How to Live

Written in memory of George and Florence Ostrander.

©2020 MJ Ostrander

My mother passed away in 2007.  Thanks to the financial crisis a year later, the house and property she and my father had labored to restore for twenty-three years sold for sixty-five thousand dollars less than it would have, thus denying Mom’s wish that her four children would financially inherit more substantially from the fruits of their labor.  I know that she would have been distraught and so I often tell her, hoping she somehow hears, that it’s okay, that the funds I received paid off debt, allowed me to purchase a used vehicle in excellent condition, some greatly needed new clothing and more.  I tell her it was enough and to rest easy, that the money was in a very real way, the least of what I received.

The memorabilia and ephemera gathered over a combined one hundred and fifty years of two lives are among the greatest gifts my parents bequeathed their children.  I like to think they would be comforted and proud there was no squabbling like birds of prey amongst we siblings that occurs so often after the funeral. 

Not least of the things I received are the journals my mother kept from 1968 until the cancer that took her nearly forty years later grew too strong for her to continue almost daily entries.  It must be understood that these diaries were largely a ledger of sorts rather than an emotional account of life that by figures alone, was often more difficult than I had imagined.  There were a few surprises.  My father was an engineer on the railroad for four decades.  Mom would record his bi-weekly pay.  I cannot express my surprise and dismay to learn that at thirty-two I had been earning more than my father collected at fifty.

Dad as a young man in rural Ohio.

Dad also did HVAC on the side.  It is a testament to his character that he often went out on bitter Ohio winter nights to repair a furnace that sometimes the customer could not immediately afford to pay in full, if at all.  My mother duly recorded these side jobs and the payment that usually followed.  I remember her consternation when Dad came home with less money than she’d anticipated.  It’s only a guess that it was the look in my father’s eyes that calmed her, his memories of a childhood of poverty, the death of his eldest brother at fourteen from severe burns my grandparents could not afford to have treated, and three years of service in the US Navy aboard a battleship in the South Pacific reminded her to be more charitable and tolerant.  But I’d bet my guess is accurate.  I remember too that among the many sympathy cards my mother received following Dad’s death in 1990 was one from a widow that expressed her gratitude to George for fixing her heat when she had no money to pay him.  Growing up during The Great Depression gave their generation a compassionate mindset unheard of today.

Mom set down many other daily and weekly expenditures.  The entries were short and simple.  “Filled Impala – $5.98.”  Wait.  Whut?  The Chevy to which she referred was a 1974, a boat compared to today’s models.  “Went to Prot’s (local grocer) – $20.00.”  “Received kit for Christmas village gazebo – $8.00.”  Over thirty years she’d created an entire village by counted cross-stitch patterns.  “Bought stamps $1.50.”

A small selection of Mom’s Christmas village.

Interspersed with these factual logs were entries of worry, grief and joy, more poignant because of the simplicity with which her heartbreak was expressed.  Fear mixed with hope that a sibling diagnosed with a serious disorder was getting better.  My sibling recovered.  The same emotions were expressed when my son was diagnosed with a rare visual impairment.  My son went on to graduate from art school.  In one particularly poignant entry for me dated March 17, 1978 she logged, “Marsha’s wedding day. She looked beautiful.”  Every birth, death and holiday gathering were duly noted.  It was natural that my anxiety increased as I neared reading her words on the date of my father’s death.  On that date, my mother wrote but two sentences.  “George passed away today.  I do not know how I will live without him.”  My parents were married for forty-three years.

I also grabbed all the photo albums.  It was months before I garnered the courage to begin sorting them for equitable distribution to my siblings.  To my surprise, the Kodak moments brought so much comfort I cried in gratitude.  Memory is a touch and go thing, a thief if you are not lucky enough to have proof the past existed.  This my family has in abundance.  Then there are recipes for the bakery my mother made which were labor-intensive and delicious.  The upholstered, iron legged bench my father made in high school, now about eighty-four years old.  Kitchenware, small farm implements, costume jewelry, a miniature Bible brought from Poland in 1916 by my grandmother, a three-piece tea set my father bought for Mom while in Japan during the US occupation following the end of World War II.  Special occasion greeting cards exchanged between my parents which rather embarrassed me to read, but serve as proof theirs was a deep, healthy and lasting love. 

This past week put me at a crossroads that made me need both my parents.  The Democratic debate has me more befuddled and concerned than ever.  I fully support Medicare for All, but I would sleep better if we knew the price.  To see Senator Warren and Senator Sanders reactions to an unnecessary question by the poor panel of CNN personnel was disturbing.  Their preference for Biden’s victory is worrisome, the more so because he has made no statement he will do a damned thing to act on the healthcare crisis in any meaningful way.  Dad – I’m scared.  If you have any pull where you are – tell them to send us another FDR.

On Wednesday I attended an employment interview.  I’d been ambiguous about the job and that was good as I was kept waiting over twenty minutes passed the appointment time, met with only one of the two people I was scheduled to meet for fifteen minutes and which through experience, I discerned was a courtesy interview.  As frustrating as the event was, I was overqualified and would have been bored with the role in under a month.  So I was taken aback by my frustration and temporary funk.  But I’ve concluded that it was just a deeply personal sense of failure that plagued me until this morning.  Thank you, Mom, for insisting I take typing, shorthand and general office in high school.  Your justified concern for my employment future resulted in forty-five years of decent income and self-sufficiency in difficult times.

I also came down with a nasty head cold early in the week, causing my self-pity and anxiety to spike.  No Vick’s, Ma.  No Vick’s!  But thanks for reminding me of the can of chicken soup in the cupboard.  

I will be filing for my early retirement next month and hopefully obtaining part-time employment both for extra income and something like the desire to continue to contribute in a meaningful way for an organization who needs my help in helping others.  Dad, your compassion and wisdom taught me empathy and how to love.  Mom, the gentle direction and resourcefulness in your journals has taught me to solve problems and to make sacrifices my generation wasn’t supposed to have to make.

I go forward cheerfully and in gratitude for everything my parents taught me.  I find lessons in every mistake, failure or success.  Because that’s how I was taught to live.

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