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Dearest Ellen-Marie, Where did 10 years go?

25 Sep

Looking for a way to mark the 10-year anniversary of my eldest sister Ellen-Marie’s death, I looked to my father’s column’s for wisdom and inspiration.

On a couple of occasions in honoring the dead, his inspiration came from Thanatopsis, said to be the most famous work of  romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.   It must have hit home for my father;  he  included the poem’s final stanza in a column he wrote after his mother died in 1936. He used it again several years later when honoring the death of a colleague’s mother.

The New York Age, September 5, 1936

My reading of Thanatopsis is that Bryant’s point is that death and dying are part of  life’s natural cycle, to which all of us will succumb.  And when we do, we will join the company of  the wise and the good.  We should not fear death, but live life fully so that when our time comes we will enjoy our eternal rest.

This is not really much consolation when you are in the throes of grief.  When I got that 3 a.m. call on Sept. 25, 2001, that Ellen had died of a heart attack in her sleep, leaving two children and a whole host of other family members and friends, I spent the following days and months alternately wanting to die and fearing that I would.

A decade does give you some perspective. And if tragedy teaches you anything, it is that you must put one foot in front of the other and press on, celebrating life’s abundance every day.

In the last stanza of Thanatopsis, Bryant wrote:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
That innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like a quarry-slave at night
Scourged to this dungeon; but sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him. and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Dearest, Ellen-Marie,

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.

Rest in paradise.

Ellen-Marie Ray, March 23, 1949 – September 25, 2001

23 Mar

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Months after my sister, Ellen-Marie, died of a  heart attack, some of her friends and family members  received pre-programmed birthday wishes from her via email.  It was creepy at first,  then it was funny.  Ellen-Marie  never forgot a birthday  — even from the Great Beyond!
She would have laughed too. Probably still is. She had a sick sense of humor. One of her favorite movies was Harold and Maude.
Searching through a box of old correspondence, I was blown away by the number of cards and letters we exchanged, especially during the 70s and 80s, before there was such a thing as email. I’ve got a pile of  letters filled with commentary on men, movies and more. Most of the letters  are not appropriate for reprint.  For one thing, it requires a well-trained eye and years of practice to decipher her handwriting. Secondly, much of the content would have to be redacted to protect the innocent and the guilty.
Ellen-Marie would be 62 today. To celebrate she would  likely have yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She would  be proud of every candle. She’d  take her daughter and son Kamaya and Jeremy, out for Brazilian food. She might listen to  Smokey Robinson or  watch ET or Jeopardy! or Law and Order. On the weekend, she would look for a dance party. She would be surrounded by friends from every walk of life.
She was a super mom, a dedicated attorney and my best friend.

Happy Hundredth Birthday, Mary Ray

28 Dec

Today would have been Mary Ray’s 100th birthday. Wish she could be here to celebrate with us and to see all the thriving going on among her children, grandchildren and great grands.

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Ellen-Marie, Mom and me

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Thanks, Mom, and Happy New Year

29 Dec

mom_me_pittsburgh_king_cropped“I certainly missed you the last few days – Misplaced my teeth – just found them. Thought I’d have to begin school without them  . . . the thought was devastating!”

I spent most of Friday, Dec. 28, which would have been my mother, Mary Ray’s 93rd birthday, reading letters like this one.

I missed her too. Even those times when I would be called upon to help her find her misplaced dentures.

Most of my mother’s  notes were chronicles of her life as an empty nester, her reviews of cultural events, her updates on neighbors, friends and relatives and her travels.

mom_happy_for_youWish you could’ve been at Uncle James’ on Sunday past. It was beautiful,” she wrote in a card dated Aug. 23, 1977.  Then she listed the relatives whom I’d missed during her trip from Pittsburgh to New Jersey.

“Cousin Mollie said she had a magnificent time. Diane and her daughter were there; John, Jr. and Larry and family. Peanut [my cousin Robert] has a son named Lyle – looks just like him.” [It’s actually Kyle; we’re now Facebook friends.]

“All of Aunt Evie’s sisters and some of their families were there.” She referred to my cousin David as “The Lover,” and mentioned my cousin Michelle, whose eldest son was just a “fat baby boy of 10 months,” back then.

She loved her grandchildren: “You wouldn’t believe that my little Xmas tree is still up,” she wrote on Jan. 24, 1978.  “Waiting for a visit from Chano and Lamman. They didn’t get over for the holidays, but boy did they enjoy the toys everyone sent them.”

“Today is M’Balia’s birthday, so they’re all here,” she wrote on Aug. 30, 1976.

In each letter she shared her worries. “Ellen will need some rest!!!” she scribbled along the side of a note dated Sept.  18, 1976. (I believe she was referring to the fact that my sister Ellen-Marie had just returned from a trip to Tanzania.)

“They’re trying to work out their difficulties. I’ve suggested a professional counselor,” she wrote about another relative and her husband.

Then there was my mother’s love life: “Uncle Fred has his house almost completely painted outside and wants me to select new furnishings, drapes and carpeting,” she wrote in one letter.  In another: “He went on a Northwest trek with the AAAs from Western Pa. “Timing was bad for me, so was the cost, and he couldn’t afford it for us both.”

She never ended a note without dispensing some advice: “Glad the job is shaping up,” she wrote shortly after I’d taken my first job in Boston. “Don’t make any hasty moves until you thoroughly investigate any situation. Some sorority sisters might help.” [I assume she was referring to my search for housing.]

On her troubles with high blood pressure, she wrote: “It’s something that runs in the family. We seem to be victims of stress. Please watch it!”

She also was generous with her praise:

“Your March article in Essence is excellent. Keep up the good work.”

“So very happy for  you, (Always) but particularly now as you join the Boston Globe staff.

But to her, being a good friend was as important as any professional accomplishment.

“I’m so proud of you, particularly as a very caring person. Pam and others are lucky to have you as a friend!” she wrote in May of 1988.  “Continue to care about others and to render assistance in some small way when you can. Sharing our knowledge and comfort with our fellow man is truly our purpose for living on this universe or any other.   You will be blessed manifold!”

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It was as if she was talking to me from the grave, setting the stage for my New Year’s resolutions.

“I’d like for you and Ellen to keep the family home for a while. Daddy worked hard to acquire it. It took all his savings for a down payment. You may find it worth your while one day,” she wrote.  She ended that same note with,  “P.S. Don’t mourn for me. I enjoyed life and living and loved my family dearly! Mom!”

That note was not dated, but based on its other contents, it was written in the 1970s. She definitely got a lot more living and loving in before she died in 2002.

Well, ok, then Mom. I hope you are resting well, dispensing your wisdom and comfort from whatever “universe” you happen to be on.

Happy New Year to all, and here’s to “manifold” blessings in 2013.

Death and other rumors

16 Sep

Whenever I think about making a major purchase – anything that might require a credit check, I brace myself for responding to rumors that I am dead.

Eleven years ago after my sister Ellen-Marie died, I wrote letters to all of her creditors informing them of the sad news. Things seemed to be going smoothly until I got a very sympathetic note from American Express expressing their condolences that Elaine Ray had died.

No, no, no, no, I wrote them back. I am very much alive. Although my own card, and card activity, have ever lapsed, I am periodically asked to prove that I indeed am still among the living.

It’s a good thing I don’t live in Texas.

Two weeks ago a federal court struck down a law requiring voters in Texas to have a government issued ID in order to vote.  Texas was among several states, including my home state of Pennsylvania, that have passed voter ID laws in the name of stamping out fraud, even though they have come up short when it comes to providing data that significant voter fraud exists.

The real reason for these laws is as cynical as the Jim Crow era tests that required blacks who dared to show up at the polls to “count” the jelly beans in a jar before they could vote. It’s about power. Power in the hands of black people, Latinos, young people — anyone likely to vote to reelect President Barack Obama.

Pennsylvania’s Republican House majority leader said it best when he ran down a list of his party’s accomplishments: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to Win the state of Pennsylvania. Done.”

But back to dead people. Texas’ voter ID law may have been struck down, but its efforts to suppress the vote appear alive and well. With just weeks before the presidential election, they are purging their rolls of dead voters. No problem with that, except that many of the people who’ve been purged are not dead.

Terry Collins, a high school nurse in Houston, told National Public Radio that she received a letter indicating that she was dead and noted that other blacks she knew who also weren’t dead had received letters too. When she tried for three days to call to correct the information, she was left on hold for an hour each time.

“We’re required by law to maintain a clean and accurate voter registration list, and we’re attempting to comply with that mandate,” Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, told NPR. He added that people who got the letter who are not dead should just show up at the polls and they will be allowed to vote.

If you believe that, I have a jar of jelly beans that will test your math skills.

Still, we didn’t let the forces of disenfranchisement win then, and we can’t let them win now.

I’ve seen this before, I’ve lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote,” Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) said at the Democratic National Convention. “And we have come too far together to ever turn back. We must march to the polls like never ever before.”

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