Category Archives: Life Purpose

Want to celebrate a friendship? Mail a card

I had a memorable birthday celebration on July 4, made no more special by the 10 people (only one of whom I know) who pressed three buttons to wish me a “Happy Birthday” on LinkedIn. Likewise, the 63 Facebook messages, many with the identical auto-filled and poorly punctuated “Happy Birthday Amy!”, were a nominally satisfying way to feel remembered by former coworkers and other folks I’m rarely in touch with anymore.

But that isn’t how my closest friends reached out to me. They sent birthday cards with personal, handwritten messages, the old-fashioned way, through the U.S. mail.

My friend Sarah stays in touch with cards.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” reads one, a quote from Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that women of my vintage sported on T-shirts and book bags when we were young. Another card, from a friend I have known since my mid-20s, pronounces us “friends for life” in a touching handwritten note. “If you have a garden & a library, you have everything you need,” reads a card from a friend who is as busy with work as I am and who suggests we continue our tradition of occasional Sunday morning teas and talks.

  • My birthday was special because each of my two grown sons gave me a book with a long, handwritten letter inside.
  • My birthday was special because my neighbor surprised us with a homemade cake and a socially distanced gathering in her backyard.
  • My birthday was special because my husband’s best friend swung by in his 1981 Corvette with a piece of lemon meringue pie (which I don’t like, but no matter) and sang an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the top of his lungs from the front sidewalk.

Friendship has become a commodity these days, a point of pride to be measured more in quantity than quality, with hundreds of people on social media calling themselves my “friends.” Except they’re not. They are well-meaning acquaintances — just as I am to them — who are good enough to “like” my family photos and raise a fist in camaraderie to my political posts. My friends are the women I called when my parents died. My friends are the people who help me stay sober. My friends are the ones I can pick up with, after weeks or months, and enjoy a long, freewheeling talk over breakfast or on a bike ride.

My friends send greeting cards, hand-selected to evoke laughter or a sense of well-being, because that process takes time and thought, just as a true friendship does.

This card from my brother accurately pokes fun at my multi-tasking nature.

A sidewalk sign outside a family-owned business in my neighborhood started me thinking about the thoughtfulness, artistry and relative permanence of greeting cards. “Anyone can send a Facebook post,” it read. “Be a friend. Buy a card.”

Avalon on Grand — one of those charming, well-curated gift shops that has nothing you need but a whole lot of everything you want — boasts “one of the largest selections of greeting cards” in the Twin Cities. It’s one of several stores where I shop for cards all year-round, choosing cards for friends and siblings (sometimes bursting out with laughter in the aisles), and then stashing them away for just the right occasion.

Cards can be standalone works of art.

The Greeting Card Association (who knew there was one?) traces the history of greeting cards back to the ancient Chinese and the early Egyptians. Wikipedia is another good resource for the card curious.

Europeans began exchanging Valentine’s cards as early as 1415. Twenty-five years after the 1775 founding of what is now the U.S. Postal Service, Valentines were becoming an affordable way to express love and affection throughout the fledgling United States. The “first known Christmas card” was published in London in 1843.

Unfortunately, the latest entry in the GCA’s “History of Greeting Cards” is 1943, which doesn’t signal optimism for the practice of card-giving, especially in our digital age. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll learn that Millennials are giving new life to an industry that was faltering with the advent of social media and e-greetings.

“Millennials are . . . seeking a feeling of nostalgia in card-giving,” says a National Public Radio story from Valentine’s Day 2019, just as they’re embracing vintage clothing stores and mid-century modern furniture — the plastic, minimalist ugly basement of my childhood.

Americans overall buy some 6.5 billion greeting cards a year, and women are 80 percent of those card carriers.

“Due to technical difficulties, your cake will be postponed to next year.”

An Amish card holder hangs on a wall by the front door of our home. It’s a vertical piece of maroon cloth strapped around a small clothes hanger; interwoven pieces of green, blue and black fabric decorate the three pockets that are the perfect size for greeting cards.

I don’t remember where we bought it, or when — likely 15 or 20 years ago, when the boys were small, and my mom would watch them over my birthday so my husband and I could bike the Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota. We’d stay in Harmony, near an Amish enclave, and probably found the handcrafted holder in a coffeehouse or antique shop.

The cards I have saved and selected to place in those three pockets are keepsakes:

  • Smart-ass ones from my oldest sister (“What’s the difference between you and a senior citizen?”).
  • Cards with handwritten notes from my husband and sons.
  • An artsy thank-you card from a friend and spiritual guide that includes a quote from the late, great U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (“Let there be no distance between the words you say and the life you live”), who raised his three children in Northfield only blocks from where my husband and I brought up our own sons.
  • An undated birthday card from my father with an affectionate note in his barely legible handwriting: “It’s getting hard to think of you as my little girl.”
Greetings from Helene and Connie

Most precious are the two cards I kept from my mother, one from 21 years ago when I was turning 42 and she was a robust 73. I had been sandbagged, apparently, by someone I loved and trusted, though the anger and shock have long since faded. Mom gave me a journal and a handwritten card: “I hope what you put in this little book will help your feelings to heal,” she wrote, with wisdom I surely failed to appreciate at the time. “Recapture the joys and delights you’ve had. Life goes by so fast. Be happy. Love, Mom.”

The other card I saved from her is dated July 4, 2012, four months after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The handwriting is shakier, the message simpler: “I’ll buy you lunch wherever you want to go.” Could she even still drive? But I can touch the card and see it, and I can feel my mother with me, in a way that an old social media post (“Your Memories on Facebook”) could never replicate.

A dog’s death helps put human loss into perspective

I have lost a loved one, a colleague, a boss and a dog in the last half of 2018. I am grieving my dog’s death most deeply of all — and not only because it was the most recent. I was present for the emotional, messy aftermath of the death and for the tending and burial of the body in a way that the funeral industry and sanitized social norms rarely allow us to be, any longer, for human beings.

Griffin, a miniature schnauzer, was only six and a half years old when he died after escaping the yard of the rural farmhouse outside of Mankato where my husband and I were staying for my stepmother’s funeral. Whether a vehicle struck him or he died of a stroke or heart attack, we will never know. His body was intact. David, my husband, had no blood on his hands after retrieving our pet from the cold, dark road. Aside from the eerie dead eye, unblinking and black as coal, Griffin looked afterward like he was asleep, tucked into his little “nest,” as we called his dog bed.

Lucy and Griffin

Lucy (left) and Griffin when he was still a puppy

Facing the particulars of our dog’s death is helping us grieve in a way that our “mourning-avoiding culture”— as the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado calls it — deems improper for human beings. If we are present for death at all, an undertaker quickly whisks away the body, leaving loved ones little time to absorb the blow. If the body is present at a memorial service, it typically is in a closed casket or made up beyond recognition like a perfect mannequin.

I convinced my husband to cover Griffin’s body with a T-shirt after we determined he was dead (“Wake up! Just wake up!” I was shouting inside my head as I felt the still-warm body for a pulse). I cited the covering as a sign of respect, but it really was for my own comfort. The next morning, nearly sleepless, I could not look at Griffin’s face again as he laid in the kitchen, still tucked inside his bed. I raised the covering in back to see the flank of his lifeless form. At the suggestion of my sister, a dog lover, we let our other dog, Mia, sniff the body to say goodbye. David and I both felt negligent and nauseous. We each cased the road for any sign of tire marks or fur, blood or bodily matter. Nothing there, no answers.

We brought Griffin home to St. Paul, and I watched as our older son helped bury the dog he loved in the backyard. My husband’s back heaved with sobs as he lowered Griffin into the grave. Gone too soon, this happy creature whom David adored, so much so that I jokingly referred to Griffin as “the grandchild.” My son told me later he had never seen his father cry.

“He cried when you were born,” I said.

‘I don’t know what to say’

I had an unsettling dream three weeks after Griffin died. He was with us again in the city, but he was running away. I saw him beneath a moving car, managing to keep pace between the tires. I knew he could not last long with his squat body and short legs. I knew he was gone for good. Was my subconscious trying to tell me that a car really had hit Griffin, that the premature death had been our fault?

Twice I have had the privilege of being present with loved ones close to their time of death. I returned to the bedroom of my mother’s memory care unit moments after she had gasped her final breath, her face composed again, at last, her confusion eased. Years earlier, I was the last person other than his partner to see my friend D.L. alive. I still recall the words I whispered and the way I stroked his head.

These memories are holy, but they are not the norm. News of the other three deaths this year came via phone calls. I was sad to hear of my stepmother’s passing at 91, but her death was neither shocking nor unexpected. The other two deaths stunned me — a 31-year-old colleague killed at his lake cabin while cutting down a tree, my boss felled at home by a heart attack five days later, only hours after we had texted about some work issue. Like Griffin’s demise, these deaths struck without notice. Two people who mattered to me were simply gone.

I am neither the widow nor a relative of either of these men. We were colleagues but not close friends. Maybe that’s the point: I feel this ambiguous loss —yes, I am reading the Pauline Boss book of the same name — but have few people with whom to share it.

A woman who used to office on my floor tried to buy a card after my boss died last July but couldn’t find one. “I don’t know what to say,” she told me with a sheepish shrug. Curious, I Googled “death of a boss” and came up with a blog post by a woman who makes teddy bears from the scraps of dead people’s clothing and an advice-driven column about how to cope until your dead boss is replaced. The Google search “death of a colleague” yielded a few more results, but even those focused primarily on how to remain productive.

“Few if any supportive rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss,” Boss wrote in her acclaimed 1999 book. “Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.”

When our dog died, the teenager next door brought us homemade sugar cookies. My backyard neighbor placed a wreath of dried flowers on Griffin’s grave. Funny that outreach for a pet comes more naturally than outreach for a person — unless you post the news on Facebook, in which case a sad face or a generic “you are in my thoughts and prayers” seems to suffice these days for authentic communication.

Cooking for funerals and other feminine arts

“You’re cooking a lot lately,” my husband said recently on one of the below-zero days that has defined our Minnesota winter. Actually, I have not been spending more time than usual in the kitchen. He is just reaping fewer of the rewards.

A plastic tub of banana muffins made with honey, oatmeal and mini-chocolate chips went to Mary, whose father died at 93. We delivered sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice to Karen, after her third surgery for a detached retina appeared to be successful. (She had reminded me that “orange vegetables” are good for eyes.)Beef stew photo

Earlier we had brought her a calories-be-damned comfort meal of beef stew adapted from my mother’s ’60s-era recipe and soft spoonbread full of oil and cheese.

It is both a sign and a symptom of my sixty-something stage of life that homemade food is the essential gift to nourish friendship. Parents’ funerals have replaced weddings as the defining ritual of our age. Health has become less an assumption and a birthright than a blessing that can vanish in a flash.

My own mother died in September 2015. The spontaneous gifts of food from friends and colleagues meant so much that I noted them in my eulogy:

  • Rachel’s platters of fresh vegetables delivered the day she heard the news
  • Sarah’s homemade desserts for the funeral reception
  • Cathy’s fresh rolls and minestrone, still warm from her stove
  • Kate’s vegetable soup, which she urged me to freeze and then reheat on a day when we were overwhelmed with company.

When my father, a more conventional Christian, died last October, the women of the church served up a meal of tuna hot dish, fresh fruit and slabs of cake on paper plates. The United Methodist Men’s group that he attended for years was not in evidence.

Neither did any male friends bring gifts of food when my parents died. Cooking as a tasty and tangible sign of caring remains a feminine ritual among us aging feminists.

Kitchen confidential

I was a 34-year-old career woman who out-earned her husband and hadn’t yet decided whether to have a second child when Hillary Rodham Clinton made her infamous, on-camera remark about not having “stayed home to bake cookies and have teas.”

Clinton was an emerging hero to feminists of my age and ilk, middle-class white women whose mothers had forsaken any dream of paid careers to be homemakers and helpmates to their husbands. Today’s cultural commentators would call us “privileged,” and we were, but not for the reasons they might claim. We were the first generation of our race and class to have choices: about work, about reproduction, about marriage. About all of it.

Taken in that time, 1992, and in that context, Clinton’s “cookies” comment was more bold than condescending.Cookies

“Hillary was a revolutionary,” I told my younger son in 2016 when he caucused for Bernie Sanders. “You might not see it now, but for a woman then to be a lawyer and wear suits and keep her name and have only one child was remarkable.”

I am grateful, at 60, to recognize that “women’s rights” takes many forms and that feminism, at its core, means having the freedom and opportunity to be whomever you want to be. I practice some of the feminine domestic arts out of necessity. Preparing meals is cheaper and more healthful than eating out. Knitting is relaxing and can carry me through a multi-segment Ken Burns documentary. Cotton pants and blouses require ironing to look professional.

Cooking for others? That is a true gift of the heart and a legacy of yesteryear’s “church ladies” that I eagerly uphold. I keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked for my sons when they drop by. I relish cooking dinner during my brother’s annual Christmas visit. I am the first to volunteer to host potlucks for friends and neighbors.

“I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression,” says no less an accomplished woman than Maya Angelou.

Who knew that the future of our democracy came down to baking cookies? Had Hillary recognized  the domestic arts as no threat to her independence, she may have softened her divisive qualities and sharp-edged reputation. We could have had a different president.

Chew on that.