Just Around the Corner

Dear friends, I have been away so long.  A lifetime.  You might say I’ve been in another state.

I went to Detroit to say goodbye to my Aunt Loena.

They say for everything there is a season, but how can one ever be prepared for the last goodbye?

At her funeral we connected with cousins we hadn’t seen for ages, and did what we could to help Loena’s kids, who’d generously shared their mom with us over the years.

I fulfilled a promise I’d made to my aunt, to help her clean out her craft room.  We brought baskets of ornaments she’d sewn for friends to take home as keepsakes, which would’ve pleased her.

Aunt Millie brought notebooks and pens, and encouraged people to share their stories of Loena for her kids to read and treasure, perhaps when their hearts are not so sore.

Saying goodbye is hard.  Aunt Loena said Mom always told her, “Whatever happens, we won’t cry.  We’ll smile, kiss the kids goodbye, and stop the car around the corner to do our crying.” I still cry when I think of her, which is often.  Everything I might say or write feels trivial, so I’ve said and written very little.

If you’re the praying sort, as she was, please say one for her.  Better yet, an act of kindness would be the most appropriate way to honor a compassionate woman, who devoted her life to the care and service of others.

Thank you for your patience.  When I find my center once again, I’ll stop by to see what all my blogging buddies have been up to.  For now, here are some stories about my loving, funny, good-natured Aunt Loena, my other mother, who always had room in her heart for everyone.

Unique New York

As You Like It: Reflections Upon Life and the Art of Aging.

 Painting by Charles Willson Peale, 1822, The Lamplight Portrait.

All words and images, except where stated, copyright 2015 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Off-Season.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Travel Theme: Off Center.

Depth Perception

Last Tuesday we went downtown to attend a concert at Benaroya Hall, commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.

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The performance was called Art From Ashes, and was produced by Music of Remembrance.

I had mixed feelings about going.

It was a wet cold day in Seattle.

The city seemed dirty.

…And sad.

It would be heartbreaking to listen to works by Jewish composers whose lives and legacies were cut short at the death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau.

But the music proved more poignant than heartbreaking.

These doomed artists plumbed the depths of their despair, gleaned beauty from their cruel twisted world, and imbued their swan songs with love and longing.

Each note, each word a parting glance, a declaration of love, a prayer…

“…Tearfully stolen from the distant west, a gentle pink ray on the thin twigs, settling its quiet kiss on tiny leaves..”

As Jake Heggie wrote in his song Farewell, Auschwitz, they cast off their striped clothes and held their shaved heads high.  “The song of freedom upon our lips will never, never die.”

Ashamed and bewildered by the depths of depravity to which humankind has too often sunk, I also felt a fierce pride for its passion and courage and tenacious love of life that can raise art from the ashes.

Copyright 2015 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Photo Challenge: One Love.

 

Remembering Uncle Lewis

One of my earliest memories is of dinner at Grandma Rose’s house.  Her towels, furniture, and closets smelled of mothballs; she even stored her silverware in mothballs.  Mostly, though, I recall standing on Grandma’s couch to study the framed collage of black and white photographs on her wall.  I recognized my father, but knew the other boy in the pictures only by name, and by heart.

Uncle Lewis was my father’s only sibling, younger than my dad by ten years.  We never met, and Daddy never spoke of him.  But they were best friends.  In one picture Lewis was laughing, having been surprised on the toilet by my father with his camera.  The brothers teased Grandma too.  Lewis would yell, “Harry, stop hitting me!”  Grandma would rush in, and scold my father for picking on his little brother.  Undaunted, they’d laugh and repeat, until Grandma caught on.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lewis was drafted into the infantry, a shy studious eighteen year old who had never kissed a girl.  My father joined up as an officer.  He pulled a few strings to get Lewis transferred into the 30th ‘Old Hickory’ Division, so the brothers could cross the Atlantic on the same ship.  Lewis wrote letters and post cards home, often addressed to their dog ‘Peanuts.’

“Hey, Peanuts, tell Pa to eat his spinach!”   From the ship he wrote, “Harry and his buddies sneaked me into their cabin.  They gave me chocolate and let me play with their puppy.  Don’t tell anyone, or we’ll all catch it.  They smuggled the pup on board, and officers shouldn’t fraternize with enlisted men…”

While serving in Africa, Italy, England, France, and Germany, Harry was safely behind the front lines.  But Lewis was sent to Normandy two days after the D-Day invasion.  He fought in the hedgerows of France, and in Holland.  “The Dutch ran into the streets and passed out everything from soup to nuts.  As we marched out of there in the middle of the night, you could hear the clink of cognac, whiskey, and wine bottles in the guys’ jackets, amidst all the cursing and the roar of the Jerrys’ planes overhead.”  

To his parents Lewis wrote, “Dear Ma and Pa, today I saw General Eisenhower drive by.”  Or, “Kronk said the war can’t last.  It just can’t.  And he said it with such an angelic look on his face, I believe him!”

But to my father he wrote, “You should see the bruise from where a bullet passed through my shirt, Brub.  It was a close call.”  Or, “They took Julian away.  It’s so lonely here, Brub.  He’s the reason I wouldn’t take that promotion to sergeant.  We dug in together, took care of each other when things got rough.  I don’t know how bad he’s hurt; I just hope he makes it, and escapes this Hell.  Pray for me, Brub. Pray for me.”

On September 20, 1944, the day before his company attacked the Siegfried Line, Staff Sergeant Lewis Baltuck was killed by the blast of a shell.  Twenty years old, he had hardly begun to live.  He was survived by his parents, his dog Peanuts, and his brother Harry.  He never had the time or the opportunity to fall in love and marry.  He left no children to mourn for him—only the Bronze Star and the bronzed baby booties Grandma kept on her bookshelf until the day she died, more than forty years after her son’s death.

Harry married, had seven children, and built his own little house in Detroit.  But for the rest of his life he suffered acutely from the unspeakable burden of depression and Survivor’s Guilt.  When Grandpa Max died, my father became the sole caretaker of his widowed mother.  There was no one to share that burden with, to joke with or jolly her along.  Worst of all, crazed with grief, Grandma Rose blamed Harry for Lewis’s death.

I envied those kids who grew up with cousins to play with, and uncles who cared about them.  Uncle Lewis would’ve been that kind of uncle, and my father would have been a different man, without that black cloud to live under.  When Daddy died in 1965, we lost our connection to my father’s extended family, and our ties to our paternal cultural heritage were nearly lost as well.  But it does no good to dwell on the past or to speculate on what might have been.

Uncle Lewis was right about one thing.  War is Hell.  The price it exacts is impossible to tally, and can never be repaid.  When a soldier is killed, one heart stops beating, but many more are broken.  The wounds inflicted upon whole families are so deep that the scars can still be felt after generations.

I swear my uncle’s little bronze baby booties will never end up on the bargain shelf at the Salvation Army Thrift Store, like so many others I have seen there.  How sad to think that such precious keepsakes might be tossed into the giveaway because no one remembers or cares about the one whose little feet filled them.

I attended the 60th reunion of the Old Hickory Division in Nashville in search of someone who knew my uncle.  I met only one man who remembered him…“a quiet man who didn’t say much, but when he did speak, he was always worth listening to.”

I tell my children that story, and many other stories about their Great Uncle Lewis.  I am confident he will be cherished and remembered, not just for his tragic death, but for his joyful life.

copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Pandora’s Box

“You already have a pet,” I told eight-year-old Bea. “You have nineteen of them.”

“Fish don’t count, Mom. I need something with fur.”

“Cats and dogs make me wheeze and Daddy itch.”

“How about a rabbit?” asked her brother Eli.

“Too big to flush.”

I knew something of rodents in captivity.  My sister’s kids had a hamster named Little May.  She’d lived hard and fast, and died young.   A life of costume parties, wild shirt-pocket rides, playing the “show and tell” circuit, and a brief-but-thrilling flight career had proved too much for Little May.  She died at the tender age of six months.  I suspect it was suicide.

“How about a guinea pig?”

“They stink, you have to clean their cages, and for what?  Unresponsive vermin.”

“A hamster?”

“Well…”  Investing that degree of commitment into a pet project was something I might consider.  “If you can accept that a hamster lifespan is less than that of a guppy’s.”

Thus I found myself ankle deep in the world of hamster husbandry.  Why they call it that, I’ll never know; my husband had nothing to do with it.  ‘It’ was a black and white Teddy Bear Hamster.  The cost of the cage, igloo, water bottle, vitamins, cedar bedding and, yes, the hamster potty, for our six-dollar rodent far exceeded the dollar-a-month investment I anticipated.

We still needed a name, but at least that was free.  I voted for Wildfire or Hamlet, but the kids settled on Pandora.  Her purple cage became the infamous “Pandora’s Box,” and we opened it again and again.  Like that divine creation, our Pandora inspired story, song, poetry, even a new family crest, a black and white hamster sporting a golden crown.  Clearly, Pandora was destined to rule.

Rodent Fun Fact #1.   Feral gerbils feed on bed sheets and store the leftovers under the refrigerator.  This I learned in third grade when Napoleon, the classroom gerbil, stayed at our house for spring break.  In sixth grade, Linda Witkowsky put Winky, her hamster, into my hands.  It struggled furiously, went winky on my blouse, its eyes bulged, and so did mine.  I hadn’t touched a rodent since.

Rodent Fun Fact #2.   Hamster is from the German word for  “hamper,” as in laundry hamper, container, storage bin.  I reckon a hamster can hold about ten times its weight in cheek pouches stretching the length of its body.  No wonder they don’t carry purses!  This talent was graphically illustrated the first day, when the kids loaded Pandora with peanuts, seeds, carrots, Cheerios, and turned her loose in the bathroom.  She left an impressive hoard behind the toilet.  We left it there for three days, as a sort of monument.

Pandora was a good-natured little creature, tolerant of handling and mishandling.  She gripped a cracker like a kid with a peanut butter sandwich.  She used the same technique nibbling buttons off a shirt.  She was cute like other peoples’ grandchildren are cute–in a wallet.  I was convinced I could ride this out with no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, until the first time the kids changed her cage.  Holding out the Beast, Bea cooed, “Go to Grandma.”

I was soon babysitting on a regular basis.  Not content to sit in your lap and purr, Pandora was a perpetual motion machine.  In her exercise ball she rumbled like thunder as she raced down our long hall.  The kids made her Lego mazes and seltzer bottle airplanes  She could be a hula girl, Greek Goddess, fairy tale princess, or bikini-clad bathing beauty, depending upon which hole in the Kleenex box she peeked out.

They warn you against looking into a snake’s eyes, but no one ever said a thing about hamsters.

I’d drop laundry in Eli’s room and see Panny staring at me.  I knew what she wanted.  I half expected her to run a little tin cup along the bars of her cage.  The first time I caved, it wasn’t good breeding that brought Panny scurrying to the door to greet me.  I didn’t kid myself; mine were often the hands that fed her.  Dogs love their humans, but what drives a hamster?  Are they too stupid to know fear?  Are we too big to be regarded as anything but a landscape?   Still, it was oddly moving when she stepped into my hands, and I could feel her tiny heart beating against my palm.

One night the cage wasn’t latched.  Pandora climbed from the dresser top to the floor for a walk on the Wild Side.  Tears were shed.  Then we placed a peanut in each room, shut the door, and blocked the crack with towels.  If a peanut went missing, we’d know where to look.  In central rooms we placed treats in deep buckets with ramps leading up to them.

“I bet she forgot to pack her cheeks,” I told the kids.  “Sooner or later she’ll come out to forage; it’s the Hamster Way.”  I didn’t mention Cousin Jean’s gerbil that set out to seek its fortune.  Months later she found it trapped in a dresser in the basement, keeping the company of maggots.

While emptying the hall closet, I heard a loud grinding coming from the basement.

“Eli,” I hollered down the stairs, “try searching more quietly, so you can hear her.”

“What, Mom?” asked Eli, appearing beside me.

It had to be Panny down there, in the bowels of the basement.  We went downstairs and waited, listening.  The furnace clicked on, and we jumped.  Tick, tick, tick went the clock.  Finally we heard that noise again, like a chainsaw, coming from inside the staircase. That could mean only one thing…

Pandora had entered the Black Hole, where no hamster had gone before.  Our storage room sucks in all manner of objects and morphs them into high density matter.  Not just cardboard boxes and camping equipment.  Baby things for my unborn grandchildren, stacks of Rubbermaid containing every object d’art my kids ever made, a slide projector, medieval tankards, sci-fi dinnerware, my dead uncle’s stamp collection, the hardened dregs of house paint to match the color before the last.  Blacker than a Black Hole.

We peeled away the layers, from folding chairs that come out for parties to stained glass scraps from a class taken twenty years before.  Then I saw her, snug in a nest of sawdust gnawed from the underbelly of the stairs.  Just out of reach.  If I made a grab, I might scare her deeper into hiding.  My heart was pounding as I held out my hand.  “Here, Panny…”

Hamsters are loners, pairing up only to mate, and even that isn’t pretty.  They are so territorial that the most tender hamster mothers drive away their offspring the instant they mature.  What could we offer to match a brand new house in the sub-suburbs?  Why should she respond to the whispered promise of a yogurt treat when there was enough macaroni art down there to last a hamster lifetime?

“Come on, Panny.  Come to Grandma…”

Panny looked at me with her big brown eyes.  And crept out of her nest into my hand.

One evening soon after, Bea demonstrated Panny’s newest trick.  “Up, Panny, up!” Pandora climbed the bars to the ceiling of her cage.  I beamed at my grandbaby’s cleverness, and ran for the camera.  But the next morning she was trembling, listless, and had clearly been sick.  I cleaned her while the kids cleaned the cage.

“Maybe she just needs rest,” I said, but to my husband Thom I whispered, “It’s bad.”

Her condition worsened.  The next morning, the kids were distressed to see her lying listless.  My sometimes-too-practical husband picked up Panny and gently stroked her.  She looked so tiny in his big hands.  “We have an emotional investment to protect,” he said.  “It might be worth a trip to the vet.”

At that moment I knew I would love that man forever.  In for a Panny, in for a pound.  The vet gave our six dollar hamster a hundred dollars worth of antibiotics.

“Do other people bring in sick hamsters?” I asked, feeling a little foolish.

“Oh, yes,” the vet assured me.

“And do they get better?”

She hesitated.  “Sometimes.”  Then she shrugged.  “Hamsters get infections, just like people, but they’re fragile.  In the wild, most get eaten before they get sick.  Pandora should be at home, where she’ll be more comfortable, and the children can be involved.”   So it had come to hamster hospice.

We gave her a few CCs of water, and tucked her into her nest.  The next morning, Eli found Pandora’s lifeless body.  There was no comforting Bea.  She looked at the rain pouring down outside and sobbed, “Even Mother Nature is crying.”

She was in no condition to go to school.  Between bouts of tears Bea stitched a tiny quilt and pillow, fashioned a tiny golden crown, and a little gold coffin adorned with plastic jewels.  Bea tucked in Panny with a tuft of nesting material and a peanut.  On the inside lid she wrote a lullaby, “So it will be like I’m singing to her forever.”

It was an open casket funeral.  Eli constructed a Popsicle stick headstone, and Bea planned the service.  I made copies of Bea’s hymn, “Hamsters We Have Heard on High,” so the mourners could join in.  Eli played flute and Bea sang, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.”

Bea’s tearful elegy was simple, but eloquent.  “Her Grandma said she never knew she could love a rodent, and her Grandpa never said he loved her, but he did.  She’s an angel now.  A furry little angel.”

I was surprised to see Thom wipe away a tear.

“Does Daddy love her?” Bea had asked, when Panny first fell ill.

“Yes, in his way,” I told her.  Did the kids love her?  Absolutely.  Did Panny love us?  I’m sure she did, in her Hamster Way.  She taught us much about love, and the sorrow that is the price we gladly pay for it.  And even the passing of a hamster is a reminder to appreciate every moment of this precious fleeting gift of life.  Bea will tell you Pandora Athena Baltuck Garrard lived a very full life and packed a lot of love into her 18 short months.  And I will tell you that my first grandchild will always be the one with fur on her face.

copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck