Monday, April 20, 2009


I am experiencing a technical hang-up. I had planned to post a couple pictures and write about our weekend, but for whatever reason (most likely a failure on the part of the one, ahem, operating the computer) my pictures won't load. So instead, I will tell you a story, one for which there are no pictures, just the snapshots - some vivid and others slightly out of focus - in my mind:

The first house I remember was a simple ranch at the end of the street, blocked by the larger, busier street by a small field lot where the owners put up hay, the bushels out of which my father once built a fort where we spent an afternoon. My little sister was born while we lived in that house. My older sister and I shared a bedroom. In our front yard, was a large tree perfect for climbing. Climbing it one afternoon, the back of my sweater caught on a branch and as I hung with the help of some strong yarn, my older sister ran inside to fetch my parents, saving me from a rather ungraceful descent.

Beyond the tree, across the street, were sisters Betty and Marjorie, our neighbors. Marj had already been diagnosed with cancer before my little sister was born. She kept a glass candy dish of Brachs Creme Filled Royals on their end table. Each time I came to visit, Marj and I would fight over the last Butter Rum caramel (my favorite). I never stopped to wonder why there was only one golden-wrapped caramel in the dish each time I came to visit. It wasn't until years after Marj was gone that Betty let me in on the secret. Before each visit, Marj would send Betty to buy more of the candy I liked so much. Then she would hide all the Butter Rum pieces except one, so she could fight me for it before an entire bag magically appeared from the kitchen.

Betty, a retired teacher, became our baby-sitter, our partner-in-crime, and our adopted grandmother. Like our front-yard tree, she was a constant feature for holidays, at school musicals, in the bleachers at track meets, and on this day: my birthday. She taught us how to make egg noodles and finger puppets out of the tops of snapdragons. She took us to pick-your-own strawberry patches and a park to feed stale bread to ducks. We felt as if we knew her like family. Her favorite color was blue, she preferred pants to dresses, and she was a descendant of Orville Redenbacher. Like us, she came from a family with three children: herself (the youngest), Marj, and an older brother who, other than saying that he had died in the war and jovially recalling a story about how he had helped her sneak under a blanket in a car to spy on her sister's date, she never talked about. We didn't pry. We eagerly took the pieces she gave us: her full-blown laugh that sometimes erupted into a coughing fit, her welcoming home that smelled like a well-used kitchen, her generous time.

She passed away during March Madness, months before my wedding. While helping to prepare her house for sale, I ran across a chest filled with newspaper articles. Among them, I found a purple heart and an article about her brother's death. As I read the article about his plane being shot down over Germany, on this day, over three decades before I was born, I realized that until that moment, I had never even known his name.

I often think of the things I did not know, the things we never asked. Maybe we should not have been so polite or content to mind our own business. Maybe I should have wondered about the secrets Betty kept that didn't involve Brach's candy. Then I think of how much her silence said. Year after year, on this day, in spite of unimaginable loss, she watched as I blew out my candles, clapped her hands, and celebrated me. Sometimes our gifts are loud and bright: icing-covered with lit candles. And sometimes, they are quiet gifts of the heart, given secretly, given generously. What a blessing to have had both. A Happy April 20th to all of you.

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