A Love Story by Karen Shughart

“He alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.” Khalil Gibran

In the fall of 2016 my mother suffered a series of strokes and went into a nursing home in Pittsburgh, where she lived. My father had died; I became her power of attorney and had her mail forwarded to me here in New York. That December she received a letter with a return name and address that I vaguely recognized. I opened it.

It was letter from a man named Norge Santin, who was inquiring after my mother, our family, and Leonard, my mother’s brother. Then I remembered that Norge was a childhood friend of theirs when they were growing up in Ohio.

My uncle had died earlier that month; after reading the letter I wrote back, apprising Norge of his passing and my mother’s health issues. He responded quickly, saddened by my news. He knew who I was, he wrote, we’d met when my parents lived in Ohio shortly after I was born.

What ensued was a friendship between us, for a time through letters, then by email and phone. Norge grieved with me when my mother passed three years ago and comforted me when one of my brothers died last summer. Each time we made contact, he ended by offering prayers and blessings for my uncle and mother and sending love to me and my family.

He filled in some blanks. I learned that he and my uncle were not just friends, but best friends, starting in third grade. When the two young men graduated from high school they were drafted, it was World War II, and their college plans were placed on hold. Norge returned from the war, got his degrees, married, and had children.

Leonard was not so lucky. Suffering a breakdown during the war from which he would never recover, he spent his remaining years in and out of VA hospitals and group homes. My siblings and I knew his tragic story; our parents made sure he was always part of our lives. What I hadn’t known was that Norge remained a devoted friend to Leonard throughout his life. During visits when Leonard was withdrawn and unresponsive, he’d sit quietly with him, holding his hand.

Eventually our family moved Leonard to Pittsburgh. Norge, despite living in Ohio, continued visiting my uncle until Leonard decided that he no longer wished to see him. Maybe it was too painful to be with Norge, we’ll never know. Norge respected his wishes and never contacted him again, but his love for his friend never ceased; he contacted my mother to receive updates, up until the time when I opened that letter.

By 2019 Norge’s health had declined, he had trouble reading emails and spoke haltingly over the phone. I wanted to meet this man I’d grown so fond of, so that October my husband and I drove to Ohio to visit Norge and his wife, Therese. We were warmly welcomed and spent a lovely afternoon; all of us feeling as though we’d known one another forever.

Because of Covid there were no return visits, but we talked regularly, most recently just before Thanksgiving when I promised to call again before Christmas. Before we ended that conversation, Norge confided he thought his time was near. I told him I loved him, he said he loved me back.

Two weeks ago, I received a call from one of Norge and Therese’s daughters that broke my heart. This tender, humble, gentle and honorable man had passed and Therese, despite her own grief (they were married for 68 years), wanted to make sure I knew. His death, at 94, occurred almost four years to the day of the death of my uncle.

I’m so glad I decided to open that letter, my life is immeasurably enriched because of it. Therese and I share a strong bond; I’ll keep in touch with her and visit when it’s safe. And I miss Norge already. Rest in peace, dear friend.

Gratitude and Poetry by Karen Shughart

For many years the poetry books I collected, starting in my teens, sat on our bookshelves untouched. I have no idea why I stopped reading poetry, but I did.

Then, one cold and rainy afternoon last month, I made myself a cup of tea and after pulling several books off  a shelf, curled up on the loveseat in front of the fire and began to flip through the pages. I intended to find poems of gratitude to be used for this blog, but I got off track, delighting in rediscovering poems I had loved and admired regardless of topic.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

In high school,  I was introduced to the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Byron, and Blake; whose works beckoned me to understand the world through nature, imagination, revolution and those marginalized in society. I memorized stanzas that I can still recite because they so filled my heart.

Later, still in my teens, I was drawn to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a lyric poem that presents deep feelings and emotions on subjects such as life, death, love, and religion. Did it help clarify or shape my own identity? Probably not, as my own experiences and travels unfolded in their own unique way, but at the time, I was entranced by it.

As an English major in college, I read and discussed the works, both in and out of the classroom, of  contemporary poets like John Barth, who was in residence at my university; Laurence Ferlinghetti;  Karl Shapiro; Leonard Cohen; and  Wallace Stevens, who, in 1955, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems. To me, his poems resonate like verbal music and his perfect control of language evokes a myriad of complex feelings.

Throughout my college years and beyond, I discovered, read, and admired the works of many more poets, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot among those, but also the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

My father, who was born in 1919, graduated college and then went to serve our country during World War II.  One of George Patton’s scouts, he received two bronze stars. He was a fierce man: in his morals, ethics, and values; his love for his family and for his country. Towards the end, his fierceness continued as he battled serious health issues that never seemed to daunt or derail him from living the remainder of his life to the fullest.

The eldest of his four children, I was the first to read a eulogy at his funeral. I never could have  expressed what I knew of my father’s spirit better than Thomas’ poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, written for his dying father in 1947, the year I was born.

So, I guess this blog really is about both poetry and gratitude. Gratitude that I had a family that encouraged education, an education that exposed me to poetry, and a family that embodied and still does today, the meaning and actions of love.

October by Karen Shughart

The leaves have turned, some fallen, and walking through the village our feet trample upon a carpet of brilliant colors. Stacks of pumpkins: pale green, yellow, orange, and white, are artfully arranged on steps leading up to front porches or peek out among decaying flowers. Wreaths rimmed with leaves of every shape and color, small green and white gourds, slender wheat stalks and delicate twigs adorn doorways, some homemade; others purchased at local craft shows.    Artfully placed wicker or galvanized metal baskets filled with pinecones are redolent with cinnamon and cloves.

On a cool morning, just after the rising of the sun, small herds of deer congregate in yards, nibbling away at their morning libations, white-tipped tails pointed straight up, in case of danger. But in our village there’s no need to fret;  instead early walkers pull out cell-phone cameras to capture the moment and the deer, with their soulful eyes alert, continue their task once they realize they are safe.

A block away our neighbors turn their yard into a ghoulish graveyard with tombstones covered in spidery cobwebs indicating those who are buried there:  Barry DaLive; Emma Goner; Ima Rotten, Ben Better, Anita Moore-Tishan, Berry D. Hatchet. Here and there, skeletons sway from the ghoulish branches of trees, some with limbs now barren, and you’ll see hay bales made to look like Minions, courtesy of the Neighborhood Association.

The screech owls, quiet during most of the summer and through September, now make their presence known. Their eerie sounds, terrifying at best, can be heard after most have of us have gone to bed, reminding us that something, soon, will be afoot. It’s called Halloween.

Halloween, here in our village on the south shore of Lake Ontario, when the nights are cold and an occasional early snowfall adds to the mood, is really a season. You can feel and see its presence starting not too long after Labor Day. Everyone is excited about Halloween: the children, most of all, and their parents who help them with their costumes, but also adults whose children have grown. There used to be house parties, and parties at restaurants and pubs, a time to let loose, enjoy the season, some folks in costume; others, not. This year will be different.

Here the celebration of Halloween is a throwback to earlier and safer times. Parents accompany the younger ones, who knock on our door yelling “trick or treat”, then reach out with their plastic pumpkins, open at the top, for the treats. It’s safe enough for the older ones to travel by themselves in groups. In our village, we all look after them. Well-trained in niceties, they remember to say “thank-you”, tiny ones urged on by their elders lest they forget. People in this village understand the concept of gratitude.

October is a time of transition. With its deep brilliancy it reminds us that slowly creeping stealthily in behind it is winter, a time of white silence and shadows.

The Year of Uncertainty by Karen Shughart

For many of us this has been a year of uncertainty, a difficult year, and a year we could never have imagined, one that took us completely by surprise and rocked our universe. For my husband and me it has meant almost no in-person contact with our children. Our son and daughter-in-law live on the West Coast, my husband and I live north of the Finger Lakes on Lake Ontario,  and although we spent time over the summer with our daughter who lives in New Jersey, she’s started back teaching. We have no idea when we’ll be able to visit with any of them again.

Zoom meetings have become part of our lives. Truth be told, it’s not a great way to mourn the death of a beloved sibling, celebrate several new births, or the milestone of a cousin’s 70th birthday.  We do it; we have no choice, but it’s been much harder than giving up dining out at restaurants or attending live cultural performances.

On the professional end, book talks and signings, and a conference for readers of mysteries where I was to be a panelist, were all canceled because of Covid-19, shortly after my second mystery was launched. Appointments for yearly check-ups and screenings have also been canceled and rescheduled, more than once.

But despite the uncertainty and sadness, there have been bright spots: The babies and birthday mentioned above, the support of friends when we were mourning the death of my sibling; the outdoor, safe distancing gatherings of a small group of us who are bonded not by blood but by heart; a cooking video on YouTube with me preparing a recipe from one of my books. And we do get to speak with and see our children on FaceTime and at family Zoom gatherings.

In early April we adopted Nova, a tiny Blue Tick Beagle, who captured our hearts from the moment we saw her photo at the shelter. A gentle, easy going and loving dog, she also is spunky and stubborn, qualities that have stood her in good stead, given the horrible neglect and abuse she suffered before becoming part of our family. Five months have passed, and Nova is a happy, healthy, increasingly confident and secure dog, just as we had hoped. It was the virus that brought us together.

To deal with the anxiety I feel because of these surreal times, I’ve been listening to guided meditation CDs, about 20 minutes daily; it’s helped. As has writing in a journal, giving voice to thoughts and feelings about all the chaos in our world. But I also write down ten things each day for which I’m grateful. Poetry and classical music, always part of my life, have assumed a greater role, calming and centering me.

Most of us have heard the old saw, “this too shall pass,” but sometimes it’s not all that easy to believe. I think it will happen, eventually, but our world, both big and small, will be changed forever.  Hopefully, when it does, we’ll find strength to pick up the pieces and move on.

August by Karen Shughart

Here up at the lake we’re surrounded by orchards, vineyards and farmland; gently rolling hills and meandering streams with an abundance of fish. It’s a beautiful place any time of the year, but the end of summer, the month of August, is special in so many ways.

Sunrise is a little later this time of year, we can hear the morning songs of birds at around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. rather than 3:30 or 4:00 as in June. There’s something peaceful and magical about waking early in August to see the sun rise, it’s rose-gold rays streaking the water with brilliant light.

Warm days are the norm; some days the humidity rises, but on others bright blue skies, lazy white clouds, and a lake sluggishly rolling its waves onto the shore are a welcome change to the previously fetid air.  Sailboats dot the horizon, pontoons chug lazily about and motorboats slice through the undulating sea. Families play on the beach and picnic under a pavilion where laughing children used to ride a carousel.

A cornucopia of fresh produce offers up its bounty at a multitude of farm stands and markets. Lovely squashes, tomatoes, blueberries, cherries, corn, beans, and herbs create a riot of color far more beautiful than any still life painting.  And the fecund ripening of the fruit on trees in the orchards, especially the apples, the first of which will soon be ready for harvest, remind us that fall is on its way. The green, green grass of past months starts to brown, the flowers lose some of their bloom, and the limbs on deciduous trees, with their dark, heavy leaves, droop with anticipation as they begin to fade. In a month or so, their bright, warm hues will beckon an onslaught of sightseers.

The days are getting shorter, but still, because we are so far north, it stays light until  after 9 p.m. and the cicadas, dormant since last year, add a soft, musical background to the fireflies that sparkle and dance their way across our yard . On clear nights, when humidity is low, the sky is awash in stars so dense to appear as a carpet covering an inky background.  Unlike earlier, warmer summer evenings, we can now, more frequently, sleep with the windows open.

Photo by Karen Shughart

Something about the light and the air bring visions of fall: bright, sunny days as crisp as biting into a just-picked apple.  It smells different, too. The air is perfumed, but in August, with a rich, heavy ripeness and the beginnings of the decay that precedes fall and winter.

Later in the month, when the tourists and those who spend their summers at simple cottages here have gone, there’s a quiet  interrupted only by the occasional droning of a lawn mower,  the buzz of insects, the bark of a dog or a the quiet chatter of friends and neighbors passing by.