31 December 2013

Thank you and goodbye...for now

When I started this blog on Jan. 1, 2013, I thought it was about my relationship with money, but I was so wrong— It was about my relationship with life. 

Writing the blog and giving for 365 days straight has been such a joyous experience. I feel like my heart expanded over the past year. Every day, I got to get out of my own world (not an easy feat when you live in your own head as much as I do), and write about people and organizations that were striving every day to make their corner of the planet a better place. Each day, I got to find a pocket of goodness and focus on the light instead of the shadows. I recommend that highly. I was happier and less depressed and less lonely this year than I remember being in years and that’s a big reason why. To varying degrees, all of us are wounded and broken and writing the blog made me feel a little less so.

A big part of that also came from the sense of community that grew up around the blog. I am so thankful for everyone who read a single entry, much less those of you who subscribed and felt moved to comment on what I was doing or write guest blogs. Those kind words kept me going when I felt like no one was reading and they gave me strength to continue on. We were gathering together for something that was bigger than all of us and I will miss that the most. 

I was also happier because I said “yes” this year. I’ve always done that to a degree and  I’ve always been acutely aware, probably too much so,  that life can change in an instant. But in the past, I had tempered my “yes” with too much concern about money. As I wrote on Dec. 26, I found a balance this year that works for me and I have the blog to thank for that; it was an unexpected blessing. Whenever possible going forward, I will pick experience over building my bank account every time. 

I’m a private person and, yet, here, I found a place to share stories that I had never told before and I surprised myself with how open I was and so gratified and warmed by the response

No more was this so than when my dad died three weeks ago. Though I hadn’t intended for the blog to become a journal, in some ways that’s precisely what happened and being able to write about my dad’s death and incorporate that into the daily giving feels like a wonderful last gift from my dad. He loved the blog. We talked about it almost every time we called each other. For Christmas, I was going to give him a bound volume of all the daily blogs. Along with poker, it was a wonderful thing we shared over the past year.

When he was diagnosed with cancer in October and given a prognosis of six months-to-a year to live, my 87-year old father yearned for nothing more than to make it to 90. His health had been failing for years and his spirit and desire to live surprised me and my sister, but it also showed how strong our humanity is. I learned so much about life and grace from my father in this past year. 

My biggest takeaway from the blog is something that I knew before I started, but now I don’t just know it, I feel it to my core: kindness is what matters more than anything else in the world. Whether it’s a smile to a stranger, giving money, donating time, listening to a friend when you feel like you’re going to scream if you hear the same story again, letting a driver merge in front of you in traffic, holding your tongue, sending a quick email just to let someone know you’re thinking of them when they’re going through a tough time, acknowledging a homeless person...Kindness greases the wheels of life and makes it much more pleasant. But it’s so much more than that, it’s the key to our survival.  I believe that every bit of kindness you extend comes back to you in ways you recognize and in ways that you don’t but from which you still benefit.

I also know that we belong to each other...all of us. Even people you’ve never met. I’ve stayed away from discussing religion for most of the year other than to write about my mother starting the church I grew up in, but what l remember from comparative religion classes is that all religions teach basically the same thing: be kind to each other and be of service. That’s something we can all believe in. 

As I said at the start, the greatest gift the blog gave me is make me think about how I want to live my life. We only get a certain number of days and there’s so little that we can actually control. The blog has made me realize that there are changes I need to make in my life to be happier and be more of service...and that I now see those two as intertwined. I’m eager to see how I manifest the changes in coming years and I look forward to seeing who I become. 

So as we move into 2014 over the next few hours, I offer my undying thanks for going on this journey with me. The pleasure’s been all mine. I’m going to miss you and this experience very much, but am so grateful to Brian Mansfield for taking it under his wing for the next 365 days. 

Plus, I have a feeling we’re just getting started. 

Happy New Year and God Bless You and Your Loved Ones.

To end the year, I’m giving $50 to each of the charities we asked that people donate to in lieu of flowers when my parents died. It seems only fitting.  Bye...for now.

Dec. 31:  

30 December 2013

Here's What Happens Next...

I’m a little in shock. I can’t believe our time together is ending tomorrow. The year has gone by so quickly. I’ll write in much greater detail what my little experiment has meant to me tomorrow, but before then I have some exciting news. 

Some of you have asked me to continue to blog and I really thought about keeping it going myself, but the truth is, as much as I’m going to miss it—and I will miss writing the blog and the ongoing conversation I have had with so many of you this year in ways that make me almost inconsolably bereft—I need to take a break. 

Writing the blog has been like wearing velvet handcuffs. I have loved it so, so much, but there has not been a day where I could take a break-whether I was in Poland or Mexico or my computer broke and I had to find a replacement or on vacation or even when my father died. Even if I used a guest blog —and thank goodness for those —I still had to log on and edit and post the blog. Jan. 1, 2014 will be the first day in 365 that I have not had to be on the computer or had to find time to post no matter where I was in the world.

Having said all that, I really feel like we have started something special and I say “we” because although I came up with the idea and wrote the blog, it became very clear to me very early on that the blog was a dialog between me and the people who were reading it and commenting on the blog and on Facebook and in person with me.  

I want to keep this going and the perfect solution presented itself. 

A few months ago, Brian Mansfield, whom many of you may know from his great work as a journalist at USA Today, asked me what would happen when the year was up. I said I didn’t know. He suggested, if I was amenable, that someone take over the blog and keep the name going. And then he said he’d be interested in being that person. 

I took a few months to think about it and to make sure I didn’t want to keep going and I’ve decided to turn Causes & Effect: My Year of Giving Daily over to Brian for 2014. I’m going to concentrate on working on a book deal about the blog— if anyone has any ideas, suggestions, or connections about that, please email me— and some magazine articles about what the experience has meant to me, and thinking about where I want to go next with Causes & Effect.

This current website will stay up, in case anyone wants to catch up or revisit my year’s worth of blogs. Plus, I’ve registered the website, www.causesandeffect.net  (you would have thought I would have done that Jan. 1, 2013 instead of Dec. 30, 2014) and I’m going to migrate the daily blogs over there as soon as I figure out how to do that. 

As Brian and I have discussed how to go forward, I’ve only felt better and better about the decision. He will be a good steward of Causes & Effect for the next 365 days. I’m excited for him too because I know how much Causes & Effect has changed my life for the better and I know it’s going to do the same for him. 

If you’d like to follow him, here’s the link to his blog for when it launches Jan. 1, 2014.   http://myyearofgivingdaily.tumblr.com/  I know I will be.

The Facebook Causes and Effect page remains up and active (again... probably should have started that on Day 1 instead of Day 335... marketing was not my strong suit this year) and I will continue to post any updates there during 2014. Maybe Brian and I will even start a Twitter page for Causes & Effect.

For one last time (for now), I will see you here again tomorrow.

(While it’s really warm here in LA, it’s obviously not in much of the rest of the country. Tonight, I’m giving to a homeless shelter in Minneapolis, which I’m sure is overfilled tonight with people seeking refuge from the cold).

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29 December 2013

A Fond Look Back...

One of the best parts of writing Causes & Effect this year has been learning about so many great charities. Sometimes, I’d start the day knowing which organization I wanted to give to, but, often, I’d decide what I wanted to write about and then I would have to search for a charity that fit the topic...and rarely could I not find something that seems absolutely perfect. Since I didn’t want to give to the same group more than once, that often meant I had to find a local charities, especially when it came to dealing with natural disasters, like the Moore, Okla. tornado. 

I could keep my daily giving going for years and never duplicate the same charity there are so many worthwhile ones out there. If, like me, you ever get down and feel like evil is gaining on good, I assure you, it is not. There are people helming and volunteering at organizations for free or for very little money who are dedicated to making the world a better place, one person, one block, one city, at a time. 

All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, but after this year, I believe there are so many people fighting to make the world a better place that I feel so encouraged. Their spirits are so strong. They are unbreakable.

Having said that, the need is so vast in so many different area that it’s daunting to realize just how much help is needed and it’s a reminder that no giving is wasted. Every little bit of help, no matter how big or small, makes a difference. 

Here are eight charities I gave to this  year that were among my favorites. I’m mentioning each one here and linking back to my original post about the organization: 

*The Giving Spirit: The LA-based organization provides the homeless with backpacks and duffel bags twice a year packed with basic supplies. Though The Giving Spirit works with local shelters, less than 20,000 of Los Angeles’ more than 60,000 homeless are in shelters, so The Giving Spirit drives around to distribute the bags to homeless people living on the streets. TGS was started by two people and it shows that a small group can really make a difference. 

*The Faith Community of St. Sabina: St. Sabina is a Catholic church in one of city’s poorest, predominantly black neighborhoods, helmed by Father Michael Pfleger. He is a firebrand. He is white and he adopted two sons,  much to the dismay of the Catholic church, and fostered another, whom he lost to gang violence. He bucks up against the Catholic Church often and is quite controversial, but I don’t know if I found anyone this year who I so admired. He is a warrior who speaks truth to power about what amounts to no less than a war on black young males. He is one of my new heroes whom I hope to meet one day. 

*Lutheran Church Charities K9 Comfort Dogs: Clearly the cutest creatures I wrote about all year, the K9 Comfort Dogs, usually golden retrievers because of their gentle, friendly nature, go to areas where people can benefit from having a cold nose, four paws, a wagging tail and a warm heart around. The dogs, who bring teddy bears with them, were on hand the first day children went back to school at Sandy Hook Elementary, and are often among the first to go to the site of a natural disaster, as well as visiting people in nursing homes and hospitals. 

*The Pablove Foundation: Some of the charities that broke my heart, while earning my deepest admiration, this year were ones started by parents who had lost children to cancer or other diseases. I was humbled by their ability to take the worst thing that could happen to a parent and use their energy to help others going through the same thing. Pablove was started by Jeff Castelaz and Jo Ann Thrillkill// after they lost their son, Pablo, to cancer when their boy was six. They started Pablove to fund pediatric cancer research and the ways they raise money are very creative, from children’s photography contests to cross country rides to other fundraises that honor and lift up Pablo’s memory every day. 

*Ahimsa House: My friend Carole Loftin turned me on to this organization. Ahimsa House provides shelter for the often overlooked victims of domestic abuse: four-legged creatures. According to the Georgia-based organization’s website, many women stay in abusive situations because they are afraid the person abusing them will abuse their pet if they leave for a shelter, the vast majority of which don’t accept pets. Or the abuser threatens to kill the pet if the abused says she is leaving and she, therefore, stays keeping herself and her pet in peril. Ahimsa works with domestic violence shelters to care for animals for up to 30 days while their owners are in the shelters.

*Puppies Behind Bars: There was no other charity that seemed as perfect as this one when it came to meeting so many different needs. Inmates trained puppies to be service dogs for wounded soldiers. The dogs live with the inmates from the time the pups are 8 weeks old until they are 20 months old. It’s the ultimate win-win charity. The inmates are rehabilitated by learning to care for the dogs, the dogs go on to a life of service, and a hero’s life is made easier by the presence of the dog. Puppies Behind Bars is in three states now and I really hope it expands. 

*Southern Coalition for Social Justice: As my beloved home state of North Carolina underwent a disturbing swing to the far right this summer in ways that will harm the state for decades, I discovered the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before; maybe that was because the Southern Poverty Law Center looms so large in the south. SCSJ fights for voting rights, human rights, criminal rights, immigrant rights and environmental justice. SCSJ estimates that the NC’s new prohibitive, discriminatory voter ID bill will affect around 319,000 North Carolina voters, including Alberta Currie, the face of their campaign to overturn the Voter ID bill. Currie has voted every year since 1956, but has no birth certificate since she was born at home. Without a birth certificate, she can’t get a photo ID, according to the new rule.

*Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation: I spent two weeks at Topsail Island, N.C. in September and, by sheer dumb luck, it was at the height of sea turtle hatching season in this Sea Turtle Sanctuary. Those little turtles transformed my trip into a nice working vacation into something much more. When they hatch-or bubble over- dozens of the little babies struggle to reach the ocean and begin their difficult journey. They stand a 1-in-1000 chance of making it through that first year and about a 1-in-10,000 change of reaching adulthood. I was infatuated with the baby turtles and the Karen Beasley Center, which rescues turtles and rehabs them. The highlight of my trip was the sea release of a 300-lb loggerhead the Center had nursed back to health over a four-year period. 

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28 December 2013

I'm sensing a trend...

As I was flying back to LA today from Raleigh, I was thinking about all the causes I’ve given to during my year of giving daily and how unintentional patterns started to emerge. 

When I look back at the charities, they’ve been tremendously diverse, but it turns out organizations in five different areas have dominated my giving: 

*Social justice. Certainly it’s the very nature of many non-profits, but I found myself giving again and again to charities that work to level the playing field and give the have-nots a little more. Maybe that’s because of my involvement with Liberty Hill Foundation as a board member, but I also think it’s just a matter of being aware of what’s going on in this country as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  I guess you can live only concerned with making sure you get yours and screw everyone else, but that sounds soul destroying to me. 

*Ending gun violence. Whether they were groups lobbying for gun control or organizations in the trenches trying to stop street violence in some of the country’s worst neighborhoods, each of the these charities was concerned with one thing: getting guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. One of the stories that haunted me the most this year was of a mother in Chicago who had lost all four of her children to gang violence over a 15-year period. How does someone bear that kind of loss and go on? 

*Homelessness: Whether it was giving directly to homeless people I  talked to on the street or to organizations looking out for their welfare, the scope of the homeless problem across this country was overwhelming as was the realization that the safety net isn’t just pierced with holes, it simply doesn’t exist for many people any more. 

*The military. Quite frankly, this one surprised me. Although my father was a very proud member of the National Guard for at least 20 years and was in the Royal Air Force during WW2, I don’t really have any affiliation with the military. Yet, I found myself repeatedly drawn to the plight of active and past servicemen and servicewomen who have sacrificed so much for this country and yet come back to a lack of resource and jobs. It’s shameful the way this country treats veterans and the only good news is that there is no shortage of organizations trying to right that very big wrong.

*Gay rights. Whether it was groups carrying the flag for legalizing gay marriage or organizations that rally for LBGTQ teens, they are all working to knock down remaining barriers that make gays feel less than. Despite the wonderful strides made this year, there’s still far to go on what I consider to be a simple civil rights issue. Everyone either has the same rights or they don’t. 

 While I was on the plane, I wondered if there was a cause that I had ignored this year to which I should have paid more attention. I was thinking about this as I got up to go to the restroom, which was smaller than usual on this plane. (yes, this is going somewhere...) I thought how claustrophobic the bathroom felt and how horrible it must be to be a victim of human trafficking and be transported via absolutely inhumane methods only to arrive at a destination where the nightmare has only begun. It’s not a topic I know as much about as I should in part because the whole notion is so heinous that I’ve buried my head in the sand a bit about it, I’m ashamed to admit. 

After I returned to my seat, I was reading a magazine and there was an ad for Unlikely Heroes, an organization I was unfamiliar with, but which fights to end human trafficking and child sex slavery. What are the chances of that? 

According to Unlikely Heroes, a staggering 27 million people are trapped in human trafficking/slavery.  Every minute two children enter sexual slavery, with the average age that a boy is forced into prostitution is 12 and for a girl it is 13. Think it doesn’t happen here? More than 100,000 children in the U.S. are prostituted every year. Unlikely Heroes’ mission, according to its website, it to provide “safe homes and restoration services for child victims of sex slavery worldwide.” 

Dec. 28: Unlikely Heroes

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27 December 2013

My First Typewriter...

As we’ve been cleaning out our father’s room at the retirement community, we’ve found a treasure trove of items that my sister and I gave dad, including a pencil holder I made for him when I was in second grade and a stamp holder my sister must have made for him around the same time. 

Such things are precious to a parent, even though Jeannie and I laughed at our unskilled efforts. 

As I looked through his many file drawers, I found a file with my name typed on the tab, “Newman, Melinda.” Inside were articles I’d written since I’d become a freelance writer in 2006: stories for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and several other outlets. In some cases they were the actual print copies that I had sent him, in others, they were the online version that he’d printed out and put in the folder. I didn’t know the folder existed, but that’s so very like my Dad. When I visited him at Thanksgiving, at his request, I’d brought him two of my latest stories for two magazines. 

Growing up, my Dad’s love didn’t manifest itself by being at every softball game or swim meet or piano recital, though he certainly attended his fair share. He wasn’t a hoverer. 

It was more that his love provided me a safe place to land when things didn’t go as I’d hoped and I needed someone to pat my head and tell me it would be OK. It also showed itself by raising Jeannie and me to believe we could do anything we wanted to.  We were encouraged to write our own script even if it defied convention.

My dad wasn’t so happy when I said I wanted to be a go-go dancer when I was six, but I still got a pair of white go-go boots from Pick and Pay nonetheless. 

When I was about 8, I took  an interest in rocks and I have a very vivid memory of Dad bringing me home a sampler of all these different kinds of rocks that were under little plastic bubbles, there was a piece of quartz, a piece of mica, a piece of feldspar. 

My plan to be a geologist gave way to my decision to become a writer, a career path I chose when I was about 10. When that one looked like it might stick around, mom and dad bought me my first Smith Corona electric typewriter. It was blue and white and I loved it but what I loved even more was that it meant dad and mom believed in my dreams as much as I did. Their faith in me allowed me to soar. I wrote so many articles on  that Smith Corona for my junior high and high school papers. 

I took it for granted that every kid had that kind of support, but as I got older, I realized that wasn’t the case. From a very early age, dad instilled in me and Jeannie a confidence to blaze our own paths. That was one of the greatest gifts they ever gave us, especially since they must have realized long before we ever did, that our dreams would take us away from them as we traveled around the world.  

I imagine I would have become a journalist whether my Dad supported me or not, but it made it much easier to follow my passion knowing that he and mom were behind me 100%.

Not everyone has the kind of support at home that I did. Luckily, there are a number of charities and organizations devoted to helping young reporters realize their dreams, including Connecticut-based Youth Journalism International. YJI works with students, ages 12-to-24, in more than 40 countries. It focuses on journalism, but also on bridging cultures. Students work with editors one-on-one and in groups as they report from from their hometowns.

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26 December 2013

Checking back in on that money thing...how much is enough?

When I started this blog Jan. 1, one of my goals was to change my relationship with money, or most specifically, my fear over not feeling financially secure in this very uncertain world. 

I wanted to see what would happen if I committed to giving away at least $3,650 at the onset of this year no matter what developed for me financially as a freelancer. I’ve been thinking about it a lot as my year comes to a close and my father’s death inadvertently shone a light on the situation.

Over the year, I’ve definitely relaxed about my spending. Not only have I given away $4,000 to charity (I gave more than $10 some days), but I also let myself spend money for great adventures, including dashing to New York to go to the Songwriters Hall of Fame with one of my best friends on 48 hours’ notice, heading to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, and renting a beach condo for two weeks. I valued experiences far more than my bank balance this year and it was a life-changing decision. I never spent more than I could afford to, but I did push my comfort level. Having said that, that is one change that I will adopt for the future. Every penny was well spent and the older I get, the more important it is for me to not put things off. On a smaller scale, I'm much quicker to pick up the tab or not worry about making sure that I'm not paying more than my fair share at dinner. 

Growing up, my family was comfortable, not only because my parents made a decent living, but because we lived well within our means. If we couldn’t afford something, we didn’t do it or we waited until we'd saved up for it. My father measured success by many factors, but one was definitely through income. He was very proud of himself when he hit certain plateaus. He was forced to retire after he had a stroke in 2001 and  as he got older and mild dementia began to set it, he became obsessed with making money. My sister and I had to be vigilant in keeping him from falling prey to certain get-rich schemes. 

I’m not faulting his thinking: his drive and his hard work enabled him and mom to move into a very nice retirement community that wasn’t cheap, but in the two weeks since he’s died, not a single person has come up to me and my sister and praised our dad for how successful he was in business. All the praise has come from how kind he was, how good he made them feel when he remembered the names of their spouses and children or how he always had a joke for them and left them with a smile. In the end, his salary had absolutely nothing to do with his worth as a human being. 

That made me realize something else. Like my dad, I’m never going to feel like I have enough money. I don’t know what amount would make me feel like I could relax and not worry about my future. Maybe $50 million? But maybe if I had $50 million, I’d move my comfort level up to $100 million. 

Instead of being dismayed at this notion, I find it liberating. If I’m never going to feel like I have enough, then it’s really not going to matter if I spend a relatively small amount to take some trips or to donate to charity or buy new furniture, as long as I have enough to cover my bills and what I consider a reasonable cushion. I haven’t looked to see what my bank balance was at the end of 2012 compared to the end of 2013 because I don’t care...and I’ve never been able to say that before. I imagine it’s got to be lower, but not once this year have I been worried that I wouldn’t have enough to meet my daily expenses.

I imagine the ideal is to run out of money just as you run out of time, but there’s no way of knowing when that will be for most of us. Instead, we have to dance a balancing act of having enough for today (and, hopefully, for a rainy day),  with potentially missing out on adventures because we’re scared we might need that money for a day that never comes. As for me, I’ll be traveling coach and cutting corners where I can, but 
from here on out, I’m going for the adventure. 

(Today’s charity pick comes courtesy of my sister. She’s written so many great blogs for me this year and I wanted her to get to choose one more charity before we end five days from now. This one is very dear to her heart given her career as a social worker.)

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25 December 2013

My Parents, The Lingerers...

I’ll say this much for my parents, when it came to death, they weren’t lingerers. With both my mom and my dad, the doctors and nurses told us they were dying, but it could be a matter of months. Both of them died within a few days of the doctors’ pronouncements. 

But you know when they were lingerers? Over breakfast on Christmas morning. 

Unlike every other family that my sister and I knew, we did not get up at the crack of dawn to open our presents. Instead Mom and Dad and our grandmother, who usually had joined us for Christmas, would sleep late and then we would have a very, very long, full breakfast with eggs, sausage and bacon. And THEN they would cut into the homemade stollen that mom had made and, for the only time each year, my dad would drink coffee. He’d dunk the stollen in it. The whole time, Jeannie and I would be dying to get to the presents. Every Christmas I remember wishing I belonged to another family, one that actually managed to open its presents by sunrise. 

Then, and only then, would we go into the living room and start to open presents. Again, we did this differently than every other family I knew. Dad would play Santa and he’d pass out a present one at a time and we’d all have to ooh and ahh as the person opened the gift. That is a fine and lovely idea in theory, but when you’re 10 and you know that there is a good chance there’s a new bike with your name waiting for you down in the basement, it is torture. Especially if your grandmother unwraps each present as if she is going to re-use the paper, carefully making sure she doesn’t rip the wrapping as she peels off each piece of tape individually. I can feel my body tensing now just thinking about it. 

Inevitably, my best friend Debbie would call to see what I’d gotten for Christmas- she would have finished opening presents six hours ago. This was the days before answering machines so I’d have to give her a mid-opening report and tell her I’d get back to her in a few hours when we were finished.  My family tended to overdo it a bit at Christmas, so it literally took us hours to open up the presents... there was none of just diving in and when every one came up for air, the living room looked like a colorful war zone. I think we finished before it got dark out, but we probably were cutting it pretty close sometimes. There may have even been a few years when we broke for lunch.

Years later, my sister asked my parents why they made us sleep late and linger over breakfast when we were clearly going crazy. Their answer: They didn’t know. That was it. Not that they wanted to intentionally torture us or not even that they really wanted to relax and enjoy the day. “They didn’t know.” That will go down as one of the all-time least satisfactory answers ever. Ever.

So today, my sister and I had our first Christmas without a parent being alive. And you know what? I made a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and sausage. We lingered over our meal and had some stollen. Then we opened up our presents, one by one. We could finally do it any way we wanted to and we didn’t change a thing. Maybe our parents had it right all along... Nah... 

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24 December 2013

To my mom, Charlotte...

My mom died on Christmas Eve six years ago. It’s clearly a horrible day when your parent dies, but I would recommend avoiding Christmas Eve if at all possible. It certainly casts a pall on Christmas.

I feel like my mom has gotten short shrift in my blog this year. Regular readers have heard all about my playing poker with my dad, his growing up in Shanghai, his WW2 adventures, and, sadly, his death a few days ago.

Mom was such a remarkable woman. Even though I feel like she’s by my side, I still miss her terribly. But I started missing her before she died. Mom developed both Parkinson’s Disease and cognitive impairment disorder (maybe Alzheimer’s, maybe not... the doctor didn’t give it a name) in her early 70s, a few years before she died. And as they took hold, the mom I knew and loved started to fade away. 

Those last few years weren’t easy on mom. She was a woman with great intelligence and even greater heart.  A few years before her official dementia diagnosis, mom went into a depression. We didn’t know it at the time, but that can be a marker of the start of the onset of dementia. I remember one Christmas Eve, she looked at me and my sister and told us she just hadn’t gotten around to buying us anything for Christmas. Sorry.... That should have been a major sign. From then on, even little things seemed to overwhelm her. But, man, even when she couldn’t remember how to get back to her room, she could still skunk me when we played word games. To help keep her mind sharp, I bought us both the same book of word puzzles and we’d pick a puzzle, pick up our pencils, and both go at it. Up until almost the very end, she could still beat me...

In early November 2007, Mom fell and broke her hip. She recovered from the surgery just fine, but she never walked again and she died seven weeks later. Studies show that people with dementia are way more likely to die from broken hips than people without-- somehow their wiring gets crossed and they can’t figure out how to heal. That was the case with mom.  My sister and I traded off nights in the hospital with her. She had a horrible case of sundowners. For those not familiar, it happens with elderly people when they are out of their element. When the sun goes down, they start to act crazy. Mom’s sundowning started way before sundown- it was more like around noon every day. When she first woke up in the morning, she knew who we were and she was delighted to see us, but as the day wore on, she slipped into her own twilight fantasy world.

Sometimes it manifested itself in ways that were, frankly, hilarious.  At one point, she thought she was giving birth to triplets-- all three of them were going to be quarterbacks for NCSU. We helped her deliver them and then put them under the hospital bed to keep them warm. Other times, it would just be tedious: she went through a stage where she was packing an army jeep for a move with my dad and she kept handing me and my sister imaginary bowls to pack, over and over for hours into the middle of the night. The worst was when she would think something horrible had happened. One night, she woke up at 3 a.m. convinced that my father had had a stroke and she screamed at me to get her purse and shoes because she had to go to him right them. There was nothing the nurse nor I could do to soothe her, there was no convincing her that dad was OK and her anguish was so real. I didn’t want to wake up my dad at 3 a.m. so that she could hear his voice and realize he was ok. Eventually, we had to sedate her. 

After mom died, friends who had already traveled this path told me that as time passed, I’d start to remember the whole and healthy mom instead of the broken one of the last several years and they were right. I still think of the mom who was so frightened, confused and fretful for her last few years, but more often, I  remember the mom who fiercely loved me and Jeannie with every drop of her being. 

She loved being a mom. She loved being head of the PTA and a Brownie leader, but mom also loved being of service to others. She co-founded the church that I grew up in; for decades she donated blood and platelets every month. She loved fishing with my dad, playing bridge with dad and she loved traveling. She didn’t leave the country until she was 49, but then there was no stopping her. 

My mom was one of the first two women accepted into Emory University’s Medical School in the ‘50s. She dropped out after one year to marry my dad, but that one year of med school stood her in good stead. Whenever Jeannie or I had an ailment as kids, she’d trot out that one year of med school to diagnose us. At times, we’d question her especially when it had been years since she attended med school and she’d remind us that basic anatomy had not changed. She was right.  

In addition to being super smart and very funny, my mom was one of the kindest people I ever met. My sister and I have talked about this a lot since she died and it’s almost as if we didn’t recognize this trait in her until after she was gone: Neither one of us ever remembers her saying a mean thing about anyone. She was rarely a gossip or catty. She was far from pollyanna-ish, but I can’t recall her ever saying anything mean about someone’s appearance or making fun of anyone. 

I inherited a lot of great things from her, happily, but I learned that one from her solely by example. I’ll hear other families cutting family members’ down or saying mean things about other people they see in person or on TV  and I can honestly say that never happened in my house. We weren’t angels and, god bless them, our parents screwed us up in other ways, but they were both truly nice: to us, to each other, and to everyone they met. 

My mom did not have a mean bone in her body and I wanted to honor that today. My sister and I were running an errand this afternoon in the endless parade known as closing out our father’s estate and we were dealing with a woman who had one of the worst, unflattering dye jobs I’ve ever seen. I almost said something to my sister when we left and then I stopped. Why say anything? This woman surely hadn’t picked that color because she thought it made her hair look bad. It wasn’t going to make me feel any better by saying anything about it, in fact it would make me feel worse-- I feel a little bad even bringing it up here as an example. But I thought of my mom and kept my mouth shut... until now. 

Today, as we’ve done every year since her death, my sister and I went to visit the cemetery where mom’s urn is in a niche. We took Dad’s ashes with us and there was a big blue check on the niche beside mom’s where Dad’s ice bucket with his remains will go (and, for those who read yesterday’s blog, the cardboard boxes with his extra ashes).

My heart felt like it was breaking and it seems so unfair to have lost both parents so close to Christmas, but then I remembered that it’s not unfair, it’s just life. If I want to think it’s unfair, then I have to realize it is so much more than fair to have gotten to have them well into my adulthood. So instead, today I celebrate my mom, whom I love so, so much, and my dad and I cry a little that tomorrow will be my first Christmas without a parent who is alive, but rejoice that I got to spend so many Christmases with them. I’m a lucky, lucky girl.

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23 December 2013

Dad gets his final wish...

A small note: If you haven’t lost someone close to you, this story may strike you as tasteless. If so, I apologize. For those of you who have been through it, I hope you can appreciate the morbid humor of the situation... Melinda

My mom passed away on Christmas Eve, 2007. 

On Dec. 26, 2007, my father, sister and I went to the cremation society to deal with my mother’s remains. The funeral director was straight out of central casting: dishwater-colored hair, pasty skin, wire-rim glasses, weak handshake, ill-fitting suit. He was trying to up-sell us on a fancy urn and my father piped up that a cardboard box would be just be fine. 

Absolutely appalled, my sister and I interrupted that our mother would most definitely not have her ashes placed in a cardboard box. We didn't need the deluxe urn, but we would be picking out a nice, pretty urn for her.

Our dad acceded to our wishes (and I really have to believe it was his grief talking), but added that when his time came he would be perfectly happy to have his ashes in a cardboard box....so maybe it wasn't the grief.

My sister and I looked at each other, then looked at dad and Carl and said, “Can we please deal with one dead parent at a time?” 

Flash forward to today, 12 days after my father’s death. In the intervening years, Dad and my sister had talked and instead of a cardboard box, he had decided that his ashes would go into an ice bucket that his groomsmen gave him when he married mom. It’s a beautiful silver bucket with the date of their wedding and the names of all the groomsmen inscribed on it. 

Today, I go to the Cremation Society to drop off the bucket so that Dad’s ashes can be put in it. The ice bucket will be inurned in a niche in a mausoleum beside mom’s urn. Jeannie and I had also picked out two small “memory urns” earlier, so we will have some of Dad’s ashes for us to scatter where we choose.

Ada, who has replaced Carl, takes the ice bucket but returns a few minutes later to tell me that there is too much of Dad to fit into the ice bucket and into the two urns.  I knew he was larger than life, but I guess he’s larger than death too. Perhaps not thinking it through, I ask if we have to take all of him, and she says that it’s the law and that we must. 

She then brings me the ice bucket, the two memory urns, and the rest of dad, evenly divided for my sister and me, in— wait for it— two cardboard boxes.

Somehow, even in death, he got his wish. My sister and I have been shaking our heads, laughing about it all day. You go, Dad. 

Today’s $10 goes to the Salvation Army. For several years, instead of buying each other Christmas presents, my parents would take the money they would have spent on each other and would make a donation to the Salvation Army. 

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22 December 2013

Isn't focusing on healing enough to worry about?

There are so many wonderful things about the freelance life, but one of the facets that isn’t so great is that there is often no safety net if something goes wrong.  

When I became aware of entertainment publicist Christoph Buerger’s illness, I knew it could be any of our names that I was reading instead of his. Most of us are just as vulnerable if catastrophe strikes, especially if we don't have a spouse or partner's income to count on.

Christoph is an entertainment publicist. I don’t know him well, but he drops missives into my email occasionally about projects, and we’ve worked together on a few things. 

A few months ago, Christoph developed a brain tumor that has left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. The doctors declared the tumor inoperable, but the hope is that radiation and chemotherapy can bring Christoph to remission. 

His treatment will take some time and disability benefits won’t kick in for months, so Christoph’s cousin started a GoFundMe account to raise money to cover his living expenses while he undergoes treatment as the tumor has left him unable to work right now. 

Imagine dealing with trying to get well and having to worry about your living expenses and keeping your roof over your head? The only thing Christoph, or anyone fighting such an illness, should have to concern themselves with is getting better. It’s too much stress to wonder if you get to stay in your house when you’re fighting for your life. 
Christoph’s fund has already surpassed its initial goal of $15,000, but it’s not hard to imagine that he could use quite a lot more than that so he can concentrate on healing with the security of knowing he doesn’t have to worry about shelter and food. 

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21 December 2013

Coming to America...

(Today's guest blog is by my friend, Cathy Olson. She decided to share this partially based on the story of my father, whose memorial service we held today. My father came to the U.S. in 1947 via ship from England. As incredible an adventure as he had, I'm quite sure it was less treacherous that that of Cathy's great-grandfather- Melinda)

My grandfather was a master story teller.  From the time my brother and I were babies he would regale us with stories of Robin Hood and his merry men. But of all the tales, the one that stood tallest was about how our family, the Applefelds, came to live in Baltimore.

Here’s how it went: His father, my great-grandfather Louis, in the late 1800s set off from Eastern Europe to find opportunity in the new world. He boarded a stifling ship with plans to settle in New York, then send for my great-grandmother and their eight children. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, he was given a new surname because the one he left home with couldn’t be translated into English. Somewhere in his papers was mention of apple farming; Applefeld it was. 

But then comes the crazy part. As my grandfather tells it, my great-grandfather, excitement pulsing through his veins, took his first steps on U.S. soil and was promptly whacked on the head by a club, knocked out, and awoke some hours later to find himself on a boat headed south. In various incarnations of the story the weapon of choice was usually a club, sometimes a barrel, occasionally just “a blunt object.” Once in a while he even had a potato sack tied over his head. But the verb was always whacked, said with gusto and a distinct twinkle in my grandfather’s eye.

On the boat, my great-grandfather was forced into hard labor loading goods, and given very little food and water. When his services were no longer needed, the “pirates” unapologetically dumped him off at Baltimore harbor. As a child, the story was immediately believable. As I grew older, a little less so. History class had borne out some of the details, but did these pirates really exist? And what was with all the whacking? We grandkids began questioning the details but my grandfather stuck steadfastly to the story until his death. 

A few years ago my own children participated in a wonderful Hebrew school project. They were asked to present the story of a relative who’d immigrated to the U.S. Of course, because my dad and I continued the tradition of sharing the pirate story with them, it was a no-brainer. The coolest thing about the project was that their teacher wasn’t looking for historical accuracy but rather the rich anecdotes they’d learned about their ancestors from living family members. A perfect fit.

Then just last month I had the incredible opportunity to tour the National Archives with the one of the head U.S. archivists. Literally walking through our country’s history, I was reminded of my great-grandfather’s story. With the slightest trepidation of bubble-bursting, I shared it. His response was a surprise and a delight. The practice of pirates kidnapping immigrants straight off the boat was documented precisely during the window of late 1880s-90s when my great-grandfather had made his journey. The story was most certainly true, he said, though he could neither confirm nor deny the potato sack. 

I immediately wished my grandfather were alive to share this with. Confirmation. From the National Archives, no less. Then I realized he never needed such affirmation. With that same twinkle in his eye, he would simply say, “I told you so.” 

Today’s donation goes to the Foundation for the National Archives. Our glorious melting pot of a country is bubbling with fascinating family histories. If you haven’t already done so, take some time to talk with your older relatives about yours. Embellished or not, they are precious and well worth passing down.

-Cathy Applefeld Olson

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20 December 2013

The Haves and the Have Nots

(Today's guest blog was written by my friend  Mary Mulligan. Mary and I went to college together and she grew up in the very small town of Lake Village, Arkansas. She emailed when she heard this news about her hometown and subsequently wrote this guest blog. It's a reminder that abundance is a blessing. -  Melinda)

I truly felt abundance this year during the holidays in every sense of the word. Over Thanksgiving and during holiday parties in December, I gathered with old and new friends over tables filled with delicious and nourishing foods, lovingly prepared and beautifully presented. I felt the warmth of friendship and the joy of fellowship at these events, and was thankful for my blessings. 

In this time of abundance and warmth, I was jolted by an article in my hometown newspaper, the Chicot County Spectator. This year in particular, the Lake Village Food Pantry has had unprecedented demand for food and is seeking donations to keep up with the demand for basic supplies like bread, milk and cheese. 

Chicot County, Arkansas is the poorest, most rural county in my home state. Thirty-three percent of residents live below the poverty line. Why? The local economy is based primarily on farming, which provides low paying and seasonal jobs. Folks get by as best they can. That means many of the working poor count on the Lake Village Food Pantry to feed themselves and their children. 

Growing up in Chicot Count,  I wasn't fully aware of the dire conditions around me though I did notice differences.  At school, I definitely noticed classmates who were always very hungry at lunch, scrapped their plates clean and regularly asked for more of whatever was being served in the cafeteria. I can still see their eager faces in front of their lunch trays and their wide eyes at seconds. 
At the time, I don't believe I realized that they were probably only being feed a hot meal at school. I also remember my parents taking me and a 5-year old friend to the Dairy Queen for a snack and giving us each a quarter. Surprisingly, my friend had no idea what to order because she had never had any store-bought treats. I also remember going over to a neighborhood kid's house after school and there was no food in the kitchen other than a loaf of bread and a plastic tub of margarine.  Puzzled by this, I asked him what he'd have for dinner. He said toast, and then told me that his family would buy food when his mother got paid on Friday.  At the time, I just thought some families had less than ours but I didn't realize that neighbors were probably going to bed hungry.      

Now, the Lake Village Food Pantry fills the gap and provides necessary food for the working poor.  It helps families feed their children. Even the smallest donation to this wonderful organization will add up to a significant gesture. 

The Lake Village Food Pantry especially needs support this year because cut backs in state and federal funding have dramatically reduced its budget to provide food. It's hard to believe that children and senior citizens will go hungry because the food pantries they depend on have been denied funding due to government gridlock and infighting. That's why this year I  supported the Lake Village Food Pantry. Can you do the same?

-Mary Mulligan

Dec. 20: The Lake Village Food Pantry,  311 Jackson Street, Lake Village, Arkansas 71653. Attn::  Neil Sloan.