureline Travel in Cornwall, England, the dollar rose against the pound, my school schedule was adjustable, and a neighbor said, “You never regret what you do, but you often regret what you don’t do.” That settled it. In February and early March I walked about 75 miles through the Jebel Sarhro region of Morocco, slept in a tent for nine nights, in a village house for one, had a wonderful time, and No Regrets. Pictures on Flickr at

I braced myself for the emotionally perilous weekend of May 29, which marked my birthday, Ed’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, the anniversary of Ed’s death, and now my retirement, turned into a wonderful occasion as my friend Melissa accompanied me to Ramsey Canyon, Arizona for a wonderful weekend of bird-watching, with sightings of brilliant hummingbirds and gorgeous wild turkeys with colors I thought existed only in children’s coloring books.

Summer included many short trips: to North Carolina, Seattle (twice: once for a Philips family reunion and once to attend the mesmerizing Seattle Opera Ring Cycle), San Francisco, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Chicago (for ALA). Back home, I attended all five productions of the Santa Fe Opera, and hiked often with the Sunday afternoon group of the New Mexico Mountain Club.

Fall has been divided among: (1) Newbery reading, (2) a strenuous fitness challenge program to get me ready for that backpack (sit-ups, push-ups, etc., supervised by a sweet ex-marine -- “Keep going, keep going!”), and (3) extensive house repairs (new roof, lots of insulation, stucco, replacement windows, new storm doors, and lots of patching and painting and repairing inside and out). The only thing totally finished at this point is the roof, so I am carrying on amid the ongoing chaos of construction.

There have been some sad losses this year. Kathy Curley, a fellow librarian dear friend for nearly 40 years, my cousin Carolyn Bruemmer,and niece Mary Ann Comstock’s husband Rich, all lost brave and lengthy battles with cancer.

The children are now adults. Despite the hard times, Jesse continues to do the work he loves as a free-lance artist. His poster for the Star Trek movie got a lot of attention last spring. It is good to have him nearby, although weeks may go by without our seeing each other. Psyche continues to work, volunteer at a women’s health clinic, and take evening and weekend classes. She’s applying to graduate nursing schools, and the coming year will most likely see a move away from her beloved San Francisco.

After a little Christmas here with Jesse on the 23rd, I’ll drive to Las Cruces to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my friends Jeanne and Ross Burkhardt. Psyche will be vacationing in Puerto Rico.

My Newbery Award Committee duties will come to an end in Boston on January 18, when the 2010 winner is announced.

I am gradually moving into a new place in my life, although thoughts of Ed are with me daily, especially during the past two days as I’ve sorted through the glass collection in the dining room, remembering that we sipped Grand Marnier in Paris in in 1977 in these two little glasses, that I begged him to keep a complete set of Steuben champagne glasses, and that he did. I’m packing much into boxes to deal with later, keeping on the shelves only the pieces I’m most likely to use.

Writing, whether letters, emails, book reviews, family history, or just for myself continues to be important. The writing group for cancer care-givers continues to be a source of support. In one of the books I am reading, Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez, a young girl who composes unsent letters to her missing mother writes, “‘El papel lo aguanta todo.’ Paper can hold anything. Sorrow that might otherwise break your heart. Joys with wings that lift you above the sad things in your life.”

With that I will close, and pray that faith, hope, and love, and writing, reading, prayers, and friendship, will sustain you and bring you joy.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Remembering My Dad, Potatoes and Bread

Note: I just found this reflection I'd written over a year ago.

Remembering My Dad, Potatoes and Bread. April 19, 2008, Albuquerque

As I was peeling potatoes tonight to put into a stew, I thought of my father. I haven’t been eating many potatoes lately. Ed was also a “meat and potatoes” man, and I haven’t eaten many potatoes since he died.

We practically lived on potatoes when I was growing up. It wasn’t a meal without potatoes. But, my dad complained about the quality of the potatoes we were buying, and blamed their condition on commercial fertilizers. He was probably right. He disdained potatoes that had black holes and hollow cracks inside, that turned green, and were full of spots. He decided to grow potatoes to feed our family of four. We had a half an empty lot in our yard, and half of that became the potato patch. Our sandy Michigan soil was great for potatoes.

In the summer my brother John and I would be given a nickel, maybe a dime-- if we could fill a pint jar with potato bugs. I don’t think I ever got a nickel. It takes a lot of potato bugs, little round striped things, not very pretty, to fill up a pint jar. I don’t remember too much about the planting (I know my dad cut them into pieces with eyes, and after the first year saved some of the last year’s potatoes to plant), but it was fun to dig them up with a pitchfork, and see the beautiful potatoes come out of the ground. The first “new potatoes” in the summer were always a treat – tiny round balls with thin skin, delicious boiled with the skins on and seasoned with a little salt, pepper, and butter. Later, we’d be dig them in the cold, just before frost and snow. Sometimes the snow caught some still left in the ground.

My dad stored the potatoes in our basement over the winter. The basement had two parts – old and new. The furnace was in the new part, so it got a bit warmer in there in the winter time. The old part was lined on one side with wooden shelves filled with my mother’s canning jars. The middle of the room tended to be full of junk and empty boxes, and there was a hot water heater back by the canning jars. In the northeast corner, though, my dad constructed a couple of bins up against the wall out of wood and old doors.

He covered the bins with layers of burlap bags, and there he stored the potatoes that would feed us all year, until the new potatoes came in the next summer, and even for awhile after that. Sometimes the old potatoes got shriveled – he must have checked on them every so often and thrown out any that were going bad. I don’t remember ever noticing a rotten potato smell when it was my turn to go down to throw back the burlap, reach down into the dark, gritty, chilly bin, and bring up some potatoes for supper.

When I peeled my potatoes tonight, there were some black spots to cut out. Mine came from the store, not from the garden. I thought of my dad, and all the potatoes he had peeled, and thought he would approve of my stew.

I should have some homemade bread to go with it. Long as it has been since I have had potatoes, it is even longer since I made bread. Like the potatoes, my dad couldn’t find bread he was willing to eat, so after old Mr. Lavender’s bakery burned down and Mr. Lavender retired and then died, my dad decided to start making his own bread. By then he had sold his jewelry store, and was a stay-at-home dad. When my mother, brother, and I came home from school, 1 ½ blocks away, every day for the lunch my dad would have it ready for us – often some kind of goulash made of potatoes and hamburger (horsy-keep-your-tail-up), or salt pork and potatoes with white gravy; or kidney stew with tasty onions; or vegetable or pea soup. In the days before he had retired, we’d come home for a quick lunch made with tomato soup from a can and a toasted cheese or tuna sandwich (and sometimes I’d wished that was still what we had).

Dad’s bread wasn’t usually ready by lunch time, although it was often rising then. But after school on a bread day, the smell of fresh bread, still hot from the oven, was heavenly. My mother would often bring other teachers home with her on those days, and they would sit in the kitchen, sipping coffee, and eating the still warm bread spread with melting butter. A whole loaf could disappear on one of those afternoons.

For some reason my dad couldn’t get his dough to rise if he used dry yeast, the only kind the stores seemed to carry. Because of the difficulty of getting cake yeast, he came up with his own sour dough mix, which he kept in a jar and carried with him in later years when he and my mother traveled. I have a picture of him working on his bread in my kitchen in Tucson in 1975. He left me some of his starter, which I used for awhile, but finally had to let go. I didn’t have any trouble making bread with dry yeast, which I learned to buy in bulk and put in the freezer. There was a time that I made lots of bread, too. How did I get too busy or too lazy to stop, even with the help of my Kitchen Aid mixer? I did make bread most of the time in the years before I was married, because I, too, could not stand store bought bread, and it wasn’t easy to find good bread in grocery stores in those days.

One day, I was eating a sandwich made with my homemade bread (whole wheat or rye), in the student union at the University of Arizona. And older man sat down across from me, and commented on my bread, and when I told him that I’d learned bread-making from my father’s example, he told me that he used to bake all the bread for his entire family when he was a young boy!

I didn’t make bread tonight, Daddy, but I’ve sure been thinking of you. Maybe I’ll do it in the morning. When Psyche, your granddaughter came home over Christmas, she wanted to make bread, perhaps remembering how I made bread regularly when she was little, just as I fondly remember all the delicious bread you made for us so many years ago.


After I finished writing this, I got a bowl of the stew, not too bad, but a bit burned (the writer not paying attention). Then I turned on PBS and found an Independent Lens program about corn and the industrialization of agriculture, about growing corn with no food value, but high yields to feed feedlot cattle who get sick and die from this diet, if they are not butchered before that happens. Ugh! Much of it goes into making corn syrup, leading to epidemic of obesity and diabetes. My dad was ahead of the times in seeking more healthful eating and prudent use of our natural resources.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Remembering Ed: Year Two

June 2, 2009

Dear Ed,

It is another beautiful June morning, and my thoughts are of you. Two years ago this afternoon you took your last breath and left us. I think of you often and love you forever. My life has been utterly changed without you. I still listen for your footsteps and see your eyes looking into mine. I do not know what lies beyond the grave, but I know you could not have continued to live in this world. Your body wore out. Your suffering ended, and all of us here continue on without the grace of your presence. It is still hard to believe that you are gone.

I still sleep on my side of the bed, and your space is empty.

The dog tries, but does not fill it.

Maybe he is also looking for you when he runs away, as he has been doing lately.

I am building a new life for myself, but it is a different life, an emptier one. Nothing will ever fill your space because you were part of me and our lives together were one life. I miss your wisdom, your comforting presence, and having you as the one who loved me best of all.

This afternoon, in remembrance, Jesse and I will go to the mountaintop where we left your ashes. It is a beautiful spot, on top of the world and close to heaven. I look up there daily, and think of you as I drive across Albuquerque in the car you bought me.

Chrysler is gone and General Motors is going. And you are gone, too, as is a whole way of life. As another one-time Michigander, you, too, would understand that nostalgia for the fifties and sixties when prosperity rode on Detroit’s wheels and the shining post-war future looked so bright. We were both young, then, although you were older than I.

You would be delighted and amazed to see Obama as our president, although his job may well be an impossible one. America will never elect a Black man as president, you said. You would happily have been proved wrong.

Today, I go to vote for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy Board that controls our life-giving irrigation water, another area fraught with controversy and difficulties.

Later I will go to school to interview candidates for my replacement in the library. I think of all the things that I did not accomplish in that job, and hope that someone else will be able to do them. I also think of what I did accomplish, and doubt that anyone else could have done what I did.

A plane with 242 people aboard has disappeared in thunderstorms over the Atlantic. How often when you and I flew over that water, I reached for your hand during bumps, knowing that our lives could end in an instant, but that we would die happy. I can still hardly believe that God brought you to me. What a gift it is to have a loving partner.

Life changes, and the world goes on, at least for now.

Your still loving and grieving wife, Linnea

Monday, April 6, 2009

Remembering My Friend Kathy

My dear friend of nearly 38 years, Kathleen Fockler Curley, lost her long battle with cancer on March 30, 2009. Kathy and I were friends since we met on our first day of classes in our M.A. program in English at the U. of Arizona in 1971. Our friendship was cemented early-on, when her husband Ed accompanied me to the U. of A. farm where we filled trash bags and the trunk of my car with manure for my garden.

We studied together, partied together (we loved games of charades), shared book discussions, and traveled together on one wild train trip from Nogales to Mexico City in May 1973. In 1975-76 we both returned to U. of A. to complete our library science degrees, and our friendship continued as before. Later, when I moved to Pennsylvania and married my Ed, we continued to meet, in Pennsylvania and in Tucson. In 1978, both times we met a pope died. We wondered if we should keep meeting.

Kathy and Ed became "Aunt Kathy and Uncle Ed" to Jesse, and then to Psyche. We shared countless conversations about books, travel, and life, by phone, letters, email, and in person over these many years. We never ran out of interesting things to talk about, since Kathy was interested in almost everything. In addition we shared interests in books, our library careers, education, and the state of the world. She would fix me with her intelligent, often twinkling eyes, and I would know that she was about to say something worth hearing.

Farewell, dear friend. I will miss you always. We have traveled far together, and now you've gone ahead of me into the unknown.

Ed, my heart goes out to you. I know how devastating it is to lose one's life's partner and center.