Letting Go

Several things all crossed my path recently that have a common theme: letting go. For some people, moving on is simple. For others, it is difficult. And for some people, it is impossible. So, for Father’s Day I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the topic.

What do I mean by “letting go”? Many things. Accepting change. Accepting some things have passed. Getting over the death of someone close. Ending a relationship. Leaving a stage of life. Embracing now-grey hair. Saying goodby to hair itself. Accepting getting winded going up the stairs. Giving up seeing your toes while standing. No longer getting through a day without a nap. Selling a family home. Replacing a favorite car. So many other things fit the theme.

By nature, some of us get so used to people and places and states of being that the disruption of change is painful. We also have emotional ties that can make it more difficult. It seems to be the human way for many of us, although a few of us seem to relish change, and there are times in our life when we long for it.

I remember when I was in my early 20s, I was eager to get out into the world, on my own, and start to “live my life.” I didn’t realize until many years later how much I’d miss the actual life I was living, surrounded by my family and close access to places where I had cherished memories. I have new memories, and new cherished family & friends that I did not dream of then, but I cannot help but miss those times. I had to let go — in my case, while driving from NY to Atlanta to begin grad school — but I have never really turned away. I miss those times and people and places, and on the (very) infrequent times I get back to that part of the country I am sometimes overwhelmed with memories triggered by the smallest things (mentioned in one of my earlier posts here). Later, as I left Atlanta to move to Indiana and start at Purdue, I had some of the same “letting go” pains from my time in grad school. And undoubtedly, if I leave Indiana and Purdue for something else, it will be traumatic — maybe more so, as I have lived here longer than any other place — yet it will require letting go to move to something else.

We all handle letting go in different ways, and a lot of that depends on what it is we think we are relinquishing.

I was reminded of this on news of an acquaintance’s much-beloved wife dying, and his hostile reaction to some expressions of solace from others. He didn’t want memories — he was not ready to let go. She is gone, but he has so many memories and such a different life because she was there; she is not really gone in every sense, but he doesn’t yet understand how to let go of the part of her that is no longer there.

I was reminded of this with discussion with a good friend, who is having difficulty coping with his daughter’s pending departure, first to travel, and then to college. He is having trouble letting go of his not-so-little girl. I was reminded how that same situation moved me to tears a year ago….although a chronic illness has brought her home indefinitely, and I will have to suffer that departure yet again. There is a sense of loss at the routine, at the things that I wish we had done together or could do again. Yet, there is a certain pride about her independence and dreams, and a realization that — at some point — she will need to be on her own. But dammit, does it need to be so soon?

I was reminded at Memorial Day of how many people had to let go of someone before their time should have been done. Yet, how different our lives (and the lives of millions of others) been had they not stepped up to the unknown.

Last week, I ran across a gift from a past girlfriend, and I was reminded of the good times we had 40 years ago. She and I are still friends, and I wish there wasn’t such a distance between us because she still makes me smile.

I realized when I stumbled across a picture that my high school graduation was 40 years ago this month.

I was reminded of a former dear friend who, a few years ago around this time seemed to have lost her mind and become a different person. I had the hardest time letting go until I discovered she had been lying to me about a great many things — the person I thought I knew may never have existed. It was difficult to let go of that imaginary person.

I was reminded of several friends who have drifted away in time, and a few special ones who died too soon — LinkedIn and Facebook recently prompted me to remember their birthdays, and a whole set of memories came flooding back. I miss some of the laughter and solace and insights. Some of them are only a phone call away, but we have had to let go because of time and space, and making that call too often would mean having to let go all over again.

I was reminded of this as something caused me (yet again) to think of my own mortality, and the question of whether I will do all I hope to do before then? Some things already slipped from my grasp. Am I ready to let go of some of those dreams?

Letting go is necessary for each of us, to provide “room” for new experiences, and to help us grow as people. There is a saying (Zen, I believe) that anything we cannot bear to lose, owns us; the goal of life is to be free of all owners. Perhaps none of us really requires anything beyond ourselves, but the reminder of the richness that people and routine bring to us makes it difficult for some of us to let go. People who are eager for each new thing can’t quite understand that, it seems.

I know that one of my own faults is that I don’t move on easily enough, at least in my personal life. I get too comfortable with things around me that may not be as good as they could be, but I don’t want to expend the energy to change to something less certain. When I was dating, I was seldom good about break-ups — I couldn’t accept they were over, and (in retrospect) that probably made them worse. I am not good at dealing with the inevitable, either — the cancers that took my grandmother and mother, for instance, or my daughter’s chronic health issues. I react with continual searching for some “fix” and hold out hope for a miracle (not in the religious sense). Again, in retrospect, I probably hold on too long. I know I am not alone in this.

I wonder if there is something genetic in this? When I was blogging about some genealogical research on the Spafford family line, I noted “… family motto has been rendered as Fidelis ad extremum or ‘Faithful to the extreme.’ Another version has been “Rather Deathe than false of Faythe,” which is rather the same thing. I gather that my forebears were not particularly good of letting go, even of lost causes.

Father's Day 1956May 2007

In one sense, a failure to give up is a failure to surrender to adversity. It is a testament to hope. The people who refuse to let go of hope, of life, of success, of love — they may not always succeed, but sometimes they do simply because they persist when others would have surrendered. There is survival benefit for some of us who don’t let go so easily — there is some chance we may yet succeed. The key is understanding when to continue, and when to let go. As one aphorism goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But then, give up so you don’t look like a damn fool about it.”

Today is Father’s Day. I remember my father, sometimes clearly and sometimes not. I lived under the same roof with him for 21 years, and another 30 years in relatively close touch. He worked so hard to make a good home for us, and to provide whatever he could for my sister and me to succeed. Yet, I seem to have only a few memories I can summon up at will — there are many buried, but I need something to jar them loose. I haven’t let go — time has taken a toll. I realize it will be this way with my daughter, who apparently hasn’t yet realized it is Father’s Day today, and I am a little saddened that I may not be much of a memory to her. Yet, I think about how much of who I am was shaped by my father in all those years, and I know that my influence will be there as long as she lives, and maybe even passed down to any children she may have. Given the nature of life and time, I really can’t expect much else.Me & Liz

Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and to the children who have been shaped by them. Don’t let go of the memories or the opportunity to yet shape them. If your father is within reach, give him a hug. Or heck, if any father is in reach — to let go, sometimes you need to embrace, first!

An Epiphany on Time, and Loss

Prologue

15-20 years ago, I wrote a regular series of essays, mostly on my travels, but occasionally on other items. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I have them buried on my WWW site, but not many people search them out. I may repost a few here over the next few months.

Most of those essays were intended to be humorous, and a few might actually have been so. One in particular was not. I haven’t slept well the last few nights, and for some reason, I remembered this particular post last night as I lay awake around 3:30. Perhaps it was because my sister’s birthday was this weekend. I don’t get to see her very often, which is unfortunate, because she’s a wonderful person. I didn’t appreciate her that much when we were growing up, but time gives new perspectives. That is what this essay was about, written in early 2000, about something that happened in 1978.

The Story

I used a word last night in some email I don’t use very often: epiphany. One dictionary definition of the word is “A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” Yeah, that is a good definition. There are times in our lives where some encounter or experience gives us a realization of something that forever alters our view of reality. Sometimes they are sad moments, as when you realize that your parents may be fallible, or you really comprehend that death occurs to everyone — even those you love. Sometimes it is exciting and opens new vistas: the first time I really recognized that girls were different in a nice kind of way, for instance, or the first time I rode my bike without training wheels (I’m not sure which occurred first :-). The moments don’t have to include huge events or grand revelations, so long as they reveal something of reality.

I had the strangest flashback today. I have absolutely no idea what triggered it, but it was of an epiphany of mine back in about 1978. And it has enduring influence today, more than 20 years later.

I had this friend named Mark. I haven’t heard from him in almost a decade — he stopped responding to my email and letters at some point. Not that I blame him for that, because we haven’t seen each other in maybe 15 years, and there is little in common there now but memories of a time when we were much younger and saw each other regularly. Life manages to be full as it is, and the days pass.

Mark was in my classes from at least 4th grade on. We found we had the same birthday, so that gave us an immediate bond of sorts. And we also discovered that we had offbeat senses of humor, and were a little quicker on the uptake than most of the other kids in our classes. So we hit it off. I have a picture of Mark and me in the playground in 4th grade with our arms around each other. Buddies.

So, as the years went by, Mark and I found ourselves in many of the same classes. We were in Cub Scouts together, then Boy Scouts. We shared some of the same clubs and interests. And in our senior year in high school, we ended up as two of the five officers of the student council. We weren’t the best of friends (I was too much of the nerd for anybody reasonable to want that), but we were friends, and often hung out together. After graduation, Mark and I sometimes went out to bars together, or ran into each other at parties. (To make things especially interesting, Mark’s brother-in-law became my academic advisor years later when I was an undergrad at SUNY Brockport, and I still keep in touch with him!) Mark and I kept up our casual ties even after I left for grad school — we’d visit when I returned home, and together we planned our high school class’s 10th year reunion. After that, the time and distance gradually eroded the ties that had bound us together.

Anyhow, Mark came from a family with several brothers and sisters. They were all smart, funny people (as were their parents). Almost all the kids in the family had red hair, which was especially amusing and opened them all up for teasing. I didn’t often visit their house, but a few times when I did, I recall that we often were shadowed by his younger sister, Beth (something little brothers and sisters often do). Beth was several years younger than Mark, and had freckles. I remember her as a little kid who was skinny and a bit of a tomboy. I vaguely recall that we would tease her about her freckles, or being skinny, or sometimes simply tease her about her blonde hair (the other kids in her family had red hair, as I noted above). Our teasing wasn’t really mean — we liked her, but it was our job to tease her (I was a big brother, too, so I understood the role). It was clear she was disappointed and maybe a little hurt, but I don’t think it really made a big impression on us; every elder sibling probably knows the scenario.

As time went on, and as Mark and I were finishing high school, we all had different social groups and I am certain several years went by before I saw Beth next. In fact, I think it was several years later after Mark and I had graduated from high school. We were both attending college in the area, and I recall stopping by to see him one weekend.

The small moments when life changes occur often seem innocuous at the time, but are preternaturally clear in memory. I recall being somewhat preoccupied as I walked to the door and rang the bell. The person who answered the door took me completely by surprise. She was tall, with beautiful blonde hair. An awesome smile. Such cute freckles and a lovely complexion. And at about 19 years of age, she was lithe and extremely lovely to behold — and in her halter top and shorts, I definitely beheld. I am sure I was awestruck, and a little embarrassed as I realized — this was Beth, the “little” girl we used to tease and ignore. Now, she was absolutely stunning. I now knew what I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas. 🙂

I croaked something inane like “Hello. I haven’t seen you in a long while.” She said something nice in return, laughed gently at some lame joke of mine, and called Mark. I’m sure she could tell how flustered I was (I didn’t hide it well), and I hope she found it amusing — and a little payback for some of the teasing she had endured in previous years. I don’t remember now why I was visiting Mark, but I do recall saying something like “Beth has really grown up.” His response: “I guess so. I haven’t noticed.”

The encounter gave me several things to think about in a new way, and I actually remember spending time mulling them over. I was initially incredulous that he didn’t notice the transformation. Then I looked around me and I was transformed, too.

The event was an epiphany on several levels. First, although I had frequently seen caterpillars turn into butterflies, it had never really sunk in — viscerally — that it could apply elsewhere. (Of course, sometimes the change is not in the caterpillar but in the observer!) I have had it reinforced time and again that judgements based on surface impressions sometimes miss the changes that time can make. I have tried ever since to not fall victim to those first impressions. How much different our lives would have been as children had we all known that at an early age! And how different the world could be if we all understood that now as adults…..

The second was the awareness that sometimes you get so close to a person or situation for so long, you don’t notice the slow changes that occur because they are so subtle. In the same time that Beth had blossomed, my own sister had gone from a little kid to a lovely, mature woman and I had barely noticed the change. My parents had grown older and developed grey hair and I didn’t really see the differences. I remember spending several days thereafter looking at the familiar things around me, and trying to see them with “new eyes.” It is something I try to do periodically to this day. We should never get so comfortable with the world around us that we cease to really notice the changes that are occurring.

I’ve had some of the same sense of revelation since then. I especially used to notice it when I would return to the house where I grew up, when my parents still lived there (my father sold the house and moved in 1997 after my mother died). I would notice the trees. They had the same placement as in my memory, but I remembered them as trees from 20 years before when I would see them each day and not really notice them. Now, they are taller and fuller. In my later visits, there was a visual dissonance that made me understand that I was not quite “home” as I recalled it.

In particular, I remember while growing up that every day I would sit at the kitchen table and eat meals while looking out the window. Several houses away were some tall trees with a notable fan shape to the branches at the top. I would watch them sway in spring winds, birds nest in them in the summer, leaves turn golden and drop in autumn, and snow encase them in winter. They were as familiar to me as the faces of my family.

In 1997, when I helped my father pack to move, I remember sitting in the kitchen and looking at those trees. They had grown so much taller (as had I) that I could no longer see the tops from where I sat. And when I went to the window to look out, I noticed some branches missing from what I remembered, where maybe age and ice had taken a toll (on the branches — not on my memory). I sometimes still see those trees in my dreams, as I sit at the table with my parents and sister, a young boy of 8 or so unaware of what time could — and would — do to us all.

The lesson of time is one that we seem loathe to learn, but is fundamental to understanding our lives. I see my daughter at 7 and wish I could hold her again at 5, and 3 and the day she was born. It is the magic of time that is slowing turning her from fuzzy duckling into swan, and all too soon she will be writing of her realization that her dotty old dad is getting on in years. How I wish I could stop the clock for even a few days!

Postscript, 2000

I don’t recall that I ever saw Beth again. Sadly, she died several years ago from aggressive breast cancer — a tragic loss. But I recall that small, revelatory role she played in my life, and although I haven’t remembered that moment in over a decade, it certainly had a major effect on me. I wish she were around now so I could tell her….I think she would find it amusing. (And if the mood strikes you, you can make a donation to fight breast cancer at the American Cancer Society site.)

By setting down this story, maybe it can play a role in your life. Embrace the moment, and embrace those around you. Time moves with stealth, and the present becomes the past, often without our notice. Our memories are the only way for us to travel in time, so ensure yours are full of happy times with those you care about.

Postscript, 2014

My dream last night was of those trees outside the kitchen window. In that dream, I returned to visit, and the trees were gone. I wonder what that meant?

In the time since 2000, I have lost my father and my uncle, and I am one of the last of my generation in the family. I wish I could return to a time to see them again, and listen to some of their stories, especially the ones I can’t quite remember now.

I wrote about how I wish I could hold my daughter at 7, and at 5; now she is nearly 21, and has transformed beautifully as did her aunt. I still wish I could embrace that 5 year-old at times, though.

And as I look in the mirror, I seem the same as I have every day, but to look in a picture from 2000, or 1987, or when I graduated from high school in 1974, and time has definitely taken its toll.

Embrace those around you. Time is fleeting, but memories are a great treasure.

Peace.

New Years Resolutions

It is traditional to make resolutions for the new year. Often, people use this as a way to motivate themselves to improve…at least for a week or two. After that, well, a year is a long time!

Looking back, I did a great job with my resolutions the last couple of years. I kept all of my 2012 resolutions! That worked so well that I carried them over to 2013 as well (after the Mayan apocalypse didn’t happen; yet). I think I kept all of them, although I’m not sure about #3, #5 and #17.

I guess I should come up with some new ones? I know I should better myself, and pick some things that will be difficult to do (for me). So, here goes — my list of resolutions for 2014:

  1. Do a better job of hiding my terrible life choices as “academic exploration.”
  2. Do not get any tattoos bigger than a foot in diameter. On myself.  Again.
  3. Remember names of at least 20% of my family and colleagues..
  4. Resist being drawn into a long, steamy affair with Jennifer Lawrence and/or Adriana Lima… unless they ask. Or pretty much any other attractive woman, but especially Adriana and Jennifer. Or maybe any comely mammal or large bird that isn’t currently molting. But do draw the line at yard gnomes.
  5. Decline any offer to be a guest on Duck Dynasty, no matter how much they plead.
  6. Do not challenge any of the deans to a twerking contest.
  7. Do not attempt to set the Guinness World Record for the most number of anything crammed into any body opening…unless it is someone else’s body, who I don’t like so much.
  8. Don’t eat any doughnuts at all … unless I am awake.
  9. Do not give Miley Cyrus any more ideas for her music videos.
  10. Stop being so picky and accept lucre even if it is filthy.
  11. Stop muttering, sotto voce, “I must find a new host body” on crowded elevators, planes, and busses while rubbing the center of my forehead
  12. Sell my tack and give up my wistful dream of training gerbils to the saddle for the rodeo. Also, see if I can sell all those distressed gerbil pelts on eBay.
  13. Drink less than 10 cups of coffee a day, at least once a month.
  14. Do not spill you-know-who’s awful, dark secret…unless the price is really right and she continues to piss me off.
  15. Do not raise my hand at faculty meetings to ask whoever is speaking for permission to leave to go tinkle.
  16. Perform random acts of oxidation.
  17. No matter how bad things get during the election season, keep reminding myself that Dexter was a fictional drama and not a DIY show.
  18. Treat my body like the temple it is — the temple of doom.

Phew! That’s one more than the 2012/2013 list. It is going to take all my willpower to keep these.

I hope you have picked out some good resolutions like these. Good luck with those, and have a safe and happy New Year’s!

PS. Adriana, Jennifer — I’m free New Year’s Eve. Call me.

Souvenirs and Memories and Auld Lang Syne

Every summer I undertake at least one task intended to cut down on clutter. This is often a losing battle, as in most cases the time spent fixing the clutter keeps me from doing 10 other things, all of which induce massive clutter of their own

This summer, I decided to clean up my contacts file and business card file. I know that many people have this problem — how long do you keep business cards? How do you keep your address books up to date? Which ones do you keep? How do you match them against your online contacts?

About 12 years ago, I instituted a model where I stamped the date on the back on the business cards, and would throw them away in 6 months if I didn’t reference them. However, it quickly became too much trouble to weed through them, plus I accidentally threw away a few I wanted. So, I started just keeping them all. And as I went out to speak, attended conferences, and had visitors from around the world, the collection grew and grew (sort of similar to my waistline, but I think that is coincidental).

Somewhere along the line I got a reasonable address book program (Now Up-to-Date), and I had my assistant type in some addresses. It had a matching calendar program that linked things (yeah, I know, Outlook did too, but I was a Mac & Solaris guy), so I used that a lot. It was integrated with Palm software too, so I started using it heavily…until it stopped working sometime after the Qualcomm purchase, so I moved everything over to the Mac Addressbook. Over time, I’ve grown accustomed to that, although I still don’t particularly like it. However, syncing across my iPhone, iPad and various Macs plus a WWW interface make it really handy.

A few years back, I started using services that merged address books and even did lookups to correct some entries. As a result, I got addresses from LinkedIn, from Plaxo, from Facebook, and vcards from colleagues. Often, these didn’t play nicely together, so some address entries got really, really screwed up. It really needed a clean start, and I couldn’t afford the time for that.

Meanwhile, the business cards continued to accumulate.

This summer I had finally had enough. I made one big superset address book from all of the online sources. We hired a high school student looking for a part-time job, and she has been going through that superset address book, slowly cleaning up entries, removing duplicates, fixing entries where the software thought the last name was “Ph.D.” or “CISSP,” and generally bringing some order to what was online. Along the way, we’ve discovered several bugs in the Addressbook program, including one where the “Notes” field refuses to stay edited. But slowly and surely, she’s been cleaning everything up.

The next step is the business cards, which I still collect. I have some that go back to before 1994, and some from last week! I just finished going through all approximately 2500 of them. (Yes, I meet a lot of people, and I haven’t been good about organization.) It has been quite a trip down memory lane, as I remember about 80% of the people represented on those cards.

  • I’ve run across dozens of cards listing people as “Assistant Professors” and they are now full Profs and deans (even a few university presidents!).
  • I’ve found at least 10 cards where I recall that person dying — including friends Gene Schultz, Will Winsborough, Jim Anderson…. Sad to remember once again.
  • At least a half-dozen listing “Captain” or “Major” of people I know went on to get General’s stars (for some reason, I didn’t have much interaction with Navy personnel in the 1990s).
  • Many cards of technologists and members of technical staff who are now chief scientists and presidents of their own companies.
  • Literally hundreds of cards from people whose companies no longer exist for one reason or another.
  • Many, many more of people I know have retired, and who I hope are enjoying that lifestyle.
  • Quite a few cards of people at 3-4-6 companies as they moved around and advanced.
  • A few people I cared very deeply about who have drifted far, far away of their own volition, never to return.
  • Many score more people I feel guilty I have not been in touch with for years (many!)
  • Yeah, as a whole, none of this is surprising. People get older, some wiser, and movement occurs.

I’m really tempted to keep all the cards to look through in another 10 or 20 years when I retire. But that is what got me in the circumstances I am now. I’m resolved to throw out the ones I know for sure aren’t still even close to accurate. My brain is full as it is, so perhaps this is the best way to make room for the next round? And I know the memories triggered by looking at those cards are all still rattling around in between my ears, if only I get a prompt to think about them.

Although, it does raise some question in my own mind…I was quite a different person when I was collecting those. I wonder what memories of me, if any, those people have? And how different am I now from then, as well as them? That’s probably a deeper question than I should ponder on a Sunday night with three theses yet to review.

So, if you get an email from me (or an assistant) in the next month or two asking to check or update the info I have on file for you, consider yourself special for being in the “kept” list and please respond. (And if you think there’s a really good reason why you SHOULD be in my list, whether you’re there now or not, send me your info in a vcard with an explanation of why i should add it to my nice, clean new address book DB.)

As Robert Burns put it:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
and old lang syne?

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

“As I turned to make my way back home, the snow turned into rain…”

Crossing the Bar

Today, I lost another part of my history. My aunt died at age 93. We knew it was coming, so it wasn’t a surprise. She was in a lot of pain towards the end, so some people call that “a blessing.” Perhaps. Life is a blessing, although we don’t always see it that way. If there is something that comes after this life, perhaps it is a blessing too, although we may not realize that now.

She wasn’t an aunt by blood, but by family. She outlived 3 husbands, and her second husband was my father’s twin brother.

Elsa lived in Rochester, NY for a while. She met Bob Jobe while in college, and they were married only 3 months when he was called up for service in the Army in WWII. Her new husband did not come home from the war. She would have been in her early-to-mid 20s then, probably in 1942 or 1943.

My paternal grandfather and grandmother lived in Rochester, NY. They moved there, from Canada almost directly across Lake Ontario, early in their lives. My grandfather worked at Kodak, and had met George Eastman. Markus and Ila had 3 sons: Norman (b. 1916), and fraternal twins Howard and Raymond (b 1918). Norman was the oldest, and Howard and Ray were fraternal twins. Norm went on to be a school teacher (and taught some of the first computer courses in high school in NY State!). My father was always good with math, and Ray with electrical things and radio.   My father went to the Miami University of Ohio, where he finished his degree in accounting and finance in 3 years. He then went to work at Rochester Products, as a quality control inspector.  My uncle Ray became an electrician at Kodak and was taking courses part-time, apparently at RIT. When WWII came along, both enlisted in the Army; my father had a deferment because he had a skilled position making parts for planes, but didn’t feel it was right because he saw married men being drafted.  Perhaps because he was color-blind, or maybe because he only had 3 years of college (even though he had his degree), he was given an enlisted position and sent to an anti-aircraft battalion in Europe. Meanwhile, Ray’s background and probably some good scores on the aptitude tests resulting in him being made a lieutenant in the Signal Corps. I know my father was deployed in various places throughout Europe, and his company participated in the liberation of one of the concentration camps (he did not talk about it with us until he was in his 70s). Ray was deployed (I believe) in Asia but I don’t think he saw any combat.

When WWII ended, my father came home and took a job in Rochester.  Ray left the Army in 1946 but stayed on for two years in Korea as an advisor to the Signal Corps there, leaving before that war started. He returned home, possibly because my grandfather died in 1948. (Tragically, he died on the day my mother and father were going to be married; they postponed the wedding a month). Ray then used his GI benefits to complete his education at Ohio State, getting a degree in electrical engineering and in business administration. He went back to Kodak, this time as a project engineer, and worked there for six years.

Before meeting my mother, my father had met Elsa and they dated a while. At some point, Elsa and Ray met, and apparently really hit it off. They were probably married around 1950?

My aunt Elsa was a remarkable woman. A child of the end of WWI, she grew up to be extremely independent. She read a lot and was quite intelligent. In another day she might have gone on for an advanced degree, but that wasn’t an option in the mid 1940s — not only because of WWII, but because that wasn’t something women did then. She ended up getting a job with Kodak, first as an executive secretary, then after moving to California she was a film tester with a great deal of autonomy. That was unusual for a woman in those times — she tested film and cameras for Kodak. They gave her test film and sent her all over to photograph things so they could see how the film behaved.

10-66 Elsa-Ray posing-27
Ray and Elsa in California in 1966


In 1958, Ray and Elsa moved to live in California, in Portola Valley, to be near my uncle’s new job with Lockheed in Palo Alto (possibly at NASA Ames?). He worked on advanced (and at the time, secret) supersonic aircraft and even spacecraft in California. I wish I knew more about him, but he died too soon. And this was in the days before everyone put everything on Facebook. (It was even before the Internet.) When they moved to California and bought the land, there was no Silicon Valley. My uncle designed the house and built most of it. It still stands, on the top of a tall hill, not far from Stanford University. My aunt lived there for 50+ years, my uncle only for about 8.

While building the house, my uncle fell off the roof and fractured some vertebrae, but luckily didn’t damage his spinal cord. I remember him and my aunt coming to visit when I was around 8 years old. He had a back brace on. I don’t recall him ever without it. He brought me some puzzles, and (I think) a book on ciphers. I thought it was “The Codebreakers” (David Kahn) but the dates don’t match. I remember that something he gave me or told me about got me interested in cryptography at that early age, and it never left me. I remember talking with him about science and space exploration. How I wish he had lived longer so I could have talked to him about my career.

10-66 Elsa-Ray posing-14
My sister, Ray, and me in 1966

He was ill then. He developed bladder cancer at some point, and was misdiagnosed. After they found it in 1962 or 1963, it spread despite surgery and radiation. He died 10 days before my 11th birthday, at the age of 48, in 1967; he was buried on my sister’s 9th birthday. That was not a good year for us, for many reasons. It was especially tough on my father although I don’t think I quite understood how wrenching it was, because he kept it all in. Losing a sibling must be difficult, but to lose a twin… My father was a child of his times and didn’t let his feelings show that often, as that “wasn’t something men do.” Someday I need to write some things about his life, because he had so many struggles.

Elsa, of course, was devastated by Uncle Ray’s death. My Uncle Ray had been the love of her life. I don’t know how long they were married but it might have been as much as 18 years. And he was the second husband who died prematurely.

Shortly thereafter, Elsa made a promise to my sister and myself, based on a conversation she had with my uncle before his death: she had put money aside in special accounts for us, to be used for our college expenses. So long as we made good progress and good grades, we would have all our books paid for. This kept up while my sister and I both completed undergrad, then masters, then Ph.D.s for each of us. That small amount was a great help because we really didn’t have much in the way of financial resources. And then, at some point after graduation, she gave us what was in the accounts — which looked like near the amount they had started with. She also gave us great moral support over the years, encouraging us to go out into the world and explore.

When I finished my BA and was going to go spend weeks in Europe with my sister, backpacking around, Elsa gave me a 35mm camera to take with me — an almost new Pentax automatic, very state of the art. Her only condition was that I had to use it, and she had to see the pictures some day. I still have boxes of great slides from those years with no projector, and I don’t think my daughter will ever want to see them….

While at Lockheed, Ray (and Elsa) met another person there with great stories to tell. John Roscoe was a widower or divorcee with a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland (his dissertation was published as a 6-volume set!), and was a former Colonel in the USMC. He had worked for Admiral Byrd in Antarctica — there are two geographic features there named for him: Roscoe Glacier and Roscoe Promontory. I found a short bio online, and it has quite a bit more on him.

When my Uncle Ray died, it was a big loss to all their local friends and colleagues. Apparently, John was a good friend who helped Elsa through the ordeal, and … they got married a little over a year later.

Elsa retired after several more years working at Kodak in California but kept active in the community, the Sierra Club, and spent a month every few summers in Polynesia as a helper at an archaeology dig. She volunteered for various other things too, including the U.S. Geological Survey Volunteers For Science. John had several heart attacks in the late 1990s, and his mobility greatly decreased, but he and Elsa continued to travel and follow their pursuits. John died in 2007 — Elsa’s third husband, gone, too.

The last few years were tough on Elsa, as the years advanced. She developed illnesses that sapped her strength and led to pain, but they didn’t really dim her cheer and curiosity until a short while ago.

I was able to visit her in October on one of my infrequent trips out to California. She was thin and frail and clearly not well, but she was wonderful to visit with. I spent the afternoon with her, but she was clearly fatigued by it. The times I called her in the months after that she sounded weaker, but was still so happy I had visited.

We heard a few days ago that she had taken a turn for the worse and was in hospice care. My sister and I spoke Sunday night about trying to connect with her on the phone one last time. But Monday morning we received word of her passing.

My last uncle — my father and Ray’s older brother — died last year, in August, at 96. My father died 6 years ago, at 89. My mother died earlier than she should have, in 1996, but my daughter bears her name, and has a little of her quick wit, so she is still with me. There is no one of my line before me still alive, and only a few cousins left from my parents’ generation. There is no male in any close branch of the family to keep the Spafford name — and the Y chromosome — going, although there are many distant cousins I have never met.

The death of my Aunt is a sad event, but not grievous. She was a wonderful woman with a full life, and I hope she had no regrets at the end. She will be missed by many people. But her passing is also another frosty gust of the winds of time, which I notice more each year. When I was young, my mortality was never even a brief thought. Now, I wonder how much more time I will have for a few of those things I want to try — or try again — and time to regret the things that didn’t quite work out? I joke about how people will remember me… if they do. I have no glacier named after me, or theorem, or building, or scholarship.

I think of Elsa. She was vital well into her 9th decade. She died without having children, yet, there are many who will remember her for some time to come. She made a difference. Perhaps that is the best thing to say about someone — they made a difference: the world was better they were here. That was true of Elsa.

I seem to recall that the Australian aborigines believe that uttering the name of people who have died, or showing their likenesses or anything they have made awakens their spirits and keeps them from the Dreaming — the time of peace after death. So, they erase all instances of the name and never utter it again, and sometimes destroy everything made by someone who dies. The quicker that person is forgotten, the sooner the spirit finds peace.

I’m sorry, Elsa, but we’re going to hold you in our hearts a little longer. Dreamtime will come, but for now, we remember you.

[Edited 2/19/12 based on my sister’s comments]

[Edited 2/20/13 based on info from Carrie S.]

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