Welcoming Summer

With summer in full swing, it’s time to review the past couple of months, which have been full of normal routine, the end of the school and university semester, visitors from afar, and travel enjoyed.


In May, dear friends from Knoxville arrived for several days, between celebrating a doctoral graduation in England and returning to their home in Lebanon. It was a huge gift to have them visit — with time to explore the city together, a certain requisite amount of Viennese coffee and cake, and especially good conversation. I was particularly grateful to have friends here who knew Dad and Mom, not to mention who are good listeners, ask good questions, and are both intensely serious and enjoy a hearty laugh. A single paragraph and a couple of pictures can only give a tiny glimpse of how much the time meant to me. Thank you, Mike and Stephanie!

End of Semester

The school year ended uneventfully, with the usual requests from students to be allowed to play in the garden rather than bother with lessons, and with a teachers’ outing to a lake. (I tried stand-up paddle-boarding for the first time, with particular determination not to fall in, as I’d forgotten a swimsuit.) …University finished off with one paper to write for a class on secularization theory (I wrote about Charles Taylor’s idea of a basic human longing for “fullness,” comparing and contrasting that with the Classical concept of “happiness” and the Christian idea of “joy,” as Lewis describes it), plus an exam for a class on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (which meant twenty minutes talking with the professor, whom I have appreciated very much this term, and who sent me out with a copy of a book off her shelves, which was a pleasant surprise).  …At the music uni, though I’m not studying there anymore, I enjoyed participating in a friend’s studio recital, playing a Martinů trio for flute, cello, and piano. …Choir wrapped up with a glimpse of our fall program and a relaxed dinner at a choir member’s place outside the city (exploring the extensive and rather wild yard/garden laid out on the steep hillside, enjoying everyone’s home-made dinner contributions, and watching one of the kids fall into and get fished out of the goldfish pond).


Perhaps in part as a result of various baking experiments in preparation for helping with Hannah’s wedding cake last summer, I’ve had rather a lot of fun with further baking projects. A morning strawberry picking necessarily inspired short cake:

Colleagues coming for tea prompted a lemon cake:

Brunch inspired a cinnamon twist bread:

And, the fourth of July featured another lemon cake, disguised with my favorite icing — whipped cream and sour cream — and decorate for the day: 


The first outdoor adventure of the summer was a hike and overnight on the Schneeberg, a mountain not far from Vienna, with roommate Jessica and friend Anne. In summer mode, I made sure to pack sunscreen and plenty of water. However, after a hot, sticky climb up the warm and humid Klamm (gorge), we were shocked to find that the mountain above was by no means basking in warm sunlight. Instead, we enjoyed (or endured) one of the windiest hikes we could have imagined, arriving hours later at our destination nearly teeth-chattering cold!

With the end of the school semester finally arriving a couple of weeks later, it seemed that summer must have truly arrived. My flatmates’ birthday on the 1st of July was a good occasion to inaugurate the summer by enjoying midnight ice cream Sundays on our roof terrace and sleeping under the stars. Despite the rather chilly night and cool wind, it was quite splendid.
The next day, Jessica’s parents arrived for about a month, combining days in Vienna and the surroundings, plus some travel further afield. They generously invited me to join in their Austrian adventures, which started with a day cycling along the Danube (or taking the boat, depending on preference), along with friend Anne. The day was grand, and started (and ended) with rather some unforeseen challenges of bike transport.

     The next four days, the four of us headed to the region known as the Salzkammergut. Although the name refers to the the salt (“Salz”) deposits that were a valuable resource as far back as the 2nd millennium B.C., today the region is synonymous with a multitude of lakes, the Eastern reaches of the Alps, and the many quaint towns nestled in valleys and along lake shores.The first night we stayed at a lovely resort on the Grundlsee, a long, deep lake with splendidly clear water.

   We pretty much dropped our bags and headed straight for a swim. Jessica and I managed to swim out to a buoy, which, we were surprised to find, seemed to be marking a source for drinking water. Then, we spent a while exploring the fauna on the undersides of lake rocks, with the help of Jessica’s biologist mom. I wasn’t particularly impressed by her identification of leeches, but was comforted by the fact that they apparently only enjoy fish as prey. (Now, some of you are going to think the lake wasn’t so idyllic as it actually was, so a few pictures to reassure you.)

     After a fancy dinner, a thunderstorm giving way to a beautiful evening, and some rounds of cards, the trip was very much off to a good start.The next day we took a ferry across the lake (about 5.5 km), then walked to the next lake — again ideal for a swim.       In the afternoon, we were off to our next destination — first a short drive to Tauplitz, then a chair lift up to the mountain plateau, then a walk to our Hütte (lodge) for the next two nights. Certainly more rustic surroundings, but perfect for a couple of days of typical Austrian mountain pleasure.

   Tuesday we took a hike all together to two more lakes. I dubbed the first “the Caribbean,” as the colors of the shallow water surrounding two tiny islands lent a decidedly tropical aura. The water wasn’t the only colorful sight to see. We were apparently hiking in prime wildflower season. (Judy, thanks for all your photos, including lovely flower specimens and lake views!)On the way back, our party split — the parents headed back to the hut for a relaxed afternoon, and Jessica and I set out to see if the afternoon’s weather would allow us to get to a peak (and, preferably, back to shelter) before the predicted rain arrived. Neither of us was expecting the absolutely fascination landscape we encountered. Quite in contrast to the type of boulder fields one finds in the Rockies, our trail led along and up what seemed more like one gigantic, continues slab, but pockmarked with countless holes and crevices/crevasses…rough patches that looked like mountains on a raised relief map…organ pipes (Just guessing: if I were standing at the bottom of the photo, I might be about 1/8th inch tall)…odd, heart-shaped outlines, which might have been fossils…and signs of new life….

 To our extreme delight, we even came across half a dozen or more ptarmigans, which seemed to be still in spring garb — white bellies to blend in with any lingering snow, but otherwise in the perfect camouflage for their rocky surroundings. (Can you find the birds in the picture below?) Well, we did make it to the peak, and back down to the hut — before the rains came.      As Jessica said, the Austrian diet — heavy on pork, hearty dumplings, and other fat- and carb-rich delicacies — truly makes sense after a long hike in the mountains. The evening finished off with games and reading, as did the previous nights.

The next morning, there was time to work in a quick peak hike before breakfast. Our scrambling was put to shame by the appearance of a Gämse, or chamois, who was surprised by our early morning intrusion on his domain, but not at the least risk for being overtaken.   Breakfasted and packed up, we stopped along the way to the chair lift down the mountain to peek into a beautiful chapel — with acoustics well-suited to a couple hymns — before we proceeded.On the way back home to Vienna, we made a stop at the Dachstein ice caves. Although I was picturing caves within the glacier, instead the tour showcased a cave that, unlike most caves that maintain a very moderate temperature, is influenced by frigid drafts, which cause water seeping through the limestone to create fantastical ice sculptures. Back in Vienna, I’ve enjoyed the past ten days with quiet tasks and good visits with friends, while Jessica and her parents continued their adventures with a trip to France. Now they’ve returned, and I head off this afternoon  for a week in St. Petersburg and Moscow.


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Spring in Austria (and Germany)

It’s a Sunday morning — bright blue sky, cool breeze but warm sun. Birds offer practically the only audible commentary on the beauty of the day, as my perch on our rooftop terrace is just far enough removed from the sleepy city to give a sense — if I were to close my eyes — of being on holiday on a quiet beach somewhere. Glorious.

…Funny what complicated beings we are: Here I’m enjoying having nothing between me and the heavens, while the past weeks I have been slowly coming to an inner articulation of the pain of “rooflessness.” Repeatedly in the last weeks, a troubling image has come to mind: I am in a house, but there is no roof.  The image begs the question, “Where do I fit? Who has by back?” …It’s not a question of belonging, per se. Who is more blessed with sister, brother-in-law, aunt and uncles and cousins, friends locally and around the globe? It’s really a question of who is “over” me, as God’s representative, shall we say, in the sense of both authority and shelter.

In the past days, I’d say this existential question has been addressed by deeply needed confirmation that it’s the local church, and the leadership of that church, that bears that responsibility. Like most people of my generation, or perhaps humankind in general, “authority” doesn’t tend to have a positive or endearing ring for me. But, when exercised in love, I’d say it gives a feeling of home.


Easter feels like a while ago by now. It was a fairly full week of church and other Easter-related activities. I joined a few other musicians, part of a larger short-term OM Easter outreach team for a couple of small concerts in two nursing homes. Although the first location offered a piano that was so horrid that it was really funny, it was a good opportunity to share some classical and sacred music in new settings. Particularly in the second nursing home, the residents, and the social worker who helped organize the event, were so appreciative. It was also neat to see the extra-large-print Gospels of Luke and John be eagerly accepted by some of the residents.

On Friday there was a meditative Good Friday service at church. Saturday I baked hot cross buns, a family tradition, and in the evening participated in an Easter concert, for which the nursing home concerts were a bit of a rehearsal. My part was to accompany two vocal pieces and provide two hands for a couple of piano duets (Brahm’s “Hungarian Dances” — fun pieces!). It was a particular joy that a surprising number of friends showed up (despite public transportation havoc created by a train wreck in one of the main stations). After the concert, I went with a friend to just the first bit of the Russian Orthodox Easter mass. A friend sings in the choir, and I love Russian church music. But, the service is basically incomprehensible, extremely long, and requiring the congregation to stay standing. We left after an hour (about midnight), but I think the service went till 2 a.m. or later.

Easter Sunday was a festive service. It was good, even if a squeeze, to join our two services into one. Extra music (of course!), visitors (including two friends I’d invited, which was a real pleasure), and a shared meal afterwards. In the afternoon, Jessica and I enjoyed dying Easter eggs at home before heading off to a dinner at our pastor’s house (more good food, a hilarious dinner game, and good conversation). Easter Monday, a holiday here, was full, too. I hosted an Easter brunch for a few friends, like last year. It was pretty laid-back, the first guest arriving at 10 a.m. and the last leaving at 4 p.m. Afterwards, though, I was totally exhausted. I’m afraid I was sort of going through the motions of celebrating Easter with church services and hospitality, but in retrospect it was all good, and all a bit much.

As a side note, the spring weather one expects around Easter time (at least in the northern hemisphere) was quite unpredictable this year! Two days after Easter it snowed in cold, windy gusts more or less all day long. Even though nothing stuck, it was an odd throw-back to winter!

Building Community

CHOIR WEEKEND: In March, just before our April concert, the choir I’m singing with gathered in a small town a couple hours outside of Vienna for a weekend of rehearsals and getting acquainted. Well, I got to get acquainted with a number of folks, but many of the members have been in the group for numerous years!

Besides six rehearsals between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, there was time for morning runs with two other choir members, lots of conversation over meals and evening bottles of wine, and a walk into town (a rather popular pilgrimage destination). I continue to be grateful for the friendly people and lovely music! Our next concert is June 1st. 

SMALL GROUP RETREAT: The weekend after Easter I went along on a retreat organized by one of the home groups (Bible study groups) from church. I can now say that I have stepped foot in all nine Bundesländer (states or provinces) of Austria. We camped out (not literally) near the large and extremely shallow Neusiedlersee, which forms part of the border between Austria and Hungary. The weekend included valuable discussions on our topic of “joy” and a decent dose of happiness. Image may contain: 11 people, people smiling, people standing, sky and outdoor

The highlight for me was the bike ride we took Saturday morning. All 12 of us — covering about a 35-year age range — braved a blustery day for a splendid jaunt to the lake (which includes an interesting wetland area that is a real bird sanctuary). Some of us extended the ride for a tour through an area of vineyards, where we were rewarded with coming across what looked to me like the most perfect hobbit homes.

A Week in Germany

If the month of April hadn’t been full enough already, it ended with a trip to Germany. A group of 9 of us from our church in Vienna joined about a 1000 others for a conference (Evangelium 21/Together for the Gospel) that was commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and considering the five “solas” (“solae”) of the Reformation for Christians today — Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo gloria. There were guest speakers from the U.S., as well as German pastors  — wow, rather a lot of input for 2 1/2 days!

The days in Hamburg also included getting to catch up with a friend (thank you, Olga!), as well as visiting a church I quite enjoyed. Monday I took the bus to Berlin for a couple of days of sight-seeing.

Berlin is very different from Vienna — bigger, and with a more modern vibe. There are certainly old buildings, too, but it’s not the same type of grandeur the Hapsburgs promoted in Austria. It was a rather strange visit, in some ways, for me. I arrived on May 1st, which was one year since Dad’s death. I felt like I should somehow make note of the day, but it was odd being alone with my thoughts, and far from home in Tennessee or Vienna. I listened to the recording of the memorial service while I was on the bus from Hamburg, and I decided I should enjoy a big hamburger and fries at a favorite restaurant (which Dad would have fully approved of!). (That got postponed till the next day, but was still a good idea.)

…A few city highlights bear proper describing: First off, the first afternoon I enjoyed a really great 4-hour guided walking tour.  Our guide had a PhD in history, but was enjoying a change of scenery from academics and giving city tours instead. The tour ended next to the Konzerthaus, so I decided to see if there were any concerts that I might be able to attend spontaneously. Happily, although I didn’t manage a rather expensive concert, I did get in on a documentary film paying homage to the world-famous pianist Alfred Brendel. A very unusual guy, to say the least (!), but certainly interesting. He unexpectedly showed up at the question and answer session with the film producer afterwards, so that was an added bonus.

I did a lot of walking in Berlin. In fact, aside from taking public transport from the main bus terminal to my hostel upon arrival, I walked everywhere else. Fun! The other prominent feature of the visit was lots of museums — a bit about the Cold War (really hard to imagine living in such an arbitrarily divided city) and a lot about WWII. Very heavy, but impressive, exhibits that gave both an overview of the atrocities of the war and sought to highlight the stories of individuals and families. 

Having read and re-read in times past an extremely good biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I made a point of visiting the museum about resistance movements during the 3rd Reich. One of the best parts of the trip was visiting the Zionkirche (Zion Church), where Bonhoeffer was a youth worker (catechism teacher) to young people in a part of town that at that time was decided underprivileged. (Today, the church sits in a gentrified neighborhood.) When I walked into the church building mid-week, late afternoon, I was surprised to see a children’s church service just about to start — a group of young families gathering, home-made refreshments laid out in the back, an Easter egg hunt (why in May?) being laid out on the church lawn.  A small photo/text display at the back summarized the church’s history and Bonhoeffer’s role. I have no idea of the soundness of the church’s theology currently, but it was somehow beautiful and moving to see a lively congregation gathered in that space and think about the role one of its former churchmen played in a costly living out of the gospel in the not-too-distant past.

Besides walking and museuming, I enjoyed catching up with a friend, as well as a few refreshing hours spent reading in cozy cafes.

Well, I could carry on, but I’ll spare my readers more text this time around and close with a handful of photos — spring flowers, in a park with friends, a roommate photo op, and a sun-set photo from the terrace. Glad summer is around the corner.  

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New Year and a New Routine

January 12th — two months ago — I arrived back in Vienna; it seems like a long time ago. A welcoming committee of friends from church met me at the airport, which was really lovely, and then my pastor went to the visa office with me to make sure I really got my visa (which was supposed to be picked up by the 12th — I hadn’t means to cut it quite that close, but my flight out of NY got delayed by a whole day). Later I wandered over to the university for a meeting scheduled with a professor regarding some translating work. I didn’t expect to be greeted by a German academic with a warm hug, but it welcome, nonetheless. In the evening, I decided to show up at a church small group dinner, where I reconnected with my roommate and several other friends — and also realized I was overdosing on social input on top of jet-lag and had better call it a day.

The following week or so was strange. I unpacked and began making appointments to see friends. People asked me if I was glad to be back? What should I say? Yes, glad to see friends — but so lost, so visionless. So glad to be alone, quiet. It felt like a diabolical cloud was hanging just over my head, demanding that I decide “what I’m doing with my life” — but couldn’t I have just a little peace, a little living-in-the-present-moment?

I wouldn’t say that the intervening weeks have exactly provided all the answers, inspired crystal-clear vision, or brought a settled peace, but the atmosphere has lightened overall.

Delights of a Cold Winter


Strange to say, but the most obvious way the ominous cloud lifted was a Sunday afternoon lark to the Danube River with my roommate. A long series of cold days led to the Neue Donau (the part of the river that parallels the Danube shipping lanes and cuts a straighter course than the original, meandering Alte Donau) freezing sufficiently to entice dozens of gleeful risk-takers out onto the ice — people skating, flying kites, walking dogs, bicycling, ambling with strollers. My roommate and I were as captivated as the rest — and with an afternoon’s sunshine, comradery, a dose of risk, and healthy sport, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

Settling In

It’s tricky not being perennially busy. Tricky to know when to say “no,” when you don’t know beforehand how tiring such-and-such is actually going to be. But, being away for six months certainly invites re-evaluation! One of my big goals has been trying to take more time for rest and quiet, and time alone. I’m not sure how much I’m succeeding with that goal, but it’s at least a work in progress! (My roommate and I have decided that balance is a hopeless ideal, whereas the word tension does a better job of describing the tight-rope act of setting priorities, establishing routine, and being flexible!)

The first couple of weeks, the main priority was finishing up the university semester, which had about 2 1/2 weeks yet to go. I attended all of three lectures for a course entitled “Grundkurs Patrologie” (Introduction to the Church Fathers) and passed the oral exam, even if not with flying colors. The only other course I’d decided on for the semester, “Religion at Ground Zero: Theological Responses to Times of Crisis,” only demanded a paper, which I rather enjoyed writing, despite the heavy topic. (Note: If I hadn’t take any courses in the fall semester, I’d not only have wasted university dues already paid, but also necessitated a fuller load in the spring, assuming I want to renew my student visa this coming summer.)

With the university term ending at the end of January, it was time for diving back more fully into work — but, first, a few days skiing and enjoying Austrian hospitality!


I spent a week with my friend Rebecca in her hometown in western Austria. Two mornings we joined some of her school students for ski outings. The first morning that meant showing up to school with ski gear in hand, and then walking clumsily in our ski boots to the nearby bus stop, and getting off at the nearest ski slope! Rebecca and I were in charge of just four students — all delightfully well-behaved 9-1o year-olds.

The next day Rebecca and I took the train to a big ski resort — so big that we hardly repeated any slopes all day long, and I lost track of how many lifts we rode. Austrians do love their skiing and certainly have dedicated a good bit of technical innovation to the sport. The funniest thing was the lift with heated seats.

Besides parts of four days skiing, we had time for good conversation, sitting by the cozy tile stove to read, a bit of cooking, visiting with church friends, etc. I also was extremely glad to reconnect with another friend, Inge, for a special evening at her home for Austrian Käsespätzle (think macaroni and cheese with gnocchi-like “pasta,” incredibly strong cheese, and a hearty helping of sautéed onions) and a good talk….

A New Routine

Back from Vorarlberg, it was time to take up a new routine — my three part-time jobs, studies, and other activities. A brief summary for the curious:

Job number one consists of 10 hours of assistant teaching at a private Catholic school. The school offers a special English-focused track, and participating classes have some of their core subjects taught in English once per week. The regular teacher offers the subject-area expertise, and I offer the native English expertise. This semester I’m team-teaching 5th, 6th, 8th, and 10th graders — biology, geography, history, religion, and music.

Job number two is working as the administrative assistant at my church about 7 hours a week — sending out newsletters, posting sermons to the website, helping plan services, running errands, etc.

Job three is doing some translating (German to English) for a professor at university — a new adventure. In the next few weeks, I’ll get the required official work license for Sprachdienstleistungen — ah, those long German words and that love of official, specialized documents!

Since I’m here on a student visa, March means starting back to university for the new semester. Actually, I’m still sorting classes out, but so far so good.

Other regular activities, besides church and a church small group, include Monday evening “English Cafe,” a low-key conversation group for anyone wanting to practice their English. It’s always an interesting mix of personalities and nationalities — last week, our non-native English speakers were from Austria, Israel, and Egypt.

My other weekly commitment is the choir I’ve joined! …The Sunday afternoon I went ice skating on the Danube, I very “randomly” started chatting with a German women, who in the course of the conversation mentioned the choir she is part of. Amazingly, the group is exactly what I was looking for (style of music, frequency of practice, number of singers, etc.) It really feels like a gift just dropped in my lap. Right now we’re working toward a concert in April, the biggest piece being a Bach motet based on Romans 8 — beautiful and uplifting….

I’ll end for now on that note.

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Christmas and a New Year


22 December: Christmastime. The calendar tells me it is three days till Christmas, and the roads surrounding my aunt’s house in St. Louis are packed with last-minute shoppers. We join their ranks, popping into a book store and Target, stopping at the iconic Ted Drewes that sells milkshakes and fragrant Christmas trees. Eggnog and Christmas cookies seduce us from the kitchen counter. A Christmas record plays, and a tree might still get decorated tonight or tomorrow. In Vienna, Christmas markets buzz with activity – subdued, I dare say, but not stifled, by the Christmas market tragedy in Berlin….

I don’t feel quite like Christmas. Mind you, not un-Christmassy, exactly – more just that feelings seem stifled, or at least confused. Everyone I know can’t help but assume it’s a difficult season…. They see a mountain of change, of loss, in the months past, and rightly assume that the path is steep; just far enough removed, they can see the jagged peak and guess the trail. But, I’m the hiker, just starting out; the mountain is too close, too in-my-face to see it, to guess its height, to absorb its colossal weight. Slightly dazed, I gratefully accept the trail supplies offered – listening ears and helping hands – but wish for space to access the mountain that has moved across my path.

The sadness I feel is largely the blank ache of not feeling like there has been room to be sad. The out-pouring of help and company (joyful, wearying, life-giving), travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations in different states (anticipated and enjoyed), booking flights to return overseas (stressful and a relief), and packing up a house that was Home for 33 years (enlightening and burdensome) – none of these lend themselves to quiet and self-reflection. I feel a desperation for quiet, but have simultaneously cultivated an impressive ability to avoid stillness. Maybe if I were incapacitated by tearful grief, things would make more sense.

 So here I am. Here we are. Here He is. To be honest, the Babe in the manger seems about as incongruous with the drift of my thoughts as the superficial cheer of secular holiday charm. Any theological ponderings coming from my mouth are going to be about as dry as the hay He lay in. But maybe, just maybe, He will show up again. I don’t really expect it. But, I guess the shepherds weren’t exactly expecting Him either. The world is cold and shocking still, like it must have been to Him that first Christmas. And, if He is unchanging, long-suffering of the changing world, perhaps He will come again this Christmas, as Prince of Peace….

Christmas Eve: Candles burning, Christmas music playing, cookies – shortbread, peppernuts, date pinwheels, and fruitcake, which we Holder women bake every Christmas (this year, I’m three-fourths indebted to Hannah). It’s well past midnight, and Aunt Susan and I lounge on the living room couch, savoring the moment and reluctant to head to bed. We’re home from the Christmas Eve service – one of the most beautiful I’ve been to. In the morning, I’ll put on the breakfast spread of what has so many years been the best meal of the year – home-made cheese Danish and bacon and oranges and coffee, enjoyed with unhurried delight in the company of family, any excitement over presents only heightened by the decidedly slow approach to the meal and breakfast dishes and turkey roasting preparations. Despite the incongruity of the present abundance and obvious absence, I feel warm and happy for the moment, even if not quite at peace – quieted in my aunt’s home, a place already accustomed to the tensions of grief and trust and even gladness.


Christmas has a way of sneaking up on me. Funny, with all of Advent to be preparing. Whatever blankness I felt about the holiday, there were a number of specific joys or “Christmas-y” events that the season did hold.

One was an afternoon with my Aunt Pat baking Mom’s fruitcake recipe and cooking Austrian Eierlikör – a rare time to have my aunt to myself and the only time we’ve ever spent an afternoon in the kitchen together!

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I played the piano for a few Christmas events  — at my home church in Knoxville, for a couple of house parties, and for a Christmas Eve service in St. Louis.

For the Christmas holidays themselves I decided to visit my Aunt Susan in St. Louis. Really truly it was the first set of days since I got home in July that I could really rest, body and mind. As strange as it sounds, given the preceding months, it was one of the best Christmases I recall. We slept in, sat around in our pajamas drinking coffee and talking, played cards, walked the dog in the park, visited with friends from church there, visited with my aunt’s old German professor and his family, cooked, enjoyed special church services, and stayed up late talking or eating cookies or watching a movie. Thank you, Aunt Susan!  100_7218 100_7221 100_7223

Back home to Knoxville, I had just two whole days to finish everything. Wednesday I packed madly, and most of my boxes went to a friend’s place for storage (thanks, Matt, and Ivy and Patrick!). One important part of the day was doing one of two things I had on my to-do list before leaving – sit on the front porch in the sun, enjoying the view of the mountains. (Thanks, Sarah!)

After four hours’ sleep, I was ready Thursday morning for a truck from Knox Area Rescue Ministries to come pick up donations – multiple (!) boxes and a bit of furniture. Mid-day I posted packages to half a dozen family and friends – mostly letters family members wrote to Mom and were interested in reacquiring. Early afternoon I picked up the 16’ Penske truck I’d reserved (thanks, Vicki!), and by 3:00 I was less than fully ready for a cousin and two friends to load the truck with all the furniture and boxes. They were a patient crew – engineering the best fit while I kept packing boxes (and visited with a dear friend) inside. At last, it was all done! I even managed my other wish – climbing the tulip poplar tree that Dad and I planted when I was in 4th grade. (Thanks, Stephen!)

100_7238     100_7239The next morning I checked and rechecked for misplaced items, took photos of each room, and with a certain amount of nervousness, climbed in the big truck and headed north to Pennsylvania. Eleven hours later I arrived tired but intact at Hannah and Peter’s. They had pizza hot and waiting and both ran out to meet me when I pulled in about 8:30. Whew.100_7259

The New Year’s weekend was spent there – a long, relaxed, rather delicious (and sleepy!) New Year’s Eve. A fairly quiet New Year’s Day, and then Monday Hannah and I headed to Philly for brunch with cousins and on to New Jersey/NYC to see other cousins.

The following week I spent three days in upstate New York with friend Kathleen and her family. Besides meaningful conversation, the trip was made memorable by trying out Saratoga Springs’ famed mineral baths, playing endless cooking games with her two-year-old, and visiting the exquisite New York state capitol in Albany.100_7312 100_7319 100_7322

Then, there was the delight of several days with cousins Ben and Franci, and their three girls – a fitting bookend to the time with them at the beginning of the summer. Always a highlight: good late-evening conversations over tea. More picturesque, though, was a bit of snow and the fun for all ages:100_7324 100_7326100_7330 100_7328 100_7329

By the time this blog entry is posted, I’ll be in Vienna, back to some knowns, plenty of unknowns. Hopefully the new normal will mean I make time to blog before another eight months disappear – so much for that 2016 New Year’s resolution about posting monthly.

The blog’s about helping me record and remember, about hopefully entertaining or otherwise interesting my readers – and about keeping up. I don’t want it to be a one-way street. So, I do hope you’ll keep up via email or skype or snail mail. …One of the most surprising things of the last months is how friends in Knoxville, and afar, have loved the Holder family – in authentic and sacrificial ways, above what I could have imagined. I am more aware of this community of friends, this Home stretching between continents, than I was last spring, say. So, let’s stay in touch across the miles – and do stop by if you are in town:

Neustiftgasse 10/3/52, 1070 Wien, AUSTRIA

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The Big Task

Helpers, Hiking, and a Road Trip

From the end of October, I felt the mounting pressure of what was to be done with 33 100_7028years of accumulated household items, especially if I was going to be back in Austria by some time in January, necessary if I wanted to keep my visa there active. …Family dispersed to their various homes after the funeral; the last guest, Aunt Lois (right) from New Zealand, stayed on a week to be company for me and to help get started on projects. We talked a lot, took walks, and began the first tentative steps to sorting.

For my birthday, falling that week, I got up early and headed off to the mountains for some quiet and good exercise – a brisk walk up to Charlie’s Bunion. A chilly day with bright blue skies, strange ice flakes littering the path, and almost-bare trees sporting berries that reminded me of New Zealand pohutukawa blooms. In the evening, my aunts Lois and Pat took me out for dinner – really a wonderful time talking and sharing a meal together.

100_7021 100_7005   100_7018 100_7015(While hiking is on my mind, I should mention a lovely day with friend Meghan – shuffling through oak leaves, staring up at towering trees, gobbling lunch at the base of a freezing waterfall, and traversing a washed-out bridge. Technically, the trail to Ramsey Cascades was closed due to a “tree hazard,” but we decided that sounded like absolute hogwash and went anyway – so glad we did!)100_7034100_7035

(Note, the two photos above are the same tree — which didn’t fit into one photo!)100_7048 100_7052

Days passed. I made lists of the contents of the whole house, sent them off to Hannah, and we both made preliminary notations of items we each (or both) wanted. Some days it felt like I spent a lot of time moving piles around, and ever there were the papers – files, letters, photographs – to be at least organized for that indeterminate date when they could be looked at with proper appreciation.

For Thanksgiving, I drove to Lancaster to be with Hannah and Peter and more of the Weston family. It offered a chance to get away from tasks at home and the opportunity to spend almost a week with the Westons. I don’t have particularly entrenched feelings of “having” to be home for Thanksgiving, especially having spent the last four overseas, so it wasn’t a difficult holiday for me, as such. We enjoyed a splendid spread with Peter’s dad and sisters and brother and his family, and of course all the left-overs that go with such a meal. One afternoon Hannah and Peter and I baked the fruitcakes that we girls have always helped Mom with, and another afternoon we three enjoyed an outing to a dam along the Susquehanna River for the great treat of watching some of the bald eagles who congregate there. The week included good conversations, lots of coffee, and games of Hand and Foot and Cribbage in the evenings.100_7054100_7058On Saturday we visited Longwood Gardens, an extensive arboretum/greenhouse/ botanical garden that was developed by the wealthy du Pont family. We spent most of the time inside the huge greenhouse, first observing the impressive pipe organ (of all things), and less impressive Christmas carol sing-along, and then wandering through the maze of botanical displays. Outside, the grounds were decked with Christmas decorations, and we got to all three of the tree houses before the cold got the best of us. 100_7063 100_7066 100_7068 100_7069Back in Knoxville, I returned to a mixture of time with people and the ongoing task of sorting and packing. At the beginning of December a whirlwind visitor came in the person of my dear friend Pauline – you might remember her name from my blog post about visiting Paris and staying at her parents’ home. She’s in Chicago now and flew down for all of 26 hours just before exam week at Northwestern. I’m not sure quite how in that short a time, but we cooked together, shared the evening meal with other friends, took a walk bedazzled by ornamental maples with leaves that looked like rubies and wine, talked, visited a bakery, and even sat down to work on a term paper or music practice or a translation project. It was one of those visits that I’ll always remember as having a sort of golden haze of warm, embracing afternoon sunlight about it.

100_7087 100_7078 100_7077Another visit, also marvelous, came shortly thereafter. Joel and Jessica Koontz, and their two children, offered to come up from Chattanooga to help me sort household things and post some items for sale on Craig’s List. Not only did we manage to clear out Dad’s amazing study (amazing because of all he packed into what was intended to be the kitchen pantry) and tackle other sorting and advertising projects, but we also kept small children entertained and enjoyed rich conversation. Thank you, Joel and Jessica!

Hannah came for the better part of a week, with the specific goal that we would together get everything ready for the estate sale the last weekend before Christmas. Despite our best efforts, it wouldn’t have been possible if our uncle and cousin hadn’t helped sort some of Dad’s painting equipment and a few tools, and especially if Dad’s friend Tom hadn’t given the better part of two days to sorting Dad’s workshop. Talk about being indebted to someone!

Running an estate sale is a strange thing. First, it’s strange to have just anyone come in your house. The oddest were the ones who showed up on Thursday, asking if we were ready for them to look around. No, we were scrambling madly and definitely not ready! One guy walked straight into the house, which was pretty off-putting. Hannah plastered a sign on the front door declaring “ABSOLUTELY NO SALES” till Friday.

Hannah had to leave on Friday, but friends chipped in to help with the sale, and it really ran fine – despite the frigid temperatures the first day and the rain on day two. Between the garage and three rooms inside, there was a lot of stuff for sale, and it was sometime amusing, sometimes cheering, to see what people found useful. I didn’t enjoy haggling over prices, and the house only looked really sad once it was all over, and all the left-overs were sitting around, not in their proper places. Even though I’ve rarely been so tired, it had its enjoyable aspects – certainly the time with friends who helped each day and stayed to share lunch and chat and help out any way they could.

By early in the week of Christmas, it didn’t feel quite like Christmastime, but I sure was ready for a holiday! More in the next post.

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Three Months with Mom

100_0680There’s no way to sum up the summation of a life, no need to document every bit of a parent’s decay, perhaps no blog worthy of sacred last words. But, largely for my sake, I’ve written up something of July 18th (when I arrived home to Knoxville) to October 26th (when Mom died). Read on if you want to.

Surgery and “Recovery”

I got home from Vienna on Monday, 18 July, after a fantastic week in New Jersey/New York with cousins. That evening Mom and Hannah and I got the awaited call – a surgery date two days hence. This was good – we were getting anxious about Mom not having enough recovery time to feel good for Hannah and Peter’s wedding on 20 August. Surely a month would suffice?

I think they said Mom would be in the hospital a few days, maybe till the weekend. We were told there were risks involved in the surgery, uncertainties in what they would find. But, however pleasant the surgeon’s bedside manner, we were to learn that perhaps surgeons tend to be an optimistic lot – downplaying difficulties and not especially gentle when it comes to follow-up care. After all, they are used to cutting open the body – and the only reason their work is potentially healing is that God made the body to restore itself, re-knitting damaged tissue and mending broken skin.

The night of Mom’s surgery was truly wretched. Although the surgeon told Hannah and me that it was the worst thyroidectomy that he’d ever done, we were still unprepared to see our collected, poised, calm mother bandaged, anxious, and fighting a breathing tube. …Friday, still in ICU (side note: I have a better appreciation now for what people mean when they talk about being in ICU – the constant of machines running and beeping, the staff who seem to be, and maybe are, dealing with more pressing cases down the hall), the surgeon showed up to tell us the dreaded news that the cancer was the rare (1-2% of thyroid cancers) that is the worst. I’m pretty sure that after he left was the only time we all three cried. We were a bit embarrassed that we were caught off guard by the arrival of Mom’s radiologist, who somehow managed to be both pleasant and a tad intimidating (though also with a sense of humor, which surfaced on other occasions). …The saving mercy of the day was our friend Elaine bringing a picnic. We weren’t allowed food in ICU, so Hannah and I and Elaine sat in the hospital courtyard with comfort food and the better comfort of a good friend.

Time passed. Mom didn’t want visitors, seemed anxious, discouraged. We realized in hind-sight that part of this was anesthesia taking time to wear off, but it was terrible to see Mom not “herself.” On the 25th, a stomach tube was deemed necessary – swallowing difficulty not allowing for normal food intake. This was explained as a five-minute procedure – but the surgeon didn’t mention that it would be extremely painful after he’d finished his work – till the abdomen recovered from the shock of being penetrated by a quarter-inch tube. At the last minute, a trach was also considered necessary, the undesirable solution to breathing troubles and tangentially essential for the PEG tube surgery. We were assured that it could be “temporary,” and that talking with a trach in your “real” voice was not impossible. But, without sugar-coated it, I guess that Mom would have said that living with a trach was the closest she ever got to hell.

We went home after 9 days, scrambling to be ready for the transition. Although I’d say that Hannah and I are both pretty competent, observant people, we aren’t nurses, and we were not prepped very well for the demands of home nursing. So, there was a steep learning curve, not to mention maddening phone calls to straighten out medical supply issues. Mom kept a small bell by her bed, so she could “call” us any time. Hannah wrote out a list of all the medications and times to administer them, plus the food, and we followed it with religious zeal.

The weeks up to the wedding were a blur. Hannah tried to juggle wedding planning and helping Mom (and succeeded, I must say). I tried to care for Mom without missing out on the fun (and stress) of wedding prep. Aunt Renie, Mom’s younger sister, arrived to help, at our request, Mom’s wish, and her desire. She threw herself into whatever needed doing.


Other friends and family helped – many with wedding preparations, and so many all autumn long. If I list people, I will surely miss someone obvious. But, how can I tell the story without naming names? There were the nurses: Marilyn came out of the woodwork, a family friend of many years, who devoted untold hours to sitting with Mom and researching with me various alternative treatments. Vicki, another nurse, popped in at the shortest notice, and didn’t weary of offering a calm reply to crisis calls and texts. My first morning alone with Mom, she coached me over the phone the first time I had to suction Mom’s throat (at which point we both panicked – Mom insisting I call Vicki, I insisting I couldn’t do it till I knew she was breathing). Caroline, another nurse, who volunteered mornings her son was at pre-school. Jewel, a doctor, who sat with Mom so I could get out a bit. I’ll remember sharing amazing take-out Indian food before going shopping in the rain one Sunday afternoon.

Other friends came with meals, sent flowers, did house-cleaning, sat with me over cups of coffee, listened to long harangues about my frustrations with medical suppliers, popped in unexpectedly.  To borrow the words of the author of Hebrews, I do not have time to tell about Linda and Anita and Paige and Elaine and Phyllis (and many more), who through faith offered encouragement, brought laughter, spoke truth, and generally went above and beyond anything we could have expected.

Relatives came from far away, too. Aunt Susan knows the path from St. Louis to Knoxville well, coming in April for Easter, May for Dad’s funeral, 100_6985August for Hannah’s wedding, September for the Labor Day weekend, October just to be there and help, and November for Mom’s funeral. Aunt Renie, from Phoenix, must have spent two months, more or less, in Knoxville, this summer and fall. Young at heart, chipper, chatty, practical, prayerful. We spent a lot of good and intense time together. From farther away yet came cousin Laurel (left), all the way from New Zealand, to share her and Mom’s birthday (October 12). This was a very unexpected visit, and an absolutely rare treat to get to know our cousin better, benefit from her readiness for any practical task, bask in oddly summer temperatures for mid-October, see the front porch and then Mom’s room turn into a veritable florist shop of birthday bouquets, and enjoy her calm and cheerful spirit (and guess how much it meant to Mom to have her come).


Never in my memory has there been a warmer, sunnier fall than this year. While farmers no doubt bemoaned drought – and more recently, local communities mourned the devastation of wildfires – I couldn’t help but be glad for every single sunny, warm day. In late October, we were still wearing shorts and pretending like it was early September. The trees hung on to their leaves, which finally turned glorious golds and reds in November.

Mornings seemed to be the time when Mom could finally get some decent rest. After interrupted sleep at night – every four, then three, hours for medicine, plus trips to the bathroom or coughing fits – the quiet of the new day was balm to weary bodies and tired minds. She slept, or dozed, and I drank huge cups of coffee and cream, often stealing away to the front porch (within ear-shot of Mom’s bell). It was the one time of the day that was usually quiet – no phone calls or home health visits.

Small joys have room to bloom in quiet moments. Hanging out a load of laundry, clotheslines strung in front of the sky’s bright backdrop, was a delight. Sitting on the front porch watching an ant – noticing his crazy shadow that exaggerated his tiny features, watching him trudge along with a bit of booty for the anthill, wondering if the little fellow viewed my toes with the same confusion the enigmatic Easter Island statues engender in us 21st century folks. I felt at these moments again like a child – engaged, if momentarily, in quiet contentment, or simple wonder. There was a strange peace in knowing there was nowhere else to be.


It must be a defining element of humanity – however easily some of us are bored, however eager for adventure – that we look for, long for, routine. Routine gives something to measure by, aim for, rest in. Routine doesn’t fit very well with being sick, or with caring for the ill. But, in Mom’s case, a certain amount of routine was absolutely necessary. We did our best to stick to the timetable for medicines and food (at its peak, about 15 different administrations per 24 hours), but it was hardly a satisfying rubric for measuring time or “progress.”

Early on, Mom would still get herself up and dressed and perhaps sat down in the kitchen for tasks she had in mind. Certainly the weeks of daily radiation treatments were their own routine – but an increasingly difficult task to check off the list, and accompanied by expressions of anxiety that were so out of character for Mom. As time progressed, I’d try to coax Mom from bed in the afternoons, perhaps for a bit of time on the front porch, or just a change of scenery in the living room. If she wasn’t up for it, and if I was trying to make inroads on odds and ends on my computer, we’d at least manage to haul equipment (oxygen and humidifying machine) to the living room in time for the nightly news broadcast at 6:30 and for Jeopardy at 7:30. Hardly the most worthy entertainment, but splendidly predictable, and some little window open into the wider world. For some number of days, during commercial breaks, Mom and I would do as many of her swallowing exercises as she could manage. They seemed more like torture than helpful, but it was some part of not giving up and holding on to the slim chance Mom could still manage to pass a swallowing test and be up for sharing a cup of coffee or a bite of real food….

One glorious bit of routine for me was weekly dinners with a small group of friends. They very graciously agreed to regularly meet at my place, meaning I could be on call for Mom and dance between her room and the conversation and dinner going on in the kitchen or dining room. I’m afraid I avoided reminding Mom it was Thursday night dinner with “the girls,” lest she find it necessary to call off what felt like a staple of my sanity. Thursday suppers provided me some outlet for creativity, too. Whether the wisest thing to balance tart baking and keeping tabs on when to crush the next round of medicines, I did enjoy putting some baking ideas into practice.

Another bit of routine was music. Mom asked for piano music – from me, or Aunt Renie, or cousin Laurel – with a repetition that could only be interpreted as enthusiasm or desperation. A few times she wanted classical music, but mostly hymns. I’m afraid I got sick of paging front-to-back, or for a change of pace from back-to-front, of the hymnbook, but she apparently found the music calming, appreciating the well-known texts. For a bedtime song, though, the preferred piece was Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” – I don’t know how many times I played that.

We always had bedtime prayers, too, their own routine of pleas for good sleep and whatever else the day’s mustard seed of faith allowed.


Interruptions, welcome and less so, were more the norm. Home health visits were helpful and valued, but usually they also were tiring for Mom, and for me meant a certain outpouring of verbal energy and sometimes decidedly too much small talk and rehashing of the latest information. Hannah and Aunt Renie and I all had our ups and downs of establishing routine, as I rather less than gracefully adjusted from being primary caregiver to weeks of shared caregiving.

Another aspect of caregiving, which evaded fitting into a neatly ordained routine, was exploration of treatment options. I spent countless hours sifting through websites, making lists, writing emails, talking with doctors and nurses, and checking in with Hannah and with nurse friend Marilyn. It was, if nothing else, a way to expand the lexicon – beyond radiation and chemotherapy as general concepts, there were drug names and their commercial brand names, research doctors’ names as institutions like Mayo and Dana-Farber and the National Cancer Institute (names like Dr. Bible, or the doctor whose first name was, no kidding, “Electron,” or even, at UT, a Dr. Junior Univers). There were clinical trial names and acronyms of genomic mutations. And everywhere, rabbit trails, everywhere decisions.

I don’t think I went into the research with any great hope of finding a cure, but it’s my all-or-nothing personality that meant that, once the task was begun, research had to be systematically conducted and extraneous options be duly eliminated. In the end, both Mom’s oncologist (a wonderful man) and Mom herself determined that none of the “options” were really viable – or worth the increased misery they would likely cause. Along the way, I was amazed by the several doctors – one a specialist known around the world for anaplastic thyroid cancer, and two research doctors at big-name medical institutions, plus specific local physicians – who took time to discuss the situation over phone or email or in person, and who, instead of belittling the non-medical person’s questions, took them seriously.

The biggest and most maddening interruption to any sense of routine was the hospital stays. There were three before I got home in the summer, which I’m sure Hannah could describe as frustrating at very best. After the nine days in the hospital following surgery, Mom was once more in the hospital, for five nights in September. It all started with a low sodium level. I got a call from one of the doctor’s offices that we should go into ER and was told that they might want to admit Mom. Note: NEVER, unless you really are on death’s door, go to the ER on a Friday afternoon.

We arrived about 3:30. Patients and caregivers milled about, sat around. Of course, I can’t know what emergencies there may well have been, arriving by ambulance or helicopter, but no one in the waiting room looked needier than (or perhaps as needy as) Mom; but she sat there for hours, hunkered down in her wheelchair, waiting. Finally around 6 p.m., we were ushered back to a room and bed of sorts, though they just wadded up sheets for a pillow. Eventually an IV was hooked up, and then staff disappeared for long stretches. Around 1 a.m., they said a room wasn’t ready, but we could go to a transition room. As soon as Mom was settled, I wended my way to the hospital cafeteria for a 2 a.m. supper. Back in the room, we tried to sleep. Around 6 a.m. they gave Mom some food finally – but they didn’t ask me if she could take a whole can at once, and suddenly she was sick just as a real room was finally going to be ready. It was an awful nightmare.

All the doctors were good over that stay, and the nurses were probably fine. But, I doubt I won too many brownie points with them – resetting the over-sensitive and ever-beeping IV machine, questioning methodology that didn’t match what worked fine at home, prowling the hall to find a nurse when pain medication was overdue, fending off offers of “breathing treatments” that at times had a way of seeming to be more about the respiratory therapist having something to feel good about than making the patient feel better. Well, that’s a pretty bleak summary, but I was incredibly frustrated, knowing that each day meant overall decline of motivation and energy. (You know, they say that for every day in the hospital, you need at least three days to recover once back home.)

However, even there, there were saving graces – a kind respiratory therapist who thought creatively and tried to minimize shocking treatments; a doctor who went out of his way to correct a mistake; the meal lady who started offering me meals; the discovery of the stairwell, which meant the pleasurable workout of a dozen flights up and down before the reward of a big breakfast coffee; the Starbucks card that got me through breakfast and beyond every day; friends who visited.


My communication with Mom over her last three months was centered around day-to-day affairs and markedly low regarding any sorts of “meaningful” conversations. For one thing, after the surgeries, she couldn’t talk. However, being a clear enunciator, she was easy to understand as she mouthed her words, at least up till the last few weeks. But, most of the time she was just so very tired, or just hanging on till the next pain medication was due. Writing was a good back-up, but less personal somehow, even if delivered in her neat, confident hand – that, too, got muddled at the end.

So, besides mouthing things or writing them down, Mom communicated her patience and endurance and faith with a pretty ready smile, a compliance with the routine of food and medicines, sometimes interest in reading or being read to, requests for hymns on the piano, and pushing herself to get up at times that her bed most certainly was the simpler alternative. She communicated weariness and discomfort with reduced engagement, a lower tolerance for my typically enthusiastic chattiness, with inquiries about timing of pain medication, with requests for prayer.

There was also, perhaps, a subtler communication – a transmission of trust, confidence, or dependence on someone specific. Aunt Renie, Hannah, and I, the family who spent the most time with Mom this fall, caught catches of this. Mom wanted Aunt Renie there to pray, most of all. Hannah had a gift for logistics – piling a dozen pillows just right – and she and I made a good transport team. By default of being the most on-hand, I became the favored “suctioner,” a dubious honor, to say the least.

If you’ll pardon a bit of medical information, what isn’t thoroughly explained to you when you are told you need a trach is that the throat of a trach victim is constantly rejecting a foreign entity (the trach) and constantly producing the only means it knows of mollification (congestion). The strong patient coughs a lot, seemingly endlessly, in semi-successful attempts to dislodge the congestion. But, coughing is tiring work, and sometimes the go-to method of removing and rinsing the detachable portion of the trach doesn’t suffice. At these moments, a little machine, fitted with a slender suctioning tube, is necessary to do the job. (Do be sure to ask the respiratory equipment delivery man to please give you a machine that actually works.) So, when coughing becomes sufficiently ineffective or panicked, the “nurse” tears open a suctioning kit, hurriedly puts on the enclosed sterile gloves, picks up the sterile suction tube and attaches it to the machine (without compromising any must-stay-sterile equipment in the process – or she has to start over), and proceeds to insert the tubing into the patient’s trach, anywhere from a couple of inches to maybe six inches. Done unsuccessfully, it makes the patient feel like she is being gagged and suffocated. Done successful, it does all that and manages to extract phlegm or hardened secretions from the airway. Let’s just say, Mom was a patient patient.

The Home Stretch

In early October, Hannah returned to Knoxville, just six weeks after her and Peter’s wedding. It was pretty obvious, by then, that Mom really couldn’t keep managing to get to doctors’ appointments or attempting to meet progress goals with home health nurses and therapists. And, I was about at the end of my rope in terms of energy, after a month of nights on solo duty. Hospice had already been strongly suggested, but we decided to wait till Hannah got home to make the decision. Really, it seemed like a relief – to accept that we could focus on helping Mom be as comfortable as possible (or as little uncomfortable as possible), even if we kept praying for God’s healing intervention.

Once the hospice service was set up, Mom still enjoyed visits (mentioned above) from Aunt Renie, cousin Laurel, and Aunt Susan. One day a dear Korean couple drove all the way from their home in southern Georgia in order to say “good-bye” to Mom, 17 hours in the car in one day. The last weekend Mom was really coherent, Hannah and I asked a handful of her closest friends just to drop by, if they wanted to. A whole Saturday and Sunday afternoon friends came and went, carrying a wealth of shared experiences and unique perspectives on Mom.

At night, we went to a one-day-on, two-days-“off” shift, sleeping, or trying to, in Mom’s room – lest she slip towards the edge of bed or not be able to ring her bell when she needed help. The frequency of her needing something grew by leaps and bounds. We massaged her feet, and someone stayed in her room pretty much all the time. The last days, it grew very hard to communicate. But, just a couple of days before she died, when she had become largely uncommunicative, she seemed once while we were all gathered in her room to take time to look directly at each of us, as if in some sense to say good-bye. Was there some question in her eye – some person she was still looking for? We wondered if she was wondering where Dad was. We hoped very much to be with her when she died, and that she wouldn’t go in the middle of a respiratory crisis. There was one especially terribly attack, when we thought she was gone, and that the suctioning had been either too much or not enough, but she slowly started breathing again and regained a “normal” oxygen level.

Her last night I happened to be on duty – first on a mattress on the floor, then next to her in bed. She was incorrigibly congested, but no longer seemed troubled by it. I got up what felt like countless times, but she didn’t wake. Morning finally came, and slipped away. In the afternoon she died around 1:30, with Hannah and Aunt Renie and me with her. Our prayer for her going peacefully was answered.

…The following days were filled with a host of practical details. Before family arrived from Massachusetts and New Jersey and New Zealand and Pennsylvania and Arizona and Missouri, however, Hannah and Aunt Renie and I managed to steal away for a wonderfully refreshing hike up to the Chimney’s, the delayed fall colors on glorious display.

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Services were about 10 days later. Our pastor at Cedar Springs gave a beautiful homily, based on John 11, and Hannah and I asked some specific family and friends to say a few words. What blew me away was how seriously they took the challenge, and in just a brief couple or three minutes captured something beautiful of what they treasured in Mom’s friendship, something of who she was and is. Hannah read a long selection of Scriptures, and during the service a soloist sang “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” from the Messiah and also the early American hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This?” Before the service, I played classical prelude music with dear friend Kathleen, a cellist, who flew down from upstate New York.

The next day was the burial service – hymns, and a homily by family friend and long-time pastor John Stone, from Psalms Mom had especially liked. After services both days, church friends showered us with meals, so that all of the out-of-town family could be together and visit.

There doesn’t seem to be a blog post word limit, but here I’ll stop and pick up next time with other thoughts…..

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The Wedding

Hannah and Peter’s wedding on 20 August was – obviously – the high point of the year. I certainly missed out on some of the planning and preparations by arriving home just a month from the big day, but there were still plenty of tasks to help with and special pre-wedding festivities to enjoy.

Bridesmaids’ Brunch

A good friend of Mom’s, Terri Felde, who is the most enthusiastic and gourmet chef I know, graciously hosted a brunch for the bride-to-be, bridesmaids and close friends, sisters of the groom, and Mom. It was a lovely and long morning enjoying each other’s company around a sunlit table set with cheerful Fiesta ware and a feast to remember. My, what a spread! Like all the events surrounding the wedding, the celebration was tempered by wishing so much that Mom could enter more fully into it. (More in the next post to explain.) She did manage to come along, sporting an uncharacteristic new outfit and her usual gracious self – eager to enter into the delight of others, even though she couldn’t enter audibly into the conversation or eat any of the splendid meal.

Bridesmaids’ Dinner

I hosted my own version of a bridesmaids’ party at Hannah’s place. I am prone to extravagant culinary imaginations, but rarely does a meal come off as happily as this one did – and I’ve never cooked a multi-course dinner for seven before! The rules were clear: 1) Everyone else stay out of the kitchen; 2) Hannah, take photos of what comes to the table; 3) Friends, enjoy – and make Hannah feel as celebrated as possible! We dressed up, which made it more fun.img_6609

I printed menus. And, between courses we drew questions from under the plates that I thought would encourage some intentional conversation, like “What especially do you wish for Hannah and Peter as they start their marriage?“


Besides the sheer fun of conversing with friends, the conversation spread out the meal, which included:

Appetizer: Spiced cashews and pesto-stuffed peppers img_6631

Salad: Greek salad with Gougères (Gruyere cheese sticks)img_6613 img_6619

Soup: Cream of carrot soup and creamy corn and squash soupimg_6614

Entrée: Chicken Hollandaise and rosemary-butter summer squash and green beans with bacon drop biscuitsimg_6624

Cheese Board: Walnut-crusted Boursin with crackers and fruitimg_6627

Dessert: Crème Brulé with coffeeimg_6629

Wedding Cake

While we’re on the subject of cooking, the baking of the wedding cake certainly shouldn’t be overlooked! I spent quite a full day with family friend Mary Rochat, baking multiple lemon rosemary cakes. Such amounts of butter and so many lemons to zest! Thank goodness a friend has a copious rosemary patch, and she and Peter’s sisters provided us cake bakers with three or four cups of finely chopped rosemary – no small task!

The six layers for the three-tiered cake were a lot of cake, but we also made several more “normal-sized” cakes. Thankfully, Mary knew her oven well and had all the materials to work with. By the end of the day, the cakes were all safely stowed in the freezer, waiting to be transferred to the church the day before the wedding. (Note: The only photos on this post that are mine are the following few of cake baking.)

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While we’re on the topic of making things, I’ll include photos of the cake plates I etched (with the monogram that Hannah designed) for a wedding gift for Hannah and Peter.

Rehearsal Dinner

The rehearsal was preceded by an afternoon setting up at the church. Hannah was one organized and prepared bride, and a marvelous volunteer crew converged to iron tablecloths and arrange hundreds of splendid hydrangea blooms. dsc_0917 dsc_0914There was, of course, lots of visiting meanwhile – college friends traveling from as far away as Alaska, and other friends and family gathering from near and far. The rehearsal was quite fun and relaxed (at least I thought so), and the dinner to follow was lovely. It was wonderful that Mom made it to both the rehearsal and dinner, but again she must have felt keenly the impossibility of entering in as she and we would have imagined.


The wedding day was wonderful! The morning was a bit rushed – I found out the evening before that neither of the two friends we’d asked to do the final cake decorating could after all. So, at the rehearsal dinner, I asked cousin Franci and Peter’s sister Margrethe to hazard the project, which they pulled off with style, even if it wasn’t exactly stress free.  dsc_0925 dsc_0926-large dsc_0945A friend stayed the night before the wedding with Mom – a night off for me, but a rough night for the two of them, as it turned out. Aunt Renie helped Mom get ready for the wedding, and friend Julie helped out pretty much all afternoon, too. …It was fun getting ready together with Hannah and the other bridesmaids at the church. I was pretty nervous about all the details, since I so much wanted Hannah, the consummate detail person, to be happy! But, everything came together well in the end! (Note: Most of the following photos are from the wedding photographer, Lillian Prince.)

        The service was beautiful – the church building a lovely setting, the instrumental music marvelous (cello and organ), the array of friends and family representing unique connections to Hannah and Peter. Mom gave Hannah away, and Mike Kuhn gave a beautiful homily. I especially enjoyed witnessing the unhurried thoughtfulness with which Hannah and Peter exchanged their vows. They recessed – Mr. and Mrs. Weston – to the jubilant grandeur of Widor’s organ “Toccata.”

                  The reception was a lovely time, but I felt like I missed a lot of people I would have liked to talk with more. Various ones made toasts. Hannah and Peter are both fond of a good pun. So, Hannah told the guests that, while they were obviously anticipating seeing her become “Mrs. Peter Weston,” they probably didn’t think they would also witness him become “Mr. Hannah Holder”:p1040416

I figured, as maid of honor, I should come up with a toast, too. But, I couldn’t bear to write something serious, which would certainly sound cheesy. So, instead, I made a tongue twister based on the one Mom taught us a kids – “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” but of course my versions was with a certain Peter Weston:

Peter Weston picked a pretty, perfect partner.

The perfect partner did Peter Weston plainly pick.

If Peter Weston picked this picture-perfect partner,

Pray, how did Peter Weston procure her as his spouse?

Hannah Holder headed up to Wheaton College.

Via High Road Hannah hurried up to Wheaton happily.

If Hannah hastened off from home up north to Wheaton,

Hey – how did Hannah Holder find her future husband there?

Well, they went one summer out West with fellow Wheaties,

Out West to South Dakota they wandered ad(w)enturesomely.

If woodsy walks and watching stars were weaving mem’ries,

Why, I wander how they wound up wedding now?

Time aplenty past, but friendship proved persistent.

If a trip south for Peter prompted a plethora of trips,

and a penpal-ship deepened a persevering friendship,

Pray, how did Peter propose that they promise love today?

Peter planned a private picnic with perfectest aplomb,

A perch in Maine proved the perfect spot to pop the question privily.

When Peter proposed, proffered the ring, snapped pictures,

Praises be! Surprised, but pleased, she promised him that day.

Today we’ve heard “We do!” We’ve witnessed Westons wed.

We want their best, we wish them well, we wish them a wealth

Of what wear’s well with time – peace and perseverance,

Health, happiness and hope.

I’ll end my rhyme and raise a cheer – to Peter and his palindromic Bride!

…A number of friends stayed after the happy pair had left to help tidy up and figure out what to do with all the leftover cake and flowers. In the evening, late, dear friends from Spain came over to the house for another hour or so of visiting, making up a bit for the way a wonderful event like a wedding means lots of two-minute conversations that one wishes could each be a whole afternoon.

The next day friends welcomed all of the out-of-town family over to their home to enjoy wedding reception leftovers and just more time to talk. Amazingly, Mom was able to go along, though she rested most of the time there. It was a long and happy afternoon, catching up with cousins and aunts and uncles and new in-laws. Even the newlyweds graced us with their presence.

Some more photos to conclude…


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