Friday, August 12, 2011

Carving out a memory

(A column originally published in December 2005)
It stands in the corner of the boy’s room, ready to be called into action to slay dragons, engage in a duel, or defend the castle. A sword, carved out of wood and highly polished, that looks like a cross between a cutlass and a saber.
The little boy had asked for this special gift, and watched as it was carved. He stood in a basement woodshop, lined with workbenches and machines, with tools hanging on the walls and a large window letting in light. Warned not to touch the saw or tools, the boy looked on in wide-eyed wonder as a piece of wood plucked from the lumber pile became a sword.
A pencil was used to sketch the basic shape of the sword on the wood, and a saw cut it out. The sword was carefully smoothed to prevent any splinters from piercing small hands before being presented to the boy.
Other examples of the woodcarver’s craft are in the boy’s room. A small wooden dog stands on his bookshelf and a finely detailed silhouette of a Native American warrior hangs on the wall near his bed.
The hands that lovingly carved the sword are idle now, and the woodshop is dusty with disuse.
My grandfather, the woodcarver, turns 85 this month.
Alzheimer’s has slowly been taking him away from us. The only blessing is that he still knows my grandmother, his anchor to the present. The moments when a familiar twinkle return to his bright blue eyes are few and far between.
The little boy, my son, says he remembers watching “Big Buppa,” his great-grandfather, carve the sword. I’ve told him stories about the active man I remember from my childhood. A veteran of World War II who worked as a teacher, school principal and for the Community Action Agency. He would delight young grandchildren with his rendition of the ABCs, jumping up and being silly when he got to the letter P. I remember getting tractor rides and watching him use a bulldozer he had bought at auction.
Grandpa would stride around the farm where he raised his large family, always with some project to work on. Tending the vegetable garden and raspberry patch, cutting wood for the sauna or fireplace and making magic in his woodshop kept him busy. Those who borrowed tools and didn’t put them away risked his wrath. He loved to travel, and a trip he and Grandma took with my family in the Southwest is a treasured memory. Home movies document the trips he took his family on, out west and even to Alaska. Other home movies show family sleigh rides in winter, kids sledding in front of the house, and the day my mom rode her pony to school.
It has been a few years now since Grandpa has recognized me, and most of his extended family and friends are now strangers to him. But those who know and love him remember the man he was, and my son has his wooden sword, and the memory of “Big Buppa” carving it for him.

In loving memory of Tom Vizanko

(A column originally published in July 2007)

Helping to write my grandfather’s obituary was one of the most difficult writing assignments in my life.
Grandpa passed away at home with his beloved wife, my mother and several more of his daughters at his side on the first day of this month. My father called at 4 a.m. to share the news. Later that morning, Dad E-mailed the first draft of the obituary to me. It was an honor to take the details of my grandfather’s life — his birth, education, service to his country and community and the family he created with Grandma — and weave them into a brief story.
Nothing prepares you for the reality of losing a loved one, though Grandpa had been slipping away from us for years because of Alzheimer’s. My grandmother’s devotion to him never wavered as she cared for him at home. It is a testament to the power of love that even after Grandpa could no longer remember his grandchildren and children, some part of him still seemed to recognize his wife.
My grandparents met in early 1941, at the front desk of the junior college library where Grandma worked. Library patrons were not allowed in the stacks then, and after Grandma had assisted him, Grandpa asked her, “Do you cook, too?”
Grandma remembers their first date was on Valentine’s Day, and they watched a Henry Fonda movie. They married on Sept. 12, 1941.
When the United States entered World War II that December, my grandfather left college to go to work. He then joined the Army Air Corps, serving with the 433rd Troop Transport, the 69th Squadron in the Pacific Theatre, from New Guinea to Japan. He was discharged in March 1946. My grandmother still has the letters they wrote to each other during that time.
After the war, Grandpa continued his education, earning first an associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s and a master’s. He began working as a teacher, then became a school principal. He left the education field to work as the executive director of the newly formed Community Action Agency, but education was still important to the family. After giving birth to 13 children, and with the youngest starting school, my grandmother went to college and earned a degree for a career in teaching.
Grandpa and Grandma bought a former dairy farm nestled between two hills north of Ironwood, Mich. during Memorial Day weekend in 1960. Maple Hill Farm became a second home for their grandchildren. Being the first to spot the television towers on the back hill was always a part of trips to visit them. The towers served as a beacon home.
My grandparents loved to travel, visiting Alaska four times, criss-crossing the continental United States to visit family and friends and making several journeys overseas to visit Finland, Australia, Europe and Asia.
My grandparents’ love and devotion to each other for over 65 years of marriage humbles me. They brought 13 children into this world, and worked hard to provide a home for their family, supporting each other as they continued their educations. They mourned together after the loss of an infant son. Their relationship is an example to all of what true love means.
After so many years of traveling with his wife and family, my grandfather made the trip home alone. Left behind to mourn his death and celebrate his life are his wife, 12 children, 28 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren, three great-great grandchildren, three sons-in-law, two daughters-in-law, a sister, a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and many extended family members and friends.
I had the week off, so my son and I were able to be in the Upper Peninsula to spend time with our extended family. Almost all of Grandpa’s surviving family members were on hand for a memorial Mass on a sultry Friday afternoon. We sang his favorite hymns, listened to a haunting and lovely rendition of “Ave Maria” and to a brief eulogy delivered by his eldest son. After the service, family and friends gathered for a meal. Photographs of Grandpa, family and friends were on display and flashing on a screen in a digital slide show.
Sunshine from a bright, blue sky filtered through the trees, dappling the cemetery with light last Saturday morning as the family gathered for a final goodbye. Several generations gathered around Grandma in a circle of support during the brief inurnment service.
She didn’t want to watch his ashes lowered into the ground, so many of us joined my grandmother on a pilgrimage through the cemetery, visiting the graves of her parents and brother-in-law. My mother stayed behind, and the city worker standing by to replace the soil and grass over Grandpa’s grave shared a story with her.
While he was there to dig the hole, he saw something he doesn’t usually see at that time of day. An eight-point buck in velvet appeared in the cemetery near the place my grandfather would be laid to rest near his infant son and his parents. Grandpa finally got the buck that had eluded him during many hunting seasons.
May God bless you, Grandpa, as you watch over your family from above. The legacy of your life carries on in the hearts and memories of all who love you.

With rocks in my pockets...

(A column originally published in August 2007)
Some might call me crazy for wading into Lake Superior with my jeans rolled up past my knees on a hunt for agates. Many say the water is too cold, and even my son howled when he ventured in.
Many hot summer days in my childhood were spent at a sandy Lake Superior beach. The south shore of the lake is home to some of my favorite places to visit when I’m in the Upper Peninsula - McLain State Park, the mouth of the Presque Isle River, Black River Harbor, Misery Bay, Saxon Harbor, and Little Girl’s Point. Each site has a magic of its own.
It was a Friday evening, and my son and I had driven out to the lake from my grandmother’s house to watch the sun set over Lake Superior at Little Girl’s Point, which is located over 20 miles north of Ironwood. The area is named for a Native American legend of a lost daughter of the Chippewa who disappeared in that area before her wedding.
The trip was made so I could fulfill a promise made when we were in the Upper Peninsula at the beginning of the month. My son wanted to go out to the lake, but with family coming in for my grandfather’s memorial Mass, and getting things ready, we had no time.
The road out to the lake winds through trees that reach out to each other over the asphalt, sheltering the road in a tunnel-like effect. Trips to Little Girl’s Point aren’t complete without a stop at a spring that is piped up along the roadway. Visitors fill bottles with some of the best water you’ll ever taste.
I was the first to spot the blue line on the horizon, and we were soon pulling into the parking lot of the beach at the county park. We made our way down the path to the lake, to a beach not suitable for bare feet. I didn’t want to mess up my favorite pair of sandals, so I slipped them off and gritted my teeth to walk across patches of rock to the lake. My son wore water shoes and had no trouble navigating his way to the water.
The first shock of cold water quickly fades away. I was bent over, peering through the water and reaching out for any rocks that caught my eye. The water lapping at the shore often distorts the view, but my pockets soon filled up. It is not possible for me to leave the lake without a few stones, I’ve been carrying rocks home from the lake since I was small.
My son, who changed into his swim trunks, was exploring the beach and having fun pushing a big piece of driftwood out into the lake, then watching the water effortlessly move the driftwood back to shore. We weren’t troubled by bugs, and the beach was almost empty, the only other people there was a family about 200-yards down the beach.
The lake was calm and mirror-smooth, ideal for skipping rocks. As the sun dipped lower towards the horizon, I began taking pictures. Lake Superior never fails to leave me in awe at the power of nature and humbled by the beauty of its shorelines. The stress of everyday life is stripped away and I was renewed by the magic of a summer night on the lake.
The sunset seemed to last forever, and I was enthralled by the way the light shifted, at the path of gold paving the way from me to where the sun was settling in for the night. My son and I decided to stay longer, gathering driftwood into a hastily prepared fire pit and borrowing matches from the family nearby to start a beach fire. We kept the fire going as the sun slipped away. There was not much of a moon that night, so we soon put the fire out and made our way back to the car before the last lingering traces of sunlight vanished.
It was a quarter to 10 when I started the car for the drive back. The open sky near the lake was soon replaced by a canopy of leaves, as the headlights traced our way back, winding through the trees and past the occasional field or yard. In the distance, the light caught a shadow along the edge of the forest, a bear that changed its mind about crossing the road and disappeared back into the dark. Our headlights did not deter an enormous porcupine we came across a mile later, fortunately he was in the other lane and we had the chance to slow down and admire him.
Street lights soon appeared and the road straightened out in the final stretch home. We pulled up in front of the house and I walked in the front door with rocks in my pockets and peace in my heart.