The end of living and the end of life are not the same. This last week I enjoyed an afternoon with my father-in-law, Bill Nichols at a St. Patrick’s Day “Happy Hour” and music event hosted at his assisted living community. Bill is closing in on his 101st birthday. As one might expect, his abilities are a shadow of those he held as a younger man. For him and his fellow residents, physical beauty and vitality fled them years ago. However, beauty may yet be found within the eyes that reflect the youthfulness of their spirits.
Bill was animated, sang, clapped, enjoyed a glass of wine, shared embraces with the musician and staff, and of course wore a ridiculous Irish themed party hat.
I found his joy to be infectious. Actually, this one afternoon was not really exceptional. Bill’s days are filled with activities such as “Chair exercises”, Bingo, “Balloon Volleyball”, and group sing-a-longs, not to mention the social exchanges that occur with his fellow residents at meals and throughout the day. Bill’s days are a joy that serves as an analgesic to the ills of his advanced years.
Being around Bill has left me to reflect upon the contrast of my visits with my father during the final years of his life. Dad died in 2009, 87 years old. He had suffered the intensifying effects of Multiple Sclerosis for over 30 years yet in his final years his abilities and challenges were not very different than those imposed upon Bill Nichols by virtue of his advanced years. Dad’s last years were in a nursing home community. I could usually find my father alone within his darkened room, shades drawn, television off, a faint antiseptic odor in the air. My father’s view of life in his final years may best be summed up by his own words. I would open visits with him by asking, “How are you Dad?”, and he would invariably respond from his bed, “Just waiting…”. Sadly, there was never any question what he was “just waiting” for.
As Christine and I entered our 60’s we have been continuously bombarded with ads, solicitations, and messages encouraging us to prepare for the end of life. Have we secured our final resting places? Living Trusts? Explore the benefits of Insurance Annuities! Beneficiary Designations in place? What about Charitable Giving? There is little about continuing to live and much about the end of life.
My father’s life ended in his 87th year, but I believe that 30 years earlier he retired from living at the same time that he retired from work. Dad had been a college coach, Director of Athletics, and a teacher. He was highly regarded in those roles; they were his passions. When he retired a cavernous vacuum formed in his life. Dad never sought other interests that might have carry the joy of living into the years beyond his working life.
Another contrast: My mother will be 94 this year. She is as busy today as she was 40 years ago. She has her Bridge Club, Woman’s Club, Church activities and myriad other social and community engagements. I see in her eyes the same joie de vivre that I see in Bill Nichols.
There is a lesson in these observations: We have more influence and control over delaying the end of living than we have on the end of life. When age or infirmity deny us the pursuit of one passion, find another to replace it… Always have a next thing and Pursue Good Stuff!!!
Peace everyone. Pete
PS. Dad, my calendar just reminded me that tomorrow is your birthday and you would have turned 97. Although you have been gone 10 years it seems that I am still learning from you.
After a home stay in Kansas City of 3 months we have our Casita, “Rigel” again in tow. This has been the longest uninterrupted period at home since our retirements in May of 2015. Even Christine was itching to get back to traveling. In 2018 we were gone over 23 weeks, including a 13 week stretch overseas. 2017 included a 12 week journey to Alaska and the Yukon. It is likely that future trips will not be quite so long as we have found them to be taxing on us and the “little people” who desperately miss their grandma.
Our morning departure was not without incident. When I pressed the start button on our SUV instead of the throaty roar of a powerful V6, all I got was a series of anemic clicks. Dead battery. In the 45 minutes that followed I bought a replacement battery at Costco, installed it and all was again right with the world. The incident annoyed me but Christine saw it differently. “Boy was that a piece of good luck! It could have died while we were traveling!” Of course, she was right.
Our time spent at home was used well. Time with the kids, time at the gym… yard work, reading, Thanksgiving, the annual family birthday dinner (a private room at Pierpont’s in Kansas City’s Union Station). I dedicated many days to assembling and editing my posts from our 13 weeks abroad into a coffee table book. 202 glossy pages that are about 40% photographs and 60% narrative. The hard bound book was printed by a firm in the Netherlands, and the final product exceeding every possible expectation that I held. Copies were given as gifts to each of our children, Christine’s father, and my mother who never fails to read and comment upon my “Thoughts”.
Christmas morning was spent with our children (and grands) after which our daughters and their 7 little ones flew to Europe for 12 days in England and France (part of which they each spent with their French host families with whom they lived for a year as high school exchange students). The daughters and their children (with the exception of 1 year old Lennon) speak fluent French. Of course there was New Year’s Eve (see previous post!).
Oh yes, there was one more “event”. We drove to Breckenridge Colorado and shared time with our dear friend Kris Ashton who we first met walking across Spain in 2013. On October 5th, Christine’s 64th birthday, we bought 3 acres near Alma Colorado, 25 minutes south of Breckenridge. We have since been working on designing the vacation home which we hope to build in 2020.
It’s cold here where we are overnighting in Oklahoma at Grand Lake of the Cherokees. We are heading southwest through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and then back to Kansas City. A “wintery mix” is predicted for this region on Friday and we would like to not experience it. Our original plan had been to frequent the wonderful National Parks, Monuments, National Forests, COE and BLM sites we encounter along the way. Unfortunately, Washington has other ideas. I will leave it at that in keeping with my efforts to not politicize these posts.
2.1 miles, precisely. 2.1 miles is the measure of my near daily morning drive to the gym. It is a pleasant drive through an upscale neighborhood, past parks, 2 country clubs, and along the road that separates Missouri from Kansas. Many of the homes along the way are imposing structures of the early 20th Century, planted upon estate like grounds. Any one of them would cause a traveler to stop and take notice, but since they are many, their commanding presence is diluted by the sheer number that give them the illusion of commonplace. I have long ago ceased to take notice, the habit of the drive becoming a time for my thoughts to wander without direction.
Some time ago I was briefly shaken from my lassitude by an awareness of the unfamiliar. At the intersection of Shawnee Mission Parkway and State Line road is an office building that dates to the 1960’s. In the last few years it has undergone a renovation that preserved aspects of its mid-20th Century modernism, yet presented the fresh face of glass and metal that are favored today. The casual observer would presume the building at 1900 Shawnee Mission Parkway to house professional offices and in this one would be correct. However, it is also the unlikely location for an event venue and “The Restaurant at 1900”. My curiosity was briefly piqued but at the end of 2.1 miles my thoughts had traveled elsewhere.
3 weeks ago my eye again caught the understated marque sign that announced “The Restaurant at 1900”. I was reminded that mention of the restaurant had occurred in casual conversations with friends and that it was developing a favorable word of mouth reputation. Arriving at home I searched online for the establishment. The website announced a special New Years Eve fixed price dinner. 5 courses with wine pairings. There was no information on the course selections but the reservation link indicated that only a few seatings remained open. In spite of the princely sum quoted and that payment was required in full upon making the reservation, I selected an 8:15 p.m. table for two.
It had been years since we planned an evening out for New Year’s Eve. That and a Christmas that did not include any big ticket items provided me with ample justification. Christine was thrilled.
We dressed for the occasion, a rarity for me in post-retirement. No jeans. I still draw the line at wearing a tie. Black slacks, a grey Irish merino wool turtleneck, plaid Irish wool sport coat with full length green Austrian “loden” overcoat worked well. Christine found me handsomely dignified with my ensemble accentuated by my silver white hair. For Christine, dressing well is effortless. Her pewter hair cascades elegantly across her shoulders ending like a waterfall’s crash at her waist. It is thick to the point that strangers often find themselves compelled to reach out and touch it. At times this can be a bit unnerving for her and them.
The doors to the restaurant were manned by tuxedoed staff, and a few more tuxedos were to be seen among the restaurant patrons. Ladies in their evening gowns were everywhere yet the atmosphere remained relaxed. I was silently giving thanks that I had resisted the urge to wear blue jeans.
We adjourned to the bar while waiting for our table. I had the restaurant’s signature Manhattan which alone will cause me to return in the near future. Christine enjoyed an excellent vodka Martini, served “dirty” (a splash of olive juice) as she prefers.
The readiness of our table timed well with the conclusion of our drinks. We were seated and made introductions with our server, Rachel. The mark of an experienced professional server is the intuition to quickly know the “temperature” of the guests… warm and willing to banter, or cool and more reserved. We are definitely of the warmer variety and it took Rachel less than 30 seconds to figure that out. Fun, personable, yet never shirking in her primary duty to present dinner as an event to be savored. The first order of business was to make our selections for a dinner that would extend for 2 1/2 hours:
1st Course: We each optioned for the excellent Pheasant Minestrone, though I was sorely tempted to select the Wild Mushroom, Apple, and Scotch Whisky Consommé.
2nd Course: Christine savored the Russian Salad while I lingered lovingly upon the Sea Scallop, Blood Orange, and Watercress Salad.
3rd Course: Sunchoke Rissoto with Alba White Truffles… It just kept getting better and better!
4th Course: We were both called to the Pan Seared Tenderloin of Beef and Foie Gras. Perfectly prepared, perfectly presented, but I was beneficiary some of Christine’s Foie Gras… my good fortune that she does not usually eat liver in any form.
5th Course: Without hesitation we both chose the Chocolate Ganache Layer Cake, and there were no regrets!!
With each course was a paired wine as selected by Master Sommelier Doug Frost. Typically, I reject the conventions of “this wine with this dish…”, preferring to drink a wine that I like be it red or white regardless of the meal. Mr. Frost may have changed my thinking on this. I found his wine selections marshaled with my food choices to be such that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
We found that the straightforward elegance of The Restaurant at 1900 was conducive to reflective and relaxed conversation. Mercifully we were able to speak across the table and be understood without raising our voices… a rarity while dining these days. I enjoyed one slight distraction. I was seated at an angle that permitted me a glimpse inside the kitchen during the moments that staff entered and exited. I was reminded of the experience of being aboard a luxury cruise ship. There is a stark contrast between the artistic decor of the passenger areas and the spotlessly clean yet sterile working areas within the ship. I was amused to watch the organized chaos of the staff within the kitchen area magically transform into slow ballet like precision as each crossed the threshold into the dining room.
It goes without saying that we will return to The Restaurant at 1900. Our thanks to Chef Linda Duerr, the faceless staff working tirelessly in the kitchen, to our server Rachel, hostess Angela, the other servers and bartenders and to Keith Goldman who manages this wonderful venue. You all provided us with an evening to remember and an intense desire to return for dinner and another exceptional Manhattan!
Of course for us the evening was about much more than dining. We watched as 2018 passed into the promise of 2019. With each course we indulged in one more reflection upon how we might be better parents, grandparents, spouses, friends… No regrets. Life is a process and not a destination. May your Journey through the New Year be full of Fun while you Do Good and Care For Yourself for the sake of those who love you.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS: Among the “mysteries” Christine and I contemplated were the dynamics of family; hers, mine, and ours. There is much source material in those thoughts that we exchanged, but not to be shared here or now.
1977 was a watershed year for us. We were married that June, I resigned my position of 3 years as a State Parole Office, we bought our first home, I started law school… all as Christine chiseled away at her undergraduate degree while holding down a job and raising an active 6 year old boy. We had much to be thankful for that Christmas, but an overabundance of cash was not on the list.
Midnight Mass was wonderful. St. Francis Xavier parish had welcomed us with open arms. It was a congregation with an eclectic mix. There were octogenarian parishioner’s who had called this church their home since the 1930’s… and there were college students like us who were drawn to the more liberal “Jesuit” atmosphere. We felt at home there. Loved, comfortable, and embraced by God and his (“her” as Christine would say) children.
As special as the service was, it took a distant second place to the spectacle that was laid out for us on our 4 block walk home. The sky was deep indigo laced with countless stars that shined diamond sharp above us. It was a white Christmas. Fortune had given us 4 inches of new-fallen snow over the preceding day. It was deep enough to challenge the footfalls of a 6 year old. Sean stretched to match my stride, finding the reward of using my footprints eased his efforts. Perhaps he was wondering what it would be like to someday walk with the stride of a man. A man!… here I was with family, home, bills, school and with it the nagging fear of failure… it was all upon me so fast. Sean would someday face his own challenges, but for that night his tasks were just putting one foot in front of the other and stemming the pressure of his enthusiasm that Santa would soon be at his new home.
As we walked up the steps to our yard, I suggested to Sean that we stand in the backyard and scan the sky for the vapor trails that would be evidence of Santa’s wanderings. To believe in Santa again all one needs to do is look into the eyes of a 6 year old! Christine took her leave, complaining that “you men are just too warm blooded”. Actually, her departure was part of a plan that I had hatched to enhance Sean’s first Christmas in our new (to us) home. The home that he had known over the last few years was a nice apartment, but the vision of Santa arriving on the balcony and opening the sliding glass door didn’t fit the poetic image which began with the words, “Twas the Night Before Christmas…”.
We had gone out of our way to make a big deal about our “new” fireplace. It had actually seen its first fire in 1922, and like fine wine it had improved with age, the ceramic bricks taking on the patina of countless fires through 55 winters. That night there would be no fire as Sean insisted that we not take the chance of scaring Santa away.
The plan was to engage in a bit of theater. The presents had been hidden in the living room coat closet. When we left for Church the Christmas Tree was decorated, but it stood solitary without any presents beneath it. While Sean and I stood in the yard searching for signs of Santa, Christine would hurriedly place the presents at the base of the fireplace and Christmas tree.
Out in the yard Sean and I pondered whether a wisp of a cloud here or a dash of smoke there was Santa’s trail. There was a bright moon which echoed its glow on the snow atop our home. I turned my gaze to the roof and yelled, “There! Look there!! Did you see him Sean? It’s Santa on OUR roof!!!” Of course, the pliable mind of a 6 year old guaranteed that Sean saw him too.
On perfect cue Christine burst out the back door calling for her 2 “men” to come quick, she had surprised Santa in the living room! We fairly fell over one another as we charged up the stairs and into the house. In the living room we beheld presents where none had been. Sean slowly surveyed the room, his eyes and mouth opened wide. Remember however that this was a “thin” Christmas. We had purchased with care, and most of all, within our meager financial means. Before the fireplace was a pair of roller skates, the kind that take a key and clamp on your street shoes. There was a red wagon, some wrapped gifts, a couple of small toy cars and a yellow metal “Tonka” dump truck. Noteworthy were the absence of items which depended upon batteries for fun. All of these toys depended largely on the power of imagination. It was imagination that we counted on to elevate this Christmas to the status of a “legend” in a child’s mind.
Sean’s gaze swept the room and I mentally gave myself a pat on the back for the cleverness of our Christmas “theater”. What I failed to consider was that a child’s imagination, like gasoline, is easy to ignite but difficult to control once afire. Sean’s eyes tracked from the tree and locked upon Christine. His face hardened and his gaze narrowed. His mouth began to utter the words of accusation… “You scared him off… you scared Santa away before he could leave all of the presents!” Christine and I were dumb-struck. I might have thought the irony of this turn of events humorous but for the very real tears that began to fall from my wife’s eyes. She ran to the bedroom. She felt failure as a mother, and I felt failure as a husband. I went to console her. A few minutes together felt like hours. We composed ourselves and resolved to make the best of things. We still had a small child downstairs and it was Christmas.
Arm in arm we descended the stairs only to find a 6 year old happily engrossed in the joy of moving imaginary earth from an imaginary construction site with his new toy truck. Nothing more was ever said by him of Santa’s “aborted” visit. By any child’s measure, that Christmas was a resounding success. For us it would take mature perspective gained in the passage of time to temper the bittersweet of that night.
We have marked the passage of 41 more Christmases. Three of these brought with them joy in the births of our children Peter (December, 1978), Renee’ (December, 1979), and Alexis (November, 1982). Their births have perennially been celebrations of the season of Christ’s birth, and if you do the math, they are also celebrations of the prior Springs.
Christine knows that I enjoy sharing this piece of our history, but signs of the old pain remain… punctuated by a smile, a knowing look, and a squeeze of my hand. So, Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night.
“Bill” Nichols drew his first breath when men still gave their last in the trenches of Flanders Field, “Over There”.“In Flanders fields the poppies grow between the crosses, row on row…”.
He was one of seven children raised by Al and Kitty Nichols on their farm in rural St. Johns Michigan. He was not quite a teen when the ravages of the Great Depression descended upon America, but the deprivation and want experienced by those in its cities was largely ignored by those born into the austerity of rural America. For Bill and his family if you wanted eggs you gathered them. Milk, cream, butter… the cow waited the daily touch of his experienced hands upon her engorged udders. Fresh produce? It was found outside in carefully cultivated rows next to the barn. Canned goods? They had been put up by Mother in the Fall and were found in the cellar with the root vegetables… food to sustain the family through the arctic cold that would annually descend upon the region. “Organic”, a term unknown to those of the day, aptly described life for those of the Nichols family where everything qualified as “organic”.
Early in his youth one could see something very special emerging within Bill. He was a standout in local and State 4-H competitions. His keen intellect was ever devising solutions to commonly encountered problems on the farm. Bill developed the attitude that once he decided upon a course of action the “how” merely awaited discovery. He epitomized the axiom, “Where there is a will there is a way”, perhaps better stated in his case, “Where there is Bill, he will create the way!”
As sharp minded children often are, Bill was willful. Fearing the disapproval from their parents, he and his love (first and only), Doris, eloped. They were 18 years old and for the next 74 years that they shared they would laugh about the 42 days during which Doris was older than Bill. Doris was 93 when she passed, however Bill had long ago decided that he would live to be 100, often declaring, “I’m going to live to be 100 and then Lord come take me!!!” …But I am getting ahead of myself.
Bill and Doris went on to begin their family and complete their educations, he in agricultural and food sciences and her in education. As with so many other young couples of their generation the orderly progression of life was interrupted by the strife of World War 2. Bill’s entry into service was initially deferred to allow him to complete work on the development of the powdered egg. While that mission lacked the glamor of the Manhattan Project, it did touch the lives (and dinner plates) of virtually every American soldier in the war. His “mission” successfully completed, Bill was enlisted into the Army’s Quartermaster Corps. He attained the rank of sergeant and was among the very first American troops to enter Hiroshima on the heels of its destruction and Japan’s surrender in 1945. Bill does not often speak of the devastation that he witnessed firsthand, but he laughingly attributes his longevity to the radiation he was no doubt exposed to, “I was atomically preserved and nuclear energized!”
Shortly after the war Bill and Doris moved to Kansas City, Missouri. The first 2 of the 5 children they brought into the world had been born before the war. 3 others followed post-war with a span of 25 years separating oldest to youngest. They would bury two of those children, one an Airman in the service of his country, and the other a daughter, victim of cancer in adulthood.
In Kansas City Bill and Doris started their own business, the W. A. Nichols Company, where he developed and manufactured poultry processing equipment while Doris managed the office. He was awarded patents for his innovations, valued by the poultry industry. Those inventions were largely unknown to the general public, however most of the ubiquitous metal wires that secured the legs of America’s Thanksgiving turkeys had been shipped from their small warehouse.
I met Bill in the Summer of 1974. I had moved to Kansas City out of college in pursuit of my career and shortly after arriving met his daughter, Christine. She would become my wife in 1977. In those early years my relationship with Bill Nichols was not always “easy”. Such may be expected when larger personalities vie to occupy space in a relationship with one whom they both love. Whatever stresses existed between us were resolved by the mutual respect that developed for the abilities and accomplishments of the other.
In 1978 Bill created an opportunity from the charred remains of a home that was located in an upscale neighborhood of Kansas City. The property was for sale at a discount because of the perceived cost and challenge of removing the remains of the burned structure. Bill designed a new home that would incorporate the foundation and some intact elements of the former structure thus saving a considerable amount in construction costs. My friend Greg and I were employed to demolish and remove the portions that could not be salvaged. We were second year law students with the time (and need of money) to accomplish the project. Armed only with crowbars, sledge hammers, and a chain saw, we filled nine semi-truck sized containers with the refuse that had been the original home.
Life for Bill and Doris continued in story book fashion. Their successful business was closed at retirement. Bill and Doris spent a significant amount of their time “on the road”, exploring North America in their motorhome and eventually settled full time in Florida. Doris passed in 2011 and Bill continued in pursuit of his quest to be 100. At 98 he was still occasionally driving his Mustang convertible and, taking nothing for granted, he renewed his driver license. Although he has now quit driving, he still proudly displays the license observing, “Its good until I’m 105”.
In August of 2017 Hurricane Irma, with its category 5 winds, took aim at the heart of Florida. Bill‘s home was at the center of the hurricane’s track. Christine acted to arrange for Bill’s evacuation to our home in Kansas City. At 99 years old, Bill managed to fly unaccompanied to Kansas City, negotiating the busy airports in Florida and Atlanta without incident. His Florida home sustained only minor damage in the storm, but the handwriting was on the wall. At his advanced age and without family in Florida, he could not return there. His house and car were both sold. Christine has since found him a new home in an assisted living community near to us. From August of 2017 to the present she has near single handedly seen to the management of his care. There is now a softness in Bills eyes when he sees her, a smile comes to his lips and his arms extend to her for an embrace. No doubt the love was always there, but it never found expression as it does now… “I love you honey, very, very, much… always have and always will.” Bill has decided that he will stick around for his 101stbirthday. I have no doubt that he will.
PS: In writing this I have found renewed respect for the abilities, intellect and work ethic that have defined William A. Nichols over the course of his first 100 years. Moreover, I have been struck by the parallels that emerged in the life of his daughter who is my wife, Christine. She too was a willful child who left home at an early age. Christine pursued her undergraduate degree after first starting a family. She founded her own successful business, built a new home from the opportunity she saw in the destroyed remains of another, and in retirement she has pursued travel across North America with RV in tow. Of his 5 children she was the “stealth child”, least anticipated to achieve success but revealed to be recipient of the fullest measure of Bill’s talents. They each have much to be grateful for in the life and love that they share.
A number of friends have reached out and expressed concern for us due to my “silence”. I have been largely offline since our return from Canada at the end of September. First of all, we are well. Secondly, we have not been idle. Indeed, we have been busy enough that there is fodder for a number of posts if I just make the time to commit our activity to paper.
Our life in Kansas City is different from our life on the road. Traveling I enjoy the stimulation of new sights and experiences that unfold on a near daily basis. For me travel is heady and intoxicating. I feel compelled to share it with you. Along with the experiences come the thoughts that are generated within me. Add to this the compression of time I enjoy with Christine, quite literally at each other’s side 24/7. Fortunately, we don’t seem to tire of the closeness. Eye contact invariably brings a smile to both of us. The cup of friendship is a priceless chalice when it holds the elixir of love.
Being home creates different experiences for each of us. We tend to find our together time relegated to the mornings and the evenings. I spend a couple of hours during most days at the gym. There is some yardwork, tinkering, the occasional lunch with a friend, and the countless small details of life that cause one day to follow another in a succession that mimics the turning of the pages of a not so interesting book. For Christine the focus of her day is upon our children, grandchildren, and her centenarian father. She flourishes in her connection to family. I happily take a step back and allow her to define my role in the family. I shudder to think how soulless the celebrations of holidays, birthdays, and other milestones would become in her absence.
Mornings and evenings in Kansas City are the times that we imagine and put into words our “next things”. There are quite a few on the table right now, but I will save the telling for my next post. Until then… Peace Everyone.
It is 5 a.m. the morning of the 19th. For much of this trip this has been the default time for writing my “Thoughts”. Christine remains asleep a few feet from me while I am treated to the sight of night slowly yielding to day. I often go to sleep with no intention of writing, but I awake, sometimes long before 5, and find that my “Thoughts” have been composed somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious. I get up, pull out my iPad and begin to type. It works, but how?… it’s a mystery.
Yesterday, as we left Trois-Pistoles Quebec my eye was drawn to the steeple that commanded a view above the village. There is not much to see in Trois-Pistoles but Trip Adviser mentioned a Basque cultural center, a Basque cheese “Fromagerie”, a small micro-brewery, and the church. The micro-brewery was closed when we arrived late on the 17th as was the cultural center. We are watching our weight so no cheese. The church held the number one spot for recommended things to see and do in Trois-Pistoles.
As an aside, there is a lingering Basque influence in this area that predates the 16th Century arrival of Jacques Cartier. Basque whalers traveled seasonally to these waters in hunt for the leviathans.
As a second aside, “Trois-Pistoles” is the name of a remarkably strong and complex beer crafted by the Canadian brewer, Unibroue… but not in Trois-Pistoles. For you aficionados it is worth seeking out on the shelves of discerning liquor stores and taverns in the States.
Now, about that church. Église Notre-Dame-des-Neiges was completed in 1887. It is truly monumental, far out of scale for the small town in which it is situated. It appeared to be closed, but we checked the doors and found that one side-door was unlocked. In my youth churches were always unlocked as the needs of those seeking a place for prayer were not constrained to banking hours. Perhaps Trois-Pistoles lacks the usual small population of miscreants who, if given the opportunity, deface and steal from houses of worship. Perhaps we were the coincidental beneficiaries of someone’s inadvertent omission… but as a good man in Puerto Rico told us earlier this year, “In life there are no coincidences”.
Upon entering the church we were treated to the most spectacular old world interior of any church that we have seen in North America. The long rows of pews appeared each individually carved. They gleamed mirror-like with flawless varnished surfaces. The towering pillars were hand painted with a faux marble finish and supported the lofty ceiling vault and dome. Remarkable!
While the overall impression was breathtaking, I found my eye drawn to the details of the church… the statue of Christ crucified,
The ornate confessional booths,
The Baptismal Font that had no doubt greeted thousands into the “fold”, and the galleries and pipe organ,
The Alter and Canopy,
The spiral stairs to the lectern used in former days to deliver the Gospel and homily to the congregants,
And then there was the very curious small pew standing alone in the back of the church. My first impression was that it was reserved for sinners ostracized but not excommunicated for some spiritual failing. There was a sign written in French on the pew. With the aid of Google Translate we learned the truth:
This was the bench of the Vire-chien, or “dog-guard”. It was occupied by the Church Constable whose tasks consisted in maintaining order in the church, opening or closing the doors during events such as weddings and funerals, regulating the heat as needed, and preventing dogs from entering the church. Tradition held that dogs entering a church were the harbinger of misfortune in the village. The Vire-chien wore a tricorned hat with a gilded silver-colored ribbon. The hat matched his long frock coat, which was of black wool. The costume was abandoned in the twentieth century, but perhaps the position of Vire-chien remains to this day.
Finally, there were the ubiquitous votive candles, a standard feature in most Catholic churches. These were particularly beautiful and well executed under the sympathetic gaze of the Virgin Mary.
I like churches for what they say about the people of a community. My thoughts about organized religion have become “complicated” over the years and don’t warrant airing here. Nevertheless I was gifted as a child with traditions of contemplation that still resonate with me. One of those is the lighting of a candle. The solitary flame brings a somber focus to my thoughts. In the course of the last few months a number of friends have exited from this life. A few days ago I paid homage to a remarkable woman who died 25 years ago. I recall the memories of those dear to me, now long passed. My wife and I have the blessing of being together in good health, being companions in travel, friends and lovers in life. So much to put upon the shoulders of that single flame…
I can’t say that all attorneys have cases that become a part of their life DNA, but I have had at least one such case. Recently a series of communications with Christina “Christy” reignited memories of events that centered upon her mother and family 25 years ago. The intervening years may have cast a haze upon my recollections but my emotions remain every bit as raw as they were a quarter of a century ago.
Paula Clouse had been trapped in an incredibly abusive marriage to Larry Clouse for over 20 years. The handwriting had been on the wall from the start when only weeks into the marriage the much older Larry smashed his fist into her jaw for failing to respond quickly enough with the beer he demanded. Paula’s jaw was wired shut in order for the bones to heal.
Paula dropped out of high school to marry Larry. Notwithstanding Larry’s serial abuse, she got her GED, worked to support the family, raised their first child (Chris) who was born early in the marriage, and persevered to complete her college education at CMSU. Two other children were born of the marriage, Derek was four and Christy turned one when Paula received her degree. Paula secured and held a full time position of responsibility with the Bendix Corporation of Kansas City and was the family’s sole wage earner. Larry was unemployed throughout the marriage, his temperament being incompatible with steady employment.
Paula first sought my help in 1992. Son Chris was out of the home and Paula hoped that divorcing Larry might protect the two younger children from further exposure to the emotionally toxic environment. I filed Paula’s Petition for Dissolution of the marriage and initiated the process to have papers served on Larry. Unfortunately, with threats and promises he coerced her into dismissing the Petition. I reluctantly complied with Paula’s decision.
The following year Paula returned to my office, accompanied by her 11 year old daughter Christy. Earlier in the week there had been another episode of violence in the home. Larry had struck Paula down, causing her to crash through a glass coffee table. He then sought to snatch the car keys from her purse and deny her an escape. Little Christy beat him to the purse and as he threatened to strike her she said, “Go ahead and hit me. Tomorrow I’m going to tell my teachers and everyone at school what you did.” With Paula on the floor behind her, the defiant child succeeded in getting Larry to back down. Paula and Christy left. Derek chose to remain with his father. Paula explained that her daughter’s courage convinced her to leave Larry for good. There would be no going back.
I dropped everything that day and prepared a new Petition. I also prepared a motion for emergency protective orders. The documents were filed and served upon Larry along with a notice of the scheduled hearing on the motion for protective orders.
Larry appeared for the hearing along with his attorney and 15 year old son Derek. The matter convened before Judge Jane Pansing Brown and proceeded as a vigorously contested matter. Larry denied the allegations of abuse, but the bruises on Paula’s face and arms told a different story. He sought custody of both Derek and Christy, requesting that Paula be denied access to the children. At the conclusion of the lengthy hearing Paula was granted a protective order and custody of their daughter. Larry was granted supervised visitation with Christy and custody of Derek at the 15 year old’s request. Paula was granted visits with Derek, the first to occur that evening, August 10, 1993.
After the Judge issued her ruling from the bench I spoke with an emotionally drained Paula in a small adjoining conference room. She embraced me and then said that she would be satisfied even if the only thing she accomplished was to free her daughter from the violence. These were to be Paula’s last words ever spoken to me.
That evening Paula took Derek to the Metro North Theater to see “Robin Hood, Men in Tights”. Popcorn in hand, they had just taken their seats to watch the previews of coming attractions. Derek stood, faced his mom, and pulled a handgun from his jeans. He leveled the barrel at Paula and methodically fired six bullets into her. She died at the scene.
Derek was taken into custody. The police investigation resulted in murder charges filed against both Derek and Larry. I was called to testify in Larry’s trial. The evidence established that Larry provided Derek with the firearm and ammunition. He had taken Derek to a remote location to practice killing his mother. Larry placed a target and instructed the 15 year old to shoot and pretend that it was Paula. Larry also told Derek that there would be insurance money from Paula’s death that would make them rich. They would escape to Canada and live in comfort.
Both Larry and Derek were convicted of murder and received life sentences. Larry died of heart failure in prison on December 27, 2016. Derek remains in prison, two applications for parole having been denied. His next eligibility for parole occurs in November 2019.
Christy was placed with caring foster parents. I participated in her later adoption by those folks. Christy went on to college, my wife and I traveled to attend her wedding, and she is the loving mother of a darling little boy. We remain in touch with each other to this day.
Until recently I never fully appreciated the impact that I had as an attorney on the life of that courageous 11 year old girl. Here is what she wrote to me shortly after the 25th anniversary of her mother’s death:
“Pete, as my mom would say about you, “he is a good man.” You truly are. In a time when things she confided in you were the types of things you’d only read about in a murder mystery novel or see in the movies, you believed her. You gave her a voice that she would’ve never had without you. Although she died, her legacy lives on and with it are stories of a silly attorney, full of jokes for a little girl, one who stared in a play (which btw the little girl went on to do theater), one with a PHOTOCOPY MACHINE, who let her photocopy her hand for the very first time! But also a stern attorney who put that little girl in her place a time, ok or maybe two. A hard nosed attorney who fought tooth and nail for that Mom and little girl. And a man that stayed present long after his client was gone, watching out for that little girl, through trials and court proceedings and even by showing up on her wedding day. A man that still today keeps in contact with that little girl. A man that really did hold both of their hands and changed their lives forever. You are always instrumental in this story. You, Pete, are a good man…a great man!”
Paula’s wish, expressed in her last words to me, was granted.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS. There were other victims of the fallout from Larry’s abuse. Chief among them were Paula’s parents who were good people tortured by what they saw their daughter endure and helpless to intervene. May they also Rest In Peace.
In the course of our travels we have often witnessed various forms of risk taking behaviors. Stunts on motorcycles rocketing down the road, aggressive driving in other forms, and folks dangling their feet over the edges of cliffs are just a few examples. Most of these risk takers are under 40 years old. Folks in my age group (post-60) tend to be a bit more cautious and circumspect of their mortality.
In the last 3 months 7 of my friends and professional colleagues have died. 5 from illness, one the victim of a tragic accident, and this last week one the victim of suicide.
It was not so many years ago that encountering death among friends and acquaintances was rare. These days I am becoming increasingly aware that the odds in the lottery of life are slowly shifting against me and in favor of “the house”. My Mother recently remarked that Christine and I are blessed to have so many friends both near and far (we agree!). In the same breath she sadly noted that all of her long time friends are “gone”. Two weeks ago we celebrated both my father-in-law’s 100th birthday and our newest grandchild’s first birthday. One of the few things that those bookends of life share in common is that while they are both loved, they have few friendships. Little Lennon is too young to have yet made friends in this life, while Bill has outlived most of his. Lennon and Bill are at opposite ends of the Bell Cure of Life and Death. In our 60’s, Christine and I are approaching the peak of the curve. At age 84 statistics say that a flip of the coin has the same odds as whether we will be alive or not.
None of this is morbid or depressing to me. It is reality and much of the reason that I so passionately pursue travel. A judge once remarked to me that “Lawyers don’t retire… they just die at their desks.” There is some truth to that, although I know a few who are the exceptions and I long ago determined to be among those who would retire.
To you who are closer to my age I offer, don’t put off until tomorrow the things that you may find you are then unable to do. To you who are much younger I pray you will see your careers as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Have Fun, Do Good (as in both your best, and what is right), and Be Safe for the sake of those who love you. And finally to the few of you who silently despair of life each day, please share your secret with someone and be open to help.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is a suicide magnet. In 2013 there were 46 who jumped to their death… in the preceding years it is estimated that over 1,600 have jumped with a 98% certainty that they would not survive. I read of a study where the author interviewed a number of those few who did survive. The thought that they uniformly held in common is that at the moment they let go of the bridge they regretted the decision.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS. My friend Mark ended his life this last week. He was a brilliant scientist, a gifted athlete, and an incredibly caring and generous man. I count myself among the many who wonder why and wish that I could have intervened.
We are again spending the night on the shores of Lake Huron, this time in Michigan’s Port Crescent State Park.
It is hard to beat the view of waves breaking a matter of feet out the front door of our trailer, accentuated by the gentle sound of the surf. The cool off-shore breeze guarantees a good nights sleep in this dark sky park. Fingers are crossed for a cloudless evening.
Port Crescent recalls the memory of the thriving logging community that once occupied this spot in the mid to late 19th Century. The shores were believed to hold an inexhaustible supply of timber. As with most things ecological, the capacity of humans to exhaust the inexhaustible was gravely underestimated. The decades long accumulation of “slash” (discarded remnants of logging and milling operations) on Michigan’s “Thumb” Peninsula were a recipe for disaster.
A major forest fire in 1871 was a “treetop fire” that burned the tree crowns but largely left the remaining trees to die as they stood. Another fire was sparked in 1881 and became one of the worst conflagrations in US history. The tinder dry conditions, high winds, and the abundant fuel in the forests resulted in a flash fire that consumed over a million acres of the Peninsula’s towns and forests in the first 24 hours! This was to be known as the Great Thumb Fire. Few area residents were spared as the fire consumed oxygen, asphyxiating some, literally boiling others to death in the rivers, wells, and lakes where they sought refuge, and ending the lives of hundreds. Most of those who survived were left homeless by the onslaught. It was essentially the end of the town of Port Crescent. Here at the Park stands the base of a 120 foot tall smokestack, a legacy of one of the sawmills and the sole remnant of the town.
Switching gears… Today we stopped for breakfast at a local diner. In the men’s room was a sign that struck me as funny enough to warrent a picture.
Further along I found the message of the sign resonating with me and bringing me to contemplate the concept of “friendship”.
The friendships that we enjoy in our places of work and our communities are familiar to all of us. Those friendships are certainly valued, but easily taken for granted.
In our journeys we have become acquainted with hundreds of travelers (and Camino Pilgrims). Those friendships are built upon the foundations of our common undertakings. Those friendships are known from the start to have only a brief opportunity to flourish and to be enjoyed. Appreciation of the comradeship is left for one’s memory as there are no guarantees that paths will ever cross again.
Flowers on the arctic Tundra have a very limited time within which to fulfill their life cycle. They compress an entire season into a few weeks. Far flung friendships flourish (say that fast 10 times!!) in much the same way, igniting and maturing in the shortest of times… and then suffering a parting with no promise of renewal.
We are grateful for each of these encounters. We are fortunate that there are occasions that our life path again intersects with that of far flung friends. An encounter at a dump station in Texas with a reunion in Alaska… An shared campfire in Alaska followed by a chance encounter in Madrid Spain… Friendships forged on the Camino that continue to flourish in Kansas City or are renewed in Colorado, Canada, the Netherlands… Friendships sparked by email or Facebook communications that are later treasured in person in Wales, California, New Hampshire, or upstate New York…
We do not take these friendships for granted. Whenever the prospect for renewal occurs it is cause for celebration whether it is a friend from school days, or a visitor from New Zealand. Each is a blessing and an affirmation that life is good.