Up Into The Cherry Tree

Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Gar­den of Verses

My moth­er died a few days ago. While I’m over­whelmed with the mes­sages of prayers and con­do­lences, at least at some lev­el it feels like cheat­ing to accept them too ful­ly. This isn’t a new con­di­tion. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.

A lit­tle over five years ago my moth­er was for­mal­ly diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the test­ing done when she did. This had always been her most-feared sce­nario for aging. Grow­ing up, we had befriend­ed an active elder­ly neigh­bor who had gen­tly died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Gold­smith had come to her in a dream the next night to con­grat­u­late her­self, say­ing “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years after­wards, my moth­er con­vinced her­self that she would go in a sim­i­lar­ly ele­gant way.

My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a pos­si­bil­i­ty when she sched­uled that doctor’s vis­it. The news didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to us fam­i­ly. I had been jok­ing for years that my mom seemed to have only twen­ty sto­ries that she kept on rota­tion. After she read a study that cross­word puz­zles keep your brain sharp as we age, she became an obses­sive cross­word puz­zler; when the Sudoku craze hit, she was right on top of it. She had brave­ly bought her first house in her late 60s. How proud she was. At the time she let us all know, repeat­ed­ly, that she would be leav­ing it “in a box.” Caulk­ing trim, replac­ing win­dows, and trou­bleshoot­ing a mud room leak that defied a dozen con­trac­tors became her occu­pa­tion, along with vol­un­teer­ing and watch­ing grand­kids. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.

When she called to tell me the diag­no­sis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doc­tor was putting her on Ari­cept. A quick Google search con­firmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doc­tor lat­er that after­noon helped map out the road ahead.

Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been dis­ap­pear­ing from us for a long while. Reg­u­lar out­ings became less fre­quent till we couldn’t even take her out to a near­by restau­rant for her birth­day. As words dis­ap­peared and speech began fal­ter­ing, I’d show her recent kid pho­tos on my phone and tell sto­ries to fill the emp­ty­ing space. Even­tu­al­ly she stopped show­ing inter­est even in this. On my last reg­u­lar vis­it with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun tak­ing pic­tures. Mom kept point­ing out at the phone’s dis­play as if it were a mir­ror. But con­ver­sa­tion was too dis­joint­ed and after a few min­utes, my kids start­ed wan­der­ing in ever widen­ing cir­cles look­ing for inter­est­ing but­tons and alarms to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.

In the past few weeks her for­get­ful­ness has extend­ed to eat­ing and swal­low­ing. Inter­ven­tion would only buy a lit­tle more time until she for­got how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.

On my last few vis­its she was most­ly sleep­ing. She’s was calm, preter­nat­u­ral­ly calm. Lying on her back, pale and peace­ful, she looked as if she might already be a body rest­ing in a cas­ket. Only the slight rise of sheets as she breathed gave away the news that she was still with us, if bare­ly. I felt awk­ward just sit­ting there. Some peo­ple are good in these kinds of sit­u­a­tions, but I self-consciously strug­gle. With lit­tle chance of inter­ac­tion, I struck on the idea of read­ing from a favorite book of poems that she had read to me on count­less nights as a child.  “Up into the cher­ry tree, who should climb but lit­tle me?” I don’t know if she heard me or pic­tured the cher­ry tree in her haze, but it was a way for us to be together.

The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For rea­sons that go deep into biog­ra­phy, she was a won­der­ful­ly friend­ly per­son who didn’t have a lot of close friends any­more. It seems pecu­liar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so peo­ple notice your depar­ture. But then maybe that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eight­ies. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of qui­et rip­ples with which we entered.

Expanding our concepts of pacifism

My blog­ging pal Wess Daniels wrote a provoca­tive piece this week called When Peace Pre­serves Vio­lence. It’s a great read and blows some much-needed holes in the self-satisfaction so many of us car­ry with us. But I’d argue that there’s a part two need­ed that does a side-step back to the source…

Eric Moon wrote some­thing that’s stuck with me in his June/July Friends Jour­nal piece, “Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly Not the Tes­ti­monies.” His arti­cle focus­es on the way we’ve so cod­i­fied the “Quak­er Tes­ti­monies” that they’ve become ossi­fied and tak­en for grant­ed. One dan­ger he sees in this is that we’ll not rec­og­nize clear lead­ings of con­science that don’t fit the modern-day mold.

Moon tells the anec­dote of a Friend who “guilti­ly lament[ed] that he couldn’t attend protest march­es because he was busy all day at a cen­ter for teens at risk for drop­ping out of school, a pro­gram he had estab­lished and invest­ed his own sav­ings in.” Here was a Friend doing real one-on-one work chang­ing lives but feel­ing guilty because he couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in the largely-symbolic act of stand­ing on a street corner.

I don’t think that we need to give up the peace tes­ti­mo­ny to acknowl­edge the entan­gle­ment of our lives and the hypocrisy that lies all-too-shallowly below the sur­face of most of our lifestyles. What we need to do is rethink its boundaries.

A mod­el for this is our much-quoted but much-ignored “Quak­er saint” John Wool­man. While a sense of the equal­i­ty of humans is there in his jour­nal as a source of his com­pas­sion, much of his argu­men­ta­tion against slav­ery is based in Friends by-then well-established tes­ti­mo­ny against war (yes, against war, not for peace). Slav­ery is indeed a state of war and it is on so many lev­els – from the indi­vid­u­als treat­ing each oth­er hor­ri­bly, to soci­etal norms con­struct­ed to make this seem nor­mal, to the economies of nation states built on the trade.

Woolman’s con­cep­tu­al leap was to say that the peace tes­ti­mo­ny applied to slav­ery. If we as Friends don’t par­tic­i­pate in war, then we sim­i­lar­ly can’t par­tic­i­pate in the slave trade or enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of that trade – the war prof­it of cot­tons, dyes, rum, etc.

Today, what else is war? I think we have it hard­er than Wool­man. In the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry a high per­cent­age of one’s con­sum­ables came from a tight geo­graph­ic radius. You were like­ly to know the labor that pro­duced it. Now almost noth­ing comes local­ly. If it’s cheap­er to grow gar­lic in Chi­na and ship it halfway around the world than it is to pay local farm­ers, then our local gro­cer will sell Chi­nese gar­lic (mine does). Books and mag­a­zines are sup­plant­ed by elec­tron­ics built in locked-down Far East­ern sweatshops.

But I think we can find ways to dis­en­gage. It’s a never-ending process but we can take steps and sup­port oth­ers tak­ing steps. We’ve got­ten it stuck in our imag­i­na­tion that war is a protest sign out­side Dunkin Donuts. What about those tutor­ing pro­grams? What about reduc­ing our cloth­ing con­sump­tions and find­ing ways to reduce nat­ur­al resource con­sump­tion (best done by lim­it­ing our­selves to lifestyles that cause us to need less resources).

And Yoder? Wess is dis­heart­ened by the sex­u­al mis­con­duct of Men­non­ite paci­fist John Howard Yoder (short sto­ry: he reg­u­lar­ly groped and sex­u­al­ly pres­sured women). But what of him? Of course he’s a fail­ure. In a way, that’s the point, even the plan: human heroes will fail us. Cocks will crow and will we stay silent (why the denom­i­na­tion kept it hush-hush for 15 years after his death is anoth­er whole WTF, of course). But why do I call it the plan? Because we need to be taught to rely first and sec­ond and always on the Spir­it of Jesus. George Fox fig­ured that out:

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had noth­ing out­ward­ly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy con­di­tion’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. …and this I knew exper­i­men­tal­ly. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowl­edge of God, and of Christ alone, with­out the help of any man, book, or writing.

If young Fox had found a human hero that actu­al­ly walked the talk, he might have short-circuited the search for Jesus. He need­ed to expe­ri­ence the dis­heart­ened fail­ure of human knowl­edge to be low enough to be ready for his great spir­i­tu­al opening.

We all use iden­ti­ty to prop our­selves up and iso­late our­selves from cri­tique. I think that’s just part of the human con­di­tion. The path toward the divine is not one of retrench­ment or dis­avow­al, but rather focus on that one who might even now be prepar­ing us for new light on the con­di­tions of the human con­di­tion and church universal.

Summer project: making Goop!

From 1,444 Fun Things to Do with Kids comes goop. Start with 8 ounces of white glue, food col­or­ing, water, and borax.

Com­bine glue, three-fourths cup water, and food col­or­ing in one bowl. In anoth­er bowl, mix one-fourth cup water with one table­spoon Borax, and add this to the first bowl, stir­ring until it forms a Goop ball. Remove the ball. Again com­bine one-fourth cup water with one table­spoon Borax and mix it into the glue mix­ture, stir­ring until anoth­er Goop ball forms. Keep repeat­ing the process until the glue mix­ture is gone. Then knead all the Goop balls togeth­er. Now you’re ready to play by pulling and pat­ting the Goop into strings and unique forms. Store the Goop in an air­tight container.

We only real­ly man­aged one-round of Goop (see video). We also couldn’t find any food col­or­ing on-hand and so made white Goop.

Story: The teapot that survived

“What do you think of this?” It was prob­a­bly the twen­ti­eth time my broth­er or I had asked this ques­tion in the last hour. Our moth­er had down­sized to a one-bedroom apart­ment in an Alzheimer’s unit just six days ear­li­er. Vis­it­ing her there she admit­ted she couldn’t even remem­ber her old apart­ment. We were clean­ing it out.

Almost forgotten history.
Almost for­got­ten his­to­ry. by martin_kelley, on Flickr

The object of the ques­tion this time was an antique teapot. White chi­na with a blue design. It wasn’t in great shape. The top was cracked and miss­ing that han­dle that lets you take the lid off with­out burn­ing your fin­gers. It had a folksy charm, but as a teapot it was nei­ther prac­ti­cal nor aston­ish­ing­ly attrac­tive, and nei­ther of us real­ly want­ed it. It was head­ed for the over­sized trash bin out­side her room.

I turned it over in my hands. There, on the bot­tom, was a strip of dried-out and cracked mask­ing tape. On it, bare­ly leg­i­ble and in the kind of cur­sive script that is no longer taught, were the words “Recov­ered from ruins of fire 6/29/23 at 7. 1067 Haz­ard Rd.”

We scratched our heads. We didn’t know where Haz­ard Road might be (Google lat­er revealed it’s in the blink-and-you-miss-it rail­road stop of Haz­ard, Penn­syl­va­nia, a cross­roads only tech­ni­cal­ly with­in the bound­ary of our mother’s home town of Palmer­ton). The date would place the fire sev­en years before her birth.

We can only guess to fill in the details. A cat­a­stroph­ic fire must have tak­en out the fam­i­ly home. Imag­ine the grim solace of pulling out a fam­i­ly heir­loom. Per­haps some grand­par­ent had brought it care­ful­ly packed in a small suit­case on the jour­ney to Amer­i­ca. Or per­haps not. Per­haps it had no sen­ti­men­tal val­ue and it had land­ed with our moth­er because no one else cared. We’ll nev­er know. No amount of research could tell us more than that mask­ing tape. Our moth­er wasn’t the only one los­ing her mem­o­ry. We were too. We were los­ing the fam­i­ly mem­o­ry of a gen­er­a­tion that had lived, loved, and made it through a tragedy one mid-summer day.

I stood there and looked at the teapot once again. It had sur­vived a fire nine­ty years ago. I would give it a reprieve from our snap judge­ment and the dump. Stripped of all mean­ing save three inch­es of mask­ing tape, it now sits on a top shelf of my cup­board. It will rest there, gath­er­ing back the dust I just cleaned off, until some spring after­noon forty years from now, when one of my kids will turn to anoth­er. “What do you think of this?”

Update March 2017

Prob­a­bly the old­est pic­ture of Liz I have, from 1931. Eliz­a­beth “Lizzie” “Gram­my” Williams Noll, Eliz­a­beth Klein­top, Puerette “Puri” “Pap­py” Noll. On porch of Colum­bia Ave. home, Palmerton.

Beyond all odds, there’s actu­al­ly more infor­ma­tion. Some­one has put up obit­u­ar­ies from the Morn­ing Call news­pa­per. It includes the May 1922 notice for Alvin H. Noll, my mother’s great grandfather.

Alvin H. Noll, a well known res­i­dent of Palmer­ton, died at his home, at that place, on Sun­day morn­ing, aged 66 years. He was a mem­ber of St. John’s church, Towa­mensing, and also a promi­nent mem­ber of Lodge, No. 440, I.O. of A., Bow­manstown. He is sur­vived by two daugh­ters, Mrs. Lewis Sauer­wine, Slat­ing­ton, and Mrs. Fred Par­ry, this city; three sons, Puri­et­ta Noll, Samuel Noll and Thomas Noll, Palmer­ton. Two sis­ters, Mrs. Mary Schultz, Lehigh­ton; Miss Aman­da Noll, Bow­manstown; two broth­ers, Aaron Noll, Bow­manstown, and William Noll, Lehigh­ton. Ten grand­chil­dren also sur­vive. Funer­al ser­vices will be held at the home of his son, Puri­et­ta (sic) Noll, 1067 Haz­ard Road, Palmer­ton, on Wednes­day at 1.30 p.m., day­light sav­ing time. Fur­ther ser­vices will be held in St. John’s church, Towa­mensing. Inter­ment will be made in Towa­mensing cemetery.

And there it is: 1067 Haz­ard Road, home of my mother’s grand­fa­ther Puri­ette Franklin Noll one year before the fire. So I’ll add a pic­ture of Puri­ette and his wife Eliz­a­beth with my Mom eighter years after the fire, at what the pho­to says is their Colum­bia Avenue home. Wow!