Category Archives: Contentment

A Beautiful Life Ends Beautifully



My godmother, Marian, died last Saturday. It was both sudden and not sudden. She had been fine on Memorial Day when I called, but then a fall on Tuesday led eventually to her being moved to the ICU in the early hours of Saturday morning. They started a morphine drip to make her more comfortable, and we knew she was slipping away.

Two of her children were with her at the end, the other two spoke to her via cell phones that we held to her ear. One drove for more than 4 hours, never expecting to reach her in time, but she kept on breathing quietly, as if she were asleep, for hours after the ICU doctors expected, so he arrived in plenty of time.

Starkey and Marian

Marian with Starkey

During the day, her friends including my children and many of her neighbors came to say goodbye. They sat with her, held her hands, touched her head, spoke to her about what she had meant to them, talked about her fantastic taste, even told her how her beloved little dog was missing her. We had 6 chairs around the bed, and at various times all 6 were full.

Finally at 4:38 in the afternoon with her two sons, me, and another extremely close family friend sitting around her, she took one long breath. Her son said, “Come on Mom, you can make it just a little longer.” He was thinking about his daughter who was on her way by train, due to arrive in about an hour. Then she took one more breath and was gone. Her face instantly looked different, I speculate because all the little muscles relaxed.

Marian knew how to laugh

Marian knew how to laugh, here with my mother

This week there have been many celebrations of her life with all her children and their families around, including 5 grandchildren — a Memorial Service, an open house at her house, countless small conversations, many of them laced with laughter. She was loving, wise, adventurous, and beautiful in many ways. Her hairdresser came to the Memorial Service and talked about how she had helped him learn to love the town that he’d grown up in. He also pointed out the beauty of her twinkling blue eyes, amazed that nobody else had mentioned that particular beauty. She also never stopped learning — she’d completed a PhD in Art History in her 50’s and was reading a book in the hospital about an English lord traveling around Yellowstone in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In the program for the Memorial Service, the family included a letter that Marian had written my daughter Laura five years earlier, after Laura asked her for stories about her long life. That letter, especially the last long paragraph, has an important message for those of us still marching on, especially young people.

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

The letter brings to mind her daughter’s comment that Marian always moved to the next stage of life without looking back and regretting the stage that had just passed and without trying to hurry through to the next stage. When she was a mother of small children, she was a mother of small children without wanting to speed up her children’s growing up. When she was a very old woman, she figured out how to enjoy the benefits of old age without (much) mourning of the abilities that had passed or the traveling she could no longer do.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Laura,

Marian with Laura

Marian with Laura at my MAPP graduation - when Laura made the request

You can’t imagine how flattering it is as an old woman to be invited by someone of your generation to reminisce about times past.

It was wartime when I emerged from college — as it had been throughout my college career. Pearl Harbor was attacked my freshman year at the University of Idaho, Hiroshima was bombed during my honeymoon in 1945, just after I had graduated from the University of Chicago. Besides the fact that women’s liberation was just beginning to take form, the chaos of wartime cultivated a lemming-like move to the altar: we all wanted to get married, have children, have homes. I had had the dream of becoming a journalist, but I quickly traded that ambition for the security of marrying Bill when he returned from the European front. He had a 45 day furlough before he would be sent on to Japan. What I want to convey to you is the chaos of world events and the unpredictability of my own world when I was at the point of my life that you are now.

So it was make-shift time for me. Instead of looking for a newspaper job, I became a receptionist at the University of Chicago Press, commuting on weekends to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where Bill was waiting for release from the army. By March, when he was again a civilian, we headed for New Haven where he resumed the first quarter of his junior year at Yale. I learned to cook, our apartment was a way-station for returning former students, we spent weekends exploring New York City and going to Dodger games, we often saw your grandparents who were living in New London, Conn. where Lou was stationed at the submarine base there. It was a carefree time and we made the most of it.

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

I did well in graduate school and was given a scholarship to continue beyond the Master’s degree, but didn’t seriously consider becoming a professional. I wasn’t eager to begin having babies, but I felt my role was as a supporting, not competing wife. When Bill had finished his graduate work and received a Fullbright Scholarship for a year in Paris to research his dissertation, I was blissfully happy with the choices I had made. We had a wonderful year, traveling the Continent, visiting your grandparents several times in Oxford. I came home pregnant — Peter was born the day after your mother, July 6, 1951. Your grandfather sent us a cable reading, “Kathryn Leigh arrived,” to which Bill sent the reply, “Kathryn meet Peter.” And so they did, a few years later.

The landscape where you stand, at the brink of your adult life, is so very different from mine. Women have been liberated, not just the exceptional ones but across the board. The choices and opportunities may be overwhelming, but at least you can’t feel limited. A few years of free fall are probably not a bad idea — just savoring life (as I would describe my early years of marriage in New Haven and Paris). Jumping from college into career or into marriage-with-children might prove too confining, even a mistake as you look backwards — as I am doing here — from your eighth decade. These are your luxury years, if you have enough money to give yourself freedom, when you can keep sensitive and searching for what your inner self really is trying to tell you. Pause and smell the roses. But don’t become passive and let the years roll on and over you. A few false starts aren’t necessarily a disaster.

It has been great fun to write all this down.


Marian had a beautiful end, but that doesn’t mean we were ready to let her go. Ah, grief, sadness, the feeling of a hole in one’s life. But also humor, love, and sweet memory. When I lost another friend recently, I found comfort in George Bonanno’s research on bereavement, summarized in Grief is Part of Life. He found that resilient people get comfort from remembering. Perhaps that’s why we all get together after someone dies, to enrich each other’s collections of memories with our own particular stories. I’m richer for knowing that Marian sent her children out to play in the rain because she thought it was sensuous, even as all the other mothers were calling their children in. I’m richer for her granddaughter’s story of taking a raft trip together down the Grand Canyon when Marian was 82, with the guide calling out, “Better wake up your grandmother, we’re coming to another rapids.”



Filed under Contentment, Extraordinary people, Friendship, Gratitude, Meaning, Relationships, Savoring

July Savoring

Now it’s high summer, the fig tree is full of huge leaves and small figs. At dinner time, light filters through the fig tree leaves, one leaf casting a shadow on another. Birds and deer are testing the figs, which are not ready yet. The fig tree reaches all the way to the ground, making leafy caves that children could play in.

Spike Buck

Spike Buck Through Fig Leaves

So much to savor this July — starting with temperatures that make it a pleasure to be outdoors. Downward comparison seems to make that pleasure more intense. Today it is 76 degrees at 2PM, but I’m mindful that it could be 96 to 100 degrees, far too hot so sit outside with pleasure. When we are outside, there are so many interesting things to feel, see, hear, smell, and taste.

  • Homemade peach ice cream. My husband makes ice cream at least once every summer from a well-thumbed book of recipes, many stained with use. He cranks it by hand with whatever help he can muster from children and friends.
  • A deer drinking out of the bird bath. We’ve been visited several times by a young buck with two velvety spikes. There are weeds that the deer are welcome to eat, but when they start into the fragrance garden, we run them off. It’s easier said than done. They no longer run when we bang a stick against a garbage pan lid. When I run down towards them, I wonder what I’ll do if they don’t run!
  • One bird sitting on a limb waiting for another bird to finish so it could have a turn in bird bath. The first bird splashing great arcs of water out of the bath, the second splashing itself much more daintily.
  • Hummingbird on Feeder

    Hummingbird on Feeder

    A hummingbird dive bombing a swallowtail butterfly that tried to land on the Monarda over and over again until the butterfly gave up. We knew hummingbirds were territorial with each other, but is this the way to behave in a butterfly garden?
  • The fragrance of magnolia blossoms and of gardenia blossoms that remind me of our wedding more than a quarter of a century ago
  • Buddleia up to the porch

    Buddleia up to the porch

    Silver Streak on Buddleia

    Silver Streak on Buddleia

  • The buddleia grown so tall that the blossoms are almost up to our level on the porch. On the 4th of July, we had an American flag butterfly garden with Monarda (red), Brazilian sage (blue), and Buddleia (white) all blooming at once.
  • Four or five silver streak butterflies on the buddleia at a time, sharing it with bumblebees. Two flying off, fluttering together, landing almost in tandem. I wonder how butterflies mate?
  • At night after it is dark, fireflies lighting up all around the yard and the almost deafening orchestra of evening bugs. I think they are cicadas. My mother once rode on a bus with a single cicada which sounded the same note over and over again. She found it rather tedious. The complexity and slow pulsing of the sound we hear comes from many many sounding together.

Just to reflect a little, my summer savoring is particularly piquant because of

  • Fleeting wonders. Most can’t be captured in photographs because they disappear so quickly. Try taking a picture of a hummingbird chasing a butterfly! Or of a hummingbird doing anything but resting on the feeder. I am constantly aware that this pleasure will soon be gone. The monarda and magnolia are done for the year, and the gardenia are almost done.
  • Downward comparison to other years, so much hotter and muggier. We’re having rain, which always seems like a miracle in July, and it’s keeping things green.
  • Family traditions so that today’s pleasures carry echoes of past pleasures
  • Family possibilities. When I see the green caves under the fig tree, I imagine children playing there. The tree was not big enough when my children were small, but maybe someday their children will enjoy hiding there.

I just had to add this picture of a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly that spent several hours yesterday in the buddleia, flittering from one flower stalk to another. I was in the middle of a business call when I saw it out my window. I put my phone on hold and hollered at my husband, thinking he’d want to see something that large and tawny. He stalked it with the digital camera.

Great Spangled Fritillary on the Buddleia

Great Spangled Fritillary on the Buddleia

I have to close with the last magnolia blossom of the season.

Last 2009 Magnolia Blossom

Last 2009 Magnolia Blossom

All pictures courtesy of Edward Britton, a man of great patience and persistence who still still hasn’t been able to capture a hummingbird in the air.

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Filed under Contentment, Savoring

My eternity list — another definition of happiness

Ghost Riders cover

Ghost Riders cover

I came across an intriguing way of thinking about happiness in Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, Ghost Riders. (pp. 205-206).

A character is sitting with a friend on a mountain, the air is not too hot, the sky is cloudless, and the laurel is in bloom.  She says, “It’s so peaceful here.  I’d put this day on my eternity list.”

What’s an eternity list?  She explains it based on the theory from an [unidentified] English physicist who theorized that every moment in time lasts forever, that time may seem to flow, but it is actually separate nows, “each existing forever in its own dimension.”

So she speculates that maybe that’s what heaven is – “getting to live forever in one really wonderful moment.  So the more happy moments there are in your life, the better your chances of spending eternity in a good place.”

Resilience from Flickr

Resilience from Flickr

Of course there are many unhappy moments in anyone’s life.  As I wrote recently in my PPND article on resilience, adversity is part of the human condition.  But at any given moment, there are a range of possible responses, some with happier consequences than others.  Face the misery inherent in your life, yes, but don’t take on any more than necessary.  

I shall start thinking about saving up my own eternity list — moments of communion with family and friend(s), moments of deep engagement in writing or working out details or talking about things that fascinate me, moments of physical beauty or pleasure, moments of knowing that what I am doing matters.


Filed under Contentment, Good with the Bad, Gratitude, Resilience, Savoring

Labor Day & Two Extraordinary People

It is Labor Day, a holiday in the United States to honor the contributions of working people to society.

Labor Day makes me think of two people in particular, John L. Lewis and my father-in-law, Thomas William Britton.

John L. Lewis

John L. Lewis

I first learned about John L Lewis when I visited my future mother-in-law’s apartment in Nitro, West Virginia. She had a bust of John L. Lewis carved in coal in a place of honor on her end table. Her husband was a working man who venerated Lewis’s leadership in the United Mine Workers of America. Here’s a quotation from a Lewis speech before the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), an important part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. His thoughts still resonate:

“The political stability of the republic is imperiled. In excess of twelve million wage earning are unemployed. In certain industrial states the percentage of unemployed equals 40 percent of the enrolled workers. Of the remaining 60 percent a large number are employed on a part-time basis, and are the victims of a continuous schedule of wage cutting. Those who are employed, directly or indirectly, must inevitably bear the burden of supporting the millions to whom employment is unavailable. The cost of maintenance of government, and the support of non-productive institutions, is, therefore, day by day being passed to the continuously decreasing number of citizens who are privileged to work.” John L. Lewis, speaking to the Senate Finance Committee, February 1933. For the entire speech, see “The Republic is Imperiled.”

Thomas W. Britton

Thomas W. Britton

I never met my father-in-law, one of my deep regrets. He died of black lung about 4 months before my first date with my husband. But my husband is an outstanding storyteller, a skill he exercised repeatedly with my children when they were little and and requested at bedtime, “Tell me a secret.”

There were stories about his father working as a coal miner, getting up early to drive 40 miles from the city, where he’d moved to raise his son, to the mines, picking up other other miners along the way. There were stories about him finishing supper and then mixing up butter and Karo syrup on his plate to get the calories he needed for his hard physical labor. He liked mining, and that’s what he did during WW II — it was war work as much as being a soldier. He was frequently on strike for better working conditions, pay, and mine safety. When he was, he had other ways to earn a living, such as driving a hearse long distances to bring bodies home for burial or stocking shelves in the grocery store owned by a friend.

He liked coon hunting — I always had him in mind when I read Where the Red Fern Grows out loud to my children. My husband sometimes went along, learning how to move through the woods in the dark. He was a very sociable man, visiting family and friends up various ‘hollers’ in the West Virginia mountains. There’s a story about the old man in a nursing home who yearned for the taste of ground hog. My father-in-law went hunting for one for his wife to cook up for the old man. It apparently stank everyone out of the house while it was cooking, but it made the old man happy. He also liked trading things. He once swapped a particularly good coon hound for an old car that he needed since he’d just been called back to the mines.

I never met him, but I’ve always imagined him as a happy man whose days were filled with vigorous work that he enjoyed and whose spare time was filled with time in the woods, visiting, and family. I truly wish that I’d had a chance to know him, and that he’d had the chance to enjoy his grandchildren.

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Filed under Contentment, Extraordinary people, Stories

The Oz books

The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful book to read aloud. It is witty, quick-paced, and wise. AND it is just the first in a series of 14 books by L. Frank Baum about the kingdom of Oz, each one a new adventure with more and more odd characters, each with their own strengths and quirks. If you are only familiar with the movie, perhaps you don’t know about this treasure trove of books to share with young children. I read them myself almost as soon as I learned to read, and I read them to my children, especially to my son, for several years.

Land of Oz coverI think my favorite is the 2nd one, The Land of Oz, about the adventures of young boy named Tip. Tip lives with and does chores for a wicked witch. She acquires some powder that she uses to bring alive a stick-limbed pumpkin-headed man that Tip had constructed to scare her. Then she tells Tip she no longer needs him and plans to turn him into a marble statue. He runs away, taking along Jack Pumpkinhead … and the powder.

His adventures include an encounter with the Army of Revolt, composed entirely of girls wielding knitting needles, who take over the Emerald City, deposing the Scarecrow. Tip uses the powder to create two additional creatures to help him out of tight corners, one a wooden scarecrow, the other a flying contraption with two sofas tied together as a body, palm frond wings, and a stuffed gump head.

The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900 and the last book in the series, Glinda of Oz, in 1920 after L. Frank Baum’s death. If you are lucky enough to find some of the originals in used book sales, they bring other qualities to savor — large format pages of thick paper with lots of black and white sketches in addition to color plates.

To support my nomination of these books to the positive canon, here’s how The Land of Oz ends. First the background. In the course of their adventures, the Scarecrow had lost all his straw, and the best replacements available were dollar bills they found in the bottom of a jackdaw nest.

“And I have made the Scarecrow my royal Treasurer,” explained the Tin Woodman. “For it has occurred to me that it is a good thing to have a royal Treasurer who is made of money. What do you think?”

“I think,” said the little Queen, smiling, “that your friend must be the richest man in all the world.”

“I am,” returned the Scarecrow, “but not on account of my money. For I consider brains far superior to money, in every way. You may have noticed that if one has money without brains, he cannot use it to advantage; but if one has brains without money, they will enable him to live comfortably to the end of his days.”

“At the same time,” declared the Tin Woodman, “you must acknowledge that a good heart is a thing that brains can not create, and that money can not buy. Perhaps, after all, it is I who am the richest man in all the world.”

“You are both rich, my friends,” said Ozma, gently; “and your riches are the only riches worth having — the riches of content!”

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 100th Anniv.
Edition (#1)
The Annotated Wizard of Oz (#1)
The Marvelous Land of Oz (#2)
Ozma of Oz (#3)
Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (#4)
The Road to Oz (#5)
The Emerald City of Oz (#6)
The Patchwork Girl of Oz (#7)
Tik-Tok of Oz (#8)
Scarecrow of Oz (#9)
Rinkitink in Oz (#10)
Lost Princess of Oz (#11)
The Tin Woodman of Oz (#12)
The Magic of Oz (#13)
Glinda of Oz (#14)


Filed under Contentment, Positive Children's Canon, Stories