Category Archives: Friendship

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

If You Want to Get Old Gracefully, Make Young Friends

Tea Chest

Tea Chest

My mother has moved remarkably smoothly from Independent to Assisted Living in her community in Seattle. A lot can be said for the community itself that has both types of living in the same building, one on the 12th floor, another on the 3rd. They had maintenance people who moved the furniture that she decided to keep in place of the more institutional furniture originally in the room — 2 book cases,
Bear Chair

Bear Chair

her Bear chair, the tea chest she uses as a jewelry box, her dresser, her little marble-top table where she has worked crossword puzzles for years. The maintenance people also hung up her pictures, so she had lots of reminders of her children, grandchildren, and trips all around her. She was a world traveler in her time — visited all continents except for Antarctica, and came very close to it.


But now that I’m back in North Carolina, 3000 miles away, I have many opportunities to observe the truth of a saying I heard recently, “If you want to get old gracefully, make young friends.”

My mother has several friends who are my age plus or minus a few years. They have banded together with my siblings and me to create a caring web around her. I can’t list all the things they’ve done for her. One spent a morning cleaning out her kitchen so she could turn over the keys to the apartment. When she has a doctor’s appointment, there’s likely to be a friend or even two available to take her. People come by to visit, to go out for walks with her, and to take her to dinner. One couple remembered how much she likes mussles and found a restaurant with mussles on the menu. They all send emails when they’ve seen her, letting us know how she seems — are her spirits drooping, or is she her usual feisty and entertaining self?

Schipperke courtesy dbzoomer

Schipperke courtesy dbzoomer

My godmother recently hurt her back tipping water out of one of those enormous plastic garbage cans that people roll out to the street. It was too heavy to roll back, and, as she put it, she could have done it easily 5 years ago (when she was just 80). With her back hurt, she couldn’t drive and she couldn’t take her young dog, a 2-year-old Schipperke, for walks. So how did she manage to get by without calling on me or her children? Her neighbors. Every day neighbors dropped by to see what she needed. Groceries? They brought her more food than she could eat. Walking the dog? Various neighbors came by in the morning and the late afternoon to give him energetic runs. My godmother thinks everyone should have a little dog, which my mother thinks is crazy. But the little dog has not only given her something to care for, it has also made her meet all her neighbors, so they had a chance to experience her warm, witty, graceful self before she had the accident. It has certainly paid dividends in the last week or so.

This is a thanks to the young friends of my mother and grandmother — and all the other young friends out there.


Filed under Extraordinary people, Friendship, Independence

A Story Like the Wind

A Story Like the Wind
Fifteen years or so ago — I know this because of the receipt I used as a bookmark — I first read Laurens van der Post’s two novels, A Story Like the Wind and A Far Off Place. They were so powerful that I couldn’t read any other fiction for months. They also stuck to me, little images that have enriched my life.

A Far-Off Place
For example, I’ve thought often about the time that the main character, 13-year-old Francois, behaved sharply and turned away from the adults who were trying to console him for the loss of his father. One of them, ‘Bamuthi, the Matabele leader on their homestead in the African bush, looks at the rest and says, “I give you a little fountain choked with mud.” They all nod, because they know the answer to the riddle: “the heart of a fatherless child.”

I lost my father when I was two, and it took me many many years to clean the mud out of the fountain.

I recently picked them up again and found them just as engrossing, even though the author is an egregious side-tracker. In the middle of a storyline, he switches into an earlier storyline and from then into an earlier one, or perhaps a digression into the natural life of babboons or elephants or lions or perhaps a long philosophical exploration of relationships between people and between peoples … so that sometimes it is hard to keep track of where you are in the original story. But the digressions are so full of rich detail.

I found myself tearing off little bits of paper to mark passages to go back to. Here are some of them:

In A Story Like the Wind:
‘Bamuthi: “Then a man-child also had to learn how to sing and above all to dance; for dancing and singing were the best ways he had of showing gratitude for the good things of life. Song and, above all, dancing were the surest ways of helping a man to endure the great trials of his existence; they were needed at birth, marriage and before war to strengthen his heart. … at the moment when the final loss of his shadow was upon him and those he loved, to drive away the power of death and revive the desire to live.”

Hiding courtesy kevinzim

Hiding courtesy kevinzim

Francois successfully shoots a huge, rogue elephant, Uprooter of Trees, that is drunk on fermented fruit and running amok across the homestead. Family friend and wild-life conservationist, Mopani: All he could get himself to do, therefore, was to talk at some length of the unfailing knack life seemed to have of confronting a man at the most unexpected moments with problems as large and dangerous as had been old Uprooter of Trees. Human beings, he stressed, always knew more than they allowed themselves to know. One of the things they never knew clearly enough was the power they possessed of overcoming problems even if they were thrice the size of Uprooter of Great Trees.

Mopani: “Have you ever known a more beautiful evening? I’ve heard it said somewhere that human beings should look on all things lovely as though for the last time. But this is the kind of evening which makes me want to look on it as if for the first time.”

Mopani: Remember always, Little Cousin, that no matter how awful or insignificant, how ugly or beautiful, it might look to you, everything in the bush has its own right to be there. No one can challenge this right unless compelled by some necessity of life itself. … Life in the bush is necessity, and it understands all forms of necessity. It will always forgive what is imposed upon it out of necessity, but it will never understand and accept anything less than necessity. And remember that, everywhere, it has its own watchers to see whether the law of necessity is being observed.”

In A Far Off Place:

Francois’ father, Ouwa: the real art of living was to keep alive the longing in human beings to become a greater version of themselves, to enlarge this awareness of life and then to be utterly obedient to the awareness. … Unlived awareness was another characteristic evil of our time, so full of thinkers who did not do and doers who did not think. … All this, Ouwa would ad, meant living in terms not of having but of being… For what, he often asked was the difference between the ‘Bamuthis of this world and the Europeans of Africa, if not that the Europeans specialized in having and the ‘Bamuthis in being.

And my favorite chapter in both books comes when Francois and his friend Nonnie, who have both lost everything and are traveling across the Kalahari with two bushman friends, sitting by a fire at night when Xhabbo asks a mime riddle than no one gets, and when he explains it, they all roll on the ground with laughter:

Nonnie: “Oh Coiske, do you know, until this moment, I thought we could never laugh like that again. I feel almost guilty that we could with Fa and your Lammie… “

Ligntning my first try courtesy of Kuzeytac

Ligntning my first try courtesy of Kuzeytac

Xhabbo’s reply: “[we] know that the sadness in you is no longer without a name and has found its voice. When sorrow finds a name and a voice, it is like the lightning you see calling and the thunder speaking after it to say that soon the rain will fall on you again.”

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Filed under Extraordinary people, Friendship, Good with the Bad, Relationships, Stories

Butterflies and Hurricanes

The weather has been beautiful here, cool and sunny, remarkably so for the end of August and early September when it is often suffocatingly hot and humid.  My husband has gotten interested in butterflies and is frequently chasing them with the digital camera so that he can get enough information to identify them.  The smaller ones seldom stop fluttering, so it is harder to snap them.

I’ve written before about butterflies being particularly beautiful because they are so transient. We’re battening down for hurricanes that may go close by — hard-hearted Hanna, Ike, and Josephine in quick succession.  At the very least, they will bring heavy rains that will probably strip many of the flowers from the butterfly plants.  They may also bring wind damage and power outages.  So today is a lull, time to bring in all the wind-movable objects from the yard, charge the phones and computers, stock up on bread, water, and toilet paper (my sister has observed that people in Baltimore always shop for toilet paper when they are stocking up for a storm), and enjoy what is here that may not be in a few days.

So in the interest of savoring by sharing before the storms hit, here are some of the pictures he has taken in the garden this summer.

First, here’s a corner of the butterfly garden planted with butterfly bush and Brazilian sage and Monarda and several other plants beloved by bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. Notice the stone on the ground on the left. It has a hollow to capture water and ridges where butterflies can sun themselves before flying away.

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden

The pictures and captions tell the story.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Monarda

Pipevine Swallowtail on Monarda

Black Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Black Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Large Lace Border

Large Lace Border Moth

Red Spotted Purple

Red Spotted Purple

Summer Azure on a Fig Leaf

Summer Azure on a Fig Leaf

We were right under the storm track of Hurricane Fran in 1996. There’s still a hollow in the woods behind us where a circle of trees were knocked down. We lost power for more than a week. Hurricane Fran hit the month after my mother-in-law died. She had always stocked our freezer with containers of home-made chili whenever she visited. So after Fran, we invited friends who couldn’t cook because of power outages, pulled out all the chili from the not-working freezer, heated it on the gas stove in our basement apartment, and ate dinner by candle light.


Filed under Friendship, Good with the Bad, Savoring

Startling books

If somebody asked you whether you’d like to read a book about a collection of friends reshaping their lives after one dived into shallow water and permanently injured himself, would you jump at the chance? How about a book about a family and friend reshaping their lives after the daughter attempts suicide?

Dive from Clausen's Pier
These are not topics that I seek out, but I have found Ann Packer’s two books, Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs without Words surprisingly engaging, moving, and stimulating.

I just finished Songs without Words, and I was struck by the ending where a lifelong friendship strained by disappointment and let down is held together tenuously by the sheer weight of accumulated shared memory. I’ve been thinking about the power of shared memory lately.

I have twice searched the book for this sentence, describing the reaction of the one of the main characters when she receives a phone message from her estranged friend, “And standing in her kitchen, Sarabeth burst into a thousand pieces of bliss that rained lightly and colorfully onto the floor.” It’s at the end of chapter 26 — in case you want to find it — or I want to reread it again.

One spends time in the head of each main character, emerging with compassion and acceptance. Yes, Sarabeth fails to come through for friend, but oh, it is so understandable why not. And then one gets to watch as her friend Liz slowly works through her justifiable outrage and starts to understand, especially the scene where her daughter passes her a mint without words in complete joint understanding, and she remembers a contrasting occasion of fear and not-understanding at the movies with Sarabeth and Sarabeth’s mother. “And yet thinking about that long-ago day, about her own tiny episode of fear, Lorelei sitting near her in the dark like some kind of not-mother, some kind of antimother, she thought it was wrong, it was almost criminal, that Sarabeth had been forced to do without.”

I checked both of these books out of the public library, but I think I’ll put them on my birthday list. I think someday I’ll read them again.

I notice in that Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries and photographs have been published in a volume called Song without Words. I wonder about the connection. Certainly the book Anna Karenina played a role in this story.

So why write about these books in a blog called Positive Psychology Reflections? I guess because these books took me willingly through a lot of vicarious suffering and I feel richer because of it. Positive psychology is not about the absence of suffering and trauma, but about how life can be lived well in their presence.

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Filed under Friendship, Good with the Bad, Stories

Reflections on Marriage

We celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary on January 17. That has led me to think about what I’ve learned about marriage in slightly more than a quarter century.
Wedding Rice

My marriage is more important to me now than it was in the beginning. I think that’s because of the collected weight of so many shared memories. We did some remembering together during our anniversary dinner. Do you remember staying in the hotel La Perouse in Nice? The walk we took up the hill where your blood sugar dropped so low that you didn’t recognize the donkey I pointed out to you — and I had to get a soft drink for you even though you’re the one who speaks French? The hike in the Cascades where you fell through the ice crust and were hanging by your armpits over the stream running under the snow? The bed-and-breakfast in Idaho with no curtains where you finished every night sleeping in the closet to get some darkness? The ice storm where we lost power for a week and had to camp out in our basement? Thank goodness for gas hot water heaters. The time our 2-year-old came to the table saying “I’ve got an eye up my nose” (it turned out to be a detachable eye from a toy). Trips to the emergency room?

I remember back during one of the MAPP onsite meetings when we were collecting a scrapbook for a classmate who had just gotten engaged. I wrote about the importance of finding the most positive interpretations possible of even the most annoying aspects of our partners. Doing so means you don’t leave out any part of them when you love them. I think that was an application of what we later read about realistic optimism (Schneider, 2001) — differentiating between fuzzy knowledge, where ignoring the unknown facts is foolhardiness and fuzzy meaning, where no interpretation is any more factual than any other, so it makes sense to choose the most positive one possible. The recipient of the scrapbook found it very good advice — it hope it is turning out well for her in practice.

Our marriage is a close friendship. We’ve each helped the other out of tight spots and long downers — all of which go in the memory bank. We learned that we can’t fight each other’s battles at work — a lesson that is reusable with children. We learned the usefulness of ‘tag-team wrestling’ as a way of raising children. When one is just about to lose it, the other takes over. We share the character strengths of curiosity and love of learning. We’ve taken classes together — from Japanese art appreciation at the Frick Gallery to ballroom dancing. We also fill in each other’s gaps. When I was overwhelmed by taking the MAPP program and working full-time at the same time, he became my project manager, kept me focused, and kept me from going past good enough when time wouldn’t allow it.

One set of my grandparents had their golden wedding anniversary (50 years), and the other reached their diamond anniversary (60 years). Both pairs got married younger than we did, but maybe we’ll get within reach.


Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.


Filed under Friendship, Marriage, Relationships

The Stuff Friendship is Made Of

I just returned from visiting one of my college roommates. When she introduced me to her colleagues at a staff luncheon on Tuesday, she said that we are closer friends now than we were then. That statement gave me a jolt, but then I realized how true it is.

What is friendship?

As years pile up, so does shared experience. We’ve both been married to introverts so we’ve done some creative adjusting. Her husband is one of my favorite people, but she hasn’t seen mine in a long time. We’ve raised 4 children between us, so we’ve both been properly humbled. We’ve both worked out adult responses to the broken families of our childhoods. We’ve given up dreams that wouldn’t work. We’ve gotten stuck in our jobs and found ways to break logjams. So we’ve faced many challenges between us, some of them very difficult.

We’ve done each other so many favors that there is no keeping books. She helped me overcome my fear of horseback riding. I winkled her away from her family for a trip to Bora Bora.

Bora Bora view

View from Catamaran Ocelot

We can talk about anything, which doesn’t mean we always agree. We still surprise each other.

We know how to savor experience together.

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