Select Page
Barbara, the Beholder

Barbara, the Beholder

Attending without intention, that describes Barbara – her wide heart, ready smile, glistening eyes, poised blue to find you, always on the verge of discovery, impossible not to still see her urging us outward. The day after her burial, a bird’s nest had blown onto her grave, as if to say – new life always around us – look.

Growing up, Barbara lived just down the street in our small midwestern town, Sedalia, Missouri. Although fifteen years older, age was never a barrier with us. We were always equals in some way. Barbara had graduated from Maryville in St. Louis in 1958, the same year my best friend Carol’s mother, Ann, had died. One day I remember saying to Barbara that she should meet Carol’s father, Jimmy, just up Fourth Street. To Jimmy, she became more than a passing ray of light; they were married in 1960. Carol and I were eight years old.

Even when she married Jimmy and became Carol’s stepmother, Barbara kept us as friends. Barbara was only 23 then. Perhaps she became a protector friend, a Fhienne Cara, as described in Old Irish, encouraging us out of ourselves as the best way to know ourselves. With the lure of a country picnic, Barbara persuaded us (Carol, Kate, and me) to ride our bikes all the way to her parent’s farm out on Cherry Tree Lane, nearly ten miles there and back. On the way we picked watercress for sandwiches, a novelty for me. In Barbara’s house, meals had an order and we were not allowed to leave the table until our plates were empty. It wasn’t that way at our house. When Barbara placed half of a peach in front of me for dessert, I just stared. Did I dare eat that peach which believe it or not, I had never tried at the age of eight?

It must have been hard for Barbara to step into the Cooney family and into the hearts of two little girls, Carol and Colleen. Their mother, Ann, was so well loved and missed by all. She was my mother’s best friend and Mahjong buddy. But Barbara and the Cooneys did share the same strong bridge of faith, nurtured by the Mothers of the Sacred Heart. Barbara was honored with the award the Spirit of Maryville in 2019, but she died before she could accept it. It was just one of her many awards. But the motto of the Sacred Heart: Cor Meum Jungatur Vobis (Let Our Hearts be Conjoined), is what Barbara lived.

MY HEART IS A SEA

 

Green is my heart
As the sea is green,
With anemone
Salt-wet and bitter clean,
With weed-wilds
Tangling deep, unseen,
Like roots in the earth
Cutting,
Cutting quick-keen.
When up they swell
From their dark root-womb
Forests of waves
Bud sprouts of spume,
In burst of sun
Cascade into bloom.
My heart is a sea.
As giant trees crash
The great waves roll,
Then marble and freeze
Petal spray into coal,
Alabaster, marble-black.
And this? This is my soul.

                               B.L.C.

Not simply knowledge, but the honor, respect and love of others – that was part of her education and what Barbara was committed to passing on. She taught English and French at Smith Cotton, our local high school, leading us to “bonjour” in and out of class. Even self-conscious high school students were emboldened by her panache. If she seemed scattered at times, it was her vivacious intelligence at work. Barbara always had a French scarf strewn across her shoulder, her look a palette of color.

After fifteen years of teaching, she retired to look after her aging parents, Eileen and Pierre. This also brought her time to pursue her artwork – paintings, photographs, sculptures, assemblages – a flourishing of God’s gifts. As her body of work grew, Barbara combined her artistic and educational calling into Camp Blue Sky, a summer art camp for kids which she and Jimmy sponsored. Barbara said it was her proudest achievement.

Even though we lived in different countries, different states in the latter years, we met at times and always corresponded, sharing thoughts, current literature. One of my favorite walks with her was down her “Champs Elysses” to Persimmon Hill, her farm, just outside Sedalia. One trip, I had found some of the strange “hedge apples,” along Cherry Tree Lane and brought one to Barbara who explained it came from the French bois d’arc (Bodark), the bow wood tree. The Bodark tree as it was known locally, or Osage-orange tree, was valued by Native Americans for its bark, which made the finest bows. I must have seen its fruit, those hedge apples growing up but never seen them. Barbara placed the bulbous green fruit the size of a large orange on her white fence, making one of her “little altars” to honor God’s creation. Only Barbara could find beauty in a wrinkly, bumpy hedge-apple.

In remembering her, I realize how much of a loving mentor through life Barbara has been for me. Her chosen epigraph to her collection of poetry and paintings – from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem – best captures her, I think: Barbara, the beholder.

These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Do You Remember Barbara

Do You Remember Barbara

Barbara with her father on her wedding day.

“Remember Barbara,” begins a wonderful poem by Jacques Prevert about love and war: the Second World War and the destruction of the French port, Brest; the love of Barbara and the desolate loss of that love. It reminded me of my friend, Barbara, and the Alzheimer’s disease from which she recently died – Alzheimer’s rain of iron and fire gradually dissipating into clouds of unknowing.

Barbara was one of the first persons I met when we moved to California from South Africa 30 years ago. Driving around, searching for a place to live, we were attracted to the green belts of the Bluffs, Barbara’s area it turned out. She worked in real estate and found us a home to rent.

Barbara told me about how she had first taught school here in California, bringing up her two sons when her husband had left. Later she saw an opportunity in real estate and so got her license and made her own neighborhood her target. Barbara knew every house and plan. She seemed to know every tree and root, too. Our sink was backing up on a Thanksgiving day and who should drive by, as God-sent, but Barbara with the name of the only ‘roto-rooter’ who had the length of line needed to unblock the drain all the way to the street.

Barbara with her first horse.

Barbara and I got to know each other, both of us originating from small towns in the Midwest, Barbara from Iowa, I from Missouri. We both had ridden and shown American Saddlebred horses in our youth; we both were brought up Catholic. When Barbara discovered our two young children had never seen snow, she didn’t hesitate to take them to Big Bear to see their first snow. Barbara skiied, piloted a plane, traveled the world with her two sons. Barbara was a generous woman.

Running into Barbara some years later, she told me of her year in bed “with some kind of flu.” I told her of our reversal of fortune and our starting an in-home care business. Barbara, again, did not hesitate but signed up as our first client with just a few hours, a few days a week. We helped her in her home where Barbara had helped her own parents when they were older, bringing them from Iowa so she could look after them.

Barbara was strong-minded. Even while well advanced with Alzheimer’s, she was in charge. If she could not find the words, the look in her eyes told you what she wanted or did not want. About midway through Barbara’s Alzheimer’s war, Barbara was insisting upon visiting a rental that she had looked after in the past. My husband took her for a drive to distract her when she reminded him that her sons had guns so he had better do what she wanted! He smiled and kept driving. Barbara smiled too. She liked men.

Remember Barbara.

Donald & Barbara.

“Barbara”

By Jacques Prevert

Remember Barbara
It rained incessantly on Brest that day
And you walked smiling
Radiant delighted streaming wet
In the rain Remember Barbara
It rained incessantly on Brest
And I came across you on Siam Street
You were smiling
And I smiled too
Remember Barbara
You whom I did not know
You who did not know me
Remember
Still remember that day
Do not forget
A man was sheltering under a porch
And he called out your name
Barbara And you ran to him in the rain
Dripping enchanted blossoming,
And you flung yourself into his arms
Remember that Barbara
And do not be mad if I address you as tu
I say tu to all those I love
Even if I have seen them only once
I say tu to all who love each other
Even if I do not know them.
Remember Barbara
Do not forget
This rain wise and happy
On your happy face
On this happy city
This rain on the sea
On the arsenal
On the boat Ushant
Oh Barbara
What a bloody farce this war.
What has become of you now
Under this rain of iron
Of fire of steel of blood
And the one who enclosed you in his arms
Lovingly
Is he dead or disappeared or indeed still living
Oh Barbara
It rains constantly in Brest
As it was raining before
But this is not the same and everything is ruined
This is a rain of mourning terrible and desolate
Now it is not even the storm
Of iron of steel of blood
But merely of clouds
That simply die like dogs
Dogs that disappear
In the water flowing over Brest
And will rot away
In the distance far from Brest
Of which nothing remains

Barbara laughing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
These Evening Bodies That We Wear

These Evening Bodies That We Wear

These Evening Bodies That We Wear

Yesterday evening, instead of spring cleaning, I was doing some fall trashing of old magazines that had gathered under tables in dead stacks, a heap of paper. Paging through a few of them, I stopped at the following poem I might have missed before. It read exactly as I felt last night, stiff from sitting, dizzy with a drift of glossy paper. The poet caught my aging body in its October nightdress.

Evening Poem by Alice Oswald

Old scrap-iron foxgloves
rusty rods of the broken woods

what a faded knocked-out stiffness
as if you’d sprung from the horsehair
of a whole Victorian sofa buried in the mud down there

or at any rate something dropped from a great height
straight through flesh and out the other side
has left your casing pale and loose and finally

just a heap of shoes

they say the gods being so uplifted
can’t really walk on feet but take tottering steps
and lean like this closer and closer to the ground

which gods?

it is the hours on bird-thin legs
the same old choirs of hours
returning their summer clothes to the earth

with the night now
as if dropped from a great height

falling

 


 
Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
More Poetry

Do You Remember Barbara

“Remember Barbara,” begins a wonderful poem by Jacques Prevert about love and war: the Second World War and the destruction of the French port, Brest; the love of Barbara and the desolate loss of that love. It reminded me of my friend, Barbara, and the Alzheimer's...

“Affirmation,” by Donald Hall

To grow old is to lose everything. Aging, everybody knows it. Even when we are young, we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads when a grandfather dies. Then we row for years on the midsummer pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage, that began without harm, scatters into debris on the shore, and a […]

The Frequency of the Wood

The Frequency of the Wood

Gwen in her Northern Kingdom

Gwen in her Northern Kingdom

“Had a lovely trip over to Jura and took a boat out to a whirlpool of the end of the island.  Believe it is the third largest in the world and whilst the waters were choppy and lots of undercurrents we did not go round and round in a whirl – which I was slightly disappointed about. Last year we had a lovely relaxing holiday in Tenerife with friends.  Lay in the sun for a bit, swam, visited some lovely old villages, drank wine and played cards oh and we went paragliding – was up at 4000 ft!  Amazing and I was clinging on tight!” (letter from Gwen)

Sometimes you have to take up the imagination of the dead and let it back into your life. Gwen was like her Orkney gloaming, a clarity of light energetically still, a blackbird lilting up the strath and down the glen, before dark, a glaze of sight, crépuscule. She was “tuned into the frequency of the wood”: Gwen, a woodwind in the forest orchestra.

Orkney Chair

She didn’t hide in an Orkney chair but donned a red wig, nobody knowing whether to laugh or cry. If she had paid too much attention to the hair, she would have skipped a beat when she got the cancer diagnosis. She skipped no beat and became a redhead. She was too alive to really look at herself.

Nothing endures, particularly a good hair day, especially when you’ve lost it all. Gwen laughed and looked north, filling her lungs with the wind and the rain, despite the pain she was in. She put on her red wig and still went to work. When she needed to top up her coffers for a new adventure, she would happily pick up a job (ushering at  the theatre, working in real estate). She often said she couldn’t wait to be a pensioner when she would ride a bus anywhere for free. She was frugal, not to a fault but with a vision.

GwenGwen did bag her Munros and saw most of the world, happy to stay in youth hostels while in her late sixties! She loved to travel as much as she loved to play golf and dance the Highland fling. She seemed fearless except for the occasional shadow in the night. Neil, her husband told me of a shade that often took her breath away at one of the three gates she had to unlatch, getting out of the car with the wind up and only the darkness leading back to the farm.

One day Gwen took me up the moor to check on the sheep. We found one ewe with the lamb stuck, its head sticking out, the ewe just standing there, also stuck. With her shepherd’s crook, Gwen pinned the ewe on the ground for me to hold while she pulled the baby lamb from its mother. Gwen then rubbed the newborn lamb against the mother’s nose so she would know her, suckle her and all would be well.

Gwen was tuned into every bit of life around her. With her, I now look more closely.

IMG_6766

IMG_7127

Wood Anemone calling Spring

Wood Anemone calling Spring

"to thole the Winter's sleety dribble"

“to thole the Winter’s sleety dribble”

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Still Growing

Still Growing

A Girl keeps GrowingSometimes it takes a bit of apparent nonsense to return us to the pith of common sense. This year being the century and a half marker of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, that wisdom struck me again. As Alice ate the cake she kept growing. “Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so surprised that she quite forgot how to speak good English.)

Who has not found a curious loss of good grammar growing older? Who has not gone blank with the spelling of a word?

As Alice grows like a telescope, she pities her distancing feet, wondering who will put on their shoes and stockings. She tells her poor little feet they must manage the best they can. She vows to be kind to them though for “perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go!” And so when our feet or legs don’t work as well as they used to, perhaps we might take Alice’s lead, staying flexible and just trying to manage them as best we can.

And as to the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, listen to Father William.

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —
Pray, what is the reason for that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment — one shilling a box —
Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak —
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose —
What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father. “Don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs.”

Lewis Carroll

humpty-dumpty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.