Archive for the 'family history' Category

“You are amazing. You are great. You are cool.”

amywink July 29th, 2017

This weekend marks one year since I lost my best friend, Stacey. We, as a culture, are not very good at acknowledging grief, recognizing it as part of a complex human experience, but we are better at recognizing the grief that is shared through familial relationships. There is precious little written about the lost of a long-time and deep friendship. Searching the blog posts on What’s Your Grief leads to one article: When Your Best Friend Dies. At least it’s a very good article.

When your best friend dies, many people don’t notice. When your best friend dies, you have to tell them if you want them to know–and when you tell them, they might forget you’re grieving. When your best friend dies, people don’t perceive that you might be the right age to have lost someone close. When your best friend dies, some people don’t even understand the concept of best friendships.

It is a kind of solitary, singular loss.

But grief is not a competition but a frame through which we, changed, now see the world, like Emily Dickinson wrote “I measure every Grief I meet With narrow, probing, eyes – I wonder if It weighs like Mine – Or has an Easier size.”

I am very lucky, both to have known Stacey, and also to have more than a single best friend (which as an adult, is not longer the hierarchical term we use in childhood, the Number 1 friend, but a description of the kind of friend a person is, the best kind). Those friends closed ranks and carried me through the worst of the loss, some old friends stepped up to the plate, some new friends stepped forward. But when Stacey died, a chasm opened and into it fell our shared memories, our collective experience, the tangential connections I had to her husband, her family, her friends. Suddenly, the bridge to her whole life vanished. At the same time, a few of those connections became stronger as we also became closer to share our grief, her husband, her best friend from college. What had been tangential has become central, like healing around a collective wound, a web across the chasm we were left with. But the chasm is still there and every time I think “Stacey would have loved this” or “Stacey would have said….” or “I’d have asked Stacey about this” or a thousand other small thoughts that drift through my days, there is only a deep and reverberating echo for an answer.

Stacey was born into a religious tradition in which the only afterlife was in the continual remembering of the person. While she happily left most of that religion behind, she did believe, and I believe, that the active remembering of a person, her life, her relationships, her stories, keeps that person among the living. I remember her. I am writing her into the fabric of my life, and in contemporary parlance, weaving her into the Web so she will never be forgotten. She didn’t want to be discussed on social media but she can’t stop me from making her presence known and her memory valuable. (Sorry, Stacey, I’m breaking your rules, but I think you knew I would because, well, you knew I was a writer.)

I wrote the following piece for her memorial service, though I did not attend (which I explain in The Difficulty of Blue, if you’re curious). And I still think of this as my favorite memory of our friendship, an allegorical story about the meaning of best friendship.


I met Stacey in graduate school at Texas A&M. We had circled each other but our gravities had
not yet achieved the closeness required to pull us together permanently until one day she asked
a fateful question “How are you?” And I answered truthfully “I am having the worst day of my

It’s a good thing Stacey didn’t scare easily. In fact, Stacey didn’t scare. And I was so lucky
she accepted my truthful response and chose not to run but instead to bring herself closer and
offer her friendship even though it would have been easy to walk away.

But Stacey was a First Responder at heart and she walked directly into my disaster and worked to pull me through.

And eventually, I did the same for her.

Because that’s what friends do.

Despite her chronic delusion that she was “just a normal person” she was most extraordinary, a
person who became a best friend to me through the some of the most difficult years of my life
but also my writing partner, who helped me be as creative, helped me flesh out ideas in
conversation and correspondence, helped me articulate the insights we searched for together.
She helped polish my work for publication and the many conference papers I wrote as I tried to
make an academic career. Our twenty year daily email correspondence– “our sharing thoughts
in writing”–was an amazing work of art between the two of us, a living conversation.

Our best work together, a presentation of our family history title City Ancestor/Country Ancestor” traced
the amazing stories we both had of our families. Blending her prose with my poetry, illustrated
with family photographs from both our family archives, we presented together at a Popular
Culture Association conference in San Antonio.

It was a fantastic performance piece. We were a hit and we were so pleased and proud of our own brilliance. Late, late, late in our hotel room, neither of us asleep but soaring alone on our triumph until one of us spoke:

” I can’t sleep.”

“Neither can I”

And we flipped on the lights to celebrate

“That was so great! ”

“We were so great!

“We were amazing!”

“We were so cool”

And we were great. We were amazing. We were cool.

I will miss writing with her every day. And I will miss her every day but like I told her in the last
weeks of her life, she will always be with me. I’ll always be hearing her say “You are great, You are amazing,
You are cool.”


amywink March 30th, 2017


May 17, 2004

On Good Friday,
I kneel in the dim
antique store light
reading the titles
0n a bookshelf tucked
beneath shadows, searching
the scuff-edged spines,
hoping for undiscovered treasure.

This day, I find Jane Eyre,
Soft and battered leather,
with bible paper leaves,
And a tender message
Maidie Spencer,
From Mama
Christmas 1920

in a left-hand tilted script.

I covet.

At home, I unwrap the
swaddled volume,
packaged like a breakable.
opening the covers to absorb
my small extravagance.

In this new light, beneath
the ink inscription, a pale
and broken-pencil line reveals
This is the last book Maidie read.

In the daze of revelation
now ascending, I comprehend
anew this gift of providence,
this perfect Easter token,
a holy spirit rising,
the final offering for a
remembered life.


After writing this poem in 2004, I recently revisited it after looking at my book collection again and my cousin tracked down this information:

Maidie Spencer’s grave.

Maidie Spencer’s death certificate:


The Heart of Things

amywink March 3rd, 2017


“The Heart of Things”

“I need my stacks,” my mother said, after I told her I was going to clean her room for when she came home from the hospital. “I need my stacks.” I agreed but knew I’d need to do something more than leave them if she came home. In the fifteen years I lived with my parents, we had steadily cleaned and cleared and removed the bulk of her hoarded things, making room for life out from under the weight of my grandmother’s belongings, the leftovers of a teaching career, the reminders of sadness and loss, to make a way for a better living. We had renovated each room, made changes, some small, some dramatic, to our home, opening walls and windows, pulling light into the house. We’d renovated with an eye for my father’s increasing handicaps, and made the house accessible. And yet there still were stacks, ever rising stacks of papers, on the kitchen table, on her shelves, on her desk, two large file cabinets of “important papers” that might as well have been made of stone. I had steadfastly refused to clean her room, because it was her own space and what she needed was not what I needed. The threshold of her room was a boundary I did not usually cross, unless necessity required it. And then, necessity required it.

In the time between her heart attack and her death, I cleaned, making way for her to walk when she came home, organizing the stacks and filing things away as best I could, using my anxiety on the most immediate problem, making a difference how I could. But when she died, my reasons for cleaning evaporated. In the days and months after her death, I began instead to clear.

It would have been tempting to pile everything in a dumpster and have it hauled away but in the clearing, the sublime erupts suddenly from what seems a pile of trash, a numinous object, alive with meaning, reaching through time to touch the tender heart of human truth. The journey through the ephemera of a life is not an exercise in efficiency, but a process of understanding and insight, a method of grieving. One does not get there and back again in the blink of an eye.

And so, I started slowly, reminding myself there was no hurry. I still lived here. I would still live here and I was allowed to take my journey slowly. Her bedroom, her desk, the surfaces — those places last to be covered were easiest to be cleared. Then the closets and her dressers, mostly insignificant, until suddenly artifacts appeared, a note in my great-grandmother’s handwriting, an embarrassing photograph from her childhood, baby booties from her infancy and then my own tiny knitted creamy gold gloves connected with a string to run through my coat sleeves, pom-pom balls on the wrist ties and the wash of memory of wearing them in the chilly days when I was three. These familiar things I keep for myself.

But in the boxes crammed in closets, I came across a small envelope, with a name I recognized as one of her students, a boy who had fled Vietnam in a boat, who had heard the gunfire over his head, a boy who, in my mother’s art class, had painted a beautiful mural of his families’ escape with an Chinese dragon flying over his family at sea. His letter folded like origami to fit in the tiny envelope, the elaborate Chữ Nôm characters of his name drawn carefully in one corner, he wrote so politely to his art teacher of pleasantries in his new home in Dallas ending his note, “There is no art here. Please write back soon.” And I feel my mother’s heart breaking, my heart breaking, for that little boy in the letter. I know she would have written back. I fold that origami letter carefully again, place it back into the envelope, returned to safekeeping. This thing I keep to carry the truth of her kind and tender heart with me.

One Traveler

amywink February 3rd, 2017

My last words to my mother were “I love you and remember we know how to do hard things.” 6 hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, I was sitting in the Cardiac ICU waiting room, searching for the right words that would allow the doctors to let go of her heart and end their attempts to resuscitate her.

I had spent the time between the hospital phone call at 11:30 pm –when the nurse told me my mother had lost her pulse and had received CPR and her heartbeat had returned–and the moment of decision alone but not isolated, texting my dearest friends as the moments crawled by.

When I had first arrived back at the hospital, blurred by my interrupted sleep, unable to focus clearly except on each moment as it happened, the weekend cardiologist had come in to explain what had happened in what seemed clear terms but my mind was slow, grappling back into wakeful consciousness. Something larger was happening. I had felt it at home when I got ready for bed, like the brush of a light breeze, the slight scent not yet identifiable. Something is ending, I had thought. Something is ending.

My mother had her heart attack in February 21, 2016. She had been experiencing shortness of breath, chalked up to asthma, and episodes of “panic” at night for a long time, during which she felt she suddenly couldn’t breathe. She had a complete cardiac assessment just 4 years earlier when she told me about her chest pains after a shower. The chemical stress test showed nothing and we were under considerable stress because of my father’s Parkinson’s disease so that seemed a likely culprit. Her kidney failure kept everyone distracted and so did her bi-polar disorder: Stress, anxiety, “panic attacks”, asthma, acid indigestion.

All distractions from the actual problem: blocked arteries and a failing heart.

Actual symptoms of a larger problem with her heart.

When we arrived at the hospital, the cardiologist put the pieces together. The next morning, an angiogram revealed the extent of the problem. She was put on a heart pump to prepare for quadruple bypass surgery when she was strong enough. My brother and I spent traded the hours in the hospital, him driving from Houston every day. Friends came to be with me when they could. I was never lonely.

It was a lesson in living in the moment. No plans could be made except in the vaguest way because we were not sure of what we might be facing. Too many “if’s” existed, too many paths diverged from that decision point and like Robert Frost knew, in the moment of looking in both directions, each way “leads on to way.” Though my brother and I talked about what we might do, we didn’t know what we would be doing.

The only thing clear was she might live. She might die.

I could not be “one traveler and travel both.”

My mother died.

In the very early hours of March 7th.

She had survived the surgery and had just been moved out of ICU into “Acute Care” where her heart and lungs suddenly stopped working. The care team resuscitated her and called me out of an exhausted sleep to the hospital. I saw the cardiologist who seemed to think her heart was strong enough. We’d have to wait to see. Hours passed. Friends kept texting. I was not lonely.

When the another doctor arrived to sit and tell me “things were dire.” I asked him what were the words I needed to say to allow them to stop working on her. Was it “no heroic measures”? He thought that was as start and yet clearly, not the right words.

There is lightening in the right words, as Mark Twain knew.

“I love you and I know how to do hard things.”

I slowed myself to think and breathe.

May she be happy.
May she be well.
May she be free from suffering.

May she be free from suffering.

I turned to the doctor, “Let her go.”

Plant Something, Grow Something

amywink April 17th, 2013


Last year, I placed a daring and expensive order with White Flower Farm for 3 different varieties of “black” Bearded Irises in an effort to memorialize my black cat Fox and my black dog, Lady, in the garden. It was a risky move because they were not rated for this zone, Zone 8/9. And yet, I have plenty of bearded Irises in the yard and had no reason I could understand that the black ones should be any different. I took the risk, ignored the invalidated warranty, and ordered 6 iris tubers: 2 “Hello, Darkness”, 2 “Before the Storm”, and 2 “Study in Black.” I planted them in the fall and caged them because Lily proved that she was Not A Gardening Dog as I planted them and I didn’t want them to go racing around the yard in her mouth. I watched the leaves come up and grow all winter and this month, the buds appeared on “Hello, Darkness”–buds that were indeed a very inky black!!


Now the plants are in full bloom and the gorgeous darkest purple bloom is gracing the garden, along with the Victoria Falls bearded irises I planted to remember my blue-eyed cat, Victoria.


Also in bloom this time of year, the antique Maggie rose, in honor of my wirehaired Dachshund Maggie:

The Kronprincess Viktoria rose for Victoria (a well remembered cat)dsc_1335.JPG

The Blithe Spirit rose, for my last dog Tristan: dsc_1265.JPG

And the St. Joseph’s Lilies (or amaryllis) transplanted from my grandfather’s garden.

All reminders, even in the face of grief, to plant something, to grow something and to remember beauty.

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