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What We Save, What We Toss Away

 Lily Sobotka, a cousin in what was once a large, extended family. She was murdered in Auschwitz. Her image, which I had thought was lost, surfaced in one of the photo albums I had stored and forgotten. 

I'm reading, skimming and sorting a cache of letters, photos and documents I'd forgotten I'd saved. They were stored in my daughter's house in a closet in her studio. "Time to liberate the shelves," she told me, gently. I had thought I was done with boxes for a while, but there they were.

Most of the letters, notes and drafts of articles and books date back to the 80's and 90's before I had started saving work and personal correspondence in folders on my computer and/or in emails in cyberspace. The shift from paper to cloud has been mostly exhilarating though I worry how biographers and historians will retrieve information. I remember—and how frail memory is—that I have reported --in this blog--throwing away two decades of journals when I moved out of the apartment where we raised our daughter. I am not a blockbuster writer and decided it was hubris to think that anyone would want to write my biography. That's how I justified the culling and, truthfully, I have never regretted it. Now the leftover cache caught me unawares. It did not hold any journals; I breathed a sigh.

"I need a glass of water," I said as my daughter plunked eight boxes in front of me. Eight!!! I sorted out a few things with her, loaded the car with what remained and woke this morning with the thought that I could toss it all away without looking at any of it. Or could I? What would I learn about my younger self? What, if anything, might I be able to use in a writing project—an essay, a short story, a book, a poem, a play? What joys might I find, or events that I mis-remembered, or friends who had passed away but remain vivid on the page?

Take it slow, I said to myself. Just a few items at a time.

Most difficult for me—emotionally—are the photo albums and papers belonging to my mother's first cousin, Renate. She and her husband, Arthur, migrated to California after many years of struggle as refugees in New York. They had no children so I was named as guardian when Renate was widowed and developed dementia. But California has strict laws and any relative living out of state has to relinquish custodial care to the state. I paid attention to Renate long distance, visited as often as I could, but not much was left of her estate or her possessions by the time she died. A box arrived and I stashed it away. Saturated with the pain of the Holocaust, I couldn't take any more. Another story, another reckoning. Would I still be sad? Or even more angry?

I opened the photo album. There they were—my mother and Renate—lying stomach down on a beach somewhere in pre-Anschluss Austria, enjoying their youth, innocent of what is to come, doing acrobatics and posing in their sexy swimsuits. Documents continue the story: a visa to Bolivia, a boyfriend in the US Army, a twisted smile in a passport photo.

As for the copies of my letters and early drafts of articles and books, some is illuminating, some is familiar, some feels as though it was written by a stranger. How odd that the stranger is me.

Time collapsed, time unstoppable. How do writers let go and move on when the past is often the subject of our work? Do we need the memorabilia to remind us of what that subject is? Or is it enough to integrate the past into our consciousness and work from there? These are the questions I am asking myself this morning as I fill another recycle bin with shredded paper.

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A Writer's (Comical) Morning Routine

A la Edith Wharton, I remain in bed until the sun rises though I have no servants to bring me my tea on a silver platter. Still, it is a luxury to write in my journal propped up against the pillows. I begin the process of heating my brain in the quiet of these early morning hours. No phone, no obligation other than rousing myself into the day. I may read some of David Sedaris’ journals, the first volume recently published. Is there anyone who doesn’t love this guy? Does the much-and- unfairly-pilloried Jonathan Franzen wish he were David Sedaris? Meandering thoughts. Now it is 1999. My friend David is on an airplane to Germany sitting next to a very fat man. Ha! The guy is taking up two seats. The next day my friend David, currently living near Paris, is in his French class. His sardonic humor doesn’t quit even under pressure of acquiring a new language. Inspired, I continue my own comical morning routine and attempt to imitate David’s irreverent take on everything as I write my journal entry. I begin with the days just passed, already behind me and mulched into memory. For example, I cooked a turkey for the first time in a decade and because we are in a new apartment, and have only used the oven twice since we moved here last March, and the oven is electric, the manner of its heating and cooling is a mystery. The turkey cooked FAST and we had to rescue it before our guests arrived. Fortunately, they brought delicious side dishes so the dryness of the turkey did not matter, or was not even mentioned. Politeness! Gratitude for our hospitality! We toasted, several times, to old friends and new. Inevitably, we slid into politics or the programs we are bingeing on. Let’s make lists and pass them round, I suggested. Let’s not sully the day with you- know-what and you-know who. Let me distract you with a story about my work-out at the gym yesterday morning. Alas, it was closed today, I continued in a non-stop monologue. (I was the hostess and held the floor.) I went onto WiFi and listened to WBGO, my favorite station, and began to sing out loud as I pranced on the elliptical. No one noticed, or did they? I wasn’t sure. I kept on singing. A guy walked in and took the bike next to me and I said, “That’s your bike, make no mistake, I’ve seen you on it before, we all have our little routines and that is your bike.” His face broke into a huge smile. Why did I think until that moment that he was mute and sullen? Because it was still early in the morning, the sun just up, and we were both barely awake.
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A Few Thoughts on Veterans Day

One war's end: VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945, an iconic photo by Alfred Eisenstadt. Sailors everywhere. I salute my sailor, Jim Bergman, today.

When I met my husband, Jim, in California he was still in the Navy Reserve. He’d signed up for six years and been on active duty in the Seventh Fleet for two. He still had his duffel, his pee coat, his buzz cut, his Navy “whites” and, thankfully, the GI Bill to finish his education. That’s one reason many young men and women from less than privileged backgrounds sign up. But when Jim was in the Navy, it was a peacetime Navy. These days, deployments to war zones are not the exception, they are the rule. Too many are returning maimed and traumatized. Dreams of a secure future are shattered. And is the world safer? I wonder.

I have many war stories in my arsenal of stories—family stories and stories from the field when I was working on “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories.” I attended war games in Geneva run by the International Red Cross—aid workers are soldiers, too—so let us celebrate them today. They learn the Geneva Conventions, go into the war zones unarmed, risk their lives every single day. My grandfather was in the Austrian army during World War I, returned to Vienna unscathed, then died of a massive heart attack before the Nazi round-up. The German army marched into Vienna, an occupying army. Shall we celebrate them? Of course not. Am I a pacifist? Absolutely not. I remember telling my mother many times that if I’d been in Vienna during the Nazi occupation, I would have fought in the resistance. A fantasy, of course.

Reading the history of WWI is illuminating and depressing. Was it necessary? Why does diplomacy fail? What have we learned? What is the true nature of patriotism? What is the purpose of sovereign nations? Do they guarantee peace and prosperity? These are the questions I am asking myself this Veterans Day. There is a belligerent neo-fascist in the White House. He could easily get us into terrible trouble overseas; he already has. As for domestic challenges, consider the conflagration in California and his threat to withdraw federal aid. Soldiers are brilliant in disaster zones; they know what to do. Deploy in California instead of on the Mexican border. Let the caravan in, for goodness sake. Put the refugees to work on the disaster clean-up alongside our well-trained soldiers instead of at the point of a gun. Give these refugees citizenship in return for their service. Protect their children. Act with compassion. Become a humanitarian soldier, Mr. President. A fantasy, of course.

Not long ago, during a book signing, a young man came up to me and said he was a former soldier, that he’d been on two tours, one to Afghanistan, the other to Iraq –lost many of his buddies--and was getting a Masters degree before signing up for an NGO in Afghanistan. We are Facebook friends and I follow him—in Kabul and during his travels. Guns into Ploughshares. I salute him. Read More 

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A Week Called VOTE

In the midst of a tough news cycle that seems, at times, endless, the vox populi, hopefully a good number of us, are poised to VOTE. I write this on the eve—solicitations pouring in, canvassers at the door, phone bankers leaving messages, yours truly among them. I live in the 19th Congressional District where voter allegiance is not obvious: blue enclaves in a red county. The stories we tell as the door opens matter. Yes, the current sheriff is a racist. No, the young man running against Congressman Faso is a Harvard-trained lawyer. Does it really matter to you that his skin is chocolate? The answer, sadly, is often “yes,” and not sotto voce these days. And why Latin phrases this morning? Thinking of the fall of Rome, perhaps.

Last Wednesday, after my NYU workshop, standing on line at Port Authority waiting for my bus back upstate, I talked again with the lovely Sarah, from Haiti, employed by Trailways to steer the confused hordes to the correct gates. She was reading the New York Post, a strange mix of scandalous semi-news and political savvy. Those old enough will remember Jimmy Breslin and his Runyonesque columns. Breslin would have loved Sarah. She has a big story—she is an immigrant from a beleaguered nation—but she also has the oomph and drive of a typical New Yorker. She’s incensed: how dare 45 say that her 27-year-old son has no “birthright.” On she goes into the discourse, 1/3rd French, 1/3rd Creole, 1/3rd English. Regardless, we understand each other perfectly. Eavesdropping on our conversation—Gulin, from Turkey—a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, working now for an international company in Istanbul. She's been living with despotism and round-ups of journalists for fifteen years, so she gets what is going on here right now-- the warning signs, the slow, incremental, despotic rhetoric. But what she doesn’t understand is the low voter turn-out. How can anyone justify or explain abstention in what is still a “free” country?

Two security guards at the building where I teach—one an immigrant, the other a Native New Yorker—are not even registered to vote. What is their story? Their explanation? I am an educator and patiently I attempt to educate. But I am interrupted by another security guard, this one with a holster on her hip and a mouth like a big gun,who cannot abide ignorance or abstention. She lets these two younger security guards have it and stomps off.

We are on high alert, all of us. How to relax? One of my students suggests some Jane Austen this week (consoling sentences), another some junk on Netflix or Prime. My husband and I are glued to the well-plotted “Bodyguard,” a British production. During an interview with the police, a sleazy politician, suspected of passing along a bomb to the Home Secretary’s aide says, insouciantly, “We are not murderers, we are politicians.” That sentence haunted me in my sleep last night. I was so restless that this blog post surfaced as soon as I opened my eyes. “We are not murderers, we are politicians.” It’s a brilliant metaphor because, of course, the opportunistic, inhumane policies of some of our politicians kill people. All the time.  Read More 

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Birds & Leaves

Photo: © Carol Bergman, 2018. The River-to-Ridge Trail in New Paltz, NY, funded by the Open Space Institute and the Mohonk Preserve with additional support from the Butler Conservation Fund.

Mid-October has arrived and we await a vivid autumn. Leaves are dry and falling. The migrating birds are gone. Only the hawks, kestrels, falcons and sparrows remain. And the crows and the turkey vultures. The other day, as I was getting into my car, one such turkey vulture flew low overhead, circling and circling. The wind and scent (can birds smell?) had carried it towards our garbage area, I think. Perhaps all the decaying apples in the orchard across the street had been eaten by the deer who are thin and hungry. It’s bear and deer hunting season. We all wear bright colors, dogs their neon vests. Last weekend on the new River-to- Ridge Trail, a man stopped to tell me about a local bear who had lumbered across his path. They had met before, knew each other so to speak. His dog went tense, he said, otherwise the encounter was a peaceful one.

Living so close to nature these days, I am more aware of the environment, its continuing joys and struggles. Conflicting narratives disturb me greatly as there is no argument that we are, as Al Gore says, in a global environmental emergency. My last post admonished my readers—and myself—not to despair and quoted Rebecca Solnit’s positive article. I reiterate her message, and mine: not to despair. But I have moved into a different enivronmental space and my awareness and concern has shifted. So, too, the subjects I want to write about.

Two days in the city this week, rides on the crowded subways with all its rich diversity, and my NYU class, was a different kind of stimulation, a different kind of mulching and gathering of ideas, thoughts and emotions. My students are doing well, as expected, working on interesting stories. They are all interesting people. And the drama on the subways often makes me smile, from a bit of a distance, perhaps, as I am no longer a New Yorker, or maybe I always will be in my heart and soul. Thursday morning on the way to meet my cousin for an art crawl at MOMA, I was on a #1 train when a crowd of boisterous women, one carrying a huge trophy, entered. “I’ve never won anything,” she said as she plopped next to me. “Megyn Kelly gave me a trophy.” I don’t watch the TODAY show so I couldn’t parse the context, but the woman was gloriously happy, beautifully made-up, oh so very happy. She got out of her seat and burst into a gospel song, joined by her entourage, and then blessed the whole train—everyone—rich and poor, black and white, indigenous and immigrant—and asked us to join in because Jesus is good and protecting all of us and wishing all of us the best. And though I am not a Christian, I accept all blessings from anyone who wants to bestow them on me, and thanked her.

We all have our own cathedrals, material and spiritual, secular and religious. We all await a vivid autumn.  Read More 

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Don't Despair, Vote

“They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.”

--Attributed to Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident

With thanks to Rebecca Solnit for the Sharansky quote in her article in The Guardian on 10/14/2018:

I don’t often begin my blog posts with an admonition or a polemic, but it’s mid-October, we’ve got a fascist regime in the White House, the mid-term elections are nearly here, and to say nothing is to be complicit. Dear reader, whether Democrat or Moderate Republican, get out there and canvas, get out there and vote. Our freedoms as citizens and writers have never been more at risk.

Even more importantly, perhaps, encourage the next generation not to despair, but to resist and remain active. I say this with a full and open heart because I am an educator, because I am a citizen, I have a responsibility to young people especially. A dear friend and former colleague, now teaching in Jakarta, who has a young daughter, sent me an email the other night full of apocalyptic thoughts. I could hardly sleep. Then the next morning, he sent me the Solnit article. Thank you, William!

He’s been watching the stateside struggle from afar, which makes it harder, of course. But what has happened here and abroad —the resurgence of the supra nationalists—is global and has global implications. We cannot rest.

This weekend I’ll be canvassing for Antonio Delgado who is running to unseat Congressman Faso in the 19th Congressional District where I now live. This is not easy and it is not even absolutely safe. We are an armed nation. But I will be with friends and we'll have a list of Independents to persuade to vote for Delgado.
He is Latino, a Harvard educated lawyer, a Rhodes scholar, tall, lean, smart and warm like President Obama. The racist venom against him that has been unleashed is unprecedented. Let us tame this monster and return to the evolution of a civilized democracy.

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The flag at half-mast in front of the Supreme Court.

As the wolf attacks the sheep, so come we.

--Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, addressing a rally in April, 1928

Let me remind you of the old maxim: people under suspicion are better moving than at rest, since at rest they may be sitting in the balance without knowing it, being weighed together with their sins.

-- Franz Kafka

I had a nightmare that Judge K was elevated to the Supreme Court. He went for a fitting of his robe and they couldn’t find one large enough for his rage, his self-pity or his ego. His head and neck were swollen with German beer. His breath was putrid. His female law clerks, all carefully chosen by his stage managers, became his special darlings. Never, he promised them, would he put his hand over their mouths if they screamed, never would he silence them if they wished to speak. He was a modern married man, a father of two daughters, he reassured them.

Years ago, when I was in high school, my lawyer stepfather handed me a book about the history of the Supreme Court. As a refugee from a despotic regime, he was enamored of the court. I cannot remember who the Justices were at the time—certainly there were no women as President Reagan did not appoint Sandra Day O’Connor until 1981—but my stepfather was enamored nonetheless. He followed all the rulings, read them, and told me to read them. These dry briefs became the triggers for interesting discussions and for a short while I thought that I, too, might become a lawyer.

Most admirable were the surprise rulings, my stepfather said. He was left-leaning, had grown up during the progressive Weimar period, and defended communists at the beginning of the Nazi regime. Virulent anti-Semitic ideology pervaded the courts when he was a young lawyer. Judges who did not comply could be imprisoned or shot. But in America, there were no such executions, not literally anyway; judges and justices are permitted evolution and change. This is known as “ideological drift.” It usually takes place after the president who has appointed him or her is out of office. Indeed, several recent studies of the courts have confirmed that ideological drift is not an exception, it’s a rule. Interestingly, it can go both ways: liberal-conservative, conservative-liberal.

I suppose this is, possibly , too-hopeful news as I write this morning, a necessary story of cheer after an emotionally grueling week. The struggle to end the nightmare continues. We cannot rest.  Read More 
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A Writer in The Family

Once upon a time there was a writer in the family who used his backstory in the first five chapters of his novel, fictionalized, of course. He changed the names of his nearest and dearest—his familiars, people he loved, people he found troublesome—and amplified the characters beyond recognition. Or so he thought. He told his writers group, and then his agent, and then his publisher that the work took on a life of its own, that the story wrote itself, without reference to his own story or anyone he knew. By the time he was done, he said, he didn’t remember how the book had started or who had inspired it. Nonetheless, a brother recognized himself, then a cousin, then a former lover. A more distant relative threatened to sue. Luckily, the writer carried indemnification insurance. He had been warned by his agent: publishers no longer indemnify. So what had started as a writing project became a legal nightmare. Many writers have been through it; few can afford it. Including me.

I have had more than one such conundrum in my writing life. I’ve had a death threat and a request from an English Lord in the House of Lords—where I’d been called to testify because of an article I’d written—to return to the country from whence I came, post haste. My very own mother asked that I refrain from writing a memoir about her side of our family for fear of legal action, which never happened. The book was published, it did well, my mother was proud.

I am a reporter, Nancy Drew writ large. I gather evidence. The story is told from my point of view; I own it and take responsibility for it. I write fiction now, too, which is different in many ways, but the same ethical rules apply.

Recently, not that long ago, alas, I published an essay called “Why I Believe in Interventions.” Someone in my extended family took exception to it and threatened to sue unless I withdrew it from the online magazine, or changed a few of the sentences. I no longer carry indemnification insurance so I had to prevail upon a mediator—my skillful husband—to quiet this relative. It was an unpleasant episode that affected me and members of the family adversely. Afterwards, I asked myself questions: Should I have written and published this essay? YES. Did I have a right to publish it? YES. Should I have shown a draft to various family members mentioned in the piece, directly and obliquely? PERHAPS. Would that constitute censorship, or prior restraint? YES.

Every term I begin my workshop classes with a mantra: every writer must feel absolutely free. No self-editing, no censorship, no prior restraint, no coy references or hidden agendas. Remain credible, write honestly and fairly, do your research, raise your knowledge base, state your point of view, and the writing will soar.

I do not live in a police state, I am free, I am a writer. This is what writers do.  Read More 

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My avatar finds it impossible to stay neutral. Bless her, she's got a strong point of view.

I know a woman by the name of Faith who is cheerful and optimistic. She attributes her temperament to her faith and her voice; she sings in church every Sunday. We knew each other briefly, then fell out of touch. Did I have faith in the longevity of our friendship? I did, at first. Is this narrative true or false? How does she tell the story? What is her point of view of our fleeting friendship? Her perception? Probably quite different, undoubtedly so, I’d say. That is because there is no fixed rendering of any event or relationship or history; there is only uncertainty and flux and evolution and devolution, or all of the above, simultaneously. I know this absolutely. I’m an absolutist on the question of faith; I don’t have any. When I open the bible all I see is early 17th century poetic prose or poetry itself. It is not the Holy Bible to me, it’s just the King James Bible, a book. Stories, characters, setting, omniscient point of view. It’s the omniscience in some biblical tales that’s troubling for me. This book is the word of whom, exactly?

This was a question I asked twins Cassandra and Stephanie, both recent graduates of SUNY New Paltz. It was a warm day and I was about to walk on the rail trail. There they were, perched on a couple of stools, clothed top to bottom in long cotton dresses and collars tightly pinned, their long hair bunched and bunned at the neck. Though they looked Amish or Hasidic, their wobbly cardboard sign identified them as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The world is in a state of suffering, they told me, and only the Lord knows what to do about it. They offered pamphlets and a long, tiresome rap. But because they were young, I stayed to talk. I wanted to know if they had boyfriends, how they supported themselves and whether they voted, or not (they don’t), or how they made it through four years on a free-wheeling college campus. Just yesterday, I told them, a woman cyclist, naked from the waist up, circled around and past me. What did they think of that?, I asked. “Original sin,” one of the sisters whispered. “I couldn’t agree less,” I said.

They referred me to an official website. Did I know---seeing as I am apparently without religion, progressive, and believe that knowledge and faith are mutually exclusive—that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bear arms, that they are conscientious objectors? That they remained neutral during World War II? “Silence is complicity,” I said after a moment of silence for my murdered family.

And so our conversation continued in that spirit. Civil and respectful throughout, thankfully. I do think we were searching for common ground and were sad, in a way, not to have found it. I liked these two young women—they were still unformed from my professorial perspective—except for their intransigent beliefs. Those were fully formed, intractable, based on the words written in the Bible.

Then, just about a week later, I met two more Jehovah’s Witnesses on Main Street in front of Starbucks. Same signs, same literature—if one can call it that—same admonition to “wake up,” two different women one Asian-American, the other African-American. The sidewalk was narrow and they were blocking my path. From their point of view, the semiotics were obvious: if you block the path, the person has to stop and talk, right?

First things first, I asked if they’d like an ice cream (they didn’t) and then if they were students or recent graduates (they weren’t) and, finally, I informed them that by standing on this particular corner, they were integrating the town. It’s a very white town, did you know that?, I asked them. They didn’t and looked a bit alarmed. “I didn’t mean to alarm you,” I said. “It’s a safe town.” Then I interviewed them, so to speak, which they found amusing. But they were restless. I wasn’t their target audience, and when they finished with their complicated back stories, I said goodbye and went to get my ice cream.  Read More 

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Water Baby

I had my last lap swim in my local outdoor pool yesterday. The Minnewaska State Park beaches are also shuttered, as is the Ulster County Pool. Why? Because all the lifeguards and swim instructors return to school this week. End of summer story. On Thursday, I’ll join an indoor pool at SUNY New Paltz and lap swim once or twice a week. It’s different than working out at the gym, more meditative, more supple, less coercive and competitive and goal-driven. Though there is an adult swimmer’s Masters Class at the university, I will not succumb to that temptation. I’ve had my day in the competitive sun and though, at times, I still enjoy chasing the much younger guy in the next lane, I can also let the swimming- to-win go.

My mother put me into the water the first summer of my life. Out of the womb, into the water. I’ve written a novella based on my imagining of this summer on a lake in upstate New York probably not far from where I am living now. My parents had split yet my mother looks happy in the photo I have of the two of us at the beach. We are both beaming with “we’ve just been swimming” smiles. This photo, my favorite of the two of us, inspired the “Water Baby” novella. I kept it on my desk as I was writing and it is now enlarged and framed.

My mother was born in Vienna where a sports culture pervaded everyday life for everyone, no matter class or caste. Outdoor activities—summer and winter—were the norm. Everyone could swim and ski and ice skate and play tennis and soccer, as could my sister and I as we were growing up. So it came as a surprise to me that there were people in other parts of the world who were not as privileged and had no idea how to swim, for example. Someone told me the other day that it is becoming harder every summer for pools and lakes to find lifeguards and swim instructors in America, of all places. I wonder if this is also true in Europe? That’s a question I hope one of my EU readers will be able to answer. Is it possible that young people are no longer interested in Red Cross certifications? I was thrilled by every card I earned—Beginning Swimmer to Advanced Swimmer—and was a wiz at CPR by the time I was 16. I couldn’t wait to boss kids around at the pool or lake while I was life guarding, or teaching them to swim during my summer holidays in high school and college. I had a whiff of this memory this summer when I volunteered to administer a swim test to wannabe Minnewaska long distance swimmers. Once again, I wielded a clipboard and the power to pass or fail a swimmer. Throwback summer.

How fortunate I am to still be able to swim and hike and remain healthy in mind and body. My mother died at 99 of old age, so I have good genes. I took her swimming every Saturday until she was about 95 and we—her caretaker and I—could no longer get her up or down the stairs. Her sight was so poor that she often crashed into the lane dividers. But she still swam like an angel and had yet more stories to tell over a well-earned lunch. If I could have taken her swimming while she was in hospice, I would have.  Read More 

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