A Penny for My Thoughts

June 23, 2016 by Claire Coleman

Yesterday after lunch with a friend I walked into a few shops in town. “Just looking, thank you” was my answer to each and every eager salesperson. I meandered through a new home furnishings shop. A few things caught my eye but nothing gave me pause until I neared the exit and spotted something familiar on a shelf. It was a lucite cube about 2 1/2″ square with shiny pennies floating in it. It seemed out of place, a bit “kitschy” for a shop of overstuffed and oversized pillows, French sideboards, modern paintings and neutral toned furniture. This paperweight could have been a thrift shop find. But it was the only thing that stuck a nerve.

My step-father had the exact same one. It sat on his desk for years and the suspension of the pennies fascinated the grandchildren. They would examine it from all sides, squint their eyes into it and try to figure out the mystery of the pennies being cemented into clear nothingness. One of my sons has it today, a reminder of man dear to our hearts. The fact that today would have been his 105th birthday was not lost on me. A hello from the other side? That’s the way I took it. “Hello, back to you, Frank, ” I said to myself.

Frank came into my mother’s life about a year after his wife’s death and twelve years after my father’s. He and wife had raised three sons, we were a family of three girls and one boy. They were married at a time when our family was expanding with in-laws and babies; the transition was seamless. He was a man of exceptional intelligence but humble about his accomplishments. He was raised in a family of very modest means but one that stressed faith and a fierce work ethic. Exempt from military service during WWII as the sole support of a wife and young son, he worked for Grumman Aircraft on Long Island, and successfully designed a plane. He put himself through night school at Cooper Union while working during the day. He was a brilliant engineer, a man widely read and widely traveled. He had grandchildren of his own but embraced the ones on our side as if we shared DNA. He attended christenings, Little League games, and Christmas dinner with the same joyful enthusiasm. He went to a Giants game one frigid Sunday with my husband and sons and never complained about the single digit wind chill which felled many a fan decades his junior.

Frank and my mother shared a chapter in their lives neither one ever dreamed would have been written for them. He passed away after a brief illness barely a month after their tenth anniversary. It’s been twenty years since he died. When his name is mentioned either among family or friends, I have notice that people say the same thing, “What a great guy!”

I smiled when I saw the paperweight. It made me think about that great guy, enough to write about him and express my gratitude for the blessing of having known him.

Giving Up on Giving Up

February 12, 2016 by Claire Coleman

Last Wednesday a local tv station aired a short piece on Ash Wednesday. After mentioning that the day initiates the season of Lent, she asked four people at a suburban church what they were giving up for Lent. The answers were beer and pretzels, chocolate, Mallomars, and potato chips. Perhaps if the reporter had asked, What are you doing for Lent?”, she would have given people the opportunity to respond differently.

Chocolate candies. Collection of beautiful Belgian truffles isol

When I was a kid, I gave up chocolate. I gave it up because I liked chocolate. I really liked it. And I liked going to the candy store after school with my friends to buy it. At that time, it was an effort to give it up. I moved on from that at some point and gave up things like bread, sweets, all desserts and wine on week nights (Weekends were ok; I’m no saint). Like many others, I seemed to view Lent as a 40 day exercise in minor deprivation which would hopefully result in weight loss.

Then there was a shift in the message from the Church and the pulpit about Lent. Forget the giving up, the negative mindset associated with Lent. The Church sent out a strong message to re-branded Lent into a pro-active season. It would always remain a time of reflection and repentance and parishes would offer opportunities for doing so as a community, but the focus was squarely on action. Do something. Got to an extra mass once in awhile, read the Bible, volunteer, help those in need. Do something.

To embrace that message, for me, meant not reverting to a food-based Lent. To do so would be to not fully commit to a mature approach to Lent. St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians came to mind: ” When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, think as a child, reason as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 11). It was time to put away a childish approach to Lent.

This year has been designated as the Holy Year of Mercy by the Pope Francis. He recently said that Lent is a good time “to train ourselves to be more sensitive and merciful to others.” Being merciful, being kind, being loving, being considerate, being patient when your impulses push you to act otherwise takes a heck of a lot more self control than putting down the Mallomars.