A mother who still watches over me

By Bruce Stambaugh

Though she’s been gone now for four years, my mother still watches over me. I just never know when she will appear.

This isn’t a ghost story. It’s a love story.

Marian Stambaugh, Mother's Day
Mom.
Every now and then, a photo I took of my mother years ago spontaneously pops up on my computer. I never know when it’s going to happen. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to her appearance. Mom’s photo just inexpliciably shows up, and I couldn’t be happier.

I might be surfing the Internet or working on a photo project. I click my laptop’s mouse pad and boom; Mom is smiling away at me from the left side of my computer screen. She looks as elegant as ever, satisfied, happy, her wavy silver hair complimenting her rosy cheeks and her radiant smile.

At first, this sudden appearance spooked me. I can’t explain why her photo appears. But I’m ever so glad that it does. This lovely profile is the way I want to remember her.

There’s a lot of good to recall about Mom. My brothers, sisters and I were fortunate. We had a loving, lovely mother. Not everyone can say that.

Mom was everything a mother should be to her children. That wasn’t always easy either given the different personalities and demands of her five cherubs.

Our catalog of behaviors and misbehaviors revealed the alpha and omega of our mother’s temperament. She was no pushover. But she could be gentle and tender, too.

Even in the midst of the busyness of running an active household, Mom made time for each of us. She once interrupted lunch to dig up a bright red tulip for me to take to my fourth-grade teacher.

Mom knew how to discipline, too. She was firm but fair. But if we went too far, we’d hear the dreaded words, “Wait until you father gets home from work!”

wedding photo
Mom and Dad on their wedding day, August 15, 1942. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Besides her skills as a domestic engineer, Mom was an accomplished artist, an excellent listener, a sports enthusiast, and a much better driver than Dad. She got her license when she was 40.

When I was a senior in high school, I only attended school in the morning due to classroom overcrowding. That meant I was home alone with Mom every school day afternoon. Mom and I had some amazing talks together.

Mom related personal stories I had never heard before, and I doubt she ever told anyone else. That conveyed all I needed to know about her love and trust. She set a high standard for being a parent.

Later in her long life, things changed for Mom. She began to show signs of dementia. The Alzheimer’s prevented Mom from expressing herself they way she wanted.

We could see her frustration in that, and would just sit with her peacefully as she gazed out a window. Nevertheless, Mom still looked sharp in her color-coordinated outfits that she had picked out to wear. Mom never lost her artist’s eye.

smiling mother
Big smile.
That’s why I enjoy it when that photo of her suddenly appears on my computer screen. I pause and remember just how much I miss her, and what a beautiful mother, wife, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, and neighbor she was to so many.

When that picture of Mom appears, I can hear her reassuring voice say, “It’s all right, Bruce. I’m at peace in my new life.”

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! Thanks for still watching over me.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Appreciating the daily gifts we are given

birdersatsunrisebybrucestambaugh
A beautiful sunrise greeted these birders in search of a Snowy Owl.

By Bruce Stambaugh

For much too long already we’ve been enduring an avalanche of cutesy commercials and gimmicky advertisements foisting an assortment of products from A to Z on us. Each one is pitched as the perfect Christmas gift to give.

snowyowlbybrucestambaugh
Snowy Owl.
Catalogues, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the Internet, even emails push various products for us to purchase for our loved ones. I do my best to ignore them. It’s a bold statement from someone who spent part of his career in marketing.

I understand why all the product promotions are done. Retailers often need productive holiday sales to ensure a profit for the year. I certainly don’t begrudge them for trying.

At my stage in life, I find greater joy in a brilliant but brief sunrise than a glitzy ad. Sometimes on the coldest rural Ohio mornings, the pinks and blues that quickly morph into warm oranges, reds and yellows stir me more than any new car wrapped in a big red bow could.

Joy comes in many packages if we just take the time to notice them, even on the grayest of days. Amid this entire holiday hullabaloo, I have to remind myself to stop and take a deep breath.

Advent is the perfect time to slow down our lives, not speed them up, rushing around trying to find just the proper gift. It might already be right in front of us.

I speak from experience.

When our daughter, now a mother with young children of her own, was two-years old, she would stand on the kitchen counter at our home in Killbuck, Ohio. Together we would watch the birds devour the birdseed we had put out for them. Young as she was, Carrie could correctly identify each species.

Teetering on the rim of the Grand Canyon is an awesome feeling. Sharing that incredible vista with a person who is viewing it for the first time is even better. When it’s your son, seeing his smile is priceless.

When my wife and I braved a frigid winter’s night with a dear couple to search the dark sky for a rare comet, I was cold but hopeful. We rejoiced when we found it, quietly celebrating the event together. No words were needed.

When you go in search of a Snowy Owl, a rare avian visitor to our area, your hopes are high. Even when the bird can’t be located, the camaraderie of other birders on the same search makes up for the whiff. There are no wild goose chases in birding.

When you receive a hand-made card that includes drawings of a cardinal, an eagle and a blue jay, all appropriately colored by your grandchild, you know you are loved. You keep and display that precious gift where you can see it daily.

lookingupbybrucestambaugh
The gifts of life are all around us. We just have to look for them.
When a long-lost relative unexpectedly contacts you, you rejoice and reconnect with someone you may have only ever met once or maybe never. Surprise gifts rule.

When you stand in line for an hour or more to offer your condolences to the family of someone you have never met, you are blessed by the grace and appreciation shown to you by the mourners. Even in grief, great gifts are exchanged.

Advent is a time for reflection, renewing, remembering. It is a holy gift, freely given, gladly embraced.

The din of commercials not withstanding, Christmastime models what it means to give and to receive. I wonder what gifts will unwrap themselves for you and me today.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Life lessons from Uncle Jack

bubblegumpetuniasbybrucestambaugh
From the front porch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

After lunch, I took a glass of my wife’s incredible lemonade and a fresh baked chocolate chip cookie out onto the front porch to warm myself in the noontime sun. It was one of those perfect September days, fluffy white clouds sailing in blue sky, driven by a steady, cool northwest wind.

In front of me bumblebees and honeybees and Clouded Sulphur butterflies worked the patch of Sweet Williams and splay of fragrant Bubblegum Petunias. Under such a spell, my mind wandered back to similar days, days of my youth when our grandfather would come calling.

Even if we weren’t outside, we knew Grandpa Merle had arrived. We could hear our Uncle Jack, who always accompanied our grandfather, long before they entered our brick bungalow in suburban Canton, Ohio.

brickhousebybrucestambaugh
The brick house where I was raised.

Jack’s speech was loud, unintelligible, and inarticulate. We knew though that Jack was a good soul stuck in a damaged body. Jack had suffered a traumatic, life-threatening head injury as a young child. He and my father, Jack’s only brother, were seriously injured in an automobile accident 90 years ago.

Their grandfather had taken them for an impromptu Sunday afternoon drive in 1923 in his brand new car on a lovely summer’s day, like the one I was enjoying. Just one block from returning home, a drunk driver hit their car, killing my great grandfather instantly. The other driver was uninjured, and never charged for causing the crash.

Both my father and Jack suffered serious injuries. Back then trauma medical treatment was limited. Fortunate to be alive, Jack’s injuries were permanent, leaving him mentally retarded. Our father was less injured, and recovered more quickly.

The accident devastated my father’s family. To say raising Jack became difficult wouldn’t do the situation justice. With no social or educational support available in those days, caring for Jack became tedious and demanding, and eventually frayed my grandparents’ relationship.

Less than a decade later, they were divorced, and grandpa spent the rest of his life discouraged, wrought with the pressure of raising Jack alone. He worked long and hard to make a go of life for them both.

His grandchildren were his safety net. He and Jack often visited us on Sunday afternoons. The five of us grandkids greeted them with a mix of eager anticipation and reverent reserve. Grandpa Merle usually brought candy, perhaps to sweeten the harsh reality of Jack’s presence.

unclejackbybrucestamaugh
Uncle Jack in 1990.
Because of his brain damage, Jack had some unique physical idiosyncrasies that could be construed to be bothersome. Besides his boisterous incoherence, Jack slapped himself frequently. When he sat, he generally crossed his legs, the top one wiggling nervously like an out of control metronome.

I don’t remember any of us ever being afraid or even ashamed of Jack. We managed to get the gist of what he was saying and knew he meant well.

I wish others had had the same view. Because of his quirky antics and loud manners, Grandpa Merle had to be careful where he took Jack. Out of fear and ignorance, some people were really mean to him.

As I look back on it, I realize that despite his social and mental limitations Uncle Jack had much to teach us. Tolerance toward others, acceptance of people as they are, and compassion for the less fortunate were just a few of the life lessons Jack imparted.

I also recall that Jack liked pink petunias and white, fluffy cloud days.

Memorial Day is for remembering

cemetery by Bruce Stambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

Memorial Day is for remembering.

Originally, the day was set aside to remember those who had lost their lives in military service. Most research points to the American Civil War as the primary reason for Memorial Day. Graves of confederate and Union soldiers alike were decorated with flowers.

New York was the first state to officially observe a Memorial Day in 1873, with the rest of the northern states quickly joining in. The South, however, held its own day, separate from the date observed up north.

After World War I, that all changed. Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, was established to remember all who had died serving the country in conflict. That’s how I remember the day growing up. Parades with bands, fire trucks, flags, and veterans marched by.

In 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May to create another three-day weekend. With that, the emphasis switched again. It was a time to remember all those who had gone before.

Yet Memorial Day became more of a celebrative affair that lasted the entire weekend than a singular time of showing respect. Picnics, softball tournaments, fireworks, and family gatherings overshadowed a time of reflection on the sacrifices and horrors of war.

When my parents built their beloved cottage in southeast Ohio in 1975, they always invited the entire family down for a Memorial Day picnic. We went fishing, boating, played games, and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

With the kids grown and gone, my wife and I began celebrating Memorial Day at our favorite vacation spot, Lakeside, Ohio. We enjoyed the company of Flag and bunting by Bruce Stambaughfriends, along with food and games. Patriotic events were staged, too, but my preference leaned more toward remembering in silent contemplation than engaging in nationalistic revelry.

As a young boy, I remembered spending hours sorting through the hundreds of black and white photographs that my father had taken during his stint in World War II. I was fascinated with the exotic South Pacific images I saw depicted in those old photos. Water buffalo, island natives selling goods, and intended to be silly equator-crossing ceremonies all intrigued me.

Dad, like his father before him, never wanted to talk much about the war. They each only shared briefly about their individual involvement. I came away from those limited discussions with the impression that both Dad and Grandpa Merle had abhorred their wartime experiences. They wouldn’t give details, but I concluded that it was the fearsomeness of it all from which they wanted to protect me.

Grandpa had served in the trenches in France during World War I, and was hit with mustard gas. He was only treated at a field hospital, and since they had no record of his injury, he suffered with chronic coughing the rest of his life.

Dad, on the other hand, chose a rosier route, avoiding the negatives. He bragged about being on the first ship into Tokyo Bay and how movies were traded from ship to ship via pulley and cable systems. In his retirement years, Dad enjoyed periodic reunions with his U.S.S. San Diego shipmates.

Neither my father nor my grandfather celebrated Memorial Day in grandiose, red, white and blue style. Rather, they chose to personally remember the horrific effects of war silently, privately. All the while, they relished in being surrounded by family and friends, enjoying the precious moments at hand.

This Memorial Day, I plan to do the same.