Category Archives: In Memoriam

Gone to heaven in ’77

There was much ado about yesterday being the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. All kinds of memories, trivia and salutations blasted from live and social media platforms everywhere. Michele Bachman even wished Elvis a happy birthday.

Elvis died August 16, 1977. It was as big a deal then—my senior year in high school—as Michael Jackson’s sudden death a couple of years ago.

One reason I remember this so vividly is that another cultural icon died later that week; but the news was a bit overshadowed by the passing of The King.

My younger brother was deep in mourning because he lost both of his favorite entertainers in the same week. Elvis was one; the other was Groucho Marx.

My brother had been Groucho for Halloween just that year. No, wait. It wasn’t Halloween; he just dressed and got made up like Groucho. I had a theatrical make-up kit that contained hair for mustaches and eyebrows, as well as greasepaint to draw circles under, and wrinkles around, the eyes. There’s a framed picture somewhere; I’ll have to see if I can find it. Stay tuned.

Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx was almost 87 when he died, which might be why it wasn’t program-interrupting news. Elvis Aaron Presley was 42. All I know is that my little brother was one mopey 10-year-old.

Could it be that Elvis is really still alive? I Just Can’t Help Believing.

Should we honor the great Groucho this Friday? You Bet Your Life.

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Loving Lucy

I love Lucy.

If you do too, then you know that tomorrow, August 6, 2011, would have been Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday.

I knew quite a few people who would have turned 100 this year, but this weekend we celebrate Lucy.

If I had thought about it earlier, I would have planned to revisit the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Lucy’s hometown of Jamestown, N.Y. I made a pilgrimage there several years ago, when it was just a museum—and a monument of sorts. I decided then that one of my dream jobs would be the cashier in the gift shop. The Center has been vastly expanded since then and now offers a Tropicana room, which you can rent out for parties. Maybe I’ll celebrate my 100th there.

I’ve been an I Love Lucy fan since I saw my first rerun as a young child. It would be hard for me to choose a favorite episode, but I can say with certainty that the most famous ones are not my favorites. “Job Switching” (the candy factory), “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”  (Vitameatavegamin), “Lucy’s Italian Movie”  (stomping grapes), those are for amateurs. “Bull Fight Dance” and “Ethel’s Birthday” might be in my Top 10, along with “Mr. and Mrs. TV Show,” in which Lucy and Ricky sing a jingle I still remember. Do you?

I like any episode in which actor Frank Nelson appeared. He played several different roles throughout the show’s run, most of which included his signature “EEE-Yeeeeeeeeesssss?”

Lucy’s writers played with words, lampooning Ricky’s Cuban accent and occasionally poking fun at English. Remember this one?

I could go on and on. Many documentaries have been produced and volumes written about this American icon and her imprint on American culture. There are hours—even days—to be spent going through the Jamestown museum. Go and see it for yourself.

Do you love Lucy? What’s your favorite episode? How will you celebrate her 100th birthday?

I’ll be away tomorrow but when I get back, I plan to take a day off with my two cats—Ricky and Lucy—and invite my friend Sara to bring over her complete collection of DVDs. I’ll put on my hostess pants and serve up a bottle of Aunt Martha’s Old Fashioned Salad Dressing.

Like Lucy in Episode #98 (“Lucy Cries Wolf”), I may be tied up for a while. See you sometime next week.

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Filed under In Memoriam, Movies, Television and Radio, Travel

M is for . . .

In January of this year, my father and I went to visit the grave sites of his parents, who are buried in Northern Virginia. I hadn’t been since my grandmother was buried in 1970, when I was 10, so it was as though I were visiting that cemetery for the first time.

I find grave markers interesting, so I walked around to visit some of my grandparents’ neighbors, noticing the years of their births and deaths, wondering who might have been when they lived above ground.

I came upon this marker, which stopped me on my path.

Wow, M. Who could this be? Could she be Monica, without a last name? Could it be someone with no family, or someone whose family couldn’t afford any more than a single letter?

For the past six months, I’ve imagined who M was, when she or he might have lived and died. I’ve created scenarios and stories in my mind. Was she a wartime nurse? Was he a child? Does M’s family, if they exist, ever come to visit? Are flowers ever placed on M’s grave? I just couldn’t let it go.

Recently I learned that a friend’s son has a summer job mowing grass and maintaining the grounds at that same cemetery.

I jumped on the chance to learn M’s identity. I e-mailed this picture to my friend, asking if her son could find out who this deceased person, with whom I’d been so preoccupied, was.

A day later, the reply came:

“Not a person. It is a plot marker to direct the grave diggers.  As in ‘plant Mr. Jones at 4M.'”

 This is the first time I’ve been disappointed to learn that someone didn’t die.

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Filed under Family and Friends, Foibles and Faux Pas, In Memoriam

Big dream

I read somewhere—I think  it was in a newspaper commentary a year or so ago—that dreams are interesting only to those who have them. For this reason, the commentator argued, we needn’t tell others about our dreams because they’ll only be bored. For the most part, I agree with that.

In the wee hours of this morning, I dreamt I was in a band with Clarence Clemons. This is far-fetched on so many levels, not the least of which pertains to my complete lack of any musical talent. There was an inverted sense of time, because everyone in the band and in the audience knew that Clarence had died, or was about to die–everyone but the Big Man himself. Therefore, he didn’t know why everyone was crying. He just played that saxophone like there was no tomorrow. Which, as we sadly know, there wasn’t.

Even as I type this, I realize how silly my dream was, and even more inane to tell you about it. At the same time, it allowed me to have my own private memorial. As so many fans were, I was profoundly saddened by Clarence’s passing this past Saturday. As I told you in an earlier post, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the first time when I was 15 and many, many times after that. Clarence’s wailing sax is a pronounced constant within the sound track to half of my life.

Last night, in the closing minutes of the NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams held back tears after having visited the hallowed ground of The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J.  I cried the tears he held back.

Here’s to Clarence, who has left a Big Man’s hole in our world, and to Brian Williams, who told those who didn’t know Clarence about this lovable legend as well and as personally as any newsman has. Brian, I wish you had been on stage with us last night.

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Filed under In Memoriam, Music, News

Jim the Painter

Where to begin?

We first met Jim the Painter in 2004, when my husband’s colleague introduced us.

Jim Romaine lived most of his life in Gloversville, N.Y., but, as he told us, 1993 was one winter too much for him and he moved south to Alabama. He often spent the warmer months in the Washington, D.C., area, working as a painter and handyman.

In 2004, he painted our son’s bedroom for little more than a song. We fell in love with him. In 2006, at the age of 76, he painted the exterior of our three-story house, doing things on a ladder that a 20-year-old would find daunting.

I got to know him well in 2006, as he was with us right after our nephew was diagnosed with cancer. He provided a listening ear and a warm heart. After that, we got on his schedule regularly for painting, repair and carpentry projects. He spent Memorial Day weekend of 2009 remodeling my office, and there’s not a day I walk in here that I don’t stop to admire and appreciate his work. He was with us for a while last summer.

We’ve been thinking about Jim a lot lately, as my husband and I struggle awkwardly to paint our kitchen. We have a list of other jobs for him this spring.

Most of all, we’ve been looking forward to seeing Jim again. He’s a special guy. I’ve never seen him without a wide smile on his face, always laughing, and an almost-halo-like glow that radiates about him.

I often overheard Jim conversing with our cats while painting or hammering away; he’d say something, they’d answer him back and he’d laugh hysterically. I didn’t always know what he said; it sometimes began with, “Kittycat, let me tell you,” much like Art Carney in Harry and Tonto.

Jim loved to tell us of recent hang-gliding adventures and about the days when he was in a U.S. President’s honor guard (I can’t recall which president). He talked about his longtime girlfriend, Arvella, and how he looked forward to seeing her after his extended time here. She was wheelchair-bound, so it would have been difficult for her to join him on his trips.

Wednesday night, I suggested to my husband that we call Jim and make sure he was all right after the tornadoes ravished many parts of his state. Before we had a chance to call, we received an e-mail from my husband’s colleague through whom we had met Jim.

Sadly, Jim the Painter did not survive the tornadoes. He had gone in to Arvella’s house to get her, but getting her to safety proved difficult, given her disability. Instead, Jim took her back into the house, which was then swept up in the oncoming tornado.

When rescuers arrived, they saw one of Jim’s hands sticking out from the debris.  The other hand was still clasping the hand of Arvella, who perished alongside him.

It is evident that, at 80 years of age, Jim died as he lived. Humble, loving and using his strong and able body to help others.

I hope it won’t offend my readers to share that my husband used to wonder if Jim was Jesus having come back to live among us. He was just that kind of man. I don’t know if Jim was religious, but he definitely had an aura—of love, gentleness and humility. And, no matter how hard the work, a smile never left his face.

It crushes my soul to think about the end of Jim’s life on Earth. In fact, oddly, I’ve never sobbed so hard for the death of anyone as I did yesterday upon hearing the news. I imagine confidently that he was greeted with the words, “Servant, well done.”

I’ll remember Jim whenever I walk into my beautiful office. I’ll remember his smile. And I’ll keep “Jim the Painter” in my phone forever.

You can read a news account of his heroic final act here, and watch an interview with his daughter, which aired yesterday on his hometown news station.

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Filed under Family and Friends, Hearth and Home, In Memoriam, News

Make a wish come true

Tomorrow, April 29, is World Wish Day, an occasion to highlight the good work of the Make-A-Wish Foundation in granting the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions.

The Foundation has lots of moving stories to tell about children and their families whom they’ve helped. I have one and I’d like to share it.

In 2006, Marcus was 15 when he was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma, an aggressive brain cancer. The day he came home from the hospital after having received his diagnosis, his parents called his three younger brothers into the living room and, in honest yet age-appropriate terms, told them what would be happening in their family. The younger ones could already see the scar of a five-hour surgery and would soon learn about radiation and chemotherapy. This isn’t the time to tell the long version of the story, but Marcus courageously endured six weeks of radiation therapy (and the 180-mile daily drive to get it), followed by many months of chemo. He continued to go to school, play baritone in his high school marching band, enjoy video games and indulge his acute interest in World War II aircraft. Books, movies, documentaries, websites and model planes fed his passion for the subject, and stirred his ambition to join the Air Force.

Marcus was aware of the uncertain nature of his condition—including the fact that his extensive head surgery might hamper his chances of serving in the military—but he kept looking ahead. Make-a-Wish and a local Air Force base invited him to be a pilot for a day and fly in an F-16 flight simulator. They gave him his own flight suit and his wings.

He responded well to treatment, facing occasional worrisome reports from the doctor, and did a remarkable job of getting on with life, taking whatever medications and treatments were ordered as time went on. Still, an uncertain prognosis loomed.

When he was 17, he wanted to visit Pearl Harbor and tour the USS Arizona Memorial. The Make-a-Wish Foundation made it happen. In August of 2008, they arranged for Marcus, his parents and his three brothers, to fly to Honolulu for a badly needed vacation and tours of the historic sites.

While in Hawaii, Marcus began having headaches and nausea, which became so severe that he went to the emergency room. Brain scans were sent to his doctor in Utah. His doctor advised the family to stay in Hawaii for the duration of the trip and to have as much fun as they could, while managing Marcus’ pain and discomfort. When the family landed in Salt Lake City, Marcus went straight to Primary Children’s Hospital, where  it was discovered that his tumor had returned, was growing rapidly and was inoperable. Chemo might provide some relief and a remote chance of slowing the growth.

Marcus bravely said, bring it on, in whatever words he chose, but experienced the most violent reactions he had faced so far from the chemo. The next scans were discouraging, providing little hope. At the end of September, Marcus gave up treatment. He passed away on October 26th, and was buried with his Air Force pilot’s wings.

The point of this blog post is not to bemoan the evils of cancer or the unfairness of the impacts on its victims. The point is to share the news that Marcus and his family were able to live Marcus’ wishes of flying a fighter plane and visiting Pearl Harbor. The Foundation also knew how badly the family needed respite from two years of cancer hanging over their lives, and put them up at a lovely beach resort, where the kids could swim and enjoy each other, free from the grips of the “C” word.

Make-a-Wish can’t fulfill a wish for recovery. But it can make it possible for children all over the world who want to be police officers or pilots or whatever to achieve their dreams, even if they might never have the chance to be adults.

I’m grateful to Make-a-Wish and all who give to them for the gift they gave my nephew.

Please consider giving so others’ wishes might come true.

Happy World Wish Day.

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Filed under Family and Friends, Health, In Memoriam, Travel

Sargent at peace

Sometimes the smallest and simplest memories are the ones we carry most closely.

Hearing news of the death of Sargent Shriver brings to mind a sweet memory of a moment I’ll never forget.

In 1994, I was volunteering for a friend who was running for the Maryland Senate. One day, I received a call from a colleague, similarly helping a friend of hers who was running for the Maryland House of Delegates. She had come to an event for my friend and was asking me to come to one for hers. She had organized a meet-and-greet function for him in the community and wanted to ensure a good turnout. Would I show up to meet her candidate, Mark Shriver (who, eight years later, ran against my friend in the primary for a House of Representatives seat, but that’s another story altogether).

I told my colleague, no, I couldn’t attend, because my husband was out of town and I had no one with whom I could leave my five-year-old son.

She said, “Bring him,” assuring me the event would be very informal. They’d be serving six-foot subs on paper plates in a recreation hall. “Your son would be welcome.”

On our way there, I explained to my first-grader what we’d be doing. He was no stranger to political events, and I had no doubt he’d behave himself. He had, in fact, once been to the home of Ethel Kennedy, so I tried to make the Kennedy-Shriver connection. I might have even told him that Mark Shriver’s father had run for Vice President of the Unites States in 1972; I can’t recall. Still, I was a little nervous about how others would regard a young child being there.

There was indeed a very good turnout. I introduced us to a few people, met the guest of honor and shook the obligatory number of hands, while tending to my son. Then I got us plates of food and the two of us sat down at an empty table for four, trying to stay out of the way of event supporters and VIPs.

Before long, with plenty of seats open at the surrounding tables, an older couple walked over with their plates and asked if they could sit with us.

“Of course, please join us,” I said, only then noticing they were Eunice and Sargent Shriver, who were there to support their son. The room was filled with voters and potential donors and they chose to sit with us.

What I remember most is how gracious they were with my son. They asked him about school, sports and hobbies, so respectfully and with such interest. They took time to listen to him.

So often, at these kinds of events, the person you are facing is looking over your shoulder, surveying the room  for someone more important to talk to. But for those 20 minutes or so, my son and I were the only people in the room, as far as the Shrivers were concerned.

They’re both gone now. Eunice died in 2009 and Sargent joined her yesterday. My son remembers them only vaguely these 17 years later, but they made a lifelong impression on me.

Rest in peace, gentle souls. You touched millions of lives here on Earth, but I am grateful for the night you touched mine.

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