My father was born in Belgium and came to the US via Ellis Island when he was just a baby. He didn’t speak English until he began school at the age of 9 and left before he completed grade 8. He spent his early years working in the sugar beet fields of Southeast Michigan and did this every summer until he began school. After leaving school he began working in local factories and did that until he joined the army during World War II. From the stories he shared with us about his childhood it was clear his life was more like the poor lower classes in a Charles Dickens novel than that of the 1940s heroine Nancy Drew.

My father was the oldest of three boys. He was also the only one of them who spoke Flemish. I didn’t realize until I was much older the full implication of this simple fact and the impact it must have had on his family. Although his father spoke English fluently our grandmother did not. And whenever Flemish was used in the home Daddy would urge his family and especially his brothers to use English instead.  Whether it was the pressure to fit in to an English speaking environment or to force his mother to learn English–the overall impact was that his two younger brothers never learned to speak Flemish and were limited in their efforts to communicate with their own mother.

Although our mother was not from the tight knit Belgian (or Buffalo) community in our hometown, she was a savvy lady and if their orthodoxy made sense to her–she willingly embraced it. One thing she wholeheartedly bought into was the homeopathic practices and tonics our grandmother used. Chief among these was the viscous potion used for colds, respiratory infections and the flu. Whenever we got sick Mom or daddy would make a batch of the brew that consisted of stewed onions thickened with brown sugar. Sometimes–when our colds were deep in our chest and it called for really strong medicine–they’d make a poultice with the stuff and plaster it on our chests.

When my mom learned the real value came from the onions promoted for their medicinal value from cancer prevention to cardiovascular health–she dropped the brown sugar and made French Onion Soup instead when we got sick. I don’t think there was anything more horrid than that onion and brown sugar toxic brew so it was with a great deal of relief that we transitioned from the old country potion to the New World soup. When mom later learned that garlic shared many of the same medicinal values as onions she added that to her wonderful soup. So, eat French Onion Soup–it’s good for your soul and your health!

So, what’s they hype on onions?  http://www.vegetarian-nutrition.info/updates/onions.php

Early American settlers used wild onions to treat colds, coughs, and asthma, and to repel insects. In Chinese medicine, onions have been used to treat angina, coughs, bacterial infections, and breathing problems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) supports the use of onions for the treatment of poor appetite and to prevent atherosclerosis. In addition, onion extracts are recognized by WHO for providing relief in the treatment of coughs and colds, asthma and bronchitis. Onions are known to decrease bronchial spasms. An onion extract was found to decrease allergy-induced bronchial constriction in asthma patients.

Onions are a very rich source of fructo-oligosaccharides. These oligomers stimulate the growth of healthy bifidobacteria and suppress the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the colon. In addition, they can reduce the risk of tumors developing in the colon.

Cardiovascular Help

Onions contain a number of sulfides similar to those found in garlic which may lower blood lipids and blood pressure. In India, communities that never consumed onions or garlic had blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels substantially higher, and blood clotting times shorter, than the communities that ate liberal amounts of garlic and onions. Onions are a rich source of flavonoids, substances known to provide protection against cardiovascular disease. Onions are also natural anticlotting agents since they possess substances with fibrinolytic activity and can suppress platelet-clumping. The anticlotting effect of onions closely correlates with their sulfur content.

Cancer Prevention      

Onion extracts, rich in a variety of sulfides, provide some protection against tumor growth. In central Georgia where Vidalia onions are grown, mortality rates from stomach cancer are about one-half the average level for the United States. Studies in Greece have shown a high consumption of onions, garlic and other allium herbs to be protective against stomach cancer.

Chinese with the highest intake of onions, garlic, and other Allium vegetables have a risk of stomach cancer 40 percent less than those with the lowest intake. Elderly Dutch men and women with the highest onion consumption (at least one-half onion/day) had one-half the level of stomach cancer compared with those consuming no onions at all.

Western Yellow, New York Bold, and Northern Red onions have the richest concentration of flavonoids and phenolics, providing them with the greatest antioxidant and anti-proliferative activity of 10 onions tested. The mild-tasting Western White and Vidalia onions had the lowest antioxidant content and lowest anti-proliferative activity. The consumer trend to increasingly purchase the less pungent, milder onion varieties may not be the best, since the onions with a stronger flavor and higher astringency appear to have superior health-promoting properties.


My Sister Is Dying

I learned on Friday that my younger sister is dying. In truth her poor health has been devouring her for years so it’s come as no surprise that her end is near. But it’s not until a doctor begins to talk to you about months or even weeks that the horrible reality of someone’s death hits hard. It takes your breath away; it grabs you in the gut and twists you up with a physical pain knowing that one more person who you love is going away.

My sister wasn’t an easy person to live with. She was very stubborn and she flaunted rules and regulations. Life for her was about fun. Yesterday I was talking to my oldest son and I told him  in my view his aunt was the penultimate Peter Pan. He totally agreed that was a great description for her–Peter Pan. And until rheumatoid arthritis robbed her of her future she embraced that childish view of life completely and life was totally about play, having fun and living on the edge.

In addition to the the RA that entered her life in her late twenties–one other thing happened that prompted her to take the biggest step to grow up and change her life style:  the birth of her only child Michael. Nothing before so moved her to embrace stability, try and follow the rules. From that point on everything was about Michael and she tried harder than she ever tried in her life to create a supportive loving home for him.

I’m going to Florida to see my sister in two weeks. It will very likely be the last time I will  talk to her in person. I’m thinking a lot right now what I want to say to her. My list is sure to grow but so far here’s a few things:

  1. Even though you never smiled very well in your school pictures your mechanical grin was endearing and signaled a lot about the way you would face life when it got tough—tenacious, firm resolution, you just have to grin and bear what comes along.
  2. You believed in right and wrong. Sometimes the way you would define what was right and wrong seemed convoluted but your sense of accountability and the checks and balances in life was a compass for you.
  3. Your faith has grown strong as your body has grown weaker. You are seeing beyond the struggles of the “now” and holding firm to your belief in the “here after” and it brings me comfort to know that is holding you firm right now.
  4. Long after daddy was unable to do much for us as a “father” as he aged–his visits to see you was something that made him feel like he was still taking care of his daughters. You were able to give daddy something that Barb and I couldn’t. Thank you for making him be so needed.
  5. I have no idea how you’ve been able to see past the narrow confines of the room that has been your home for so many years–and to view the outside world through one window. I would never be able to accept that in my own life–it speaks to a strength of character and will much stronger than mine.

  You’re my sister and soon you will be gone.  What more is there to say….just…you’re my sister and I love you.

My visit to Varzol

Went on a field visit today. Went to a remote village in the area of Varzol to meet with grade nine students and parents. The road was pretty bad–got stuck 4 times and folks had to push. The final time we had to get out and walk in the snow on ice for about 600 meters to get to the entrance of the school yard and then another 200 or more feet into the school.  I kept having to grab the arm of several younger men accompanying me to prevent from failing. Getting too old for this inclement weather.

A rural village in Varzol of 300 homes.

It really was one of the better schools I’ve seen here. Very welcoming group. Even the old chair of the community committee (like a mayor) came to meet and talk with us. When we were done several hours later he offered his arm to me to keep me from falling. He was a frail little man and my thought the whole time–I mean how could I refuse? was…“Please God don’t let me fall and land on this poor little guy. If I hurt him—not very good for US relations with this tiny village!

Their were students waiting at the school long after it closed to get my “autograph”—geez these kids need something more entertaining to do after school!  I willingly obliged. They’d told me when we talked they’d NEVER met an American before and seemed very excited to capture the moment with photos and the autographs. I’m sure they’ll entertain their families for several days about the lady from the US who came to talk to them.

When the parents first came into the meeting–the fathers looked stern and unapproachable.  Two of them in particular made me feel very uneasy and I thought to myself…“I’m glad I’m with colleagues–these guys look like they don’t like ME.”  I determined to talk with them individually all the same and realized quickly into my conversation with them at the close of the focus group I could not have been more wrong.

All in all it was a good visit and hopefully hands reaching across the cultural and religious divide with a warm handshake.

The women and young girls here have beautiful long hair. Gorgeous. One of the grade nine girls.

A snowy road in the stunning mountains.







Martha's high school graduation photo

My mother-in-law died on Saturday. She was 101.

The month before she was born the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.

Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire the month Martha made her debut.

William Taft was president and Orville Wright set a world record that held for almost 10 years keeping a glider aloft in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina for 9 minutes and 45 seconds.

Planes were beginning to gain ground (or should we say air?) as potential military weapons.

The Indianapolis 500 was run for the first time and construction began on Fenway Park in Boston.

The Ford Model T faced its first competition as beloved American family car with the production the very first Chevrolet.

Another big move forward—the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR) is incorporated in New York—better known as IBM.

The US postal bank is created and a 9 hour work day is introduced.

A change in the dynamics of the American family is underway as the first home for the aged in the US is opened in Prescott, Arizona.

During her lifetime she lived through a lot of history. Two world wars, the women’s suffrage movement, the prohibition, the great depression, two atomic bomb blasts, desegregation and civil rights. During the roaring 20s, a fun-loving and dance loving Martha saw women’s dress lengths go from dragging on the ground to a scandalous just above the ankles to well above the knees. Equally shocking was when women began sporting men’s clothing and then burn their bras, get rid of their bras and finally flaunt their bras.

Feisty huh?!!

The second child and only daughter of privilege she unexpectedly lost her father when she was 16. Not many years later she also lost her adored older brother. Tragedy struck again when her husband accidently died when her only child was 5 years old. Well educated but not terribly well prepared for the workplace she was forced to take on two jobs when the life insurance policy her husband had taken out a few weeks before his death wasn’t processed correctly and she was left without the resources he’d planned for her and his son. Today she’d sue. Back then she just hunkered down and forged ahead.

Martha and her mother--Nan.

A tiny somewhat frail looking woman her stamina would catch you off guard. She was a survivor. She was tenacious. She was tough. She was a devoted daughter, sister, wife, loving mother and adoring grandmother.

She was loved.

She will be missed.

What’s so important about closure?  Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it–and I must admit they use phrases that I find somewhat perplexing—all the talk about ending or finishing things.  I’m beginning to wonder why we need or even want that.

I’ve been thinking about this thing of closure quite a bit the last few weeks–probably because in a few more–I’m headed to Cairo to get some “closure”. At least that’s how folks talk about it with me. But the truth of the matter is–I don’t want to close that chapter in my life. If anything, I’d like to expand upon it–or at least be able to  relive it in some meaningful way.

So, I’m coming to the conclusion that despite all the hype about the need to bring closure to things in our lives whether it’s a death of a loved one, an unexpected and unwanted move or change in our lives–I think we’re thinking about it all wrong.

Yesterday, my daughter Heather was telling me about a blog she stumbled on in which a lady wrote about cleaning up other people’s trash that had blown into her yard. http://aninchofgray.blogspot.com/2012/01/dont-throw-your-trash-in-my-backyard.html  It’s a very insightful post made all the more meaningful that even though it starts off talking about wrapping paper that drifted into her yard–it ends up talking about a tragedy her family experienced the past year–the accidental drowning of her 12 year old son. In her view–her need to reach out to the world beyond her personal loss and grief–she was inadvertently spreading  her family’s “trash” of their  tragedy all over other people’s lives.

As I read her post–her personal loss can’t help but touch the reader. Even though you don’t know her (I certainly don’t) you can’t help but feel like you’ve been invited in to the most intimate struggle whirling around–if not plaguing–her mind. And you feel–at least I did–it’s a bit uncomfortable sitting in the front row observing and vicariously taking part in her heartbreak. Indeed, one phrase in her blog popped out at me….”Maybe you are having sympathy fatigue and wishing you could read something here about spray paint or dumpster diving or the annoying way Tim chews”.  Then it struck me: this mother  isn’t seeking closure–she’s embracing what happened–indeed she’s opening up–not closing this chapter of her life.

I’ve never lost a child.  Came too damn close to losing several–but I was fortunate and my children’s lives were spared. But they will bear the scars of their accidents and the consequences of those accidents for the rest of their lives.  As I think about all the people who I’ve shared the story with of their accidents and the other significant things that have happened in my life (I guess the trash I carry with me)—–I can’t help but come to the conclusion this reaching out to other people has nothing to do with closure.  To be honest-I don’t want closure and even though these experiences were tough they are the most memorable despite being difficult things that have happened in my lfie. I want to open them up–I want to relive the memories, rejoice in the blessings and miracles, revisit the good times as well as the bad, embrace the meaningfulness of my life and the lives of those close to me.

I think we have it all wrong. Closure means saying good-bye; it means giving something up; it means ending something. That’s not what I want. I want to invite you in and say, “Look, see, this is what my life has been.  These are the people and experiences that make up the fibers and tapestry of my life.”  I’m opening the door and inviting you into the inner chamber of my life. I want to share with you who I am and what is important in my life.

When you think about it–when we do that with each other it’s such a gift of intimacy and trust. So, if that’s what closure is all about–bring it on!

Memory Lane

When I was in about third grade my parents bought a lot in an area of southern Michigan called the Irish Hills. It was a hilly region full of spring fed lakes that was the summer playground for families in the Detroit area. It took about an hour to drive there from my home in Monroe which made it a very doable drive even for a weekend getaway during the school year. They put up a small cottage that grew over the years—indeed my mother’s additions were probably a subject of note to many of our neighbors  Despite the nooks and crannies mom erected it became a retreat host to fond memories of hot lazy summer days spent swimming for hours on end (and some nasty sunburns) and quiet nights full of the sounds of nature and reading books late into the night by a light under the covers of our beds.  At first my parents didn’t have any TV there–they wanted us to spend our time enjoying the lake–but eventually even they realized the benefit of having limited access to television on days when violent thunder storms would make outdoor living impossible. But, for the most part, we spent our summers frolicking in the lake–with its pristine water that often as not was as warm as bath water.

The tiny lake was called Middle Lake because it was connected to two other lakes through channels–Washington Lake on one side (where the boys scouts summer camp was) and Mars Lake on the other side (where the girl scouts summer camp was).   Over the course of the summer it was amusing to watch the convoy of row boats full of young boys from Washington Lake heading to the girl scouts camp on Mars Lake for an afternoon of games and I’m sure more than enough tomfoolery.

Unlike some of the home owners on Middle Lake we didn’t have a sandy beach in front of our cottage. The lake area in front of our cottage was covered in a blanket of water lilies that decomposed over the years turning the lake bottom into a mucky goo that was host to a number of unpleasant things–including the dreaded leeches.  It was a tremendous effort to make a beach where none existed—first pulling out all the lilies, then laying a protective carpet of heavy duty tar paper down to slow regrowth which was then covered by mountains of sand.  The first year my father did the heavy hauling carrying out bucket after bucket across the beach area to create a small (and somewhat sharply inclined) beach that enabled us to walk into the deeper area of the lake. After the first summer my parents took advantage of the icy cold winter and  poured buckets of sand spread out on top of the ice so when the spring thaws came the sand would settle down pretty evenly across the beach.  But each year it was a battle to reclaim our beach and I have vivid memories of lugging even more sand, fear of the leeches and lots of pulling out sea weed and lily bulbs in our spring ritual to reclaim our beach. As my sisters and I left home and our parents (especially our father) aged over the years you could see they were losing the battle against the water lilies and increasingly more of the beach was reclaimed by the rightful owners of our beach front.

Twice I lived in the cottage with my children when their father and I were doing our graduate studies at Michigan State. Although the cottage was really meant for summer living  my children carry fond memories to this day of their time spent there. Rustic or not they loved it and despite the chilly winters we experienced for them it was one of the few places they can call home in the US during their primary school years. No one has lived there –even during the summer–in almost two decades and our discussions about getting rid of it makes them sad–signals an end to an era of their lives.

But time marches on and the cottage quietly nestled there among the weeping willows, lilacs and wisteria bushes planted by my mother—beckons a new generation of children to come play and frolic during their summer vacations in her welcoming arms.

I don’t go looking for adventures. Sometimes, though, they come chasing after me.  Today adventure came after me with a vengeance.

I’m in Timor Leste a country that shares a small island with part of Indonesia.  It has a violent history with its nearest neighbor and after years of war between the two groups and near genocide of the Temorians the island is now experiencing relative calm. I’m here working with a local CARE team supported by several people from the US including two Brazilans–one a lady, Lotte, who used to be based in Timor for nearly seven years and a young man, Thomas.

This morning Lotte generously offered to drive us all to a barrier coral reef about 50 kms from Dili that she used to swim at when she was here (hint hint:  Lotte is an experienced scuba diver and sea kyacker.  Lesson one:  don’t trust experienced scuba divers and sea kyackers!).  We were all very excited about the chance to go swimming since the beaches here are on the edge of the great barrier reef and  among some of the most beautiful in the world for their underwater gardens.

The water was a wonderful lukewarm and indeed the coral reefs were amazing. But you had to swim quite a ways out to get beyond the canopy of growth below your feet–and even though it was beautiful to look at walking on it was a completely different situation. The reef is slippery and at times the coral is extremely sharp. And to make matters more dicey, occasionally there are tiny sea mites that can sting you–irritating but not life threatening unless you are allergic to their bite.

The sun was shining brilliantly and the water lured us ever so much farther out as we discussed our work and casually chatted about our lives. It was with a bit of a shock as I looked at some rock outcropping that had been way to our right towards the east that I realized just how much the current had pulled us away from the beach now somewhat distant on the horizon. “We’d better head in” Lotte cautioned. “The tide is going to go out soon and we’ll have trouble getting in.”

Well, guess what Lotte, it was ALREADY going out and we were already in trouble. I kept trying to swim faster but the current was pulling me even more quickly beyond the rock out cropping towards the open water.  I kept telling myself not to panic that would only add to my problem but it’s one thing to tell yourself that and another to follow through with the suggestion. It was soon evident to Thomas I was in trouble and he gallantly swam over to my side and politely offered to help.  Pride in my way I told him I was fine but appreciated him staying with me.

Soon it was very clear pride was going to have to give way to common sense. Thomas swam next to me and grabbed my hand and began pulling me in towards the shore and away from the giant boulders he feared might do some major damage if we were to be knocked against them. Even with his help it was a struggle to make any headway.

It took us a good 1/2 hour to get to a place where he could stand and  literally dragged me along. Finally, I could barely get my feet on the surface but the coral was both slippery and rough. My feet would slip off the rock as the force of the current pushed me aside. My panic surged as my foot got cut trying to get a foothold on the slippery reef and I recalled Lotte’s comment there are sharks in the area.  GREAT!  That’s all we need just a few sharks to add to my dilemma.

By this time all the others had made it into the shore and I watched with growing envy wondering how long (even a bit of IF) it would take me to get there too. This I knew–if it weren’t for Thomas I would NEVER have gotten in. Even with his help I was panicked. And I was worn out but you couldn’t stop swimming or the current would pull you out farther. My heart was pounding from the effort to  swim against the current.

Eventually we dragged our way in. I must confess I was a bit wobbly from the combination of panic and physical excursion. Even when we were slowly walking the last few feet to the shore he held my hand–calmly telling me we were okay and he was amazed that I even went in the water at all at my age!! 🙂

So, as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well. And other than being a bit embarrassed about it all–the morning ended up fine.  I apologized profusely to Thomas but he just waved it off–just a thing one does in a normal day’s work. I bought lunch for him later that day. I figured it was the least I could do. We later dropped him off at his hotel.  I suspect he took a long nap after all that hard work dragging the old lady to the shore.

I learned my lesson. Next time we go to the beach I’ll keep safe and play in the sand on the shore.  The water may look temptingly lovely; but trust me it’s menacing too if you’re not careful.

Coral Reef Beach in Timor Leste