Wading Barefoot

Rediscovering my barefoot-self

Auld Lang Syne ~ Times Gone By

Auld Lang Syne ~ Times Gone By

I spent New Year’s Eve alone; husband was working and the rest of my family was busy with their celebrations. Now I won’t say that this is my favorite way to celebrate this particular holiday, but I do appreciate the solitude. I spent the entirety of 2013 filling a quart Mason jar with folded scraps of paper on which I’d written things that made me happy throughout the year. It’s so easy to come to the end of the year and after surviving the holiday traffic, crowded stores and not-so-merry people everywhere that we find ourselves bemoaning the year gone by and vowing the new year will be much better. To that end, I wanted to see what, if any difference it would make in my perception of 2013.

What did I find after reading each one? Thankfully it was a year filled with kindnesses, laughter and love. I think I’ll make this a tradition. Another tradition I want to share with you is my top three.

Top 3 things I’m glad to be rid of:

  • 20+ pounds of me!

  • That old ratty blue couch

  • Sugar

Top 3 things I’m want for 2014:

  • Working clothes dryer

  • Car

  • lose the next 30 pounds

One last note while you’re here; it’s been one year since my last post and I’ve given this blog a good deal of consideration. I wrestled with the idea of abandoning it but in all honesty I am just not ready to let it go. I still have a need to share my thoughts and experiences, even if I only have the occasional reader. This was never about pleasing anyone, it was more an experiment to see if my writing would improve and if, under pressure I could still produce a worthy effort on a regular basis. Before I began this entry I checked the stats and found that there are several people checking my blog and that was enough to inspire me to continue. So, I feel as if I’ve both succeeded and failed. Sure I have a year-long gap between posts, but on the other hand, I’m still writing and thanks to you I will continue to give it my best effort.

Happy New Year, I hope that this year you are able to take time to appreciate the little things that bring you pleasure or joy and carry them in your heart to share with those you meet.


 © Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2014

January 23, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 4 Comments

Heart to Heart

“Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.” ~ Buddha

 February is Heart Awareness Month and according to The American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women, heart disease remains the number 1 killer of women. Despite this fact women make up only a fraction of cardiovascular related research. I think the most telling statistic is that less than 2 in 10 women know that heart disease is as prevalent as it is.

Bent Fork 2008

Bent Fork 2008

One of the many reasons a women’s symptoms are overlooked as being cardiac related in emergency rooms is the variety of symptomology. Women don’t typically fit into the stereotypical, crushing chest pain radiating down the left arm. This is the clinical picture for men having a heart attack. Women on the other hand can experience the same symptoms but in many other ways and places. For instance, when I first experienced chest pain, in 1990, I thought it was indigestion. As time went on I felt tired and a little winded. I was seen right away in an emergency room. My EKG (Electrocardiogram) was normal and it was presumed that I was experiencing gastritis with anxiety attack. Later that week it happened again and this time I was in the city, not the rural county hospital where I’d been seen before. Surely they could tell the difference between gastritis and angina, right? Not so, I was given to a second year resident who could only see the 30 pounds I’d packed on since my second child and gave me what is referred to as, a GI Cocktail, it consists of Maalox and Lidocaine. It is intended to ease the spasm and reduce the acid in the stomach, thereby decreasing the symptoms, if they were gastric in nature this treatment would have worked wonders. Since it had no effect on the chest pain I was sent home on a bland diet.

I can’t begin to convey to you just how confused, frustrated and eventually furious I became as the years passed and not once was a cardiovascular work-up done. By 1994 I was working at a local hospital and collapsed one night from chest pain and sudden exhaustion. This was my first admission and because my blood work did not indicate I’d had a heart attack, I was sent home this time with a prescription for Xanax. I wondered for years if it could all be caused by anxiety – or, was my anxiety being caused by heart disease?

Many years went by with no let up in symptoms. I foolishly continued to smoke cigarettes like a chimney. I smoked for 33 years and finally, in 2002 I gave up that foul life-ending addiction. I thought I’d dodged a bullet so to speak, but I hadn’t.  In 2003 I changed doctors and opted for a female nurse practitioner. She checked the history and scheduled several tests. One of these revealed a big surprise and a relief at the same time. According to the Thallium scan, it was clear that 2/3rd of the back of my heart was ischemic from the lack of blood flow and it was expected that an angiogram would reveal blocked coronary arteries. As predicted my right coronary artery was 100% blocked, but the remaining arteries were clear. I waited to see if medication could improve it but honestly, I felt like a walking time-bomb, waiting for that event to happen. I wondered if would die; I had young children and I knew that my husband would be a rock for them but couldn’t imagine leaving them.

That event I had come to dread didn’t waste any time. May 2006 I was in a community college taking a few classes when I had the worst pain ever. I (again, foolishly) drove myself to the hospital. I was given another GI cocktail and a discharge to be followed up with my primary care. When I protested I was given a chemical heat pack for my shoulder, which is where my pain was; my right shoulder, jaw and collarbone! I called my nurse practitioner and she sent me for another angiogram right then and there. I wasn’t so prepared for what I was told. It turns out that the event in the emergency room with the heat pack was not my first heart attack; in fact I’d had two. The other thing this angiogram revealed was that in a short 3 years, my left coronary artery had completely blocked as well. Before I knew what was happening I was talking to a cardiovascular surgeon about my by-pass surgery to be scheduled for first thing in the morning!

Ladies, listen closely, you don’t have to repeat the same mistakes I did. I should have changed doctors’ years earlier, when I realized I wasn’t being taken seriously. Because I didn’t have typical symptomology, it was overlooked. Any pain that causes you discomfort in your jaw, shoulder, neck, either arm or chest should be taken seriously. You have to advocate for yourselves, it’s up to you. You can’t wait for a doctor to overlook your physical symptoms and treat your supposed anxiety. For the record, anxiety is one of the symptoms of heart disease.

Not all heart disease or conditions manifest the same and each has their own risk factors. Knowing what you know now can save your life or the life of a woman you know. Listen to your body, your instincts, and your heart; it can save your life.

~Never drive yourself to the hospital if you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911 instead. You stand a far better chance of surviving the trip in an ambulance.

Educate yourselves about heart disease and ask questions. Do Not Be Ignored! There is wonderful information about your heart and other health topics. Got to:


 © Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2013

February 9, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


During the holidays I baked a couple of cheesecakes, something I hadn’t done since my kids were very young. Way back then, before I had clue how many things can go wrong with a cheesecake, I just followed the directions and voila! Perfect cheesecake. I even used the water-bath technique, which is a fairly tricky method. It may be true, on occasion, that what you don’t know – won’t hurt you. It was certainly true on this occasion because it came out wonderful. It was a chocolate cheesecake and I remember being amazed that I pulled it off. It was not only delicious, it was one of the most beautiful culinary concoctions I’d ever made, second only to that Norman Rockwell turkey at Thanksgiving.

So, with this one cheesecake under my cooking belt I got up the courage to try it again. Cream cheese was on sale for the ‘baking season’, so I stocked up; using two and a half pounds of cheese per cake gets expensive fast. There are also eggs, which aren’t cheep (pun) sugar and my secret ingredient, heavy cream. A ten-inch cake weighs about as much as a gallon of milk but making it fresh and with quality ingredients makes all the difference. So far I’ve made three more and even sold two of them. I hadn’t thought about how much to charge – I didn’t expect them to be good enough to sell: was I wrong. After taking into account my time, the cost of ingredients and baking time I settled on twenty dollars for a half and thirty-five dollars for a whole. So far – so good. Folks I’ve sold them to don’t even bat an eyelash at the price. I went to the local supermarket and priced a cheesecake that was half as thick with a list of ingredients that I couldn’t even pronounce. Cheesecake should be simple and seductive. There is nothing seductive about paying twice as much and getting half the amount and without the freshness and quality that I have in mine.

I haven’t attempted another chocolate one since that first cheesecake all those years ago, but that’s next. I also have a recipe for a white chocolate with raspberry swirl. Topped with fresh picked raspberries, I think this one would make a wonderful summertime desert. The process of making cheesecake is time-consuming but as it turns out, all I have is time. So, here I go – saving the world, one cheesecake at a time.

*For the record, I am lactose intolerant and cheesecake just kills me – so I indulge one slice and thank my lucky stars I can’t eat it, or I’d surly gain a ton of weight. Blessings in disguise 🙂cheesecake

January 18, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Another Trip Around The Sun

Last Sunday I celebrated my 54th birthday and It was a very good day indeed. The sunrise that morning made the few clouds in the sky turn to gold, it was beautiful.

I think I might be starting to get the hang of this now that I have a few years behind me, five decades plus – Enough to recognize and appreciate what a gift each day is.

As a little girl I was anything but patient, and not that this has changed – it hasn’t, but I have come to see the benefit of letting time have its way and work its wonders. I certainly have enough experience banging my head against it trying to change its course. No matter how we try, time passes without regard to us.

I was not only impatient as a child, like many little kids I was fairly self-absorbed. I had the hardest time being patient and waiting for anything. My mother, thinking that anticipation was half the fun, always let me know in advance before something special. One instance I recall there being several days before the weekend, when we would go to the mall. Now, if you’re over forty, you probably remember what life was like before malls started sprouting everywhere; sucking our wallets empty of cash and robbing us of time we could better spend outdoors with our family. Yes, the new thing was the mall and back then the nearest one to us was in Natick, about sixteen miles from Foxborough. My father made it sound as if it was half way across the state of Massachusetts. In the mall there was a restaurant called, Hot Shops. It was cafeteria style with full table service. They had the most wonderful roast beast and I looked forward to our trips there with great anticipation.

That Friday after school couldn’t have come soon enough, but there we were heading to Natick. Before we could even get out-of-town there was an accident involving a dump truck, another car and ours. I was in the back seat, not wearing a seat belt because we didn’t use them, I guess nobody did. I had a small slate chalk board in a wooden frame that kept me entertained on the ‘long’ drive and when the dump truck grazed the front quarter panel of my father’s car it hit with such force that the chalkboard split in half while I was holding it. My mother had quite a serious whiplash from the accident and we headed home. My aunt and uncle, both nurses, came running from next door. My uncle brought a bottle of brandy and my mother took a sip or two before going to the doctor. I remember tasting the brandy, it was apricot and I liked it. The picture in my mind of my uncle running across the yard with his brandy always made me laugh, he reminded me of a St. Bernard with a keg on his collar.
Being ‘self-involved’, my problem with the accident was that it interrupted our plans. I remember walking around the kitchen table where everyone was gathered and I listened to them talk to mom. I got more and more concerned that we may not go at all if she didn’t feel better. Little did I know what she was going through, I was a kid and all I could think about was how bummed I was.

It’s not easy to gain a perspective of history until you’ve experienced some for yourself. For example, at eighteen I got married, certain it was meant to be. When my parents suggested that we “wait a year or two” I was shocked that they couldn’t understand how important it was that it happen Now, Now, Now. How could they not see how right it was? A little over a year later we became parents. She was as perfect as a rosebud, a beautiful little girl we named Victoria. She was less than a year old when our marriage ended. Just like that, it was done. We walked away and it was over.
Would I change anything? Definitely not. I learned more about myself during those painfully lonely times than I could possibly have known otherwise. Watching the sunset alone night after night eventually made me stronger, I learned how to appreciate my own company and from there I was no longer alone.

About seventeen years later, my beautiful rosebud of a daughter came to me with her boyfriend; they wanted to get married right away and would I sign a consent?
Only Seventeen…
I couldn’t believe the irony as out of my mouth came the same words that shocked me when my parents said them. I signed the consent and they went on to divorce 11 years later. Would waiting that ‘year or two’ really have made a difference?
It might have given them a chance to get sick of each other before they committed to a lifetime. It may have allowed them time to learn about each other and then decide, based on experience, not emotion, whether or not marry. Twenty, thirty, fifty years of marriage goes by one single day at a time and will not budge.

I think many times we talk ourselves into doing things that we know are not in our best interest. Maybe we’re afraid of losing our dream if we don’t hurry up and grab it before it gets away… And that brings me to my reason for writing – I am getting better at living in the moment and though I am still impatient, I’m learning not to be pushy about it.

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2012

July 16, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In the mirror

I know I’ve been remiss in keeping up with my blog – after all, I was so excited to begin this. No excuses though, I must make a more concerted effort to water what I’ve planted.

To that end I thought I’d share something with you that delighted me and made me feel less anxious about the possibility of suffering some type of dementia as I age. I watched my mother go through this and it was tough on many levels. First, she was my mother and the strongest woman I’d ever met. It shook me to think that she would ever crumble, but the reality of her declining mental status crept up on me in little ways at first. She needed help with medication reminders and sometimes the day of the week. One afternoon she called me quite angry and asked me to come over and remove the dog that got in her house, so I headed over. When I arrived it was clear there was no dog but she was frantic and told me that a large dog was under the bed growling at her. Inside me at that moment there was a little tug of war. On the one hand, my mind says there is obviously no dog but my heart said look anyway. I bent over and lifted the spread and genuinely looked for the dog. All I could remember was how many times she looked under my bed when I was little.

These kinds of things upset her. She was frustrated with herself and the very real fear that she was slowly failing mentally. She was a very proud and modest woman and in the end she was dressed and bathed and fed by strangers. ~ I don’t really mean ‘strangers’, they were the staff (mostly nuns) at the nursing home where she lived briefly before she died. They were wonderful to her.

I too worry about my own future. Will I slowly unravel like my mother, looking in the eyes of my children and not knowing who they are? How will they hold up if that happens? Because, I can promise you that it kicks really hard when your mother genuinely doesn’t remember you.

My kids are kind and sensitive people and I am sure that if I wind up like mom, saying there’s a dog under my bed, they will just go look and help me keep my dignity too. I hope they know that the best gift they can give me is a patient ear, I have a feeling I’ll be repeating myself all the time.

So, back to the part that delighted me:
I was discussing this topic with my oldest, Victoria and I asked her what she would do, how she would handle this. Her response really took me by surprise. Without missing a beat she said, “I’ll just tell you stories. That will give you something to think about.” She said that depending on how I was feeling she would make up colorful memories for me to ruminate about. Knowing Victoria I am sure the stories will be pretty fantastic and I think the goal will be for me to catch on that she’s pulling my leg. Thank you Victoria, I feel much better knowing you have a plan.

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2012

May 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Wall of Pain

I was in such pain tonight walking Sally that I had to stop where I was and sit in the backyard on the wet lawn because I couldn’t stand any longer. I’m glad it was dark and nobody saw me. Pain has become a huge problem for me over the last few years and tonight I let it get the better of me.

When my body hurts like this there is little else I can do but sit down on the spot, wherever I happen to be. I keep trying to take on this pain and force myself to tolerate it or stretch and work through it, but it outlasts me every time. It is a fierce pain.

Spending a lot of time in pain has changed the way I see myself and my world; it has been a very bitter experience. I’ve always guarded my independence but as time has passed I’ve had to give up more and more of my freedom because of pain. I sold my car in July 2009 and with it went my ability to do anything outside of my walking range, which was about two miles at that time. Today, 2012- I call it a good day when I can walk the 25 yards to the stop sign at the end of my street. On a bad day, I don’t make it outside. Most days are a compromise of the good with the bad. One rather surprising change is that I am more impatient than I used to be- that’s saying quite a lot, trust me.

Something I hadn’t expected from living with pain was the onset of irrational phobias. I’ve always been claustrophobic and I’ve experienced the power of panic attacks; but as I lose control of my own comings and goings I start feeling closed in, cornered like there are actual walls confining me to this ever tightening space. The walls may be invisible but the urgency to break free of the pain is intense and I think it brings on a sense overwhelming anxiety.

Anxiety is something I’ve faced before in my life. In fact, At the age of twenty I had my first panic attack. Now, thirty-three years later I can handle most any public situation you can throw at me. *Okay, I exaggerate, but truly I’ve come very far and I’m proud of the work I’ve done to make this happen. It did not come easy, nor did it come quickly. It took all my effort to stay in the moment, create balance and focus without holding my breath (I discovered that I hold my breath when I’m scared) I learned to meditate through the pain and the anxiety. I learned that during the really hard times, when I’m wiped out with pain or paralyzed by fear that I need to better control my thoughts and focus my breathing. To that end, I created a place In my mind where I would feel serene and calm. It was a sailboat with a wooden mast. At anchor, the rocking motion of the boat made the mast creak in rhythm with the tide. I visited this place so many times that I could ‘put’ myself there in a single breath if I need be. Nobody was ever the wiser that while I was picking out tomatoes, I was listening to the gentle rocking of my boat. While kids in grocery carts pester their parents endlessly for this or that, all I hear are seagulls overhead yammering for a free lunch. I learned that reality really is yours to create and for me that was an enormous coup. I could take back control in any moment and that worked wonders.

*Ironic twist: in the past couple of years I have become anxious in water. Not the bath tub water, but rivers, lakes and even swimming pools. Consequently my sailboat is not as calming as it once was. I’m in the process of finding another focal point.

It occurs to me that for everything I’ve experienced in life some lesson has been learned and tonight was no exception. When my back tightened up and the pain got the better of me, I lost my temper. I got frustrated with the dog, snapped at her and headed in the house. I immediately felt like a heel. It wasn’t that I yelled at her, it was that I treated her unfairly; it wasn’t her fault. She was sniffing out all her marks and patrolling her territory and couldn’t have known how much it was hurting me to stand there with her. As soon as I got in the house I grabbed a chair and sat with my eyes closed, wishing for the pain to subside. Sally stood patiently waiting for me to remove her gear. It took a long time before I could move again, but when I looked down she’d laid her head in my lap and was looking up at me with such love in her eyes. My heart melted and the pain stopped; unconditional love is a powerful thing.

I continue on my path to enlightenment and I hope that you experience unconditional love along yours as well.

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2012

March 27, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

At First Sight

In May of 2008 I brought Sally home. She’s my canine companion, a beautiful and very sweet German Shepherd. She was only 6 weeks old when she came to live with me and I haven’t been the same since. She was so little that she was still on a weaning diet of oatmeal, milk and chicken. That’s right, I boiled chicken and made sure her food was tepid and not too cold. Oh yes, she’s my baby and if reincarnation turns out to be reality, then I wish to return as MY dog. She’s a well-loved friend.

At only four weeks of age her survival instincts were put to the test. She and her eight litter mates were just old enough to be weaned from their mother, a process that is always difficult for both mom and the pups. This night however, when mom was removed, raccoons were able to get into the whelping pen through a break in the chain link. The raccoons ravaged the four-week old puppies, killing all but one: Sally! She hid under one of their bodies and just stayed quiet.

During the attack, the other dogs on the property were barking wildly and woke the house. Her breeder ran to the barn, only to find the horrible scene. He said it was unimaginable! He looked over the carnage and located a couple of broken links in the fence where the raccoons were able to get in. He said he stood there for the longest time and just cried. There was nothing in his 30 years as a police officer that could have prepared him for this awful scene. He turned to leave and as he closed the gate he heard a whimper. Sally popped her little head out from under the pile. She was covered in blood but had only a minor injury. The tip of one of her ears was bitten off but other than that, she was healthy and alive!

He called us to let us know the bad news. Since Sally was already picked out for someone else and he knew I was looking for a service dog as soon as possible, he asked if I’d like to come by and take a look at a six month old male that he was training. Considering another litter was several more months away I agreed to come look, but wasn’t keen on a male. I’ve had male shepherds and they are just different. They tend to be a little more of a handful than their female counterparts, but all bets on that are off since I met Sally. She is a quite a little handful.

I showed up at his house mid afternoon on a Saturday. Jerry was out working in the yard and saw me drive up. The barn is between the driveway and the house and since the whelping pen is in the barn I stopped to see the brave little girl he’d nicknamed, Miracle. Now, I am not usually such a pushover but I took one look at that face and those eyes and melted on the spot. I have to tell you, it was sooo hard to walk away from her, I stood there long after I’d taken her picture. With tears in my eyes I looked up at Jerry and saw he was choked up as well. “She’s a beautiful girl” I told him and with that we went into the house to see the boy we’d come to meet.

To come to the point, I chose not to bring home the male puppy, although he was most handsome and very well-behaved. I wanted to go home and ‘think’ it over. I like spontaneity but decisions that add a new member to the family must be considered carefully. I took pictures of both Sally and Picaw and spent the following weeks staring at her sweet face.

I called a couple of weeks later and told him that I just couldn’t get her out of my mind and although I appreciated his offer, I would wait for another litter. Now sometimes things happen to us that make no sense, but often in the end they work out as if they were meant to be that way all along. This must have been one of those times because, as it turned out, the people who were supposed to come for Sally had been given terrible news by their vet. Their older dog diagnosed with cancer and would need extensive care and they were no longer prepared to take on a puppy under those circumstances. They were apologetic but Jerry said that it wouldn’t be a problem, he already had a home lined up: Mine! He told me that he knew the minute he looked at my face standing there by the barn that ‘Miracle’ was going home with me. He just didn’t know how.

She will be four years old March 17th and is my constant companion & the best friend I’ve ever had!

*A note as to my opinion regarding the breeding of dogs: I am not blind to the problem of the overpopulation of homeless canines. I feel strongly that the only reason a dog should be bred is to improve the particular breed. The irresponsible over breeding of dogs by idiots, thinking only of financial gain has harmed more dogs than anyone could fathom. Whether it’s backyard breeders or full on puppy mills, the dogs they produce, are typically unsound physically and mentally.

I have purchased my last two dogs from the same breeder. He breeds for various police departments, port authority, service work, search & rescue and has a thirty year history breeding and working these dogs. He guarantees all his dogs for the life of the dog. Now, I don’t mean that if your dog dies at age 10 you’re going to get a refund but he will take back your ten year-old dog if you didn’t want it any longer.
*For reference I’ve added the following link to the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, clearly outlining their minimum requirements for ethical breeding.

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2012

February 29, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On The Passing Of A Friend

Since December 19th 2011 a friend of mine has been missing. He was in a bad place emotionally and we worried he was suicidal. His roommates found his door left open and all of his belongings, including his bank cards, keys to his truck and the title left out on a table. News of it barely made the 4am early show.

“…Man missing presumed suicidal. Call 911 if you have info.”

It included an old mug shot that made him look positively insane. Sadly, after being missing for sixty-five days, his body was found yesterday morning in Vancouver, WA, in a vacant lot. I have no further details about how he died, just that he was positively identified.
We knew Keith and loved him through many troubled times. We adored the person he was and in spite of his addictions and pain, he was a kind and generous soul with a sharp wit and huge heart. We also know how he loved us, all of us: his friends ~ brothers and sisters ~ his PACT. I am sad that we couldn’t reach him during those last dark days. I hope that wherever his soul may be that he has found peace.

In loving memory of Keith Fitzgerald …to be continued.

Keith Fitzgerald

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2012

February 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


My mother was the most thoughtful person I’ve ever known. A product of the early twentieth century, she grew up in an age of great hardship and amazing discovery. Born in 1912, she was one of nine children of Swiss immigrants from Nova Scotia. Large families were common before birth control, but that was in contrast with a ten percent infant mortality rate. In other words, 100 of every thousand children died before their first birthday.

Growing up in rural New England at the turn of the twentieth century was no picnic; these people worked hard every day, just to get by. The mundane task of doing laundry took several hours and meant scrubbing your clothing on a rigid washboard then wringing them out by hand. Unless you were lucky enough to have a ringer washer, this was an awful lot of work. Even though the automobile had been invented, few had the money to afford them so the horse and buggy remained the primary mode of transportation. Mom would tell me about how, as a child she had to be home by the time the street lamps were lit. That’s right, street lamps; lit individually each evening by the lamplighter.

The Lamplighter
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at tea time and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street…
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

~Robert Lewis Stevenson

As WWI was winding down, my mother was entering the first grade. It was supposed to be a time of peace and presumed prosperity. That was short-lived as the Spanish Flu of 1918 hit and hit hard. During the next two years, over one fifth of the world’s population was wiped out by this pandemic. Most suffocated to death from a virulent viral pneumonia. In the United States, over 675,000 people, mostly adults, ages 20-40 lost their lives. To put that into perspective, it was ten times as many died in the previous four years of world war. Today it remains the world’s most devastating pandemic. It must have been very frightening for a seven year old to walk by houses and see black wreaths on the doors of those who lost loved ones. The wreaths served a double purpose, both as a sign of mourning as well as a warning to others not to come calling.

By 1920 life was starting to look up for many people, but in rural America the financial boon of the Roaring Twenties had yet to materialize. People moved to the cities where money was easier and opportunity more plentiful. By 1926 over a million people had migrated to the cities. My grandfather worked for the railroad so despite living in a very small town, forty miles outside of Boston, he made decent wage and was able to afford a housekeeper after he and my grandmother divorced.

Raising nine children was a daunting enough task in itself, but finding someone to watch that many children and keep house must have been a real challenge. Eventually the responsibility for her two youngest siblings fell to my mother. By the age of eighteen she’d worked harder than most people today ever will. She took a job as a switchboard operator at a local hospital and worked full-time until she retired in 1974. By the age of twenty and in the middle of the Great Depression, she met and married my father, a local boy with a bit of a reputation. One year later they had a son and as if on cue, the next year, to the day, my second brother was born. In all, my mother had five children with the first four being boys.

Growing up in my house meant you learned to be respectful and polite, to use proper etiquette and table manners, even at home. It was important to mom because it reflected on her parenting to have well-mannered children. In public it made her proud when people would comment about how polite we were. It gave her a degree of confidence about herself and her place in the community.

I think at some point, probably in the late 1960’s, she started to notice that polite society wasn’t as polite as it once was. What was called the peace movement, in my parent’s way of thinking, was the cause of so much pain and division. My father said that it harmed the fiber of America to treat homecoming soldiers with such disgrace. As young as I was, I did not disagree.

For the first time television news broadcast video footage of the fighting in Vietnam. Now instead of watching carefully selected newsreels at the manatee, you could bring the war home and watch it with super. We watched for only a few minutes before mom turned it off and started to cry. I remember feeling as if lightning had just struck and at any moment we would hear the clap of thunder, but the thunder never came. She cried right there in the living room. The only other time I could recall her doing anything like that was the day that JFK was shot and killed.

The times and customs may have changed but mom never would. “Some things never go out of style”, she’d say. What she really meant was, that it made her a little sad to see the small details and kindnesses that she felt made the world a better place, slip from sight and be forgotten by future generations. She worried that people would lose the art of graciousness and I suppose, in many ways, she was right. As her only daughter she did her best to teach me how to act a lady, with varying degrees of success. Frankly, with the exception of a couple of well placed pinches in church, I got the idea pretty fast.

Mom always remembered the little things, for instance, she would never send a birthday card to a child without first putting a buck or two inside and she did the same if she gave a purse or a wallet as a gift. Simple and thoughtful. If I were to complain that nobody wrote me letters she would remind me that you have to write them to receive them. It was a normal thing for her to whip up a batch of cookies and take them to work with her or send them with me to school. This was doubly thoughtful because it sure gave my popularity a boost. If a new neighbor moved in, had a baby or was home with a sick child, mom would make sure that something good to eat was sent to them.

I remember a neighbor whose husband was dying. When mom got wind that the woman hadn’t been eating properly because she was so tired, she sent me to their house with a plate of food. Every day after that mom made sure this woman had something hot to eat, so she didn’t have to worry about fixing dinner on top of caring for her husband. It is kindness such as this that my mother believed were God’s expression of love for humanity. She would no sooner turn down this chance to help someone in need than she would be to let me out of delivering it every day, as task I am ashamed to say, I resented.

My parents were married for fifty years and nine days when my father died. All at once mom found herself alone for the first time in five decades. It didn’t take long for the three of us to feel the space left by our family’s patriarch. For a while it was as if time paused while we went though the motions of our daily lives, it didn’t feel real somehow. Vicky went to daycare, I went back to work and mom… She tried her best to keep a regular routine, but as weeks wore on she stopped going to the post office every to pick up her mail and her refrigerator grew a little emptier. It was as if she was waiting for something, a signal that her life would someday be happy again.

As a little nudge, I bought her one of those journal books with lined paper and a beautifully decorated cover. I encouraged her to write. For me, being able to put my feelings and thoughts to paper has been very therapeutic, I had no idea how well it would work for her. But it was worth a try. The journal helped to keep her busy and I think in a way, it kept her company. If she couldn’t sleep she would get up in the middle of the night and just write. Eventually she filled three full journal books all about her earliest memories growing up until that present day.

One afternoon I found her burning a pile of yard debris but instead of throwing more branches onto the fire she was tearing pages out of the journals she spent so much time writing. I ran over to her and pleaded with her to stop; all I could think of was the precious history she was throwing away. If she didn’t want them, I did. She wouldn’t be talked out of it though, so we stood there holding hands, watching in silence. Years later she told me that, as she watched those pages burn, she found inside herself the ability to forgive and through that forgiveness, she was freed from the weight of those memories. In the years to follow she found it easier to share many of those very personal and sometimes painful memories with me. I look back now and marvel at what an impact that bonfire had on her.

I’ve often wondered what it was in her background that made my mother so amazingly thoughtful, so exceptionally kind. Maybe the extremes in which she lived caused her to cherish the small details that often brought her comfort. I think that if the quality of thoughtfulness is inheritable, my oldest daughter got a full helping. Victoria is so much like her grandmother that I often feel my mother’s presence when I’m with her. Still today, every birthday, mother’s day and Christmas, I receive a card or beautiful handwritten note from Victoria. Sometimes they come for no reason at all. I can spot them a mile away because they are always in the most beautiful envelopes, decorated by hand with patience and care. She, like her grandma, puts herself into those special touches that make others smile. They were so very close, in fact after my father died, it was Victoria that helped my mom pull thorough those sad, dark and lonely days. They would go to the library on Saturday morning followed by lunch and swimming at the local Holiday Inn, where they had a summer swim pass. Sunday’s they’d go to church and bake cookies. They had pajama parties, just the two of them. You could always find them together. Victoria seemed to give mom the reason she needed to get up and go on with her life; she became the spark that brought my mother through the darkest of days. They were inseparable!

There were many qualities that my mother and daughter shared. They both enjoyed making order out of chaos. They could clean and organize a house faster than you could imagine. Neat freaks I think they are called. They also both have an uncanny knack of making every place they live feel instantly like home. I personally don’t have this talent. I’ve lived in the same home for the last sixteen years and there are still boxes waiting to be unpacked!

It was around the holidays though that their talents would really shine. When I would get frustrated and throw up my hands, they would calmly take over and have that tree up and decorated before I could blink. One Christmas while we were living in Tennessee, I’d been exceptionally busy with work and didn’t want much to do with the whole tree decorating thing. It was fun when I was a kid but as I grew up I learned to respect my limited patience. It was agreed that I would get the tree and they would take it from there. I went out to the woods behind our house, cut the tree and brought it back where Vicky and mom were waiting eagerly. I was so grateful that my part of the tree festivities were over. Cutting one down was more my speed, decorating one was not my idea of fun. They didn’t even mind that two year-old Jennifer was running around them like a buzzing bee. I think that was the best tree we ever had and looking back, it was probably the best Christmas too.

It’s only now, when the memories are all that remain, do we get the chance to see how loved we really were. I know without any doubt how much my mother loved me. Her love was fierce and she graced me with the very best she had. I’m also certain that mom knew how much I loved and cherished her too. This January she would have been 100 years old. She died of pneumonia in the autumn of 2002. She is deeply missed but never more that a heartbeat away.

Just the other day I got a call from Victoria, and not her usual “hi mom” call, she was in tears. As it happened, she was at work, when out of the blue she felt her grandmother’s presence all around her. She could smell her and almost feel her touch. She said that for a moment she was overjoyed. As all kinds of memories came flooding back to her, she couldn’t help but wonder if she had really shown her grandmother how much she loved and appreciated her. “Do you think she really knew how much she meant to me?” she asked, trying to talk through tears. Yes sweetheart, grandma knew just how much she meant to you and now I hope you know how much you meant to her.

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2011

September 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

You’re Fired

I was not raised around guns but that’s not to say that I don’t have experience with them. In fact, I enjoy target practice very much even though I haven’t been to a turkey shoot in years. My sons are gun enthusiasts also and now that they are over eighteen my oldest has purchased himself a Mossburg 500, 12-gauge shotgun. I think he made a very good choice and I’m especially pleased that it is entirely made in the United States. I still prefer my Remington but that’s probably sentimental, it has good memories attached to it.

Since Richard bought the shotgun he hasn’t had a chance to fire it and the last time he and his friends went shooting he left it at home because he didn’t have a case to carry it in. Oregon state law says you can carry it in the trunk of the car but it has to be in a case, either soft or hard. This past Friday he finally bought a case and Sunday they headed out to find a new range. Some thirteen miles east of Seaside, they stopped at what they thought was a good site. They spent a little over an hour changing up weapons and ammo, firing at different types of targets and at a variety of distances.

John, his friend’s father came along and brought his Taurus revolver and his AK- 47. The AK-47 is a selective-fire, gas-operated assault rifle, first developed in the Soviet Union. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AK-4) It’s well known for it’s reliability under most any condition. I’ve seen these rifles submerged in mud and water and still fire without jamming or incident. Accuracy is a different matter altogether. After the first time it’s fired, it loses accuracy and is really only effective at close range, within 350 to 400 or so meters. The only other guns they had with them were a couple of .22 rifles.

John recently bought a high-powered scope with night vision that I’m sure cost him a pretty penny. Given this gun’s problems with long-range accuracy, I’m not sure why he invested so much money in a scope when it isn’t likely to help improve that problem. I personally would have invested in a McMillan Tac-50 sniper rifle. Yes, I know that’s over-kill, so to speak, but putting a long-range scope on a short-range rifle is like putting a racing cam in a Volkswagen. IMHO that is.

Now, I don’t want to turn this into a rant about the details of weaponry, so I’ll come to the point. Richard has a ton of respect for John; he’d better, he’s dating his daughter. So, when came his turn to fire the AK, he squeezed off only a couple rounds and the new (expensive) scope came off in his hand. Richard said that he was sure John would use him for target practice but of course that wasn’t the case, John just needed to tighten it down a bit. Watching the video they shot you can see Richard with a worried look on his face as he removed the clip and handed the gun to John.

Do you feel it coming? …wait for it.

As John prepared to reset the scope, he rested the barrel on his left foot and…


Yes indeed, there was a round in the chamber. He said it didn’t hurt, in fact he told everyone that it felt like a rubber band being snapped on top of his shoe. Boy was he wrong. The AK-47 had gone off by itself, he never touched the trigger.

There are moments that define a person and for Richard, this was such a moment. It seems he takes after his mom for more than just his impulsiveness, he handles himself quite well during emergencies. He got John to the car and then the hospital where the emergency room doctor cleaned and dressed the wound, which was about an inch or so down from the left small toe; one of the few places in the foot where he avoided major structural damage and the pedal artery.

The Oregon State Police and the Clatsop County Sheriff were notified as is the law regarding gun shots. They came to the hospital to investigate and write a report. The officers told them that where they were shooting was a state park, not a state forest and directed them to a couple local areas for the next time. They brought him home and medicated him heavily. He’s a lucky man. That gun could just have easily been pointed at Richard or any one of them.

Late last night Richard and his friends came over and we watched the video tape they made of the afternoon. Ironically Stephanie turned off the recorder less than ten seconds before John was shot. She said that she couldn’t tell if she was angry at her dad’s lack of safety measures or afraid of what might have happened. Either way it was a very traumatic experience for her.

Watching this footage over and over again I saw many incidents of lax safety measures. First of all, the shooting line was not clearly marked. Second, guns were being loaded well behind the line and not in one designated location. Third, John tucked one of the .22 rifles under his arm with the barrel of the gun pointed behind him. I know this because Stephanie was shooting the video and it was pointed directly at her. Fourth, when he was handed the rifle he never checked to see if it had a shell left in the chamber. Richard said he felt responsible because he didn’t clear the action before handing it over. He has a point and I’m glad he felt the weight of that error but in the final analysis, when you’re handed a gun it is your responsibility to double and triple check and even then, to keep the business end pointed in a safe direction.

I am dismayed and troubled by what I saw in the video. The people I love were put at risk by stupid mistakes that are so easily avoided. It takes only one mistake to change everything, turning an afternoon of fun into a horrible tragedy.

I am reminded of the first and most important lesson in gun safety: Empty Guns Are ALWAYS Loaded. Had this been presumed John would still have a whole foot. I will give Richard some time to process the events of Sunday and then we will have a conversation about gun safety around other people. It’s one thing to follow a strict set of safety rules and quite another to enforce it universally. But now is not the time for talking, it is the time for reflection and a prayer of thanks that no one was killed. Hopefully this will forever change the way John conducts himself while handling his weapons and will serve as a reminder to the rest of them about the very real risks associated with this pastime.

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2011

July 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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