Here is the link to my Letter to the Editor that was published in the national edition of the New York Times on 13 April 2013. Mine is the last letter.
This essay aired 30 July 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 WVPE. Audio available here
“The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief”
I am here today, dear listener, to help you better understand how to talk to a person who has had someone very close to them die. It is not an easy task because everyone who mourns mourns differently and has different needs from their social encounters. I offer you this suggestion: be Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers did all that great dancing with Fred Astaire, but in high heels and backwards and with a smile on her face.
This means that the person in mourning is Fred Astaire to your Ginger. And you need to follow their lead, hyper aware of every nuance of the encounter: listen closely to what the person is saying and try to discern where they want the conversation to go: are they pushing here, pulling there. I cannot emphasize enough the need to mindful of the direction they are taking you, not the direction you want to take them.
I say this because two and a half years ago we learned that my husband had cancer and in October of 2009 he died. And because he was well liked by many in our large circle of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, there was a tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from the Michiana community. But at times this outpouring became almost too much for us to bear, for every time we went to the grocery store for months afterwards, even as recently as last month, we would run into people who hadn’t seen us since he died and who were eager to express their sympathy. This may sound cold, but we had been living with the illness and death for so long, and often we would run into two, three, four people we knew at the grocery store who would, of course, want to know how we were doing, and we just didn’t have the energy to keep condoling every time we went out.
We craved normality and a break from our sadness. We just wanted to go to the grocery store and have it be a fun outing. Instead, the face of almost everyone we ran into fell when they saw us. I so appreciated the friends who followed my lead when I chirped that we were doing great and who didn’t press us with a second, more serious, “But how are you all doing.” The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief, describing my insomnia (or worse, my children’s insomnia) or the crushing pain that feels as if it is reducing my bones and organs to the ashes that my husband’s body has become when the enormity of his absence does sometimes compute for me and I feel utterly bereft.
Going out in public became particularly difficult for my children. To be reminded continually of their loss, to be asked constantly to condole and grieve, to have friends only be sad with them became extremely trying and they would often excuse themselves from these conversations.
We began complaining too much about this until we started reminding ourselves that this wouldn’t be happening if so many people did not truly care about us. This became my mantra to myself and my children until one day I finally realized that these friends were also grieving Scott’s loss, that they missed him and were working through their grief as well, a grief they had in common with us.
So, what to do? Be Ginger Rogers, beginning with my friend April’s advice: smile warmly and say “It’s good to see you,” or make some other positive acknowledgment of the person before you instead of the loss surrounding them. Save the grief talk for a private moment. or, better yet, write a note to your friend. My favorite notes, the ones I absolutely treasure, are those from people who described how evident Scott’s love was for me.
Sometime this past spring I read a letter in the newspaper from a woman who complained that no one in her community would talk to her about her husband’s death, not even when she would bring up the topic. I was immediately struck by the very opposite experience this woman was having. But then I realized that she had lost her husband twice, both in her home and in her community. I have the solace of knowing that if I need to talk about Scott or my pain, there are so many of you out there ready and willing to dance that dance with me. In high heels and backward.
This essay aired 18 June 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 FM WVPE. Audio available here
“She…held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, and revealed an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo. She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.”
I recently traveled out of state to the university where I earned my master’s degree 22 years ago to begin a program for an advanced certificate of study. I learned a staggering amount about rare books and paper in the two courses I took over a two-week intensive session.
But the biggest lesson I learned began on my first day back in that beloved University town where I met and fell in love with my husband 24 years ago. I had dinner with his mentor, a woman who from that time onward took great pride in his professional accomplishments and who loved him like a son. This was also my first opportunity since his death to talk with another widow.
As we were comparing stories, I noticed that after more than thirty years of widowhood, she still wore her wedding band. This surprised me, though I understood. I myself have not been able to remove mine nor to change my status on Facebook. I have told myself that I can wear my wedding band as long as I still feel so married.
When I returned to my hotel that night and went to the bar to cash-in my coupon for a complimentary drink, I struck up a conversation with the bartender and two sisters in their sixties who had very recently attended a family reunion in Mishawaka.
After talking quite a bit about how much the Michiana area has changed in the decades since the sisters had grown-up here, they started asking me questions about myself. When I disclosed that I was recently widowed, the bartender, who also wore a wedding band, told us that she, too, was a widow of 12 years. She reached down into her purse, took out a black-and-white snapshot of her husband taken sometime in the mid seventies, held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, and revealed an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo. She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.
I was flabbergasted. Unlike a wedding band that is easily removed, she had marked her heart as his for the rest of her life. This woman was not much older than me, yet by indelibly marking herself with his image, she had closed herself off from falling in love again. For what man would make love with a woman with a 2 by 3 image of her dead husband staring him in the face?
I learned that night that I will not be wearing my wedding band for years to come because I want to be open to the possibility of love, and maybe even marriage, again some day. But doing so means letting go of my beloved.
Grieving is a process of many big and small goodbyes. Every day during my two weeks in that University town where we fell in love, I walked through the quad, back and forth from the parking lot to my class room, avoiding a certain path. It wasn’t until I left my last class that I was able to walk on the sidewalk where Scott first told me he loved me, the moment, in my heart, that cemented us together. Just ten months ago we had stood in that same spot, celebrating that first declaration of love, kissing, crying, holding each other very close. Eight weeks later he was dead.
I breathed in deeply as I walked through that precious space on the sidewalk, as if I could breath Scott in through time and into my soul. I said a goodbye.
He was everywhere and nowhere.
This essay aired 30 April 2010 on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM . Audio available here
The thought of her crumpets nearly unmanned him. “Lucie,” he choked.
Facebook is my grown-up playground where, in the comfort of my home, I meet friends old and new to share information, tell stories about our lives, and generally have a good time. These encounters are, by turn, fun, interesting, and sad; sometimes maddening; often poignant; and on many occasions have made me roar with laughter.
Today I am here to share with you, dear listener, one of my very favorite Facebook experiences. My dear friend Matthew posted a single, simple sentence that elicited a string of exchanges among him, his friend Bill, and me that I believe is worthy of the Bulwer-Lytton award for worst fiction:
It was a dark and stormy morning.
The count stepped from the shadows of the dripping jacaranda bush and softly scratched at the window. “Lucie, let me in,” he murmured. “It’s dark and stormy out here, and I’m workin’ up a powerful thirst …”
Lucie knew better than to respond. Letting him in would mean tea and sympathy — and not the fun kind, either. That man would drink cup after cup of tea and would spend the better part of the morning enumerating in minute detail all the wrongs the world had inflicted upon him. Then he would make a sloppy, fumbling pass at her, mistaking her boredom for interest. No, she would not be a guest at that pity party again. Slowly, slowly she pulled the curtains shut thinking, “I really must trim the jacaranda once this rain lets up.”
The first twitch of the curtains gave the count hope, but no. He was staring through the misted pane at the wrong side of the gingham print. “English Breakfast!” he cursed under his breath. He thought of the hot life-giving liquid, of her deft handling of pot and cup, and of the way she had silently mopped up beneath his feet when he had become overly excited telling one of his anecdotes about the drainage of the back pasture. Only she understood. She would listen with head in hand, her eyes shifting now and then to the kitchen clock. She would wordlessly refill his cup and fetch crumpets from the toaster. The thought of her crumpets nearly unmanned him. “Lucie,” he choked. Was this self-pity? Well what if it was? If Lucie was denying her sympathy he would go DIY. “Come, Bruno,” he called peremptorily. The count’s pet tapir reluctantly detached himself from his snack and fell in step, stems from the jacaranda leaves protruding from his expressive snout.
The count had scarcely turned away from the now gingham-framed window when the skies opened, thunder rolled, lightning flashed, and water drops the size of English Breakfast tea bags lashed his face. He only had time to wonder why the rolling thunder preceded the lightning flash before he was as waterlogged as one of Noah’s friends who never made it into the ark. He glanced back at the jacaranda bush. He considered taking shelter there again, as he had so many mornings, and evenings, and even noon times and high tea. He had shed many tears under that bush. But then Bruno caught his eye, and something in the tapir’s glance gave him strength. “I will never seek solace beneath those bright purple flowers again,” he said. “Farewell, Lucie. May your charms be loosed on better men.” He set his face toward the road and forced his legs to move. Bruno sighed, shook the water from his coat, and slogged after him.
The jacaranda bush never blossomed so beautifully again, for having kept the count company under its branches those many hours, Bruno’s final leaving was the end of his leavings.
 Matthew Bell
 Bill Svelmoe
 Elizabeth Van Jacob
 Matthew Bell
 Bill Svelmoe
 Elizabeth Van Jacob
Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. http://findingada.com/about/
You know that there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them out there in the past, but you don’t know them: all the women who made great technological contributions and advances through the ages but never, ever got one iota of the credit they deserved. Sometimes they received a mention or a footnote, but, more often, the greater glory went to the man involved.
So on this Ada Lovelace Day I ask you to mediate on all the women whose contributions must be touching our lives today, but whose identities will forever remain unknown.
The latest issue of the Vermont Country Store catalog had the most surprising two-page spread.
You may be familiar with The Vermont Country Store Catalog that features products from yesteryear that seem to have disappeared from store shelves along with the very drugstores and dime stores that carried them. Here you can buy Evening in Paris perfume, Bit o’ Honey candy bars, hand-cranked Boston pencil sharpeners like we used in school decades ago, Chatter Phone Pull Toys, Raggedy Ann, Pokey and Gumby dolls. They sell clothing your grandmother wore that you thought was so terribly old-fashioned thirty years ago, but now that Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown seems like a good idea on these cold Michiana nights. And those Rib-Knit-Funnel Bonnets actually look kind of retro-chic. Lavoris; Gee, My Hair Smells Terrific; and Bun candy bars can all be found within its pages. I am really surprised that they don’t sell Tab or Green River.
The illustrations in the catalog all seem to have a pink, wholesome, and healthy undertone to them; yes, even the inanimate objects. All the illustrated models are Caucasian and look like extras from a Leave It to Beaver episode. The demographic they seem to be appealing to are the straight-laced, Lawrence-Welk-watching folks whose last wild night of dancing was when listening to those new records by that Buddy Holly guy. In short, white middle-America at its New England best, folks you imagine in a Norman Rockwell painting of a rural Vermont general store.
In an idle moment I was flipping through their catalog when, near the back, I found a two page spread offering vibrators. Yes, vibrators. I choked on my chamomile tea. At first I thought this was a hoax. How could the catalog that sells Squeeze-It Change Purses and Walnettos now be selling dildos? Old-time Vermont weather sticks, yes, but private pleasure electronics?! Terri-lined shower caps, real-rubber stair treads, wooden lazy-Susan trays with napkin holders, shoe horns, and Sweet Earth Solid Fragrances: these are the products one expects to find in a Vermont County Store Catalog.
I fired up the laptop to post this delightfully incongruous discovery on Facebook. But when I tried to find the exact information on their site, I was a bit flummoxed about what category to choose. Should I click on “Tried and True” or “Customer Favorites” or “Toys”? After a little poking around, I finally found them under Apothecary, subcategory – I kid you not – “Intimate Solutions.”
And right there on the page was a picture of proprietor Lyman Orton, almost elderly himself, stating that “Here at the Vermont Country Store, we take a practical, no-nonsense approach to keeping you healthy physically, emotionally, and … well … sexually, too!” Omigod, I thought I had walked in on my parents! There were pills, and creams, and videos for men and women alike. But the feminine solutions included seventeen different devices: lo-tech, high-tech, glass, plastic, even a $20 rubber ducky that you can get a heck of a lot cheaper almost anywhere here in Michiana.
Good golly! I wasn’t in Norman Rockwell World any more. Or, I guess they now sell vibrators in Norman Rockwell World. Of all the catalogs I receive and all the magazines I subscribe to, this is the second-to-last one that I ever imagined would carry products like this, the last being Lehman’s which offers products to support the Amish community (I checked, and, no, Lehman’s doesn’t offer anything like this, not even non-electric).
There is a photograph on the About Us page of the Vermont Country Store website taken when the first store opened in 1946 that includes a woman in a crisp, cotton dress exiting the store with a wicker basket filled with her purchases, looking as if she is telling the three men on the porch something terribly amusing. I can’t help but think she is saying, “Boys, you’ll never guess what I bought today!”
Scott Van Jacob was born 16 July 1956 in Klamath Falls, Oregon and grew up on cattle ranches in Klamath County. Scott was a devoted husband and father who loved his wife and daughters deeply and took great delight in their lively spirits. A devoted father, he rarely ever brought work home and spent his evenings playing and reading aloud with his family.
Scott attended Oregon College of Education where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. and co-founded a chapter of Big Brother/Big Sister; after his studies in Monmouth, he taught at an American school in Medellin, Colombia for 18 months. Scott then earned his Masters in Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he met and wooed his wife. Professionally, Scott was a highly regarded Latin American bibliographer who was awarded both the President’s Award and the Foik Award at the University of Notre Dame during the 14 years he worked there. Beyond Notre Dame, he forged strong professional relationships with Latin American bibliographers around the country and with librarians and book dealers in Argentina, Uruguay, and Spain.
An accomplished amateur runner, Scott won the Harrisburg Mile at the age of 38 and had a personal best time of 4:07. Scott dabbled successfully in the yeast arts, producing delicious beers and breads. A summer’s barbecue on the porch with family and friends was his idea of a perfect evening. He was a voracious reader who had an encyclopedic knowledge of running statistics and an impressive collection of track and field biographies. He had the great fortune of overseeing the acquisition and study of an important collection of manuscripts of his favorite writer, Jorge Luis Borges.
Scott loved to travel, and he and Elizabeth and their daughters explored North America from sea to shining sea, much of South America (particularly his beloved Argentina), and lived for a short time in Barcelona where Scott studied Catalan-language publishing.
Scott is survived by his wife Elizabeth, his daughters Nina and Gemma, and his step-daughter Amy. He has joined his mother, Lois Field, who passed away over a year ago. Scott is also survived by his father Norman Jacob, step-mother Jacque, brothers James Jacob and David Jacob, and step-brothers Robert Edwards, Mark Wolter, Phillip Wolter, and Gregg Jacob, as well as dear friends Norman and Maureen Eburne. He will be deeply missed by his wife’s family and the many dear, dear friends he leaves behind.
A celebration of his life will take place on Thursday 15 October, from 1:00 until 4:30 at Pinhook Park Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana. In Oregon, a celebration of his life will take place on Sunday 15 November from 1:00p.m. until 4:00p.m. at Gentle House 855 Monmouth Ave N in Monmouth, on the campus of Western Oregon University. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Van Jacob Family Education Fund at Notre Dame Federal Credit Union.
Scott Van Jacob was well loved by many. He had seemingly infinite patience and kindness, was gentle and loving, ready to help anyone who was in need. He was the kind of person who not only saw the glass as half full, but who also appreciated the beauty of the glass itself and the contents therein. Though he called the Midwest home, Oregon and its saw-toothed horizons, its mountains and fields and rivers, reigned in his heart.
He was also a great kisser.
This essay aired 16 October 2009 on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM. Audio available here
I was terrified that she was going to turn around and slug me. I can only imagine the look on my face that one of the teens was gleefully capturing on her cell phone.
I was lost in thought driving home one September evening, considering how fortunate I was to have just paid only $88 for over $1000 worth of medication. I was about a block or so from my house, when I noticed a crowd gathered around two teen girls fighting in the street.
This was not a simple exchange of punches: one girl was beating the crap out of the other. Both girls were on the ground; Girl A had two fistfuls of hair in each of her hands and was pulling with all her might as she kicked Girl B as hard she could in the shoulders and ribs. Girl B was struggling to break free. The two were surrounded by 8-10 teenagers who were doing nothing to stop the fight. About three houses away, two men in their twenties were standing by a car in the street, not making any move to intervene.
Instead of turning the corner toward my house, I drove forward, past the snickering men, into the crowd of laughing teens, and up alongside the two girls. The situation was a bit harrowing for me as a woman alone in her car in the evening, the circle of teenagers separating just enough to let me into the circle, but not ceasing their jeers and taunts.
Calmly, but firmly, I said to the girls, “Stop. Stop. C’mon, get off of her. Get off of her. Now step apart.” When Girl A stood up, she was no more than about six inches from my head. I was terrified that she was going to turn around and slug me. I can only imagine the look on my face that one of the teens was gleefully capturing on her cell phone. Girl A took a couple of steps away, still facing Girl B, her eyes filled with rage, taunting her to fight again. “Walk away. Walk away,” I continued to urge in a clam, steady voice, trying my best to cover my fear with an infusion of patience and kindness.
Though the girls had stepped apart, my presence in my car with its “Peace is Possible” bumper sticker was not having the diffusing affect I had hoped for. The taunts were rising, the crowd was not dispersing, the cell phone continued recording, and my pleas to walk away were going unheeded.
It is excruciating for me to admit, dear listener, that at this point I drove away, watching the scene in my rearview mirror. I drove about thirty yards when the girls started lunging for one another again. I pulled over, called 911, and reported the scene. The dispatcher asked me if I saw a weapon. “No,” I replied, “but this is a particularly brutal fight.” He told me to call again if I saw a weapon. “I don’t live on this block and I have to get home to my family, ” I told him. “Alright,” he sighed, “I’ll send someone out.”
I returned home, deeply shaken, handed over the chemotherapy medication to my husband, and related the story to him and our two teenage daughters.
So many questions about this incident keep swirling around in my head: did Girl B suffer permanent damage to her neck or shoulders? Was her hair pulled out by its roots? It was a warm evening and the houses all had open windows and doors and this fight went on for some time, and yet no adult came out to break it up. And why would the 911 dispatcher not take seriously the gravity of the situation? No one was willing to protect Girl B.
Mostly, though, I have been consumed with the coulda-shoulda-woulda’s. I could have driven back and, again, urged the girls to stop fighting. I should have driven up to the men and demanded that they intervene. I would have gotten out of the car when Girl A started her taunts, but when I saw the rage in her eyes, all I could think of was my thirteen year-old tearfully insisting in the face of her father’s rapidly advancing cancer that I must stay alive. So I drove on.
These days I drive down the block where the fight occurred every opportunity I get. I know that I will not be able to redeem the choice I made to drive away from the scene. I just want to continue to be a steady, friendly presence, waving hello to everyone I see, hoping, hoping that peace will be more than just a possibility.
This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM in August 2009. Audio available here
It’s been twenty four years since I graduated from college, plenty of time to reflect on which of my classes truly have helped me in my life. Here is my list, dear listener, of the five courses that I recommend that everyone take in college:
All your life you will be taking photographs that will capture images of important moments and people in your life. These memories can be made even more poignant when the composition is strong and the image is crisp and clear. Many of these photographs will become treasures to you in a way that no other possession will as your life moves from one phase to another and as loved ones leave this world and these photographs become gateways to so many memories.
2. Anatomy and Physiology
This one is a no-brainer — ha, ha. All of us see doctors and all of us, or someone close to us, will likely have a medical procedure or a serious illness at some time in our lives. Medical care can be expensive and complicated; talking to doctors can be baffling. Studying Anatomy and Physiology will not only give you a schema for beginning to understand what doctors are talking about, but it will, more importantly, give you a schema for knowing what questions to ask in order to better understand your condition and the consequences of proposed treatments.
3. Child Development
Understanding how a child’s brain experiences the world at different stages in the growth process is so helpful in having successful relationships with the children in our lives. How many times have you seen adults take very small children to restaurants or doctor’s offices and expect these little ones to sit still and quietly for very long periods without any books or toys or crayons or paper, angering when the children cannot comply, and making them feel bad about themselves or, worse, punishing them for behavior they are not capable of stopping? Or parents who complain bitterly about their teenager’s need to assert their independence and explore the world for themselves? By understanding a child’s motivations, capabilities and limitations you will be able to better work with them instead of against them.
4. Composition through advanced composition
I cannot emphasize enough that there will be too many occasions in this world where you will have to express yourself clearly in writing: perhaps to your boss justifying the job you do, perhaps to your municipality challenging an unfair assessment, or, perhaps, to a church full of your friends and family if you are called upon to eulogize a loved one. Sounding intelligent, thoughtful, and reasoned in your writing will help you tremendously in getting ahead and getting what you want and what you need in this world. Not sounding that way will have the very opposite effect.
Statistics was one of the most challenging courses this philosophy major and English minor took in college. The skills I learned in this course have served me well both professionally and personally every single year since I graduated. Understanding both how to look at your world quantitatively and what these quantities tell you is essential in this culture. Daily we are bombarded with statistics about almost every aspect of our lives. Not only is it important to be able to look at these statistics with a critical eye in order to assess what they are, or are not, telling us; but it is also important to be able to create number stories about our own world to let others know just what we add up to.
These five courses reflect both my prejudices and experiences; your five recommendations might be very different. But to anyone who is engaged in educating themselves (an activity that does not end once you receive your diploma), my ultimate recommendation to you, dear listener, is to take courses in a variety of disciplines, especially those outside of your comfort zone. Some of these classes I have listed above were very difficult for me and I did not get my best grades in them, yet I have utilized the knowledge and skills I gained from each of them throughout my life. The world is a surprising place and in a flash will wrench you out of your comfort zones. Being able to understand how to look at the world artistically and scientifically and sociologically and analytically and numerically will help you negotiate many of the discomfort zones you will find yourself in, and maybe even help you succeed with a bit of confidence and panache.