Happy Mother’s Day

This Mother’s Day, I thought it might be a bit  hackneyed to honor two women whose consistent and genuine goodness continues to amaze me. And since I’m always looking for an excuse to use the word “hackneyed,” honoring them is just what I’m going to do. My mom, Floralee, has taught me that service is nothing more than inviting another person to join your celebration. After my parents’ divorce, my dad married my stepmom, Mary, who has taught me the meaning of loyalty and friendship.

Floralee Shumway

HawaiiMy mom raised five children in a two bedroom condo. Even though we knew we weren’t exactly well off, we never felt like we had too little to share. My mom invited a different family to dinner every Sunday. She never baked just one loaf of bread or a solitary pie. Rather, she descended upon friends and neighbors with baked goods she mass produced the way Henry Ford did Model Ts. But my mom’s products came in a lot more shapes and colors. Every pie crust was painted with a picture of the fruit contained within. If it was a holiday pumpkin pie, it was topped with a chocolate poinsettia molded from red and green chocolate. When an occasion called for a savory dish, my mom brought a cheese ball shaped like an igloo flanked by scores of penguins crafted from carrots and olives. If it was summer, whatever she brought would look like an American flag.

Mash site 2Growing up with my mom, meals were more than just food. They were events. Dinner was an occasion for taste testing competing brands of sodas and tortilla chips and for dry runs before her new recipes went public. Every holiday was accompanied by festively food-colored dishes, which we had a perfect record of eating until the Halloween of the black milk.

Because of the way my mom celebrated the routine, we never noticed how much she sacrificed. For years, my mom cleaned our music teachers’ homes in exchange for our piano and vocal lessons. She brought in extra income by hiring out her clothes ironing services. In all this, she never asked for thanks, and she rarely received it.

Unasked, my mom recently delivered a different dessert every Sunday to the children of a family friend with terminal cancer. From the months before and after the funeral, my mom made it her yearlong goal to provide these children something to be happy about. 564362_10150810181571432_792562310_n (1)

My mom continues teach me that even when things don’t turn out the way you might have liked, you can still celebrate the people you love. For Floralee Shumway, service isn’t a sacrifice to fret over or try to fit into your schedule. Rather, it’s just a way of inviting one more person to join you as you celebrate life with music and rainbow-layered Jell-O.

Life didn’t turn out the way my mom expected, but her love and service never wavered. All my mom ever wanted was to provide an idyllic life for her children. When circumstances made that difficult, she worked as hard as she could and trusted that the rest would be provided. I will forever be grateful for my mom’s example of service: that she gave of what little she had, even when she didn’t know when she would have more.

Mary Shumway

JuliaMarySalinaHouseWhen my dad married Mary, she became an instant friend who joined us in movie marathons and midnight Slurpee runs. She listened and remembered every detail while we talked about school and friends, and she always took our side.

Mary stepped into our family at full-stride, and rather than trying to change us, she joined in the fun. Some of my favorite memories are of Mary giggling along with us as my dad tried to foster some sense of decorum at the dinner table. In fact, my little brother and I used to fight over who got to sit by her during dinner.

Mary was always coming up with fun crafts and outings. I remember her bringing home a box of art supplies and a book on how to make puppets. This led to hours of gluey fun. Mary provided the bread and transportation for countless afternoons of feeding ducks from the paddle boats at Liberty Park.

TylerJuliaMaryStevenThe longer I’ve known Mary, the more I’ve grown to appreciate her. She notices people’s needs and goes out of her way to serve people, even before they know they need help. Mary drove my high school best friend and me on a grueling hunt for the perfect homecoming dresses. She used her connections to have a job waiting for me when I finished my mission. She helped me pick my wardrobe for my first post-mission date. Every time I tell Mary about some new venture, she immediately provides a contact person, a recipe, a vehicle, an outfit, or hair products.

More than anything, Mary is a true friend. She’ll do anything she can to help the people she loves, and she never asks for anything in return. She looks out for what we need, more than just what we want. If we need advice, Mary’s full of wisdom. If we need to have fun, she’ll buy the ice cream or movie tickets. 2013-05-12

Because I’m apparently pretty self-absorbed, it only recently occurred to me how differently her 30s must have turned out for Mary than she’d expected. When she married my dad she also took on five kids who were a bit of a mess. My dad had been cooking layers of crusty Hamburger Helper—one on top of the other—in what I can only assume was his only pan, but Mary calmly swooped in and put our family back on its tracks. During the first year she and my dad were together, Mary calmly handled my allergy attacks, my little brother’s string of upholstery-destroying bloody noses, my throwing up all over her car and everyone else’s dressiest clothes after she took us to see The Nutcracker, and lots and lots of very vocal—and sometimes quite violent—sibling rivalry. On top of her creating order out of our family chaos, I’ll always be grateful Mary also made sure that my hair was combed every day and that I looked reasonably presentable. Including once when I fell out of a tree: Mary was the one who went out and bought me a new outfit so I could leave the hospital in style.

I am deeply grateful that Mary had the faith to accept unforeseen circumstances and that her capacity to love was great enough to make five rowdy kids a part of her family.


Festive Nostalgia

If you’d ever had Thanksgiving dinner with my grandpa, you would have been treated the following story he learned when he was in Egypt during WWII:

Once upon a time, a rich man’s cook was preparing a fine turkey feast for his master and his friends. Just as the turkey was ready, the cook’s long lost brother showed up at the kitchen door, starving and begging for food. Unable to turn his brother away hungry, the cook tore a leg off one of the cooked turkeys and gave it to his brother.

When the cook brought the turkey to his master, the master asked angrily why the turkey only had one leg. The cook  looked confused and asked his master how such a wise man could be unaware that all the turkeys in this country had only one leg.

The master thought this quite the novelty and was excited to present the one legged foul to his friends. But when the master told his friends how all the country’s turkeys had only one leg, they laughed him to scorn.

At that, he got all up in a tizzy, that is to say, a murderous rage, and stormed the kitchen to demand an explanation from the cook. The cook acted puzzled and promised to prove to the master that all the turkeys in his flock had only one leg.

A wild turkey standing around on one leg like a flamingo. Graceful, right?

So, the next day, the cook took the master to his flock of turkeys and pointed at them all in the field, standing on one leg. The master had had enough of the cook’s antics. He waved his arms at the birds and shouted, “Shoo! Shoo!” and the birds were all startled and put down their other leg.

“See!” The master cried. “You can’t trick me so easily! As soon as they’re startled, they put down their other leg!”

The cook still seemed confused and asked his master, “Or course they do! But why didn’t you do that with the bird on the table?”

And, to close, a photo of my grandpa and me with his fiber optic Christmas tree. I set it up one day when we were about to head out some place. I said we may want to turn it off before leaving, but he wanted to keep the “Spirit of Christmas” going in his house. So we left it on.

A Prairie Home Companion – September 24

Sound guy Tom Keith, and voice actors Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Garrison Keillor on set of A Prairie Home Companion

Seeing A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor live was the fulfillment of my childhood dreams. Growing up, we did a lot of driving between my mom’s house (Centerville) and my dad’s house (Salina). My dad wasn’t a big fan of our favorite roadtrip pastimes (Such as this game where you replace one of the words on a billboard with the wordbooger. For example, the McDonald’s slogan would be transformed from “I’m lovin’ it” to “I’m lovin’ boogers.” Endless fun.), so he would turn on NPR to shut us up. Hence, Garrison Keillor became something of a non-interactive, third parent who was present on all road trips.

We even had tales from Lake Wobegon cassettes. I remember countless afternoons in the hammock on the back patio, eating fudge sickles and listening to stories about the rhubarb pie, the Sidetrack Tap, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, et al. I’ll admit that Garrison Keillor was a factor that made my move to Minnesotan tundra far more palatable. A state inhabited by good natured people like the hot-dish-giving Krebsbachs couldn’t be too bad.

The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band with Nick Lowe

With all this anticipation, hearing Garrison start a story with, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…” and interrupting his story every so often with his soft nasal wheezing, well, it was probably like it would be for some other member of my generation to finally see The Spice Girls live or something. Basically, it was incredible. The set is designed to look like a Midwestern porch front. The sound effects are all one guy. The voices are all done by three people, plus a few guest stars. The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band really are all stars! I couldn’t stop being impressed by how few people were involved in making this thing happen. Talent!

I’m not going to go into detail about the particulars of the actual show because I won’t do it justice, and the whole thing will be far more enjoyable if you simply give it a listen here or on iTunes. Suffice it to say, the evening was every bit as delightful as is this three minute clip:

Here’s to you, Grandpa.

Grandpa (71) and Me (6)

My grandpa, Donald William Hemingway, died this past June. He was a great friend, and I miss him a lot. I talk about him whenever I get a chance, even if I’ve already told the story a hundred times. Telling it again makes me feel like he’s still around. Like he’s just been too busy picking up on younger women at his assisted living cafeteria to be at home for my phone calls, but one of these days he’ll answer.

I’ll catch him up on my dating life, my classes, concerts and movies, music I’ve been playing. He’ll praise everything I’ve done, even the things I regret; he’ll believe I was always in the right. He’ll tell me how he wants to buy a motorcycle because his jazzy doesn’t have enough power, and it tips over sometimes going up hills. When he says he’s missed my cooking, I’ll pretend I misheard and say, “What was that? It sounded like you said you’ve missed my company.” When he catches on to my tease, we’ll have a good laugh.

My grandpa ate ice cream every day, twice a day. When you’re 92, it doesn’t matter if you’re diabetic and have high blood pressure. You get to do what you want, even if that means going out in a diabetic coma (he didn’t). When I took him grocery shopping, he’d always buy me a treat and fill my car with gas. Then, when we got home, the carton of ice cream we bought would have melted to just the perfect softness. Before putting it away, we’d open it and skim a spoonful off the top.

My grandpa thought everything about me was fabulous. Once I was practicing a song on his piano for voice lessons, and I knew it needed a lot of work, so I asked him not to listen. I didn’t think it would be too hard, considering he sometimes couldn’t hear me from a few feet away. But as I began singing Boston by Augustana, he kept calling in from the kitchen, “Beautiful! Beautiful! It sounds wonderful!” I called back, “Grandpa, you’re not supposed to be listening; how can you even hear this, anyway?” And he called in, “I can’t shut my ears to beautiful music!”

He was like that. Blindly praising everything his grandkids did. My cousin Don was in a play just before starting medical school, and my grandpa couldn’t understand why Don would waste his life in medicine when he clearly belonged on the stage.

I’ll be writing more about my grandpa. He was wonderful, and I’m sorry for all of you who will never get to hear him call boogie woogie the devil’s music or ask you to make sure you put up the cripple sticker so you can park close to the grocery store. Telling his stories, though, makes me feel a bit better for all of us who are missing out on his company.