Friday, September 12, 2014

FRED DANZLE CHRISTLE September 18, 1884 - September 11, 1971

On a date that is forever etched in the American psyche as one that showed us the worst of what humans can do, I choose instead to remember a man who, if only on a personal level, showed the best of what humans can be.  This man, Fred Christle, who was born in Pennsylvania on September 18, 1884, died peacefully in his sleep on September 11, 1971.  When he was a boy, his father beat him so brutally that Fred left home at the age of 12 and hired out as a farm hand.  With no more than a sixth grade education, Fred went on to become an extraordinary farmer and gardener, worked a variety of hard, physically-demanding jobs throughout his lifetime, and had the good sense to marry my grandmother when she was 62 and I was only 3 years old.

Even with a past marred by domestic violence, which so often is the unfortunate predictor of future violence, he never raised his voice in anger nor lifted a finger to hurt another creature.  In fact, he gave the biggest, warmest hugs to children of all ages.  He lavished family and friends with the most luscious strawberries and other produce imaginable and after a lifetime of farming for sustenance, in retirement he began cultivating flowers for beauty.  His flower gardens and fields of flowers drew admirers from miles around and he was never happier than when cutting samples for large bouquets for his visitors.  In his 70s he began to carve magical folk art depicting activities and characters from his childhood as well as one or two fantasies of his, such as a fruit bowl with bikini-clad young women dancing on the rim.  Even Grandma found that one amusing.

His entire life was a hymn of joy and love and his daily activities were a gift back to his Maker.  His weathered face bore the wrinkles of a hard worker who toiled in the sun and smiled more than frowned.  His gnarled, beefy hands, which could crush without effort, usually cradled a sleeping child or a fistful of delphinium when they weren't gently cupped around my grandmother's elbow, helping her up a step or into the car.

The most beautiful three words I ever heard come out of his mouth were, "How's my girl?" when greeting me with open arms.  Well, today your girl misses you, Grandpa, but also feels extremely blessed to have been nurtured by your gentle, loving hands, heart and soul and to have bloomed in your garden.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Women at Work

Best-Selling Author Ilene Beckerman, Author/Humorist/Feminist Theorist Gina Barreca, Humorician Patricia Wynn Brown, and Publisher Suzanne Braun Levine at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop April 11, 2014

It’s not the hushed, conspiratorial sound of men in board rooms or the exalted “C” suites.  It’s the squeal of greeting, laughter and recognition; the high-pitched tone of excitement.

It’s not the back-slapping, checking you out for the right spot to insert the knife of betrayal, or firm handshake/secret test of strength of men in suits.  It’s the hugs and hands on the arms of old friends, the hugs and hands on the arms of soon-to-be friends.

It’s not the jostling of men for place in a hierarchy of power or even just in line for the rest room.  It’s the sending forward of the woman doing the most desperate dance in the Ladies room line, the woman best prepared for the book pitch.

It’s not the stampede to get to the front of the room or a seat at the head table.  It’s the invitation to the person all alone to join a table of strangers, it’s the speaker everyone wants to meet showing her complete lack of pretense by joining the group at the table by the kitchen.

It’s not the arm shielding the test answers so others can’t see; it’s not the “I made it on my own so you’ll have to make it on your own.”  It’s the finger pointing out the correct answer, it’s the suggestions and ideas, and the “here’s what worked for me” comments.  It’s the generosity of “I made it, you can, too, and here’s how.”

It’s not the heartless critique of a flawed presentation or a failed marketing campaign on Fifth Avenue.  It’s the standing ovation and hooting and cheering as a show of support for the frightened woman who ventures out of her home and onto a limb.  It’s her female audience saying, “We won’t let you die alone out there.”

It’s the quiet murmur of collaboration, the hand on the shoulder in support, the set-up for the punch line, the laughter that says I know what you mean, the applause that says you nailed it now keep going…

It’s the filling of empty cups (okay, and wine glasses, too) and it’s the shoring up of others’ confidence and self-esteem.  It’s the healing of wounded parts, the sharing of insecurities and doubts, and it’s the rekindling of each other’s spirits when our inner flames have gone out.

It’s different from other workshops and conferences; it’s the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop.  You might mistake it for fun and games and nothing more, but your estimation would fall foolishly short.  It’s the sound of joy, laughter, friendship and support.  It’s the joyous sight and sound of women at work.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

And the dish ran away with the spoon…

Marvin: There’s a spoon on the wheelchair.
Jim: What, Dad?
Marvin: There’s a spoon on the wheelchair.
Jim: No, Dad, there’s no spoon on the wheelchair.
Marvin: It’s right there.
Jim: No, Dad, that’s a blanket.
(Frustration furrows Marvin’s brow.)
Barbara: Here, we’ll look for it.
(Jim and I pick up the blanket and shake it out. No spoon.)
Jim: It’s not in the blanket, Dad.
(Jim and I pick up the bedspread, underneath the blanket, and shake it out. No spoon.)
Jim: Dad, the nurse must have picked up the spoon and taken it away.
I think to myself but don’t say it aloud: The dish ran away with the spoon.
(Confusion on his face followed by a sigh of resignation from Marvin.)
The spoon issue is put to rest. For now.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


I am a woman of tenuous faith and recurrent questions and uncertainties. Quiet moments of interface with nature seem to open me to some of my most spiritual moments.

In some of those moments when my belief is steady, and I'm out walking the dog after dark, and I glance up into the sky, I imagine God reaching into a sack and pulling out a handful of stars to plant across the night sky, much like farmers of old would scatter corn in a freshly plowed field. Except the stars, unlike the corn, were planted there to draw our eyes upward when otherwise we would overlook, question, or even actively deny His existence, because who can challenge such a notion as God while contemplating the stars in their field?

But one mid-July night, I received a call telling me that my seriously ill mother had been rushed to the hospital and was in bad shape. Six months earlier she had been diagnosed with a terminal recurrence of cancer and we knew that she could go at any time. As my husband and I quickly gathered our things and raced out the door to the car, I barely took note of the clear, summer sky sprinkled with those heavenly reminders of something vast and timeless and greater than my own grievous but personal trials. My eyes, though open, were focused inward on my pain at the thought of losing my mother and toward a future that seemed dark and empty.

With my husband at the wheel I worried that we might not make it to the hospital, an hour away in another city, in time. I thought of the still unfinished business between my mother and me even though we both knew her body was winding down, and I lamented my procrastination. I contemplated what my life might be like without my mother and, at nearly fifty years old and with my father still in vigorous, good health, I felt like a child about to be abandoned and left all alone in the world.

As my mind tentatively considered the possibility that she would be gone by morning, or maybe even before we got there, my gaze out the window of our speeding car was brought back to the moment by the twinkling light of a thousand – no, a million! – stars nestled in the knee-high crops of corn to the south of the highway. At first my brain, so far away in thoughts of death and emptiness, could not make sense of the image my eyes beheld. But slowly, as the delicate, soft, sparkle of the fields continued, I began to comprehend that the fields were aglow with the sweet, brief flashes of fireflies seeking love in the night. There were so many of them it was as if the sky had lowered itself like a blanket over the green, silent bed of fields.

For the next fifteen miles I was consumed with the serendipitous nature of such a wondrous sight and struck wordless at the contrast between the bright, cheerful beauty of that spectacle and the sad nature of the journey I was on. I felt oddly comforted and soothed by those fireflies and couldn’t help but smile at the realization that somehow on one still, quiet July night they all thought to signal potential mates at the same time in the fields on the side of that lonely highway.

My mother rallied and did not die that night or even that year although she was gone within eighteen months. We had time to finish some of our unspoken thoughts and feelings with each other and while the words themselves still occasionally escaped me, I had ample opportunities to express my depth of emotion the way so many of us do, by way of deeds such as home cooked meals, freshly laundered bedding, and bedside companionship as she slowly gave up her grip on this life in anticipation of the next.

But that night, so bowed down under the weight of my mother’s impending death that I could not look up, God settled the stars onto the fields around me in the form of fireflies, a silent reminder that His universe is beautiful, vast and goes on in ways we humans can’t begin to comprehend. Those small, winged creatures who wear their hearts on their sleeves (or their abdomen as it were) lit up the ground with their hopeful, trusting search for love and cast a warm, soft glow over my dark thoughts and emotions.

It gave me great comfort to know that from then on, memories of my mother would forever be connected to that magical occurrence that night, when the corn fields twinkled like the stars in the sky.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I think you have to reach a certain age to appreciate the meaning of the word bittersweet. I am of *a certain age* (and have been for a certain long time) and this Father's Day is a bittersweet one for sure. My beloved father-in-law, Marvin Cooley, is very ill and in the hospital with multiple issues, not the least of which is congestive heart failure. While he might get a bit better, we have no illusions that this 92 year old is going to be out working in his garden anytime soon.

I am also remembering some of the better times with my own dad who's been gone for a year and a half now. Each of them so different from the other, but each of them occupies his own special place in my heart and my memories. My dad was a gregarious man with an intoxicating zest for life that was also contagious. He loved travel and instilled the same love of it in me. The picture below is of Dad, my nephew Colin giving Dad the rabbit ears, and me on our way up to Hanging Lake in Colorado in 1997. Dad was 77 years old at the time and had a heart condition so it was with great reluctance that just a short distance from the top (the climb is about a 1000 foot total rise in elevation in about a one mile hike) he had to stop and let us go on without him.

Marvin has always been a great naturalist and has filled his life - and ours - with a myriad of ways of learning about and enjoying nature. Some day I'll write about the "Barbara Lily" but today I'll just post this picture of him at the cottage near Mackinaw with his grandson Zach, circa 1979.

How sweet that Marvin is still here. Happy Father's Day, to both of my dads, and thank you. Love, Your Daughter

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Gentleman and a Scholar

My life has been blessed by the presence and love of many good people over the years and tonight my thoughts are centered around one in particular, Marvin Cooley. A gentleman of the first order - and a gentle man - Marvin is also a scholar who knows more about Michigan flora and fauna than probably anyone else in the state. He also has a dry sense of humor and has delighted in ribbing me since I joined the family in 1983. He's played many a prank on me that necessitated retaliation of equal (or greater) force and we've both delighted in pulling a fast one on the other. While he's always been fiscally conservative I've not missed a single opportunity to portray him as tighter than Scrooge but the truth is, he's a generous man.

This generous, kind, gentle man, my father-in-law, is very sick and in the hospital. The doctors think he can recover but he's been sick for some time now and he's very frail. We're very concerned about him. So I'm sending out my warmest thoughts of him and to him and hoping that the universe answers with kindness, strength, and compassion. Here's a picture of him at about the age of 4 or 5, in the early 1920s. Just look at that soulful face...

Be strong, Dad, and know that we love you.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On the topic of quitting smoking...

Ever since I posted a few thoughts about my 10 year anniversary of quitting smoking, and my experiences online, I've wanted to add a very important "thank you" to someone who proved to be a special source of support. Sometimes support comes from unexpected places and that's what I found when I decided to finally kick my nicotine habit of 29 years.

In the spring of 2000, someone half the age of my addiction, and one too young to know much about addiction, stepped up and decided to be my personal coach, cheerleader, buddy, and mentor. My wise-beyond-his-years nephew, Colin, got all in my business (as the ubiquitous *they* say) and sent me instant messages, emails, notes and cards, and walked that difficult path alongside me. When I thought I wasn't going to be able to do it, he assured me that I could and I would. When I bemoaned my weight gain, he reminded me that if I could quit smoking then certainly I could lose the weight when the time came. He even planned a surprise celebration for me in honor of my first 100 days without cigarettes with my entire family gathered around to support my efforts. I still have some of his emails and the cards and a hand-lettered sign he made for me ten years ago. I'll always have his love and support in my heart, and sweet, fresh air in my pink, healthy lungs. Thank you, Colin. I couldn't have done it without you, my favorite oldest nephew.

PS: I took that picture of Colin peering through a rock formation on the Colorado National Monument, outside of Grand Junction, Colorado in 1997. It's without a doubt the best picture I've ever taken. Of the best oldest nephew. :)