What’s in a name? My grandson calls me Maya.

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What’s in a name?  Words are symbols, very much like the ancient pictology that was etched in red rock many years ago.  Newborn babies are named after their ancestors, parents or even rock stars before they ever get to speak their own name.

Long before I ever became a grandparent, I thought it would be unique to be called something other than the usual “grandma.”  Being a person who has always enjoyed playing with words, I decided years ago when the time came I would like to be called “Grandmary.”  It seemed to have a nice ring to it, and  it would include my name and that of both my maternal and paternal grandmother.

But somehow, whenever my grandson would greet me, he would refer to me as “Maya.”  It’s a pretty name with a rich history as I soon learned.  We have all heard of children calling family members pet names that have stayed with them for life.

I did a little research and this is what I found:

It is common knowledge that Maya is the name of Central American culture.  But every culture has a take on this name.

Most intriguing is that in Nepali language Maya means love.  I like that.

In Arabian and Indian-Pakistani it means princess or “honorable matriarch.”

It is a short form of Ma’ahan in Hebrew, meaning spring or brook.

Maya means “generous” in Old Persian.

Latin interpretation implies great.”

Roman mythology dictates Maia is the daughter of Atlas whose name was given to the month of May.  Romans Maia/Maya is the incarnation of the earth mother and goddess of spring–for which the month of May is named.

Maya was the legendary Greek mother of Hermes by Zeus.  It can also mean mother.

The Bengali and Bengali Muslim  interpretation is love, kindness, sweetness and kisses.

In Japan “Mayu” means reason and truth.

In Hindu it means illusion.

How did this little boy know I am all that!  Just kidding.

This week my grandson is celebrating his second birthday.  I never knew my maternal or paternal grandmother, but I know somewhere in the universe they smile down on this beautiful little boy.  He symbolizes “spring, a brook, kindness, sweetness and love” to all the “honorable matriarchs” in our family.

He can call me Maya anytime.  I like that.

The Truth About Grief And Loss

Weisbaden, Germany
Weisbaden, Germany

Most people over the course of a lifetime endure a multitude of losses that are a necessary and natural part of life. There is the loss of a loved one, loss of one’s younger self, loss of an able body, loss of one’s community after a disaster, loss of one’s livelihood, loss of one’s sense of family or the death of a pet. There are many other types of losses, but these are the ones that often come to mind.

Helen Keller once stated, “What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us” (www.goodreads.com). This couldn’t be more true.

It has also been said that grief is the price we pay for love. The greatest loss another human being can suffer is the loss of someone we allowed ourselves to love deeply. We risk the hurt that comes with allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to let someone into our heart. That can be a spouse, parent, friend or a pet.

As we grow older, we lose many people. I lost my husband before I lost my parents. That was not the natural order of things. Losing a spouse that you know for four decades is like losing a part of your soul. Losing a parent is like losing part of your deepest history. Losing friends is a rude awakening that anything is possible and time is passing. For those who have lost a child, I cannot imagine the courage it takes to continue on. Pets are sacred gifts that come into our lives, and they are humble and loving.

While it is true that in time, it does become easier, we never truly “get over” someone we love. There is no timeline for grief.   Every individual must experience grief at his or her own pace.

It has been said that grief is like waves. Sometimes you may think you are doing really great, and then something will remind you of that person to bring back quite vividly the deep love you shared with that person. You may smile or weep. It could be 5, 10 or 20 years later and quite unexpected the tears will still flow.

The truth about grief is that love is forever whether it’s a parent, spouse, child or pet. There are many reminders of our time with our loved ones.  It could be a birthday, an old faded picture or someone who is walking down the street who looks like a loved one in the distance. I sometimes pass a man on the street that will be wearing the cologne my husband used to wear and I feel his presence as the person walks by. I went into an Italian restaurant one day and ordered pasta fagiola, and they made it just like my mom did, and I felt like I was back home for a moment at her kitchen table chatting with her.  When I am in the supermarket, the scent of a tomato just ripe off the vine reminds me of my father’s garden.  I love dreaming of people who have passed.  It’s like they came for a visit. I know others who have expressed this sentiment.

So May 21 my late husband would have been 69 years old. What would he have looked like 14 years later? What would our lives be like?  Knowing him from then on will always be the chapter in our lives we never got to know.  But I still feel his presence somehow.

Only God knows where life will take me, and I have an open heart because life goes on. A wise young woman once told me we should love as many people as we can in a lifetime. But I can say this with certainty and gratitude: Love is forever, and there will always be a special place in my heart for this special and much-loved human being.

Happy 69th birthday in Heaven Eddie.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen May 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Invisible Woman: A page in the diary of a late-deafened woman

Many years ago, when I was a student at The College of New Rochelle’s School of New Resources, I had the opportunity to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  The book deals with issues such as race, society and identity.  I was deeply moved while reading the book, and it made me think about how issues described in the book could be applied to persons with disabilities or any other group struggling for their right to dignity.  That, along with an experience described in the next paragraph inspired me to write the poem Invisible Woman.

One day while paying for groceries, I witnessed a woman ahead of me in line with her husband.  She appeared to be afflicted by some type of palsy, and after checking out, she had a seizure.  Her husband did his best to comfort her and escort her out of the store, but the clerk snapped, “People like that should be kept at home.”  I was mortified to think anyone has the right to determine if another individual is a valid member of society, and if their presence should be allowed.

That sparked me to write this poem based on my own observations as a late-deafened woman and the sometimes insensitive treatment of persons with disabilities:

Invisible Woman

Your eyes shift downward, or you look away,

I understand your predicament, you don’t know what to say.

You say it’s scary,…to think it could happen to you.

And if it did, you wouldn’t know what to do.

It’s okay, –glance at my deficiency, when I look away.

It’s part of the experience, a natural part of my day.

On no! It’s not catchy! You can shake my hand.

I’m just like anyone you’ve met, across our great land.

We’re really more alike,than you can perceive.

We pray there’s a God.  I for one still believe.

If I ask you a question, you reply to my spouse,

What’s someone like me,doing out of the house?

I don’t mean to frighten, but yes, it could happen to you.

And if it did,do you know what you would do?

You would still marvel at sunsets,and bathe in dewy rain.

You would develop compassion,and learn to sustain

the unexpected changes that would come your way,

–to appreciate life, day after day.

And you know what else might be of interest to all?

We laugh and we love. We learn to stand tall.

And we realize life is full, even after the fall.

Because you don’t see me,doesn’t mean I don’t exist.

The more that you think this, the more that I will persist,

to marvel at sunsets, and bathe in dewy rain,

and develop compassion and learn to sustain

To visit the orcas at Stellwagon Bay,

to blow out birthday candles, –what a thrill, I’m just that way.

To visit covered bridges and lighthouses too,

and yes, I still love the zoo!

But one more thing, before you walk away.

Did you know Milton was blinded with pen in hand?

His work was pure genius, beyond what many can understand.

And Beethoven’s world was silent when he wrote his best songs.

FDR led the country in a wheelchair for three terms, no one’s ever been president that long.

And Edison deaf, yes you heard right.

Over 1,000 inventions! God that man was bright.

The irony of this verse is simple as can be.

The next time you see me, please, please just see ME.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 1999.  All Rights Reserved.

Mortality, Moonstruck and Metamorphosis

Recently, I read the amazing Anna Quindlen’s book Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.  In her book, she describes her observations about later life leaving a discussion about mortality for the last chapter.  It got me thinking, especially since I am in my sixties.

Two months after having my first baby, I discovered a lump in my breast.  For months, I was closely watched, and experienced my first mammogram at the age of 26.  Everything turned out fine, but at the time, I ran out and bought life insurance to protect my husband and daughter.  At that moment, I admitted to myself for the first time that I am just another mortal soul.

As we get older, it’s not uncommon to wonder how much time is left.  I don’t think it is morbid.  It is realistic.  Are we aiming to ensure we get to live our best life?  Take that special trip while we are still healthy?  Does it mean time to just go fishing without a care in the world?  For others, it may mean falling in love one last time, or for the first time.  Some just want to sit under a palm tree and watch the world go by.  How about the baby boomer who launches a whole new career?

I’ve given a lot of thought to time well spent.  Living simply.  Meaningful days with family and friends.  Pausing and praying or meditating.  Being grateful for what I have, and not expecting life to be perfect.  Maybe just appreciating a small moment rather than expecting something spectacular to happen.  What is spectacular is life itself, if we take a moment to notice.

What does enlightenment mean to you?  I came home one day and asked my late husband what enlightenment meant to him.  He quickly answered, “When I have a day that nothing goes wrong and I feel peaceful.”  At the time, my response was, “That’s all???”  I finally understand that he was on to something.  I get it.

In realizing our own mortality, it makes us more conscious of living well.  To make time count.  To celebrate what we have rather than feeling bitter or entitled if we don’t have everything we want.  But there is probably no other topic that we fear or dread.  

How do people react to that fear?  Buy that red sports car?  Lose that last 25 lbs?  Spend large sums of money?  Engage in destructive behavior?

In the movie Moonstruck, Rose, Loretta’s mother discovers her husband is cheating on her.  She asks her daughter’s boyfriend for insights into the situation.

Rose:  Why do men chase women?

Johnny:  Well, there’s a Bible story…God…God took a rib from Adam and made Eve.  Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back.  When God took the rib, he left a big hole there, where there used to be something.  And the women have that.  Now maybe, just maybe, a man isn’t complete as a man without a woman.

Rose:  (frustrated) But why would a man need more than one woman?

Johnny:  I don’t know.  Maybe because he fears death.  (Rose looks up, eyes wide, suspicions confirmed)

Rose:  That’s it!  That’s the reason!

Johnny:  I don’t know…

Rose:  No! That’s it!  Thank you!  Thank you for answering my question! (www.imdb.com)

Later, Rose confronts her husband Cosmo on the situation.

Rose:  I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.

Cosmo Castorini:  Thank you, Rose. (www.imdb.com)

Cosmo gets what Rose is saying to him about facing his own mortality.  Despite the humor incorporated in this story, this is a poignant moment.

Themes of mortality and death have been present in literature dating back to ancient Greece, and these themes continue to be present today. We sometimes hate to talk about it, but it also intrigues us.

The monarch  butterfly travels thousands of miles from Canada through North America arriving in Mexico ever year.  Unlike humans, they have a set destination in their journey.  Before they ever morph into  beautiful creatures with colorful wings, they go through four transformations.

Life is a continuous journey.  We morph many times in a lifetime, experience things we never thought we would experience, grow in ways we never thought possible.  We just don’t know when or where the finish line will be.  To me, that means celebrating every day in some small but meaningful way.  In understanding our own mortality, we understand the value and beauty of life itself.  

Francavilla, Italy: It Takes A Village To Raise a Child

Antonio Fiumara 1939

Antonio Fiumara, 1939

On February 18, 1935, just one month short of his 20th birthday, my father left his hometown in Francavilla, Italy.  He hopped on a train to Naples.  From there he boarded a ship called the Rex.  His final destination was the United States of America.  He had one suitcase of clothes, the equivalent of forty dollars in cash and a small prayer card in his pocket.

As a child, he would watch the boats transporting travelers in the distant Mediterranean Sea.  The day of his journey, it was sunny and mild in Francavilla, located in Angitola, Calabria, in the southern part of Italy.  Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, his journey was cold and choppy, and he was seasick most of the time.

When he arrived at Pier 84 in New York, he was scared and homesick.  He did not speak English.  Someone on the streets of New York was giving out free samples of what appeared to be tiny chocolate bars.  In reality, it was a well-known chocolate flavored laxative.  Needless to say, accepting this tiny sample was not a positive experience.

His early days in New York were disappointing.  Distraught, he visited the Italian consul with the hope of returning to his native country.  A very compassionate stranger there told him, “Do not be foolish.  My son, wait.  You will get to love it here.”  And he did.

But he never forgot his hometown, which he often spoke about with tremendous affection.  His mother raised him.  But there were many people in his hometown that contributed to his upbringing and values.  He never forgot them.

He spoke about the parish priests who mentored him and helped to shape his values.  Early on, he learned the value of meditation and prayer.  Throughout his life, he claimed a sacred space to pray, reflect and offer thanks.  His faith carried him through the most difficult times in his 93 years of life.  Evidence of his deep faith was the prayer card he carried in his pocket across the Atlantic. He kept it with him until the day he died.

Then there were the aunts, uncles and friends in his hometown.  They kept their strong ties with family and friends.  If you needed them, they came.  You didn’t have to ask for help.  If a baby was born, they celebrated with you.  If someone died, they grieved with you.  If there was a wedding celebration, all living generations would share in the joyous event.

During his childhood, some accompanied him to a place he called “il giardino.”  This was a community garden where he learned to plant and nurture tiny seeds and watch how they slowly grow into fragile and beautiful living things, — very much like a child in a village.

The priests, aunts, uncles, friends and random people in the village filled a void in a child, and taught him how to pay it forward.  Years later, when my father was married and owned his own home, he sponsored some of his friends and family to come to America.  Often, the breadwinner in the family would arrive first to establish himself and then send for his family.

I remember many cold winter days in the 1950s that my father’s family came by boat, arriving in New York with our home as their first stop.  Sometimes, they would live with us until they were established.  Often, my father would recommend them for work at the factory where he worked.  They were always welcome at our dinner table.  I can only imagine how frightening it must be not speaking a word of English and not knowing anyone else on this side of the Atlantic. When he could, my father also generously remembered his church.  Maybe a small child in his hometown will benefit in some way.

As the old African proverb states, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”  How lucky my father was to grow up in Francavilla.  Antonio Fiumara would have been 100 years old in 2015.  Perhaps this story is more about 100 years of gratitude.  I have never been to Italy, but if there is one thing I want to do before I die, it is to visit my father’s hometown where it all began.

Pay it forward.  Rest in peace, papa.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.

TEN REASONS WHY I’M GLAD I’M RETIRED!

This morning, I was peering out my window with a cup of hazelnut decaf while watching a snow plow drive up and down the hilly roads in my complex, clearing the roads for the residents. While deciding to retire from my teaching job took quite a bit of contemplation, I smiled knowing I didn’t have to trek up to the college and deal with yet more winding, hilly and icy roads in its bucolic setting.

For many of us, there is a tug-of-war issue when it comes to retirement. Retire completely? Keep one foot in the door? I guess the issue is whether or not you truly love what you do. While I do miss teaching, writing, which is something I have done for quite some time, is an equal passion that keeps me satiated.

But there are many dimensions to retirement, and here are some reasons I am glad I am retired from a full-time job and the drudgery of commuting:

  1. Rediscover that sacred space called home. The other day, I woke up on a bone-chilling day and decided it was a day I wanted to make Tuscan White Bean and Spinach Soup. While my olfactory receptors took in the scent of sautéed fresh garlic mingling with carrots, carmelized onions, baby spinach and baby portabella mushrooms, I listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as the wicks of scented candles danced nearby.
  2. “Let’s Get Together Soon.” How many times do we say these words, but never get a chance to really meet friends and family? Life is short.  Somehow, the word gets out when you retire, and you really do get a chance to do lunch.  I never felt so popular as I do in retirement!  Let the fun begin.
  3. No Lines- When I was working, one of the things I dreaded most was stopping by the supermarket after work and waiting on a long “express” line just to get a quart of milk.  One of the greatest things about retirement is choosing what you do and when you do it.  I love going into a store and seeing the best of a cheery salesperson in the morning before all the grouchy customers change his or her mood.
  4. Senior Day Discounts-  On Wednesday it’s Mrs. Greens.  Sometimes stores such as Kohl’s, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts have senior specials, and you really have the time to experience them and use all the coupons you clipped.
  5. Morning Drudery-  I can take my time in the shower in the morning, I don’t have to worry about laying out clothes that look professional.  Although I like to look nice, if I feel like wearing gym clothes and just moisturizer, I can.  That’s liberating.
  6. V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N- As the old Connie Francis song goes, we all look forward to getting away and having fun.  No more asking your boss for time off!  This is the time of life as the Mamas and the Papas song goes to go where you want to go, do what you want to do!  Woohoo!
  7. Doctor Appointments- Let’s be honest.  As one friend put it, at this age we are “on maintenance.”  We NEED to pay closer attention to our health, and that is a good thing.  Sometimes we make the mistake when we are working of putting our health last.  Not good.
  8. Doing what you love- Visits to the library?  Joining a knitting club? Nature walks? Learning to swim? Photography?  Your time is yours, and the world is your playground.
  9. Discovering your inner child- Why do we take the world so seriously sometimes?  Who says we can’t still color in or outside the lines?  Fingerprint? Play hopscotch?  Ride a scooter?  Play catch?  Double dutch anyone?
  10. Grandchildren- See number nine.  My grandson gives me faith and hope in a weary world.  Getting on the floor and playing with him makes me remember there is still a lot of “girl” left in me.  Once you forget how to participate in childlike wonderment, that is when you grow old.  While I realize the need to grow, I refuse to grow old.  I see my grandson as a lifeline and pulse of what is to come.  That gives me faith in this weary world.

                          To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: …

                           Ecclesiastes 3:1-King James Version

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Let There Be Peace And Unity In America This Christmas, And Let It Begin With Me

The beauty of America is our diverse population.  We are lucky to share freedoms that allow us to express ourselves openly.  It would be a sad day in our existence if these freedoms were compromised.

However, we have developed this style of shouting each other down.  Nobody is listening to each other anymore, and there is this “either or mentality.”  Can’t we respect divergent viewpoints and respect our differences?  Can’t we value all human lives?

For instance, many Americans have become such staunch supporters of their political party it has become more about being a Democrat or Republican than first being an American.  Many newscasters who proclaim to be objective in reality have an agenda to promote a conservative or liberal stance.  Some distort the facts and even cause divisiveness in America by claiming their tainted and slanted views are facts.  This is a party war, and it has been aggravated by some less-than-ethical media coverage.  Equally, some politicians that represent us are far from an example of an open-ended communication style.  What message does this give our youth?  Shout each other down?  Disrespect, disregard and closing down are okay?

Then there is the argument this time of year about whether someone should say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  While it is true that our forefathers were largely Christian, we must assume there are others who do not share the Christian religion.  Things change, and this is my America, your America and anyone who pledges allegiance to our Country.

I think it is important to understand though that when someone who is Christian says Merry Christmas, they are hopefully wishing the person merriment in a season that is joyful and celebrated with no offense intended to those who do not celebrate Christmas.  On the other hand, if you know someone isn’t of the Christian faith, shouldn’t you honor his/her faith with a generic greeting or one specific to his/her belief system?  If you insist in saying Merry Christmas to all, in my humble opinion you are guilty of imposing your faith on others and guilty of this “either or mentality.”

Last but not least, in recent months too many people have died innocently leaving their grieving and devastated families behind.  There will be no peace or joy for those families during this holiday season.  They will never see their loved ones again.  Their lives are changed forever.

There are good cops and bad cops.  There are good people and bad people of every color.  Yes, there are inequities in our society.  As a disabled woman, I have seen some of this firsthand.  Misunderstandings.  Miscommunications.  Assumptions.  A life should not be lost over a petty crime or because you wear a badge.  All lives matter.

Collectively, we are a people who believe in liberty and justice for all.  We must build up America, not tear it down.  Listen, not shout each other down.  Open our hearts and live by what is moral, ethical and just.

Our sense of unity and our ability to heal is what kept us going after 9/11.  Cops, firemen, black and white, young and old, conservative and liberal, –one nation under God and atheists.  Let’s embrace that.  Let there be unity and healing in the United States of America.

I refuse to be part of this “either or mentality” that doesn’t respect all humanity.  Let there be peace and unity in America, and let it begin with me.

mw

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Thanksgiving Italian Style: Early Lessons In Diversity and Sharing in West New Rochelle, NY

 

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Near the Third Avenue Bridge in Harlem – Mary Grace Whalen

 

“Lasagna?” replied my daughter’s second-grade teacher.  This was in response to hearing her answer to the question, “What do we eat on Thanksgiving Day?”  Well, this is partly true, at least in my family.  We ate lasagna AND turkey.  But lasagna was always the superstar of the day.  As it might first appear, food is a huge part of Thanksgiving for all of us.  But it has taken me decades to decipher and realize what the day was really about and the lessons my parents taught us.

The day before Thanksgiving, my father would journey out from our home in West New Rochelle, NY to go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to hand pick huge tins brimming with fresh ricotta cheese, mozzarella, soppressata, anchovies, pecorino cheese, kalamata olives, stuffed green olives, chestnuts, figs, hazelnuts, filberts, loaves of warm Italian bread and other delectable yummies for the upcoming festivities.

It was the 1950s, and Santa Claus would arrive via helicopter shortly before Thanksgiving, landing in the parking lot of Arnold Constable, a local department store in my hometown.  The night before Thanksgiving, our mothers would take a break from their baking, ditch their aprons, and prepare to stand out in the freezing cold in their house dresses bundled up with their families to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Children would be lifted above their parents’ shoulders to watch the marching bands and floats.  Finally, the man in the red suit himself would ride his “sleigh” on a float down Main Street, past the Mayflower Dress Shop, F.W. Woolworth’s, Bloomingdale’s and the thriving downtown amid waving and cheering children.

Thanksgiving morning, the aroma of all my mother’s baked goods would permeate the house.  The dining room table would display her labor of love, –mincemeat, pumpkin and apple pies, Italian ricotta cheesecake, strufoli (honey balls) and Italian cookies.  The local football game between New Rochelle High School and Iona Prep would be televised in the living room, family members switching channels intermittently to catch a bit of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Miracle on 34th Street.

For this was the official beginning of the Christmas season in my family.  My mother would pull out her poinsettia or “Christmas Bells” tablecloth.  Candy dishes would be filled with ribbon candy, candy canes, and foil-wrapped red and green chocolates.  What I didn’t get until years later was that it wasn’t about the food at all.

My mother was orphaned at 12 years old.  My father was raised by a single parent in Francavilla, Italy.  They understood about bringing everyone to their table, celebrating life every chance they could and sharing.  Often we would have so many people at our table, my mother would need to extend the table by rolling the kitchen table into the dining room to accommodate everyone.  We were a family of seven children, but there was always room for more neighbors, friends, and family.

Otto, a jovial German-born man with a Humpty-Dumpty frame and a penchant for astrology and numerology would often celebrate with us.  He was a co-worker of my father’s.  My father’s boss, Ernie, a Hungarian Jew, and his wife were often invited.  In the 1950s we had many Italian relatives who arrived from Italy knowing few people.  They were often guests at our table.  My father knew a few German phrases he learned from his long-time friendship with Otto.  He also knew a little Yiddish learned from working with Ernie.  It was interesting to hear the dialogue being exchanged in four languages in simple phrases or a native tongue across the table on Thanksgiving.

We always knew when the festivities were about to begin.  We would hear our mother say, “Scram! Everyone out of my kitchen now!”  Amid pots bubbling with vegetables preserved from my father’s garden, stuffing perfectly timed, a lasagna to die for, a turkey so huge it would put your back out for a week to lift and every inch of the oven occupied, you had better clear the pathway from the oven to the table because my mother meant business when she was ready to serve.  She would trek back and forth on the maroon and gray paisley linoleum from the oven to the table proudly displaying each of her own personal creations.

As we gathered, the simple unadorned chandelier would be lit.  My father uncorked a bottle of his homemade wine.  My mother’s “good” china with etchings of colonial women in long dresses promenading with men in powdered wigs was set.  We had glasses and silverware from S&H Green Stamps.  The feast was about to begin.  I thought we were rich. Maybe we were.

Plates would be filled, and if a guest cleaned their plate without asking for seconds, my father would ask, “What, you gave up?”  Before the guest could even respond, my mother would be scooping more food on their plate.  That’s Italian!  If my sisters and brothers or I left anything on our plates, my father would quickly remind us that there is someone in the world who was starving.  My sister Lucille always wanted the wishbone and loved to challenge someone to split it.  She always seemed to know how to win the challenge.

So, you might ask, how about an attitude of gratitude and giving thanks?  Our faith was the core of our values.  Sure, we gave cans of food at Thanksgiving.  We went to church and prayed.  We offered thanks for all we had, but my parents always had a soft spot for someone alone or who may have fallen on hard times ANY day of the year.

I remember in grade school, an African-American family that lived around the corner from us lost everything in a house fire.  The children in the family were approximately the same ages as my siblings and I.  When my mother heard of the fire, she woke us up early and instructed us to look through our clothes and give her anything that didn’t fit us anymore.  The clothes were quickly placed in boxes for the family.  So she got a message to the family, and they quickly accepted the offer.  My mother grew up during the depression era.  She often spoke of not owning a winter coat in her adolescent years.  I remember seeing one of the children that were a victim of the house fire on the playground wearing a gray and turquoise tweed dress coat that had been mine.  It never hit me until years later how that act of kindness must have impacted that family.

So when my father retired from his factory job, after 35 years and their children were grown and out of the house, my parents would go to the supermarket once a week and shop for groceries.  They would do one round of shopping for themselves and another round of dry and canned goods for a local soup kitchen.

This is what I remember about Thanksgiving, and I am grateful for these early lessons.  Happy Thanksgiving to you as you gather with your circle of family and friends who are family.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.

IT’S ALWAYS HARD TO SAY GOODBYE TO A GOOD THING

One of the greatest experiences of my life has been to be given the opportunity to teach college-level courses to young adults and returning adult learners.

I went to college late in life, at the age of 48 after working as a secretary for almost 30 years. Facing the blackboard for the first time in three decades was both scary and thrilling. It was scary because it had been a long time since I was in a classroom setting. I was returning to school with an FM system in hand due to a progressive hearing loss. It was thrilling because going to college was one of the greatest opportunities experienced in my lifetime. It helped me to view life through a wider lens. It also gave me the courage to believe I was up for the challenge as my world slowly became more silent.

After completing my M.S., I now had my back to the blackboard, facing a large classroom full of eager students. Never in my earlier life did I ever think I would be teaching.

For the last twelve years, I have taught students about James Joyce, Maya Angelou, Henry David Thoreau and many other great writers. Patiently, I have helped them navigate their way through MLA research methods. I have also had the honor of helping adult learners compile their portfolio for credit for life experience, understand learning theories and apply them through practice.

These students from adolescence to retirement age have seen me scout around the classroom with an FM system in hand pointing the microphone in the direction of the student speaking. I always told them on the first day of class to just think of me as a talk-show host. It was inspiring and heartwarming to see how supportive these young people and adult learners were of my hearing loss.

Over the years, many students in crisis reached out to me, and I was honored they entrusted their confidence in my judgment to direct them to resources that could assist them. I was also honored that years after being in my classroom many students continue to contact me just to say hello, or “Happy Thanksgiving” or “thanks for everything.”

We are so attuned to being conscious of the student in the classroom who may have special needs, but sometimes it is the instructor. But, I learned a lot from my students. One of the most profound moments for me was my experience with a young man who openly discussed his autism with the class. On the last day of class he waited until everyone left the classroom and he asked me, “What does it feel like to be deaf?” I was touched by his sensitivity.

My teaching experience has always been a very positive one. So, when I started to lose more of my hearing this past spring, it was a difficult question to ponder. Should I continue on in the classroom? Don’t get me wrong. Over the last 30 years, I have done headstands to assert my place in the workplace. But life changes.

One day, across the room I read the lips of a young man who without any intended malice lamented to a student next to him, “She can’t hear.” At that moment, I knew I had crossed a threshold, and my sense of integrity forced me to ask myself if it would be a disservice to the students to continue on if I was struggling to communicate with them.

Then there was the day we were discussing wellness in one of my classes. I thought a student said something about how wheat affects us. I went through this whole rant about gluten and how the students could research how wheat has been modified over the years. The student gently told me she wasn’t commenting on wheat, she was speaking about weed. Well so, there is a lighter side to these things sometimes. We all shared a laugh about that.

It is always hard to say goodbye to a good thing. But I’m glad I recognize when it is time to go. I have many warm and wonderful memories. In the classroom, I always tried to treat students the way I would want someone to treat my own children. Let them know you believe in them. Let them know it’s okay if they don’t understand something. None of us are perfect.

I think the kids thought I was cool because I was open about my hearing loss, and it was okay to be something less than perfect. Maybe too, they will remember me as someone who had her own struggles and made it to the finish line in her education and life goals. If that inspires them to continue on with their own roadblocks, something good has come out of my own personal loss. So the positive side of the coin is that I will have more time for another passion, writing. But I will surely miss them. MGW

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.