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Monday, November 26, 2012

Remains of a Life

My sister and I recently shared a very bittersweet experience. With help from her husband, son, father-in-law and nephew, we removed the last items from our father's condo. Then we cleaned it and got it ready for its new owner.

On the one hand, we knew how happy Dad was during his final three years. He lived in a wonderful assisted living facility, in a bright and cheery condo with a beautiful view of a wooded area. But there was something so sad about going through his worldly possessions, deciding what to do with them (keep them, donate them or set them aside for later when our brother will be there to go through them with us) and gradually emptying his place of everything that once had been his.

This was, I thought, the remains of his life. His life was reduced to boxes of 'stuff.' Possessions that at one time had some value to him and to our mother were suddenly being discarded. His clothes went to Goodwill. Most of his furniture and linens was distributed to the women who work as housekeepers in the facility. His kids took items of significance or interest to them. Still, as the items in the condo dwindled, my father's presence also disappeared, until at the end, no trace of him remains in the place he called home for three years.

So that's it. The remains of an 87-year life are nothing more than assorted items (some family heirlooms, others of unknown origin) and boxes of family photographs.

There were some pleasant surprises along the way, however, including the discovery of previously unseen (by my sister and me) photographs of my mother as a teenager and young adult, and photographs of my 18-year-old father in his Navy uniform during World War II. What a handsome couple they were. We still need to go through several old family photo albums,which undoubtedly will hold even more surprises.

We found pictures tucked behind other pictures in frames, including one of a young woman we didn't recognize. Who was she? A relative? A friend of one of our parents? There is no information on the back of the picture, so we will probably never know who she is.

This experience has made me aware of two things: the need to purge some of my many personal items so my daughter isn't faced with the overwhelming task of going through  my possessions after I pass. And the importance of putting pertinent information on photographs, so future generations will know who the people are in the pictures.

Each of my siblings and I have kept some of our parents' personal items. I have a small table, a coffee table, an antique dresser and two chairs, in addition to some of my mother's cookbooks and recipe cards. I also have many of their CDs, mostly 'big band' music, with a few classical CDs and a couple of Christmas albums. These items serve as tangible reminders -- visible memories -- of the lives of my parents. Seeing the furniture or listening to their CDs serve as tangible reminders of my parents. But more important than these things, I have personal memories, as well as the lessons I learned from them: fiscal responsibility, and the importance of family, sharing and generosity. They taught us these lessons, not in words, but through their actions.

What is important really isn't the material items we collect throughout our lives, but the memories we create, the good we do and the lessons we teach our children. These are the things that make our lives worth something. Material possessions will be discarded, but the lessons we learn, what we teach our children, and the things we accomplish will live on.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Autumn in the High Desert

This is such a wonderful time of year in the Southwest. The high desert heat has given way to mild days and very chilly nights. The New Mexico sky is a crisp blue, and the aspens and cottonwoods are bedecked in beautiful golden leaves.

Fall is usually brief in this arid, high-desert land, and the transition between summer and winter often passes in a few short weeks. This makes appreciating this special time of year all the more important. I dread the cold and darkness of winter, so I try to savor this time of year as much as possible.

This is the season for homemade soups, stews and chili. It's the season for flannel sheets, fleece jackets and sweatshirts in the early morning, and for long pants after months of wearing shorts. It is time to relish being outside, knowing that the howling winds and frigid temperatures aren't far away. One of my favorite things about fall is the ability to leave a bedroom window open at night. I love the feeling of cool air in the room, while I snuggle in my bed, warmed by flannel sheets and blankets.

Fall in New Mexico also is the time for tens of thousands of birds, including the beautiful sandhill cranes, to take up their winter residence at Bosque del Apache and other areas.

This is the time of year to have the tank filled with propane, to have the roof inspected and to do last-minute yard work. Even yard work isn't as objectionable when done on a gorgeous day.

Unfortunately, fall also is the time when members of the local field mouse population decide to make their annual invasion of my house, in search of food and warmer temperatures. Despite two years of a pest control man doing 'exclusion' work to seal potential access points, this year once again found mice in the pantry (one of them chewed open a new bag of veggie straws), in my daughter's bedroom and in her bathroom. It's still too early to tell whether round three of exclusion work has solved the problem.

The weather forecast is calling for temperatures to plummet into the 20s at night in just a couple of days, with highs in the low 40s and strong winds. So I have just one more day to enjoy the beauty of fall. Already, the approaching Pacific storm is impacting the area, with cooler temperatures and mostly cloudy skies.

So today I will enjoy excercising outside, knowing that soon I will be driven inside, where my treadmill waits patiently in the garage.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sharing to Prosper

"You have to be able to share to prosper in this world." -- Curtis Naseyowma, carver of kachinas, representations of benevolent spirits.

The timing of this quote in today's paper is so appropriate. We are now in the traditional season of sharing. Halloween is barely behind us, but the stores are filled with Christmas music, brightly decorated trees and special displays to entice shoppers to spend their money.

This time of year causes me to more greatly appreciate my blessings, and as a result, I am more generous in my charitable donations. I donate a considerable amount of time, money and food throughout the year. But there is something about this season that makes me want to do more than usual. And I am fortunate to be able to share my bounty, when so many in this country are in need.

Maybe it's the thought of people going hungry at Thanksgiving, a time when Americans traditionally stuff themselves. As a volunteer at a local food pantry, I see the faces of hungry people every week. Maybe it's the thought of the homeless, cold and hungry as the nighttime temperatures drop into the 30s. I have always hated cold weather, and spending a cold night outside is unimaginable. Maybe it's the Christmas season that makes me more aware of how blessed I have been, and continue to be.

I have a beautiful house to keep me cool in summer, warm in winter, and dry when it rains or snows. I have nice clothes and warm coats. I have food in the pantry and in the freezer. I never have to wonder where I will get my next meal, or think about making my food stretch until I can get more from the food pantry or food bank.

Lately, I have found myself touched more than usual by the stories of abused animals in need of veterinary treatment. I was moved by the appeal for funds from a shelter for the homeless in Albuquerque. A friend from the food pantry and I have signed up to work a shift at the biggest food bank in New Mexico, and to deliver cases of bottled water to a homeless shelter. I have taken advantage of sales at local grocery stores to purchase cans of hearty, non-condensed soup for $1 each for the food pantry. I'm sending a check to the sister of a friend who has lost everything as she struggles to survive a second bout of cancer and pay for her medical treatments.

These are all small acts. I mention them not to pat myself on the back or to seek glory or acclaim. I'm not that kind of person. I do what I do because it makes me feel good to help, and because I feel obligated to share my blessings with those less fortunate. 

There are so many ways to share that don't require a great deal of money. Buy an extra can or two of soup or vegetables when they are on sale, and donate them. At this time of year, there are collection barrels for non-perishable food in many grocery stores. If you have a garden or fruit trees, consider donating some fresh produce to your local food bank or pantry. Volunteer a few hours a week for whatever cause moves you. Be a big brother or big sister to an at-risk child. Help a child with homework. Teach someone to read. Help immigrants learn English. Visit a lonely person in a nursing home. Walk dogs at an animal shelter, or foster a cat until it can be adopted.

My family was not wealthy, yet we we were taught, by example, to help others. My mother was active in church activities that raised funds for a variety of programs. My father bought cases of canned goods and donated them to the annual food drive held by his assisted living facility. After his death, we donated non-perishable food from his condo to the local food bank, as he would have wanted. My sister donated the furniture, lamps and linens from his condo to several immigrant housekeepers, who were thrilled to accept these items for their families.

I believe that sharing does make me prosper. The dictionary defines prosperous as "having or characterized by financial success or good fortune." I feel prosperous because I have a wealth of blessings and good fortune. And I have the rewards that come from sharing my time, talents and resources with others. So yes, I do feel prosperous.

I hope that my daughter also learns the true meaning of prosperity and the spirit of giving to others, and that she will carry on our family tradition. If I can pass on to her a generosity of spirit, a willingness to serve others and an appreciation for her blessings, I will have done my job.

May you also prosper through your sharing.