You wouldn't think one not-so-big woman (at the podium on the left) could have such an impact, but Susan Branch does. She has a cadre of devoted followers ("the girlfriends") because because of her ability to create joy out of everyday occurrences. Yes, she's a wonderful artist and cookbook author, but I think the magic is in her attitude.
Susan has a talent for living: for appreciating the
small things in life, for creating beauty in her books and calendars
and fabrics, and for lifting the hearts of her readers. Her first
book, a handwritten and hand illustrated cookbook, The Heart of the
Home, was published more than 25 years ago. Now she's published her
thirteenth book, and her blog, in which she writes prolifically (how
does she get anything else done?!), is a celebration of life's little pleasures. Reading her stories and the quotations she sprinkles
liberally through her writing, and seeing her photos and artwork, bring
joy to the reader. And the comments from the readers! One of the things that has
delighted her followers on the blog is not only the chance to communicate with
Susan, but also to communicate with each other. The girlfriends love Susan, and they love each other as well.
Susan and Joe, her partner of 26 years, are on a cross country book tour, and this is what they are traveling in: a van wrapped with Susan's photos and artwork, celebrating the book.
The book signing at my local bookshop was fun, but the tea at a suburban country club two days later was pretty close to perfect. Because we were sitting around linen-covered tables, there was even more conversation and exchanges of information between the girlfriends than there had been at the book shop two days earlier. At my table were a group who had driven down from Wisconsin, one all the way from Green Bay (4 hours?). These are devoted fans, people! It was wonderful to meet them and exchange stories about how we had gotten to know of Susan, favorite books, things that had inspired us. It was a magical afternoon.
The pictures are courtesy of Dawn, a devoted Susan Branch girlfriend, and a new friend of mine. Isn't that nice?
My dad offered to take our picture with Susan when we had our turn in the book signing line, but to prepare for that shot, he walked around practicing picture-taking with my point-and-shoot camera. When I got home, downloaded the pictures, and looked at them on the computer... Well. Maybe I shouldn't have said yes to his offer.
Granted, my camera doesn't take the best outside-in-the-dark pictures, but...
...even the inside pictures were a bit, er, shaky.
On the last shot in the series, though, my dad came through.
Yea! Thanks, Dad!
And Tuesday, my cousin Mary is treating my mom and me to tea with Susan Branch.
Below is the homily our minister gave at Gerrit's funeral.
The language doesn’t seem to
matter.Whether in Dutch or English,
Swahili or Mandarin, just the tenor of the preacher’s voice of Ecclesiastes is
able to speak to that part of our soul that is hungry for truth, wisdom and
perspective.For everything there is a
season, and a time for every matter under heaven.With the wisdom gained from age and
experience, the preacher reflects back on life and offers his assessment.Seven pairings of opposites call to mind the
seven days of the week, and the opposites of night and day, and the opposites
contained in them as well – the shadows cast by the sun and the stars which
punctuate the night sky.All of life is
covered and uncovered.As we reflect on
our own lives, and today on Gerrit’s life, we do so with humility, limited
vision, and a sense of awe in the setting of time, from beginning to end, that
God has created for us to live in, think, act, play, weep and work.
There is for all of us a time and a
place to be born.For Gerrit, it was
August, 1933, Amsterdam.Netherlands
means “low country.”Over twenty percent
of the land area is below sea level.Generations of extracting peat from an already flat terrain resulted in
sunken land levels vulnerable to flooding.But ingenuity and hard work created a system of drainage and dikes to
control the forces of water.Holland is
a land of cities and urban, sophisticated culture; it is the home great masters
such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Unlike mostly royals, The Dutch Queen Beatrix
rides a bike as do most of her subjects.Holland is known for its windmills and tulips the world over.The national color is orange.Last year, Holland was ranked as the happiest
country in the world.Hoe haat het?Ja goed.Gerrit was through
and through Dutch – his DNA containing the strong elements of his nation’s
character – curiosity, humor, creativity, and regard for welfare of all
There is a time to grow.Gerrit was just six years old when Nazi
Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940.Young children adapt quickly to their circumstances, however grim and frightening.For a young boy, there was the excitement of
streets with tanks and soldiers with guns.But then neighbors began to disappear and the strain of occupation to
weigh on psyche and soul.There were food
shortages and hunger.A family
connection to a local bakery was a lifeline.It was Gerrit who risked riding his bike after dark in violation of the
curfew laws to retrieve a loaf of bread set aside for his family.Gerrit was twelve when the war ended.Hopefully, you will hold in your memory the
image of a smiling man, who held within a deep joy for life.But in that face was also the experience of
war, indelibly marked with sadness and loss on a personal and national level.
There is a time to build up and
break down.After the war, Gerrit served
in the Dutch navy.He violated his own
rule not to volunteer for anything when his unit was asked if anyone knew some
English.He raised his hand, knowing at
least some words in English, which led to training in the United States and an
assignment on the other side of the globe in Dutch New Guinea.During this time, he was married and had two
daughters – Karin and Lestari, who now each have three children of their
own.Gerrit’s military background and
language skills helped him begin a career at KLM, the Dutch national airline.As a purser, or head attendant, he worked in
what was then the glamorous world of international air travel, with roundtrip
flights between Amsterdam and New York and other world capitals.After seven years of the jet set life, and
the toll it was taking on his family, Gerrit left KLM and opened a small
restaurant with his wife.If you want to
spend more time with family, this wasn’t the way to do it.After a year, Gerrit started in industrial
sales, which was the path for rest of his career.
There is a time to embrace and a
time to refrain from embracing.For many
reasons known and unknown, Gerrit’s marriage to his first wife unraveled.Relationships with his daughters were
strained.There were arguments, distance
and separation.But in time, with Karin
and Lestari, there would be reconciliation.It would be the genuine and heartfelt words, “I’m sorry” coming from the
man who once seemed so formidable and so large - words that healed and
transformed their relationships.
There is a time to love. In the late 1980s, the lives of Ginnie and
Gerrit would intersect.Both working at the
same global corporation in different countries.A meeting in England is where their paths would cross.In a cold meeting room, Gerrit offered his
jacket to Ginnie.Christmas cards were
exchanged.A romance began and led to
the altar to my left.The picture of
Ginnie and Gerrit on their wedding day says so much about a time of joy and
happiness, two people who found each other and made their vows to hold, to cherish
and to love.So much fell into place
that was right – experienced so wonderfully in the times that they would just
sit together, tell stories and laugh for hours.It was also at this altar where Gerrit was baptized and marked as
Christ’s own forever.A time for Gerrit
to know God’s love for him – both unconditionally and complete.
There is a time to love even
more.The symptoms began to appear in
odd and vexing ways.Gerrit’s tools in
the basement workshop were no longer impeccably sorted.A household project that normally would have
been easily accomplished became difficult and unfinished.He was more irritable and lost interest in
many of the hobbies he enjoyed.It was
several years before the diagnosis was vascular dementia.A referral to Rush University and involvement
with a support group was a godsend for Gerrit and Ginnie.Breaking the isolation and connecting to
others in a similar situation was healing in itself.The passage from 1st Corinthians that
we have heard today was read at Ginnie and Gerrit’s wedding and was lived out
so extraordinarily in their marriage.For the second half of their marriage, the spotlight shifted clearly to
Ginnie, who practiced the essence of love, in self-giving, patience, kindness
and endurance, in the face of her beloved’s inability to reciprocate as he
would have so desperately wanted to.Ginnie and Gerrit’s family and this church community have witnessed
their journey with awe, and as we commend Gerrit to God’s rest, we stand and
surround Ginnie with our love, our thanks and profound respect.
The preacher tells us that we have
been given minds to have a sense of past and future, but we cannot and never
will comprehend the totality of a given life let alone the expanse of time that
God has set forth.But even with limited
ability, we see a life before us of all that is under heaven, of birth and
death, building up and breaking down, weeping and laughter, of joy and anger,
of what is Dutch and what is American, of what is health and what is illness
and what is love, and we give thanks to God for Gerrit.
A group of about 75 people of faith, organized by my non-profit employer, met at 6:30 yesterday morning to ride two buses from Chicago to our state capital in Springfield to lobby our senators and representatives on three environmental bills as part of the day organized by the IL Environmental Council.
Most of us were novices at lobbying but got training during the three and a half hour bus ride on what the bills were, where to find our lawmakers, etc. The biggest issue on the table is to get some regulations in place before companies move in and begin hydraulic fracturing - fracking - in Illinois. Now there are none - no protections against water contamination, air pollution...it's a long list of issues.
It was a long day, and we were able to connect with some of our legislators - others remained elusive.
The democratic process is a strange and confusing thing. I would participate again, but don't feel a calling towards lobbying!
Two weeks ago I drove to Des Moines to spend a long weekend with my sister and brother-in-law. The last time I had visited was 2003 for the wedding of my niece - which was great, but not like the relaxed weekends that I used to have with them every few years either on my own or with Gerrit.
I told Carlie that even if all we did was sit inside and talk the whole time, I'd still be happy. But of course we didn't just sit and talk. We did things and talked.
We took a tour of Terrace Hill, the 1860's mansion that is now the Governor's mansion. Perched on a hill with a beautiful view of rolling hills and the city of Des Moines, it has been well-cared for over the years. A visit to Carlie's workplace and gardens followed - because this has been a cold spring, there wasn't much to see garden-wise, but it was great to meet her co-workers.
We had dinner one night at the home of friends, two of whom I've spent many hours on the phone and email with over the years (my broker and his assistant) but never met face to face. It was such a fun evening.
We drove the 30 miles to Iowa State University, my alma mater; I hadn't been back in more than 25 years and wanted to stand on central campus and look and look and look. It was fun to see the familiar buildings - and all the new ones.
The Campanile - the iconic symbol of Iowa State on Central Campus
We walked into some of the buildings, including Beardshear, the
building where all students had to go to pick up their class schedules
(who does that anymore?!). I didn't remember the beautiful skylights -
guess in those days I was too focused on getting my class schedule and
getting out of there.
We walked to the Horticulture building and greenhouses where I had taken
a couple of electives my senior year. This odd sculpture is by a sculptor my sister says is well-known. It's set in a bed of tulips. Is it
supposed to be a tulip? A corn plant? Or both, since this is Iowa,
home to miles of cornfields as well as Pella, a Dutch community with a
major tulip festival every May?
Back home, we walked around Carlie's garden. She has lots of beautiful
plantings, most of which had yet to bloom. Lenten
rose (hellebore) is something I keep meaning to add
to my garden but haven't yet.
One of the many things we reminisced about was a cable access television show my brother-in-law did several decades ago about an aging cowboy artist character. That discussion prompted him to dig through some boxes in the garage and come up with an assortment of artifacts from the show: bolo ties, collar points, belt buckles, all in a Western theme. As we sorted through the stuff, I pointed out that one of the pins was sterling silver and suggested he polish it and wear it on his lapel - that it was too pretty to be in a box in the garage. Later that day, he made a gift of it! Thank you, Gino!
Saturday night, dinner at a neighbor's, who happens to be a "reader," as in Tarot card reader. Something I've never had done before. She only tells good news (there's a comfort) and will do a reading on whatever topic or part of life you are interested in hearing about. It was interesting and encouraging and confirmed one of the things I've been trying to be, which is open-ended about opportunities.
Sunday was church and a trip to an architectural salvage (and other types of salvage) warehouse - really expensive stuff! None of us were in the market for anything, and it was fun to wander the floors of the building, wondering what some things were, and telling stories about other things we spied that brought back a childhood memory. Sunday night we co-opted the television from my brother-in-law to watch Call the Midwife - and did you know there are three books by Jennifer Lee Worth? Carlie had read the first one and recommended it, and I agree - so well-written with keen observations on life in the East End and the culture of the times. I'm looking forward to reading the two additional volumes, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End.
Monday morning my nephew was back in town, so we made an early morning visit to his place before I headed back to Illinois to pick up Oscar who had spent a happy weekend with my parents.
It was a wonderful weekend, and even without the arrow pin to remember it by, it will stay in my heart, thanks to my loving sister and brother-in-law.