Tag Archives: loss

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: We Cried And Then We Danced

Yesterday was a day unlike any day I’ve ever had at a Warren Wilson Alumni Conference, and that’s saying something, because there have been lots of them, lots and lots of days. I want to say that maybe this is the sixth year in a  row and maybe my tenth attendance altogether for a whopping total of about 70 days at Writer’s Camp over the last 15 years or so.

Yesterday was a little bit of a perfect storm as conversations, classes, and our readings all reminded us about how this has been a year of losses. And while this conference has been for me (and I’m almost certain for others as well) life-affirming, intellectually inspiring, intensely productive, and just downright fun, those losses have been with us all along, coloring our conversations, sobering up some of our meal-time talk, darkening our discussions in classes. But worse than any of the ugliness in our body politic, as bad as that is, most all of us are still reeling from the loss of our dear friend and fellow alum Carlen Arnett, who died suddenly in January of this year. She was beloved by everyone who knew her and even by those whose interactions with her were brief. She was generous, kind, funny, lively, full of great stories, a gifted poet who in her last years had embarked on an ambitious novel inspired by “The Snow Queen.” Carlen’s main character was a friend of Gerda, the tale’s protagonist, a friend known simply as The Robber Girl. We’d been hearing her read from that novel in progress over the last several years at our conferences, so even though she was not able to finish it, that work of hers lives within us and we are lucky enough to glimpse its process and progress captured on a Facebook page Carlen set up for her work. I’m struck by how what she was doing in that fiction, bringing to a fully fleshed-out life a minor character from a German folk tale, is a lot like what she did for the real people she encountered. She brought people to life. She added vigor, and enthusiasm, and fire to every exchange. Hanging out with Carlen for any length of time, one felt infused with energy and lightness. I wish I had known her better. I can only imagine that those who did know her well have felt truly unmoored by her passing.

So our reading last night ended with a tribute to Carlen. We cried and then we danced. Our final ritual of Writer’s Camp is always the dance. And verily we danced. I wore my disco shorts. Carlen would want us to be joyful, to celebrate her life by living ours. I think she would have been proud of us.

Concluding Note: the audio at the top of this entry is an interview Carlen gave to her great friend Marcia. Marcia was kind enough to share that audio with me, and I superimposed it over the top of some music I had written with my wife René around the time of Carlen’s passing. It’s a beautiful little bit of storytelling about grocery shopping. I find it astounding and inspiring and beautifully representative of the kind of wonder Carlen had about the world. Produce is an extravaganza, she said. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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In Memoriam: Mama Shirley

Shirley Jarmer JPEG 1

A Eulogy for Shirley Elaine Jarmer, Delivered Saturday, June 10, 2017 at St. John the Baptist’s Catholic Church:

Friends, Jarmers, and Kidds. On behalf of our family, I thank you all for being here today. But we need to stop meeting like this.

Once again, I have the great honor and responsibility of sharing with you remembrances of a dearly beloved parent, family member, and friend on her passing. What I tried to do seven years ago for my Daddy I will try now to do for Mama, Shirley Elaine Jarmer.

She was a remarkable woman. Although, sadly, I know little about my mother’s childhood, I know she was a dedicated daughter, loved her parents deeply. She was a high school dropout who nevertheless had beautiful penmanship and serious skills in writing and math. She was a loving and super young mother of three. The fourth child came late—that would be me, not a mistake, she said, but a surprise. Pregnant with me, I heard a story recently that Mom just couldn’t believe it—“How did this happen to me?” she said.

She became, perhaps before it was acceptable to do so, a working mother. But that’s a dumb thing to say, after all, because what mother is not hard at work all the time. No, I mean she was employed outside the home in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s. She worked at Berg’s department store, she took receptionist jobs at an insurance company and for Jarmer Electric, she did a stint in textiles for a division of the White Stag brand, and she was a checker in Fred Meyer apparel. I think Mom worked so she could have an independent income all her own—to raise what she might call FUNNY MONEY. Because Dad was kind of a penny pincher. In her retirement she worked less for herself and more for others: she did volunteer work with the Providence Hospital Lady’s Auxiliary, worked the gift shop, and later she counted money every Sunday for this sacred institution, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

Earlier, I called Shirley a loving mother—kind of a cliché suitable for probably any mother who loves her kids, but I remember Mom as going the extra mile in the love department. She was kind, gentle, comforting, welcoming, and caring. I knew my father loved me, but mama’s love was huge and expressed with freedom and tenderness, with kisses, hugs, pets, and food. I think a general and all-capital SWEETNESS was a trait she shared with her sister Beverly and one that I see reflected in Beverly’s daughter Suzanne. Shirley was sweetness embodied and she loved her children, but she loved her grandchildren and her extended family; she loved her friends as well, and she shared her sweetness with all.

And she was an adoring wife to Dad. She took such good, loving care of him. I remember Mom washing his hair in the kitchen sink—which must have been difficult for a woman of her stature—massaging his head and shoulders in the evening as he sat on the floor in front of her in a chair before the fire or listening to music together. She took good care of him in his final difficult year. She treasured him. “My Daddy”—she called him this—she lovingly referred to him chiefly as the father of her children, and even though I know she loved him in lots of other ways, perhaps she cherished him most because of this.

Her last request: I want to be with my Daddy.

Mom demonstrated to me every single day Dad was alive, and even after, what a strong marriage could look like.

Mom was full of personality. Everybody loved Shirley. She lit up a room—or a campground. She was the life of the party. She was super funny, could be very silly and she had a penchant for baby talk, one she kept up until the very end, speaking to her favorite nurses in a childlike, playful way, even in the last days of her life. She had a seriously dominant cuteness gene, a gene she passed on, I must admit, to at least one of her children. You’d never know it looking at me—but I can baby talk with the best of them.

Part of her dynamic personality included her way with words, or at least, with particular words or phrases used often and to great effect. She had, for example, several alternatives for swearing.

“For crying out loud,” she’d say. A more extreme variation and therefore my favorite: “For crying in a bucket!”

And here’s an odd one: When frustrated or angry she’d say: “Manischewitz!” (I only just recently, like within the last few weeks, learned the origin of this word. Did you know this? It’s the last name of a Rabbi who at the end of the 19th century founded a company that would produce kosher food and wine. Who knows why she picked up the habit of using this poor Rabbi’s name in vain; we’ll never know).

When things were wrong or went badly: “This is the pits! This is just the pits!” I heard Aunt Marian say this as she visited mom the night before Shirley died. Marian speculated that maybe she picked up the habit of that phrase from our mom).

Another one of my favorite Mom expressions along these same lines: “This is for the birds!”—This particular idiom is a puzzler—I’m not sure what it means: whatever bad thing that just happened, I guess, is good for birds somehow? It’s certainly not good for us but might be fitting for birds, because, you know, birds are okay with almost everything?

And last but not least: “I can’t believe it.” Like when she was pregnant with me: “How did this happen? I can’t believe it.” This one fascinates me. It’s probably the phrase she used more than any other. And I think it represents this part of her personality—she was just always mystified by the unexpected, both the good and the bad, puzzled when people did great or stupid or terrible things or when things went horribly wrong in her circle or in the world. “I just can’t believe it.” She preferred things in order. And she liked it when one thing followed the next in a logical reasoned sequence. She liked things, people, and events to be neat and tidy. Consequently, because things, people, and events are rarely neat and tidy, she said she couldn’t believe it a lot. “I just can’t believe it.”

Finally, her choice of nicknames for people, most frequent of which was the mutation of the family name: Jama! If you were a Jarmer and you were in some kind of mischief, she’d playfully call you Jama. If you weren’t a Jarmer and you were in some kind of mischief you were still a Jama. Everybody was a Jama. And if you weren’t a Jarmer or a Jama, you were a farmer, and if you weren’t a farmer, you were a Charley. I have no idea where this came from. For a time she was calling everybody Charley.

She had a special nickname for her son-in-law Kevin. He was her “favorite son-in-law.” Quite an honor—a coveted, highly competitive post. (Just in case the joke is lost on you: Kevin was Mom’s only son-in-law).

But, in keeping with her general sweetness, she also called EVERYONE honey, dear, sweetheart, or punkin (my phonetic spelling of mama’s “pumpkin”).  Everybody was a honey or a punkin. And everyone, no matter what size, was little. A little punkin. A little honey. That little doctor. My little daddy. My little David. And not wanting to offend anyone, she would always think of some gentle way to describe what a person might be sensitive about. Her last doctor, a bald guy, she described as being “short of hair.”

She loved playing games with her family, mostly cards, gin rummy, progressive rummy, Uno, or Crazy 8’s. The story goes that she stayed up until 1:00 a.m. playing Crazy 8’s with her niece Kate, yelling “Wild Baby” every time an 8 was played, keeping everybody else in the house awake. She loved a moderate and conservative round of gambling. She loved a good meal and hated a bad one. Like Dad, she loved her martinis. She loved camping. She loved animals, was probably the sole reason why we ever had a pet in the house—and we always did. She loved “swimming” or rather, floating in the pool that mom and dad built. She loved to look good. Loved a good hairdo. She loved beauty—from her fancy jewelry to her funny little dancing solar windowsill toys of which she had acquired quite a collection, and flowers. As far as I can tell, as she looked at the bouquet we had brought from the hospital to her room in hospice, her last coherent words were “they’re so pretty.”

In closing out this remembrance, this portrait of mama Shirley, I’d like to conclude by saying that mom was a woman of values:

One of her chief values I’ve already discussed: Loving kindness. And acceptance, tolerance—she welcomed all into her home—and I think she evolved a great deal as our family diversified; she evolved way beyond the intolerance of the culture in which she grew up.

She valued honesty and responsibility—even if it takes a long, long time, 50 years maybe, one must be truthful and accountable. She was forgiving and forgiven in bountiful measure.

She valued gratitude. She exuded gratitude; she was appreciative, always thankful for what other people gave to her or did for her: She didn’t want to trouble anyone. To a fault, she didn’t want her issues, whether physical, emotional, or moral, to be anybody else’s burden, so she was often tight lipped when it came to describing her own pain or sorrow, but she was always grateful when someone helped her out—and said so. “Thank you,” she’d say.

Last, she valued family.

Even if we have no right to do so, it makes sense that we do it: we try to make meaning—we interpret the behaviors of our loved ones—especially in these crucial last moments, to help us make sense of, to add meaning to the ends of their lives. And this is what I noticed about Mom —Mama waited to die until she could spend a full night with each of her children in succession; Rick, Jan, Dave, and I were all able to be with her for an entire night over the last four nights of her life—and she waited to die until she could spend the last moments with her only surviving immediate family member, her brother Bill.

Among all the tremendous gifts of life and love she gave to us all, what a gift she gave to us here—giving each of us in turn an opportunity to say goodbye in our own way. Thoughtful, considerate, and selfless to the very last. That was our mama, your grandma, your auntie Shirley, your sister, your friend, your parishioner.

From Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystic poet: “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

Godspeed, mama Shirley. You will always be with us in every moment of every waking day, in our memory, in our hearts and souls, and even in the sweetest of our dreams.

Postscript: Tremendous gratitude from us, Shirley’s children, to Aunt Marian, Suzanne and Gene, Uncle Bill and Aunt Leslie for being with us and with mom steadfastly through the last few weeks. You have been a tremendous help and comfort.

 

 

 

 

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