“Family Treasures” – Lay Ministers: Bill Kramer, Dayna Wolhart, and Tony Stringer
Bill Kramer: Bear With Me
As I approached age 30, like many young people, I started seeing a therapist. We talked about times and events that made an impact on my life.
One such time was as a very young child, maybe 3 or 4. My mother was often ill and spent days at a time with the curtains drawn and her bedroom door closed. I learned from my older siblings and other caregivers to play quietly, to not disturb her. As the youngest, I didn’t have school activities, bicycles to ride, or neighbor friends, so inevitably I spent time alone, with my toys.
This was a blessing in disguise, because through playing with toys, I learned something valuable….
Let me tell you about Tiffany Taylor. Tiffany Taylor was a fashion doll whose gimmick was her hair could change colors. By rotating the back of her head, the hair went from blonde to brunette. She was also different being 18” instead of Barbie’s 11 ½”. I was the only one in my family with this doll and recognized that made her – and me – unique.
She taught me about difference.
The Sesame Street playset and its Fisher Price Little People also taught me about difference. Gordon and Susan were characters who were African American. I had no concept of race, yet, but I understood that these toys were brown to all the other white toys. I connected this to an African American woman at our church, one of only a very small number. In my 3 year old mind, these toys and this lady were different than most others I knew.
(These two concepts would combine when I was 7 and received the black Tiffany Taylor for Christmas. Exactly the same except the color of the plastic. Not even a different outfit – that was a disappointment. But I’d later write a college paper on race and national identity in international beauty pageants – so not a complete lesson lost. I got an A.)
Besides difference, my toys taught me about love.
As the youngest of 6, I had plenty of hand-me-down stuffed animals. I don’t recall any of these bears’ names, they weren’t my first choice in bears, but I recognized they belonged together – they were both similar AND different. They were a family.
I eventually got my own teddy bear, and he taught me about love.
It’s been a generation since Winnie-the-Pooh had his red felt vest or his yarn mouth. It was replaced many times by a swipe of permanent marker that has somehow worn off too. He’s been re-stitched and repaired but is mostly in one piece 40 years later.
Pooh was not just a toy, a character in imaginative play. He was a comfort when scared, a support when sad, and a companion when lonely. This teddy bear was my first independent relationship and would empower me to establish the deep supportive bonds recognized as family.
Pooh taught a young boy that he could create a family bond himself. The bonds with my parents and siblings were mutual bonds, but connections they initiated. There was a dependence on my part. Pooh allowed me to create a bond, to establish a relationship on my terms.
By now you’ve figured out, I don’t subscribe to the “blood is thicker than water” idea, that somehow biology is the bond that connects people – yes, at times, but family is more importantly about love and caring, not just DNA.
My cousins generally grew up within 50 miles of each other in Los Angeles and I grew up in Minnesota. When one cousin attended the college literally across the street from the college I attended, at the same time, I didn’t know about it, even though my uncle, his father, picked me up from the airport my first day of school, just a few years early. Despite having common grandparents, we didn’t have a shared experience, since we grew up far away from each other. It is the value placed on having each other in our lives that creates kindship. This played out for me when I was 20.
Like many LGBT youth, my family’s reaction to coming out was mixed. From support to indifference to silence that lasted years. As a college freshman 2000 miles from home, before I sent the letter to my parents, I surrounded myself with friends, teachers, and allies whom I felt would support me in the event I was disowned. I was fortunate, unlike too many LGBT youth who are fully rejected by their families of origin, but this “family of choice” was vital to having the courage and strength to be my true self. We had a code for when we spotted another LGBT person across the college cafeteria or walking across campus. We’d ask, “Is that person family?” knowing that we might share some common experience with the stranger.
Pooh reminds me that family can come from anywhere. He gives me permission to seek love and support as I need it, from many sources – relatives, neighbors, friends, classmates, co-workers; the people in this room right now. Family is not one definition.
I knew when I created a family, it would look different. My partner would be a male instead of female (and until very recently, a partner and not a spouse). If we had children they would be adopted or through a surrogate (We settled for dogs). But we would be a family – both different and the same. As a UU, I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all families, however they are defined.
And my toys went far in teaching me. How beautiful, that such profound lessons came from Tiffany Taylor, Gordon and Susan, and a Winnie-the-Pooh whose red felt vest and yarn mouth had to be repaired again and again because I loved him so intensely, and he loved me.
Dayna Wolhart: Dismantling a Life – When too many “treasures” are a burden
Sometimes, too many treasures are a burden. I speak today of an experience common to many of us—the difficult and draining work of disposing of a loved one’s personal stuff after they die. I call this process dismantling a life.
Five years ago, my stepfather, Jim, died suddenly. He was 83 and pretty robust, so this was unexpected—and a family crisis. Mother is disabled from a stroke and can’t live alone. She needed help to sell their condo in Florida and move to a more supportive environment. While my sister looked for assisted living, I moved in with mom—to look after her, dispose of decades worth of accumulation, and prepare the condo for sale.
Those of you who’ve been through this know that there’s no way to sugarcoat the experience. It’s rough. I was focused and eager when I arrived—exhausted and grieving when I left. I sorted and boxed and shipped, hauled, recycled, or pitched dozens of cubic yards of stuff—one carton at a time.
I brought as a visual aid one of Jim’s plastic bins and a couple of his tote bags.
Though the visible parts of their home were always clean, the closets were crammed full. They also had two storage units in the building, both stuffed floor to ceiling with a mishmash of things—canned food, housewares and paper goods, fishing tackle, gift wrap, silk floral arrangements, craft supplies, ornaments and décor for every holiday and season, hand tools, power tools, screws, washers, and nails, electronics, gadgets, UGH. I dove into it then, but if I had to face it now I would flee.
There was Just. So. Much. Stuff. And every object or sheet of paper required a decision about what to do with it, and an action to dispose of it or save it. The papers were as jumbled as the storage units. Useless papers from old jobs and prior homes were carefully filed, while bank statements and medical records were piled or randomly stashed with recipe cards, magazine clippings, photos, and handwritten lists. Throughout the weeks of sorting, I grew angry, oh so ANGRY. “Why did you keep all this stuff,” I seethed under my breath, over and over and over.
Living with mother while I sorted added to the stress. So much of the past intersected, entwined, and overflowed. Mother’s and my lifelong contentious relationship made it harder.
One night, mom and I had a blowout. She has mild dementia from the stroke and couldn’t remember the things we’d already packed up for her to take to her new place. She saw me preparing a load for Goodwill and started picking through it. She came upon a box of tacky Christmas ornaments. Not remembering the good ones we’d already saved, she panicked, grabbed the box, and refused to let go. She sat forlornly on the edge of her chair clutching the box of ticky tack and wailing, “But this is my life.”
In the end, there was very little of the stuff of that life, worth keeping. The good items I kept for mom or shipped to family members—photos, knickknacks, art. The rest of it went to charity, recycling, or trash. Fortunately, we sold the condo furnished, so I didn’t have to deal with furniture.
When I left that condo on the last day—a few days after Mom moved—I closed the storm shutters and set Mom’s and Jim’s chairs next to each other, just so, like two thrones, as if the king and queen were touching at the knee. Then I burst into tears and sobbed, “I’m so sorry, I’m so so sorry.” Despite months of raging at all the junk, my violation of their privacy and the finality of death sank in.
Treasure turns to burden so quickly. In our families of origin, the families we choose or inherit, and in the families we call community, our treasures are NOT the things. The only value lies in our love and commitment to each other. Our greatest treasures are these: to care for one another in life and in death, to acknowledge that love and rage can co-exist, and to say when needed to others and to ourselves: “I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.”
Tony Stringer: Three Small Coincidences
[Mbira notes played]
I am obviously not a musician, but I wanted you to hear this sound. It is a sound that reminds me of something I treasure.
I have always been in search of family. And there is no mystery about why. My parents were never together save that one night when they conceived me. And my parents were old – far too old to let passion overwhelm their good sense, though I owe my existence to that momentary lapse in rational thought.
My parents were old to be having a child. He in his 50s and she in her 40s, I was not part of either one’s life plan. I was an accident. Even worse, my mother was the youngest of seven siblings. So everyone in my accidental family was even older than she. I bring up the rear of my generation of the family. I was my mother’s only child and I came so very unfashionably late. So late that it seemed that every act in our family drama had already taken place, was already in progress, or was just about to end. Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles were constantly departing. I lost my father when I was 7, my grandmother when I was 14, and nearly lost my mother at 13 – to one of the many infirmities that would plague her senior years.
So, little wonder that as soon as I reached the age of maturity, I set about creating my own family. I married into an existing family, already partly fashioned by my wife now of 40 years, just this past Tuesday, and her two daughters. A family that happily kept expanding, first with a daughter of our own, and still later with a granddaughter. I thought my search complete with the birth of that granddaughter. It was all the family I had ever imagined. And then I learned that I had a sister.
Now here’s where I wish I could tell you a funny story about my sister, Iris Yvonne Wilson. But I can’t. I don’t have any funny stories. We didn’t share a childhood together. We didn’t share a life together. Indeed, our lives barely touched. The only funny thing I can say is that she wasn’t a secret. No one was trying to keep her from me. It’s just that no one thought to mention her to me.
When my father’s marriage ended, my half-sister Iris moved with her mother to Chicago, where she grew up. I grew up in Detroit with my mother. Iris was 30 years my senior, and I, thirty years her junior. Our paths did cross once, she would later tell me. She spotted me—-a 7-year-old, at our father’s funeral. But we never spoke. And what would she have said to a 7-year-old trying to comprehend death——this mysterious new thing that made adults cry.
And it was another death that brought Iris and me together. She found my name and phone number in a deceased aunt’s phone book and decided to call this young brother she had never met, to tell him about his aunt’s passing. The details of my aunt’s death barely registered with me on that phone call, because all I heard was: “Hi, I’m your sister Iris.” I had a sister.
Iris and I met only twice. Finding out she was 30 years older, and hearing the frailty even in her voice, I arranged to meet her as soon as I could. We hugged when we met, and I proceeded to soak up every story from her life that she was willing to tell. My wife and daughter accompanied me on my second visit to Iris. And that was all the time we had. She was 30 years my senior, and her life was ending before our relationship could really have a chance to begin.
But there were three things that instantly connected me to Iris, brief as our time together was. When I met her, remarkably we were both reading the same book. I looked in her refrigerator and it was full of my favorite soft drink. I looked on her living room table and there sat an mbira – an African thumb piano. I have 14 of them from all parts of the continent and one from Brazil. Iris and I were collecting the same African instrument.
Three small coincidences in two barely intersecting lives, but all three telling me, I had family all along. I had a sister named Iris and we treasured the very same things.